Ripe for Mutiny

The siege of Vicksburg inexorably continued, with Major-General Ulysses S. Grant’s Federal Army of the Tennessee surrounding the town on three sides and slowly starving Lieutenant-General John C. Pemberton’s Confederate Army of Mississippi into submission. Pemberton had no way of getting relief or reinforcements from the outside, while Grant’s army was gaining strength.

A division from the Federal Department of the Missouri arrived near mid-June to take up positions on the left of the siege line, sealing a possible escape route via Warrenton. A few days later, the Ninth Corps from the Department of the Ohio arrived, with most of the troops placed on the right to cover Haynes’s Bluff. Grant now had nearly 80,000 men. Reporting that “all is going on here now just right,” Grant wrote on June 15:

“We have our trenches pushed up so close to the enemy that we can throw hand grenades over into their forts. The enemy do not dare show their heads above the parapets at any point, so close and so watchful are our sharpshooters. The town is completely invested. My position is so strong that I feel myself abundantly able to leave it so and go out 20 or 30 miles with force enough to whip two such garrisons.”

Pemberton had urged General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Western Department with a small army in northern Mississippi, to break his Confederates out of Vicksburg. But Johnston did not feel strong enough to do so and indicated to Secretary of War James A. Seddon that Vicksburg was as good as lost. The Confederate high command demanded that Vicksburg not be lost without a desperate fight, so Seddon implored Johnston to make some kind of effort to save both the city and Pemberton’s army.

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. Nevertheless, Seddon wrote on the 21st, “Consequences are realized and difficulties recognized as being very great. But I still think, other means failing, the course recommended should be hazarded. The aim, in my judgment, justifies any risk, and all probable consequences.” Seddon sent a second message:

“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 is better to fail nobly daring, than, through prudence even, to be inactive. I can scarce dare to suggest, but might it not be possible to strike (General Nathaniel) Banks (laying siege to Port Hudson) first, and unite the garrison of Port Hudson with you…?”

Johnston replied, “We cannot relieve Port Hudson without giving up Jackson, by which we should lose Mississippi.”

Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton | Image Credit: Wikipedia

Meanwhile, Johnston was corresponding with Pemberton as well. On the 21st, Pemberton proposed that Johnston’s Confederates attack the northern (i.e., right) sector of the Federal siege line while Pemberton tried to escape through the southern (left) sector. Pemberton indicated that Johnston would need to attack with at least 40,000 men for this plan to work. Johnston replied the next day, “I have only two-thirds of the force you told… me is the least with which I ought to make an attempt.”

Johnston wrote that Major-General Richard Taylor, commanding the Confederates across the Mississippi River, had orders to “coöperate with you from the west bank of the river, to throw in supplies, and to cross with his forces if expedient and practicable. I will… try to make a diversion in your favor… 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 Taylor communicate.”

But moving across the river would be impossible due to the patrolling Federal ironclads. Moreover, Taylor’s Confederates were moving to threaten New Orleans and were too far to help Pemberton. The next day, Pemberton proposed that Johnston contact Grant and offer “propositions to pass this army out, with all its arms and equipages,” in exchange for giving up Vicksburg to the Federals. Pemberton added:

“I still renew my hope of your being, by force of arms, enabled to act with me to hold out, if there is hope of our ultimate relief, for fifteen days longer… I hope you will advance with the least possible delay. My men have been thirty-four days and nights in the trenches without relief, and the enemy is within conversation distance. We are living on very reduced rations…”

Johnston rejected Pemberton’s suggestion of offering to give up Vicksburg in exchange for saving the army because he did not think Grant would 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, President Jefferson Davis sent desperate messages to Generals Braxton Bragg (commanding Confederates in Middle Tennessee) and P.G.T. Beauregard (commanding Confederates at Charleston) 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.

On the siege lines, Federal troops in the sector belonging to Major-General James B. McPherson’s Seventeenth Corps spent two days digging a tunnel under a Confederate redan north of the road eastward to Jackson. The tunnel was 45 feet long and included three 15-foot passageways. Gunpowder was packed at the end of each passageway, totaling 2,200 pounds, with the intent to blow a hole in the Confederate defenses.

The gunpowder was detonated on the 25th. The explosion created a large crater in the ground, but the Confederates had suspected something like this would happen and pulled back. The walls of the crater proved too steep for the Federals to climb to get to the enemy lines, and Confederates rolled lit shells and tossed hand grenades down on them. Grant finally directed McPherson to withdraw his men. The Federals could not break through, but they did push the Confederate line back a bit and inched closer to Vicksburg.

Federal artillery on land and on the Mississippi continued bombarding Vicksburg around the clock, and Federal troops inched closer to the Confederate defenses each day. 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.” Another Confederate officer noted that all contact with the outside world had been cut off, and if this went on much longer, those under siege would go crazy and “a building will have to be arranged for the accommodation of maniacs.”

Vicksburg residents and Confederate troops faced starvation as the Federals cut all supply lines and guarded all approaches to and from the city. A woman in town wrote, “I have never understood before the full force of these questions–what shall we eat? what shall we drink? and wherewithal shall we be clothed?” Both residents and soldiers resorted to eating mules, and as a soldier observed, “if you did not know it you could hardly tell the difference, when cooked, between it and beef.”

Maj Gen U.S. Grant | Image Credit:

Grant wrote Sherman about rumors from the Confederate lines, “Strong faith is expressed by some in Johnston’s coming to their relief. (They) cannot believe they have been so wicked as for Providence to allow the loss of their stronghold of Vicksburg. Their principal faith seems to be in Providence and Joe Johnston.”

But Johnston had no faith in trying to rescue Pemberton. He wrote Lieutenant-General Edmund Kirby Smith, commanding the Trans-Mississippi Department, that the “only hope of saving Vicksburg now depends on the operations of your troops on the other side of the river.” He then informed Pemberton that Taylor’s Confederates in west Louisiana “had been mismanaged, and had fallen back to Delhi.” For Pemberton, any chance of getting help from west of the Mississippi was now gone.

Near month’s end, Pemberton received a letter, supposedly from his troops but possibly from Federal spies:

“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.” Just as hope for relief was giving way, Johnston finally decided on the 28th to put his four divisions in motion toward the Big Black River. It remained to be seen whether this was too little too late.


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