The Federal Grip Tightens on Vicksburg

Major-General Ulysses S. Grant’s Federal Army of the Tennessee continued tightening its grip around Lieutenant-General John C. Pemberton’s Confederate Army of Mississippi defending the key stronghold of Vicksburg. Federal artillerists continuously bombarded the Confederates while Federal infantry gradually inched closer to their defense lines. The men stayed deep in trenches and earthworks, while sharpshooters waited to shoot anyone careless enough to come up above the defenses.

Maj Gen U.S. Grant | Image Credit:

Grant reported, “We shell the town a little every day and keep the enemy constantly on the alert.” The Federal shells raining on both soldiers and civilians caused city residents to run for shelter. Many dug makeshift caves in the bluffs. With no supplies coming into Vicksburg, merchants began charging exorbitant prices for food and other necessities. People responded by burning a block of stores, which caused more damage than any destruction caused by Grant during the siege.

Because the lines of communication to Washington carried news slowly, President Abraham Lincoln was still unaware that Grant and Major-General Nathaniel P. Banks had begun separate sieges against Vicksburg and Port Hudson. Lincoln wired Grant on the 2nd, “Are you in communication with Gen. Banks? Is he coming toward you, or going further off?”

Meanwhile, the siege tightened even further with the arrival of Federal reinforcements from Memphis as well as Major-General John G. Parke’s Ninth Corps from the Department of the Ohio. Federal Rear-Admiral David D. Porter, whose naval squadron besieged Vicksburg from the Mississippi River, wrote the commander of the U.S.S. Benton, calling for a continuous bombardment of Vicksburg: “The town will soon fall now, and we can afford to expend a little more ammunition.”

On the Confederate side, General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Western Department, informed his superiors at Richmond that he had 24,100 troops in northern Mississippi to oppose Grant, as well as a cavalry command and some irregular cavalry units. This included troops from General Braxton Bragg’s army in Tennessee. Secretary of War James A. Seddon questioned Johnston’s numbers, stating that official reports showed that Johnston’s force should total around 32,000 men.

Johnston corrected Seddon’s estimates and added, “Grant is receiving continual accessions. Tell me if it is your intention to make up the number you gave the President as my force, or if I may expect more troops. With the present force we cannot succeed, without great blunders by the enemy.” According to Johnston, Seddon “expressed great anxiety concerning my ‘plans,’ and desired me to inform him of them as far as I might think it safe to do so.”

Johnston replied to Seddon on the 4th: “My only plan is to relieve Vicksburg. My force is too small for the purpose. Tell me if you can increase it, and how much. Grant is receiving reënforcements. Port Hudson is closely invested. The great object of the enemy in this campaign is to acquire possession of the Mississippi. Can you collect here a force sufficient to defeat this object?”

Seddon replied the next day: “… I regret my inability to promise more troops, as we have drained resources even to the danger of several points. You know best concerning General Bragg’s army, but I fear to withdraw more. We are too far outnumbered in it to spare any. You must rely on what you have, and the irregular forces Mississippi can afford.”

Meanwhile, Pemberton reported to Johnston on the 3rd that the “enemy continues to work on his intrenchments, and very close to our lines; is very vigilant. I can get no information from outside as to your position and strength, and very little in regard to the enemy. I have heard that ten messengers with caps have been captured. In what direction will you move, and when? I hope north of the Jackson road.”

That same day, Mississippi Governor John Pettus wrote to President Jefferson Davis that Johnston’s force could not save Vicksburg, and to “send such reenforcements as would give guarantee of success.” Davis responded two days later: “… I have not the power to comply with the request you make. Had it been otherwise, your application would have been anticipated…”

The tedium of the siege began taking its toll on the men on both sides. This included the officers and even Grant himself. On the 6th, Grant went up to inspect activity on the Yazoo River and, according to Sylvanus Cadwallader, a witness from the Chicago Times, got drunk on the steamer Diligent. Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana, an observer for the Lincoln administration, was aboard the Diligent and wrote, “Grant was ill and went to bed soon after we started.”

Major-General John Rawlins, Grant’s chief of staff, took it upon himself to ensure Grant’s sobriety. He responded to Grant’s binge by writing a desperate letter at 1:00 that morning:

“The great solicitude I feel for the safety of this army leads me to mention what I had hoped never again to do–the subject of your drinking… Tonight, when you should, because of the condition of your health if nothing else, have been in bed, I find you where the wine bottle has just been emptied, in company with those who drink and urge you to do likewise, and the lack of your usual promptness of decision and clearness in expressing yourself in writing tended to confirm my suspicions. You have the full control of your appetite and can let drinking alone… If my suspicions are… correctly founded, and you determine not to heed the admonitions and the prayers of this hasty note by immediately ceasing to touch a single drop of any kind of liquor, no matter by whom asked or under what circumstances, let my immediate relief from duty in this department be the result.”

The Diligent stopped at Haynes’s Bluff on the morning of the 7th. Grant started drinking again, and when the boat docked, he joined a group of officers coming aboard and drinking in the ladies’ lounge. According to Cadwallader, Grant went ashore, mounted a horse and was “heading only for the bridges, and literally tore through and over everything in his way. The air was full of dust, ashes, and embers from camp-fires, and shouts and curses from those he rode down in his race.”

Cadwallader eventually caught up to Grant and managed to bring him back to the Diligent in an army ambulance. Rawlins met them and said, “I want you to tell me the exact facts–all of them–without any concealment. I have a right to know them, and I will know them.” Cadwallader complied and divulged what was one of the biggest scandals of the war. But he refused to print it in the Times. Grant was put to bed, and Lieutenant-Colonel James H. Wilson, the chief Federal engineer, noted in his diary, “Genl. G. intoxicated.”

Meanwhile, Federal movements continued, as troops below Vicksburg burned Brierfield, the plantation owned by Jefferson Davis and his brother. Porter’s Federal mortar flotilla resumed bombarding Vicksburg on the 9th to prevent supplies from reaching the town and to destroy residents’ morale. About 175 heavy shells were exploded over the town each day. Porter wrote Navy Secretary Gideon Welles:

“The mortars keep constantly playing on the city and works, and the gunboats throw in their shell whenever they see any work going on at the batteries, or new batteries being put up. Not a soul is to be seen moving in the city, the soldiers lying in their trenches or pits, and the inhabitants being stowed in caves or holds dug out in the cliffs. If the city is not relieved by a much superior force from the outside, Vicksburg must fall without anything more being done to it. I only wonder it has held out so long…”

A Vicksburg resident wrote about the Federal bombardment: “Twenty-four hours of each day these preachers of the Union made their touching remarks to the town. All night long their deadly hail of iron dropped through roofs and tore up the deserted and denuded streets.”


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