Vicksburg: Confederate Hardships Increase

The relentless Federal siege of Vicksburg continued, both on water and land. Major-General Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee surrounded the city on three sides, with over 200 guns bombarding the soldiers and civilians inside around the clock. Rear-Admiral David D. Porter’s gunboat squadron shelled the city from the Mississippi River to the west. 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 standing too tall in 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.

Hillside caves at Vicksburg | Image Credit:

Lieutenant-General John C. Pemberton, commanding the Confederate army under siege, wrote his superior, General Joseph E. Johnston, on June 10:

“The enemy bombards the city day and night from seven mortars on opposite side of peninsula; he also keeps up constant fire on our lines with artillery and sharpshooters; we are losing many officers and men. I am waiting most anxiously to know your intentions. Have heard nothing from you nor of you since 25th of May. I shall endeavor to hold out as long as we have any thing to eat…”

Johnston looked to break Pemberton’s Confederates out of Vicksburg with a force he was assembling in northern Mississippi. He sent two divisions to the Big Black River, about 20 miles west of Canton. These troops were preparing to attack the Federals from the rear when Johnston received word that Grant was being heavily reinforced. Johnston withdrew his forces.

Johnston was also trying to help Pemberton by working with Secretary of War James A. Seddon to get more troops. This included pulling all available forces from General Braxton Bragg’s army at Tullahoma in middle Tennessee. Johnston told Seddon on the 10th that he did not have “at my disposal half the number of troops necessary” to break Pemberton out of Vicksburg. He added, “It is for the Government to determine what department, if any, can furnish the reenforcements required.”

Two days later, Johnston wrote Seddon, “To take from Bragg a force that would make this army fit to oppose Grant’s, would involve yielding Tennessee. It is for the Government to decide between this State and Tennessee.” Pemberton sent Johnston an update that same day: “… Very heavy firing yesterday, from mortars and on lines.”

Pemberton finally heard from Johnston on the 13th, when he received a message dated May 29:

“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 very heavy guns in position against our works, and is approaching them very nearly. His firing is almost continuous. Our men 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 reënforcements. We are living on greatly-reduced rations, but, I think, sufficient for twenty days.”

Johnston reiterated his message from the 12th to Seddon, along with a shocking assertion in his last sentence:

“I cannot advise as to the points from which troops can best be taken, having no means of knowing. Nor is it for me to judge which it is best to hold, Mississippi or Tennessee–that is for the Government to determine. Without some great blunder of the enemy, we cannot hold both. The odds against me are much greater than those you express (two to one). I consider saving Vicksburg hopeless.”

This the first time the Confederate high command at Richmond was told that Vicksburg could not be saved. Seddon had always held out hope that Johnston could not only break Pemberton out but drive the Federals away. This pronouncement was very similar to the one that Johnston made against Richmond in the spring of 1862. Seddon wrote on the 16th:

“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 attack. It may be made in concert with the garrison, if practicable, but otherwise, without–by day or night, as you think best.”

Johnston responded on the 19th:

“I think that you do not appreciate the difficulties in the course you direct, nor the probability and consequences of failure. Grant’s position, naturally very strong, is intrenched, and protected by powerful artillery, and the roads obstructed. His reënforcements have been at least equal to my whole force. The Big Black covers him from attack, and would cut off our retreat if defeated. We cannot combine operations with General Pemberton, from uncertain and slow communication. The defeat of this little army would at once open Mississippi and Alabama to Grant. I will do all I can, without hope of doing more than aid to extricate the garrison.”

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?”

Meanwhile, Mississippi Governor John J. Pettus wrote to President Jefferson Davis from Jackson:

“From information derived from the military authorities here, we are convinced that it will require not less than thirty thousand additional troops to relieve Vicksburg. The withdrawal of these troops may possibly involve the surrender of all Middle Tennessee to the enemy. The failure to reënforce to this extent, certainly involves the loss of the entire Mississippi Valley. General Johnston believes that the question should be decided by the Government, and we concur with him. We respectfully submit that Vicksburg, and the country dependent upon it, should be held at every sacrifice, and that you order the requisite number of troops to be sent forward with that view. It is unnecessary to say that time is all important; and that the decision should be promptly made.”


  • Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years. New York: Doubleday, 1967.
  • Ballard, Michael B., Vicksburg: The Campaign That Opened the Mississippi. The University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
  • Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian. New York: Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (Kindle Edition), 2011.
  • Johnston, Joseph E., Narrative of Military Operations During the Civil War. Sharpe Books, Kindle Edition, 2014.
  • Korn, Jerry, War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
  • 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.

Leave a Reply