by Mark Moore, Historian and Archivist, Danville Historical Society
1863. The third year of the war. The music exalting medal-bedecked glory and the bloodless romance of a quick 90-day war had faded long ago. In its place was endless, mindless slogging–the cleaning of weapons, large and small, marching with no discernible purpose—the killing and dying with an equally pointless objective.
This proved to be the rule in the war in the west. The bloodletting at Fredericksburg and Antietam, to name two, proved early on that there would be no quick, dramatic, glittering northern victories. Chancellorsville had shown the superiority of some southern commanding generals so Lincoln would have to engage on a continuous revolving door of command for the Army of the Potomac replacing the useless Major General Joe Hooker with fish-eyed Pennsylvanian George Meade, known to his troops as Old Snapping Turtle. Confederate General Robert E. Lee, on other hand, lost his second-in-command, his boldest tactician and architect of the victory at Chancellorsville, “Stonewall” Jackson, to the gunfire of his own troops in the evening twilight.
June of 1863 saw Lee side-stepping the Federals and advancing north, freezing the Union Forces into protecting Washington D.C. until he passed, then rushed, following the barefoot gray-clad troops in tattered uniforms as they poured into Pennsylvania. It was the invasion all had feared. The capital of the state at Harrisburg was a risk, and, further east, laid the cradle of democracy and major seaport of Philadelphia.
Further east, the story was different. So were the commanders. Here, the major obstacles were the terrain, not the ability of the Confederates or the inability of the Union commanders. Vicksburg, Mississippi, was called the Gibraltar of the Confederacy as, from its heights at a sharp u-turn in the Mississippi, it controlled commerce from the western states of Arkansas, Texas and Missouri. It funneled men and materiel to the South during the first three years of the Civil War in a manner the Union blockade of the rebel harbors could not touch. General John Pemberton, a Philadelphian and West Point graduate, seemed secure in his cannon-studded fortress.
But General Ulysses Simpson Grant was not your usual
Union commander. His attitude toward his job could best be summed up by a conversation he had with the red-haired General William Tecumseh Sherman after the first day of the Battle of Shiloh a year earlier. Sherman approached Grant in his tent after the Confederates had overrun 90% of Grant’s troops. “A tough day” was Sherman’s comment. “Whip ‘em tomorrow” observed Grant. And he did.
Grant, as a battlefield commander, shared with Lee the qualities of perspective, responsibility, intuition, daring and endurance. At Vicksburg, when one idea didn’t work, he tried another. He tried attacking from the north, tried digging across the “U” in the river; finally, he tried crossing the Mississippi south of Vicksburg at Bruinsburg on April 30-May 1, 1863. Grant rowed across Mississippi and, culminating in the Battle of Champion Hill, forced what was left of Pemberton’s army back into Vicksburg. Although, Grant had his gunboats run past Vicksburg’s cannons, several assaults on the land side failed to breach the defenses, and Grant settled down for a siege.
The North Star summarized the siege of Vicksburg on June 6, 1863:
For several days we have received nothing from Vicksburg except that the siege was still going on—nothing occurring that is decisive or cheering. At this time of writing (Tuesday) we have no news of the capture of Vicksburg…
It is yet too early to judge as to the final result. We trust Grant will steadily move forward until he accomplishes his purpose. But at present it looks as though the actual capture of Vicksburg would not take place. If anything more important occurs, we shall receive accounts, which shall be found in our war news column.
The North Star itself headlined the vital standing of Vicksburg on June 6, 1963 and quoted from a Confederate paper:
At the time of writing we know not whether the Federal Forces have succeeded in taking Vicksburg. But whether they have or not, it is evident there is a mighty struggle on both sides either to retain or capture it. It is viewed as a point of great importance. The Jackson (Miss.) Appeal says of Vicksburg “Our hold on the Mississippi, once wrested from us, is gone from us, at least, so long as the war lasts which would isolate the Confederate Government from the West, cut off all but remorse, and place us at a disadvantage when we shall enter upon the terms of lease. A great deal has been said about guaranteeing the free navigation of the river in the Northwest but with what plausibility could our government come forward with such a proposition when the entire river with all its fortifications, erected by the Confederacy is already in their possession? Of course they would laugh at such a proposition, coming from us under such circumstances and hence it is of the first importance that our present position on the river be permanently held. Far better it would be to sacrifice Richmond, Charleston, Savannah or Mobile than to yield the river by which the Confederacy will be rent in twain, the West hopelessly cut off from the East and a vast section of the county subject to the depredations and spoliations of the enemy. The very thought of such a result is excruciating.”
Such is the Confederate view of the importance of Vicksburg. Its value cannot be over estimated. It is of such great importance to the Confederates. It is still more so to the Federals. The enemy will contest its capture with a terrible tenacity and sacrifice to maintain control of the Mississippi.
In the same issue The North Star reported
LEE’S ARMY IN MOTION
New York-May 29 The Herald’s Headquarters at the Army of the Potomac, dispatches dated May 28 say the rebel army is evidently moving. Gen. Lee has issued an order which was read to the troops a few nights since, congratulating them on their achievements and foreshadowing a raid into Maryland. He tells them they are to have long and rapid marches through a country without railheads and calls upon every man to be prepared for the severest hardships. Wonderful victories are, of course, promised them and the overthrow of our army predicted as an inevitable event. The trains of the rebels have been seen for several days moving from depots of supplies below Fredericksburg and balloon reconnaissance have discovered a large column pushing rapidly in the direction of Culpepper.
The news that everyone in the North longed to hear about the battle which occurred at the town of Gettysburg and was published in the North Star on July 11, 1863:
THE GREAT VICTORY
What the loyal people of the Nation have been looking for has come to pass. The Federal army has gained a great victory in the field. The details of the awful struggle during the three days of last week will be read with intense interest.
The whole country is jubilant at the success of the Union arms. Praise of Meade are on every tongue, and thanks to the Almighty God are fervently uttered…The N.Y. Time suggests that the Army of the Potomac will now, more than ever receive the admiration of the country..its heroic struggle during the first three days of July will forever adorn the annals of war.
So, the mythology of Gettysburg began. Also published the same day:
TO THE HON, GIDEON WELLS, SECRETARY OF THE NAVY
Sir-I have to honor to inform you that Vicksburg has surrendered to the United States forces on this 4th of July.
Acting Rear Admiral
Later unofficial reports confirm the fall of Vicksburg. Gen. Pemberton sent a flag of truce on the morning of the 4th, and offered to surrender if his men were allowed to march out. Gen Grant is reported to have replied that no men should leave except as prisoners of war. Gen Pemberton then, after consultation with his officers unconditionally surrendered. The news is perfectly reliable.
The fall of Vicksburg has caused great public rejoicing throughout the villages and cities of the North.