Vicksburg, one of the Confederacy’s last strongholds on the Mississippi River, had been under siege for nearly six grueling weeks. Major-General Ulysses S. Grant’s Federal Army of the Tennessee surrounded the city on three sides, while Rear-Admiral David D. Porter’s Mississippi River Squadron sealed Vicksburg on the river side. Both Grant and Porter continuously bombarded the soldiers and civilians trapped in the city with heavy guns and mortars.
Cut off from supplies, those under siege were on the brink of starvation. In addition, Federals were tunneling under the Confederate siege lines in hopes of detonating explosives and blowing holes in the defenses, thereby adding yet another threat to the suffering defenders. One tunnel was exploded on July 1, but the Federal commanders determined that it did not cause enough damage to warrant a breakthrough effort. The failed attempt to exploit a breach on June 25 influenced the decision to hold back.
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 Fifteenth Corps blocking their path and all crossings at the Big Black River.
This left Lieutenant-General John C. Pemberton, commanding the Confederate army in Vicksburg, with just two options: 1) attempt a breakout with no outside help or 2) surrender. Pemberton sent a confidential message to each of his four division commanders (Major-Generals Carter L. Stevenson, Martin L. Smith, John H. Forney and John S. Bowen) on the 1st:
“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 only viable escape route was to the south, but Grant could easily shift troops to that sector and Porter could send gunboats up the Big Black River to block the attempt. Stevenson wrote that if the troops had to march and fight, “the chances are a large number of them now in the trenches could not succeed.” The other three generals agreed, with two (Smith and Bowen) advising surrender. 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 and deliver the message from Pemberton to Grant. Pemberton had selected Colonel L.M. Montgomery of his staff and General Bowen (who had been Grant’s neighbor in St. Louis before the war and was now dying of dysentery) as the messengers. Pemberton wrote:
“I have the honor to propose an armistice for — hours, with the view to arranging terms for the capitulation of Vicksburg. To this end, if agreeable to you, I will appoint three commissioners, to meet a like number to be named by yourself, at such place and hour to-day as you may find convenient. I make this proposition 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. This communication will be handed you under a flag of truce, by Major-General John S. Bowen.”
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 also tried appealing to the Federals’ patriotism by offering to give up Vicksburg on Independence Day. If that failed, Pemberton added the bluff that he could stay put “for a yet indefinite period.” As such, he proposed appointing commissioners to negotiate a settlement.
Grant was undaunted. He refused to see Bowen, despite their friendship, and instead wrote a stern reply to Pemberton’s offer:
“… 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 met under an oak tree on the Jackson road at 3 p.m. Pemberton was accompanied by Bowen and Montgomery; Grant was accompanied by several corps and division commanders. Grant and Pemberton knew each other from serving in the same division in the Mexican War. The men shook hands and Pemberton cut right to the chase. “What terms of capitulation do you propose to grant me?” he asked.
Grant replied, “Those terms stated in my letter of this morning.” This infuriated Pemberton who, being a northerner, knew that he would be excoriated by the South for losing Vicksburg. He said, “I have been present at the capitulation of two cities in my life, and commissioners were appointed to settle the terms, and I believe it is always customary to appoint them. If this is all you have to offer, the conference may as well terminate, and hostilities be at once resumed.” Grant simply said, “Very well, I am quite content to have it so.” “I can assure you,” Pemberton warned, that “you will bury many more of your men before you will enter Vicksburg.”
Grant started to leave but Bowen stopped him. Grant agreed to appoint Major-Generals James B. McPherson and A.J. Smith to discuss terms with Bowen and Montgomery. The officers 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 commanders and staff time to persuade him to ease his unconditional surrender demand.
That night, Grant contacted Porter: “I have given the rebels a few hours to consider the proposition of surrendering; all to be paroled here, the officers to take only side-arms. My own feelings are against this, but all my officers think the advantage gained by having our forces and transports for immediate purposes more than counterbalance the effect of sending them north.”
Grant then sent a message to his corps commanders: “Permit some discreet men on picket tonight to communicate to the enemy’s pickets the fact that General Grant has offered, in case Pemberton surrenders, to parole all the officers and men and to permit them to go home from here.” During the ceasefire, Federals and Confederates came out of their trenches to mingle. A soldier wrote that “several brothers met, and any quantity of cousins. It was a strange scene.” Grant had planned to launch a full-scale assault on July 6, and nearly every soldier knew that Vicksburg was lost, either by surrender or force. Most on both sides hoped for surrender over more bloodshed.
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 proposed 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 be 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.
As Pemberton decided whether to accept these terms, he received a message stating that Johnston would try to break 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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