The Fall of Vicksburg

Lieutenant-General John C. Pemberton, commanding the Confederate army under siege within Vicksburg, Mississippi, review the surrender terms sent to him by Major-General Ulysses S. Grant, commanding the Federal Army of the Tennessee laying siege. Grant had offered to parole Pemberton’s men, with the officers retaining their sidearms and clothing, in exchange for giving up the vital stronghold of Vicksburg.

Pemberton suggested allowing his troops to simply leave their arms and go home, while the officers would keep all personal property. Grant rejected this; the troops could leave their arms in the trenches, but they would have to go into Vicksburg and stay there until formerly paroled. Officers could only keep clothing and sidearms. Grant pledged to protect civilians from “undue annoyance or loss,” but he made no guarantee that those owning slaves could keep them. Pemberton was given until 9 a.m. to accept these terms, otherwise fighting would resume. Pemberton accepted.

White flags were raised over Vicksburg as Grant sent in Major-General John A. Logan’s division to guard the approaches, confiscate the war materiel left behind, and conduct the parole process. The Federals entering the city quietly watched Vicksburg’s brave, exhausted, and starving defenders stack their arms in front of their lines at 10 a.m. Grant opened a supply line to feed the troops and city residents as many inside Vicksburg wept over the fall of their prized city.

Shelters dug into the hills during the siege of Vicksburg | Image Credit:

Federals replaced the Confederate flag over the city courthouse with a U.S. flag. A Federal work detail had been packing gunpowder in a tunnel under the Confederate lines in preparation for the planned all-out attack scheduled for July 6. They were virtually forgotten until someone finally went into the tunnel to tell them that Vicksburg had fallen.

Federals replaced the Confederate flag over the city courthouse with a U.S. flag. An Ohio soldier wrote, “This was the most Glorious Fourth I ever spent.” Another Federal noted, “We are going to celebrate this Fourth of July in spirit and truth. The Stars and Stripes are now waving to our right, and the white flags to our left, as far as we can see. The backbone of the Rebellion is this day broken. The Confederacy is divided–Pemberton is a prisoner. Vicksburg is ours. The Mississippi River is opened, and Gen. Grant is to be our next President.”

Federal vessels on the Mississippi River blew their whistles in celebration. Rear-Admiral David D. Porter, commanding the naval squadron that had been besieging Vicksburg from the river, sent Grant a message: “I congratulate you on getting Vicksburg on any honorable terms. You would find it a troublesome task to transport so many men (as prisoners of war), and I think you will be left so free to act it will counterbalance any little concession you may seem to make to the garrison.”

A total of 29,511 officers and men were paroled (2,166 officers, 27,230 soldiers, and 115 civilians with the army). A group of 709 Confederates insisted on being taken prisoner so they would not have to take up arms again if exchanged. The Federals seized 172 guns, 60,000 stands of arms, and 600,000 rounds of ammunition. They now almost completely controlled the Mississippi River, except for the last Confederate garrison at Port Hudson.

The Federal capture of Vicksburg had finally been realized over two months after Grant had begun his campaign. During that time, Grant had taken some 40,000 Confederates out of the war, through either capture or casualty, while losing less than 10,000 of his own. He kept Pemberton guessing nearly the entire time and prevented him from being reinforced by General Joseph E. Johnston’s 32,000-man “Army of Relief.” As a newspaper reporter put it, “A single mistake or disaster might have overwhelmed this army… but the mistake was not made, the disaster did not come.”

Strategically, this was the most important Federal victory of the war to-date. Major-General William T. Sherman, commanding a corps in Grant’s army, explained its significance in his memoirs:

“The value of the capture of Vicksburg, however, was not measured by the list of prisoners, guns, and small-arms, but by the fact that its possession secured the navigation of the great central river of the continent, bisected fatally the Southern Confederacy, and set the armies which had been used in its conquest free for other purposes; and it so happened that the event coincided as to time with another great victory which crowned our arms far away, at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. That was a defensive battle, whereas ours was offensive in the highest acceptation of the term, and the two, occurring at the same moment of time, should have ended the war; but the rebel leaders were mad, and seemed determined that their people should drink of the very lowest dregs of the cup of war, which they themselves had prepared.”

The elimination of Pemberton’s army from the war left Johnston in command of Pemberton’s Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana. Johnston’s “Army of Relief” became the new Army of Mississippi, and it was now all that was left to defend the rest of the state from Federal conquest. Grant immediately detached Sherman’s corps to confront Johnston’s Confederates.

Grant sent a staff member up the Mississippi to the nearest telegraph office at Cairo, Illinois, to inform General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck:

“The enemy surrendered this morning. The only terms allowed is their parole as prisoners of war. This I regard as a great advantage to us at this moment. It saves, probably, several days in the capture, and leaves troops and transports ready for immediate service. Sherman, with a large force, moves immediately on Johnston, to drive him from the State. I will send troops to the relief of (Nathaniel) Banks (laying siege to Port Hudson), and return the 9th army corps to (Ambrose) Burnside (commanding the Army of the Ohio).”

Grant also paid tribute to Porter and his Mississippi River Squadron for their role in capturing Vicksburg: “The navy, under Porter, was all it could be during the entire campaign. Without its assistance the campaign could not have been successfully made with twice the number of men engaged.” Porter sent a gunboat up to Cairo to relay the news of Vicksburg’s fall to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles. Porter reported having fired 7,000 mortar rounds at Vicksburg, 4,500 shot and shells by gunboat, and 4,500 rounds by 13 naval guns placed on shore.

Over the next week, the Confederate prisoners were put through the parole process while Federals dealt with the sick and wounded, and the sensitive subject of what claim Confederate officers had on their property, particularly slaves.


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