The Siege of Vicksburg

In Mississippi, Major-General Ulysses S. Grant’s Federal Army of the Tennessee began digging in to surround Lieutenant-General John C. Pemberton’s Confederate army in defensive works around Vicksburg, one of the last Confederate strongholds on the Mississippi River. Pemberton’s defeats outside Vicksburg had alarmed Confederate officials at Richmond, but his two victories within the Vicksburg defenses renewed their confidence that he could hold the city.

The day after Pemberton’s second victory, President Jefferson Davis still did not know that Pemberton could no longer join forces with General Joseph E. Johnston, whose 23,000 Confederates were beyond reach in northern Mississippi. As such, Davis telegraphed Johnston stating he was “hopeful of junction of your forces (with Pemberton’s) and defeat of the enemy.” Davis then wired Pemberton: “Sympathizing with you for the reverse sustained.”

As Davis worked to get reinforcements to Johnston and Pemberton, a response came from General Braxton Bragg, commanding the Confederate Army of Tennessee at Tullahoma: “Sent 3,500 with the General (Johnston); 3 batteries of artillery and 2,000 cavalry since; will dispatch 6,000 more immediately.” Davis replied, “Your answer is in the spirit of patriotism heretofore manifested by you. The need is sore, but you must not forget your own necessities.”

On May 24, Davis expressed confidence to Johnston that Pemberton would hold Vicksburg, “but the disparity of numbers renders prolonged defence dangerous. I hope you will soon be able to break the investment, make a junction and carry in munitions.”

That same day, Grant directed his Federals to start digging trenches and building earthworks of their own to lay siege to Vicksburg. Grant called on his Memphis garrison to join the siege, and soon his army swelled from 45,000 to 70,000 men. Part of his force was assigned to guard against any attempt by Johnston to break through the siege lines and rescue Pemberton.

Grant had previously promised to send reinforcements to Major-General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Army of the Gulf confronting Port Hudson, down the Mississippi from Vicksburg. Grant received a message from Banks requesting 10,000 men; he later wrote, “Of course I could not comply with his request, nor did I think he needed them. He was in no danger of an attack by the garrison in his front, and there was no army organizing in his rear to raise the siege.”

Grant submitted his report on his most recent failure to break through Pemberton’s defenses. This report reflected his growing dissatisfaction with Major-General John A. McClernand as Thirteenth Corps commander:

“I attempted to carry the place by storm on the 22d but was unsuccessful. Our troops were not repulsed from any point but simply failed to enter the works of the enemy… The whole loss for the day will probably reach 1,500 killed and wounded. General McClernand’s dispatches misled me as to the real state of facts, and caused much of this loss. He is entirely unfit for the position of corps commander, both on the march and on the battlefield. Looking after his corps gives me more labor and infinitely more uneasiness than all the remainder of my department.”

Grant assured General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, “The enemy are now undoubtedly in our grasp. The fall of Vicksburg and capture of most of the garrison can only be a question of time.” President Abraham Lincoln fully supported Grant’s efforts. When someone criticized Grant’s recent defeats, Lincoln said, “Whether Gen. Grant shall or shall not consummate the capture of Vicksburg, his campaign from the beginning of this month up to the 22nd day of it, is one of the most brilliant in the world.”

The Siege of Vicksburg | Image Credit:

By May 25, three days after his latest defeat, Grant still had not requested a truce to bury his dead or collect his wounded outside the Confederate works. Military tradition stipulated that the defeated commander request a truce from the victor to tend to casualties, but Grant would not admit defeat. Pemberton’s commanders finally persuaded him to send a messenger to Grant’s headquarters:

“Two days having elapsed since your dead and wounded have been lying in our front, and as yet no disposition on your part of a desire to remove them being exhibited, in the name of humanity I have the honor to propose a cessation of hostilities for two hours and a half, that you may be enabled to remove your dead and dying men. If you can not do this, on notifications from you that hostilities will be suspended on your part of the time specified, I will endeavor to have the dead buried and the wounded cared for.”

Grant “consented” to the request, and Federal burial parties came out under white flags at 6 p.m. to inter the corpses of their comrades. During the ceasefire, the ghastly work was stopped long enough for the opposing soldiers to fraternize and trade items such as tobacco, coffee, and newspapers.

On the Confederate side, Davis informed Pemberton, “Bragg is sending a division; when it comes, I will move to you.” Davis then wrote General Robert E. Lee in Virginia, “Pemberton is stoutly defending the entrenchments at Vicksburg, and Johnston has an army outside, which I suppose will be able to raise the siege, and combined with Pemberton’s forces may win a victory.”

Bragg weakening his army at Tullahoma provided an opportunity for Major-General William S. Rosecrans, commanding the Federal Army of the Cumberland, to advance on him and attack. President Abraham Lincoln saw this opportunity and pointed it out to Rosecrans. Lincoln then added, “I would not push you to any rashness, but I am very anxious that you do your utmost, short of rashness, to keep Bragg from getting off to help Johnston against Grant.” Rosecrans simply replied, “Dispatch received. I will attend to it,” and then did nothing.

On the 29th, Pemberton notified Johnston that his army could not escape Vicksburg. Two of the eight roads leading out of town remained open, but Grant soon sealed them with incoming Federals. Johnston replied, “I am too weak to save Vicksburg. Can do no more than attempt to save you and your garrison. It will be impossible to extricate you unless you cooperate, and we make mutually-supporting movements. Communicate your plans and suggestions, if possible.”

Meanwhile, Rear-Admiral David D. Porter’s Federal Mississippi River Squadron continued its invaluable support of Grant’s army. Gunboats on the Yazoo River began moving up the Sunflower River to destroy supplies earmarked for the Vicksburg defenders. Colonel Alfred W. Ellet’s Federal rams patrolling the Mississippi River burned Austin, Mississippi, after residents reported the Federals’ movements to the Confederates.

Porter suffered a setback on the 28th, when the U.S.S. Cincinnati under Lieutenant George M. Bache was destroyed while supporting Major-General William T. Sherman’s assault on Fort Hill, the westernmost Confederate strong point on the Mississippi. Both Grant and Sherman thought the fort could be easily captured because the Confederates had moved their batteries to weaker points covering the land. They were wrong.

Bache started the Cincinnati downstream toward the fort at 7 a.m. As the vessel turned to fight the strong downstream current, Confederate artillerists directed plunging fire on her unarmored stern. The ship took multiple hits from a “Whistling Dick,” or a smoothbore cannon outfitted by Confederates to be rifled; this conversion caused shells to fire erratically and produced a whistling sound.

The Cincinnati sank in 20 feet of water around 10 a.m.; 13 men drowned and another 19 were killed or wounded by enemy fire. Surviving crewmen nailed the flags to the mast as the vessel went down. This was the second time the Cincinnati had been sunk; she also went down in the Battle of Plum Run Bend just over a year ago. Federals later raised her and returned her to service a third time.

The day after the Cincinnati was sunk, Porter informed the crews of his flotilla that “it will be the duty of the commander of every vessel to fire on people working on the enemy’s batteries, to have officers on shore examining the heights, and not to have it said that the enemy put up batteries in sight of them and they did nothing to prevent it.” Porter next began supporting Federal efforts to clear Confederates between the Yazoo and Big Black rivers. Grant hoped to secure the Mississippi Central Railroad bridge, which was used to supply the Confederates in Vicksburg.

Confederates launched a futile campaign to cut the Federal supply line on the Louisiana side of the Mississippi. Led by Major-General John G. Walker, the Confederates attacked the base at Perkins’ Landing, but the Federals had already fallen back under the protection of the gunboat U.S.S. Carondelet. An artillery duel ensued until Confederate reinforcements came up. The Federals and the Carondelet withdrew.

The outcome of this skirmish had little consequence since Grant’s army was now being supplied from the Yazoo River. Confederate Captain Elijah Petty wrote, “This ends this expedition which was no doubt intended to cut off General Grant’s supplies, but which failed as he had none there.” All the while, Grant, with Porter’s help, worked to strengthen the Federal grip around Vicksburg.


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