May 18, 1863 – Major General Ulysses S. Grant followed up his overwhelming Federal victory on the Big Black River by driving toward Vicksburg, the ultimate goal of his campaign.
Federal forces crossed the Big Black using hastily built bridges and headed west toward Vicksburg. Major General William T. Sherman’s XV Corps, holding the north end of Grant’s line, advanced on Haynes’s Bluff, the formidable defense point north of Vicksburg that the Federals had been trying to capture since the campaign began.
Now, with the Federals coming from the land side in overwhelming numbers, the Confederates on the bluff were finally forced to evacuate on the morning of the 18th. They joined the rest of Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton’s Confederate army in Vicksburg.
Sherman took the bluff around 10 a.m., where he connected with the Federal gunboats on the Yazoo River to open a supply line. Sherman told Grant, “Until this moment I never thought your expedition a success. I never could see the end clearly until now. But this is a campaign. This is a success if we never take the town.”
Meanwhile, Major General James B. McPherson’s XVII Corps advanced on Vicksburg from the east, and Major General John A. McClernand’s XIII Corps advanced from the southeast. Because General Joseph E. Johnston’s 20,000 Confederates still hovered in northeastern Mississippi, Grant placed the bulk of his forces in the northeast and east sectors to block any attempt by Pemberton or Johnston to join forces.
Pemberton entered Vicksburg with two demoralized divisions under Major General Carter L. Stevenson and Brigadier General John S. Bowen. They joined the other two divisions defending the city under Generals John H. Forney and Martin L. Smith. The troops had spent the previous night strengthening the city defenses, which consisted of entrenchments and breastworks surrounding Vicksburg, with both flanks anchored on the Mississippi River. The defenses were covered by 102 guns.
On the morning of the 18th, Pemberton received a message from Johnston, in “camp between Livingston and Brownsville,” responding to news of yesterday’s defeat on the Big Black:
“If Haines’s Bluff is untenable, Vicksburg is of no value and can not be held. If, therefore, you are invested in Vicksburg, you must ultimately surrender. Under such circumstances, instead of losing both troops and place, we must, if possible, save the troops. If it is not too late, evacuate Vicksburg and its dependencies, and march to the northeast.”
Pemberton called a council of war, where he shared Johnston’s message with his four division commanders and asked for advice on “the question of practicability.” President Jefferson Davis had ordered Pemberton to hold Vicksburg at all costs, but Grant was now closing in on three sides. Federal gunboats covered the fourth side, and they began bombarding the city that day. After consulting with his officers, Pemberton replied to Johnston:
“… the opinion was unanimously expressed that it was impossible to withdraw the army from this position with such morale and material as to be of further service to the Confederacy. I have decided to hold Vicksburg as long as possible, with the firm hope that the Government may yet be able to assist me in keeping this obstruction to the enemy’s free navigation of the Mississippi River. I still conceive it to be the most important point in the Confederacy.”
Grant, having destroyed any hope Pemberton had to join forces with Johnston, wanted to attack the Vicksburg defenses before Johnston was reinforced enough to try breaking Pemberton out. As Federal troops surrounded the defense perimeter, Grant planned to drive through the seemingly demoralized Confederates the next day and take the city.
The “general charge of all the corps along the whole line” was ordered to begin at 2 p.m. on the 19th. Sherman’s corps was ready to attack on time, but McPherson and McClernand were slowed by dense underbrush and deep ravines. Thus, Grant’s plan for a simultaneous assault by all three corps began with just Sherman’s men attacking. They approached Stockade Redan and faced defenses that required a ladder to reach. Already exhausted from marching across the uneven terrain, the Federals were repulsed.
McPherson and McClernand were never able to fully commit their corps to the attack, and those who managed to get close to the defenses were quickly halted by heavy fire. Grant suspended the attack, and the Federals pinned down at the foot of the enemy works fell back under cover of darkness.
The Federals sustained 942 casualties, while the Confederates lost less than 200 men. The Confederate defenses proved to be the strongest works of the war to date, giving the defenders a nearly insurmountable advantage over attackers. Sherman wrote his wife, “This is a death struggle, and will be terrible.”
This was the first time during the campaign that Grant’s army had failed to achieve an objective. Grant, refusing to believe that the defenses could not be taken, planned to strike again before Johnston could rescue Pemberton. Johnston wrote Pemberton that day, “I am trying to gather a force which may attempt to relieve you. Hold out.”
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