June 13, 1863 – The soldiers and civilians besieged in Vicksburg endured severe hardships as the Confederate high command argued over whether to hold or abandon the city.
By mid-June, over 200 Federal guns bombarded the people of Vicksburg around the clock from land, while gunboats from Rear Admiral David D. Porter’s Mississippi River Squadron shelled them from the water. A Confederate major described the siege:
“One day is like another in a besieged city–all you can hear is the rattle of the Enemy’s guns, with the sharp crack of the rifles of their sharp-shooters going from early dawn to dark and then at night the roaring of the terrible mortars is kept up sometimes all this time.”
Only a few yards separated the opposing armies at some points on the siege line, and sharpshooters killed many men who made the mistake of stretching too far above their fortifications. Since the Federals had cut all supply lines going into Vicksburg, the city residents soon faced a shortage of food and other essentials. Many resorted to eating horses, mules, household pets, and even rats as they sought refuge from the shelling in hillside caves. Some people moved in among the troops in the strongly protected trenches.
Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton, commanding the Confederate army, received a message from his superior, General Joseph E. Johnston, on the 13th. The message was dated May 29, having been delayed by cut telegraph wires. Johnston wrote:
“I am too weak to save Vicksburg. All that we can attempt is, to save you and your garrison. To do this, exact co-operation is indispensable. By fighting the enemy simultaneously at the same point of his line, you may be extricated. It will be impossible to extricate you unless you co-operate and we make mutually supporting movements. Communicate your plans and suggestions, if possible.”
By the time Pemberton received this message, he was trapped in Vicksburg and unable to coordinate anything with Johnston. He responded two days later in the hope that Johnston could make a move without mutual support:
“The enemy has placed several heavy guns in position against our works, and is approaching them very nearly by sap. His fire is almost continuous. Our men have no relief; are becoming much fatigued, but are still in pretty good spirits. I think your movement should be made as soon as possible. The enemy is receiving reinforcements. We are living on greatly reduced rations, but I think sufficient for 20 days yet.”
Meanwhile, President Jefferson Davis asked General Braxton Bragg, commanding the Confederate Army of Tennessee at Tullahoma, if he could either take the offensive or send reinforcements to Vicksburg. Also, Secretary of War James A. Seddon sent an urgent request for Johnston to do all he could to save both Pemberton and Vicksburg.
Johnston replied to Seddon, “The odds against me are much greater than those you express. I consider saving Vicksburg hopeless.” This shocked the high command at Richmond and reminded them of Johnston’s similar pronouncement against Richmond in the spring of 1862. Seddon replied the next day, trying to impress upon Johnston that Vicksburg was too important not to fight for, with or without Pemberton:
“Your telegram grieves and alarms me. Vicksburg must not be lost without a desperate struggle. The interest and honor of the Confederacy forbid it. I rely on you still to avert the loss. If better resources do not offer, you must hazard attack. It may be made in concert with the garrison, if practicable, but otherwise without; by day or night, as you think best.”
Johnston countered that Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s Federals besieging Vicksburg had received a number of reinforcements “at least equal to my whole force.” Pemberton again urged Johnston to do something to try breaking the siege, writing on the 19th:
“I hope you will advance with the least possible delay. My men have been 34 days and nights in the trenches, without relief, and the enemy within conversation distance. We are living on very reduced rations, and, as you know, are entirely isolated. What aid am I to expect from you?”
On the 20th, Seddon again urged Johnston “to follow the most desperate course the occasion may demand. Rely upon it, the eyes and hopes of the whole Confederacy are upon you, with the full confidence that you will act, and with the sentiment that it were better to fail nobly daring than, through prudence even, to be inactive… I rely on you for all possible to save Vicksburg.” Seddon’s plea came despite Johnston’s previous assertions that trying to save Vicksburg would mean sure destruction and leave both Mississippi and Alabama open to Federal conquest.
Three days later, Pemberton received a message from Johnston via courier:
“Scouts report the enemy fortifying toward us and the roads blocked. If I can do nothing to relieve you, rather than surrender the garrison, endeavor to cross the river at the last moment if you and General (Richard) Taylor (in western Louisiana) communicate.”
But moving across the river would be impossible due to the patrolling Federal ironclads. Moreover, Taylor’s Confederates were moving down the Teche to threaten New Orleans, too far to help Pemberton. The next day, Pemberton sent a message to Johnston proposing that Johnston contact Grant and offer “propositions to pass this army out, with all its arms and equipages,” in exchange for giving the Vicksburg to the Federals.
Johnston rejected this, explaining that Grant most likely would not agree to such a deal. In addition, Johnston stated that “negotiations with Grant for the relief of the garrison, should they become necessary, must be made by you. It would be a confession of weakness on my part, which I ought not to make, to propose them. When it becomes necessary to make terms, they may be considered as made under my authority.” Thus, if Pemberton surrendered to Grant, Johnston would approve.
Meanwhile, Davis sent a desperate message to Bragg and General P.G.T. Beauregard in South Carolina asking them to send troops to Vicksburg or else “the Missi. will be lost.” Johnston’s efforts to disrupt Grant’s supply lines in his rear had no effect. Johnston finally began moving his five divisions to confront the seven under Major General William T. Sherman protecting the Federal rear, but this also had no effect on those besieged in Vicksburg.
Near month’s end, Pemberton received a letter from his troops:
“The emergency of the case demands prompt and decided action on your part. If you can’t feed us, you had better surrender us, horrible as the idea is, than suffer this noble army to disgrace themselves by desertion… Self-preservation is the first law of nature, and hunger will compel a man to do almost anything… This army is now ripe for mutiny, unless it can be fed…”
Explaining that the men were down to just “one biscuit and a small bit of bacon per day,” the letter was signed “Many Soldiers.”
Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 128-29; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 413-15, 422, 425; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 311, 317; Korn, Jerry, War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 139, 142; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 365, 369, 371; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 634-36