July, 1863—Vicksburg and Gettysburg–the Price of Victory

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.

General George G. Meade, aka "the old snapping turtle."

Gen­eral George G. Meade, aka the “Old Snap­ping Turtle.”

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.


Con­fed­er­ate gen­eral, John Pemberton

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

A Vicksburg battlefield map.

A Vicks­burg bat­tle­field map.

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


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:


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:


Sir-I have to honor to inform you that Vicks­burg has sur­ren­dered to the United States forces on this 4th of July.

D.D. Porte

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.



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