Confederates Starving in Vicksburg

July 3, 1863 – The Confederate soldiers and residents under siege in Vicksburg were on the verge of being starved into submission.

Shelters dug into the hills during the siege of Vicksburg | Image Credit:

By this time, Vicksburg had been under siege for nearly six grueling weeks. Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s Federal Army of the Tennessee surrounded the land side of the city, while Rear Admiral David D. Porter’s Mississippi River Squadron sealed Vicksburg from the water. Both Grant and Porter continuously bombarded the Confederates with heavy guns and mortars.

With no supply flow, the Confederate defenders and the residents under siege were on the brink of starvation. In addition, Federals were tunneling under the defenses in hopes of detonating explosives and blowing holes in the siege line, adding yet another threat to the suffering defenders. One tunnel was exploded on the 1st, but the Federal commanders determined that it did not cause enough damage to facilitate a successful breakthrough.

General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the 32,000-man Confederate “Army of Relief” east of Vicksburg, began moving out of Jackson to break through Grant’s siege lines and rescue the trapped Confederates. The movement was quickly halted by Major General William T. Sherman’s XV Corps blocking their path and all crossings at the Big Black River.

Lt Gen John C. Pemberton | Image Credit:

Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton, commanding the Confederate army in Vicksburg, hoped his men had enough strength to break out themselves. He sent a confidential message to each of his four division commanders (Generals Carter L. Stevenson, Martin L. Smith, John H. Forney and John S. Bowen):

“Unless the siege of Vicksburg is raised or supplies are thrown in, it will become necessary very shortly to evacuate the place. I see no prospect of the former, and there are many great, if not insuperable, obstacles in the way of the latter. You are, therefore, requested to inform me with as little delay as possible as to the condition of your troops, and their ability to make the marches and undergo the fatigues necessary to accomplish a successful evacuation.”

The commanders unanimously agreed that their exhausted and starving troops could not break out of Vicksburg and defeat such a superior Federal army. This prompted Pemberton to ask Grant for surrender terms. Meanwhile, Johnston held his forces back, unaware that Grant had already begun planning to confront him after capturing Vicksburg.

At 10 a.m. on the 3rd, Confederates in a sector of the defense line raised white flags to allow two officers to cross over and deliver a message from Pemberton to Grant: “General, I have the honor to propose to you an armistice for several hours, with a view to arranging terms for the capitulation of Vicksburg.”

Pemberton had learned (after breaking the Federal signal code) that Porter did not want to deal with shipping 30,000 Confederate prisoners to northern prison camps. He therefore hoped to get the most favorable surrender terms possible by sending Bowen, Grant’s old neighbor from St. Louis, to deliver the surrender offer. Pemberton also tried appealing to the Federals’ patriotism by offering to give up Vicksburg on Independence Day.

If that did not work, Pemberton tried bluffing that he was making this offer only “to save the further effusion of blood, which must otherwise be shed to a frightful extent, feeling myself fully able to maintain my position for a yet indefinite period.” As such, he proposed appointing commissioners to negotiate a settlement. Pemberton was disappointed by Grant’s stern reply:

“Your note of this date is just received, proposing an armistice for several hours for the purpose of arranging terms of capitulation through commissioners to be appointed, & c. The useless effusion of blood you propose stopping by this course can be ended at any time you may choose, by an unconditional surrender of the city and the garrison. Men who have shown so much endurance and courage as those now in Vicksburg will always challenge the respect of an adversary, and I can assure you will be treated with all the respect due to prisoners of war. I do not favor the proposition of appointing commissioners to arrange terms of capitulation, because I have no terms other than those indicated above.”

Bowen then played both sides to end the siege; Grant agreed to meet with Pemberton after Bowen said that Pemberton wanted to meet; Bowen then returned to Pemberton and told him that Grant wanted to meet with him. The two commanders and their staffs met under an oak tree at 3 p.m., but Pemberton angrily rejected Grant’s demand for unconditional surrender, saying that “you will bury many more of your men before you will enter Vicksburg.”

The men separated, leaving their staffs to discuss the matter without them. Both staffs favored paroling the prisoners, even though Grant did not. Grant left the meeting agreeing to send his final surrender terms to Pemberton by 10 p.m. This gave Grant’s staff time to persuade him to ease his unconditional surrender demand. After taking time for reflection, Grant sent his final terms:

“In conformity with the agreement of this afternoon, I will submit the following proposition for the surrender of the city of Vicksburg, public stores, & c. On your accepting the terms propo(sed) I will march in one Division as a guard and take possession at 8 a.m. to-morrow. As soon as rolls can be made out and paroles signed by officers and men you will be allowed to march out of our lines the officers taking with them their side arms and clothing, and the Field, Staff & Cavalry officers one horse each. The rank & file will be allowed all their clothing but no other property.”

Paroling Confederates exceeded Grant’s authority under War Department regulations. But Grant hoped to start a new offensive as soon as he cleared out Vicksburg, and both he and Porter knew it would take a while to ship so many prisoners north. Moreover, Grant figured that most of the parolees, who would be eligible to return to the ranks once exchanged for Federal prisoners, would instead choose to stay home after nearly starving in Vicksburg.

Pemberton accepted Grant’s terms in the early hours of Independence Day. He had just received a message from Johnston stating that he would try breaking Pemberton’s army out of Vicksburg on the 7th “by an attack on the enemy, to create a diversion which might enable Pemberton to cut his way out… if Vicksburg cannot be saved, the garrison must.” But it was too little, too late.



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