Grant Besieges Vicksburg – May 23 to July 1, 1863

By Daniel J. Ursu, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2020-2021, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article is the history brief for June 2021. Because the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the in-person meetings of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable in the 2020-2021 season, this history brief was submitted during the following summer and not as part of a monthly meeting.

We pick up from last month’s history brief where we left off in the wake of Grant’s second major assault on the prepared defenses of the Vicksburg fortress. It was marginally more successful than the hasty first attack of the May 19 and was deliberately planned, complete with an early morning prebombardment. The assault succeeded in taking the Railroad Redoubt for several hours but seriously threatened only one other major defensive work, that being the Second Texas Lunette. Overall, the attack was another disappointing setback. Going forward, Grant would more patiently await the demise of the Vicksburg garrison via siege warfare, which inevitably over time would exhaust its food, stores, and munitions. Ultimately, in Grant’s mind, it should force a C.S.A. surrender by their Commanding General Pemberton.

A depiction of a failed Union assault on the Vicksburg defenses

Although known for smoking cigars but not so of playing poker, Grant nevertheless indeed held almost all of the cards at this stage of the campaign. He had a well-supplied army that by about June 14 would grow to over 70,000. These men would be busy throughout the siege constructing and continuously improving a heavily fortified line east of both the city and its strongly fortified rebel line, thus penning in the Confederates. Upon the Mississippi River floated Admiral Porter’s fleet, which had complete naval superiority and acted as the western portion of the noose around Vicksburg.

The unknowns were how long the Confederates would be able to hold out; how hard Grant would assault them if the siege was taking too long from the Union’s strategic perspective; how seriously Pemberton would attempt to break out; and/or whether Confederate General Johnston would attempt to break the siege by attacking Grant from the east. Johnston was amassing troops in the direction of the Mississippi state capital, Jackson.

Cigars and cards aside, at this time Grant’s reputation for drinking arose once again from the usual detractors, many of whom were jealous of his continued military successes. It is also around this time, however, that some scholars believe President Lincoln’s famous quote about Grant’s drinking was uttered, although various forms of it did not begin appearing in newspapers and other publications until the fall of 1863. That said, one of the many versions published has Lincoln apparently asking a doctor of divinity who was heading a delegation to visit the president in order to complain about Grant’s perceived shortcomings, “Doctor, can you tell me where General Grant gets his liquor?” The doctor replied he did not, to which Lincoln retorted, “I am very sorry for if you could tell me I would direct the Chief Quartermaster of the army to lay in a large stock of the same kind of liquor, and would also direct him to furnish a supply to some of my other generals who have never yet won a victory!” It is very true that Grant’s continuous military successes made him also grow continuously in stature and prestige in the eyes of Lincoln. Shelby Foote in the second volume of his famous The Civil War – A Narrative describes Lincoln’s feelings at this time: “Now as always he shielded Grant from the critics who were so quick to come crying of butchery, whiskey, or incompetence. ‘I can’t spare this man. He fights’ he had said after Shiloh, and more than a month before the surrender of Vicksburg he had called the campaign leading up to the siege ‘one of the most brilliant in the world.’”

At the end of May Grant acted on the various insubordinations by his 13th Corps commander, General John McClernand, and became determined to effect an improvement in this important position while the siege ensued. The final incident that sealed McClernand’s fate was when he issued congratulations to his men regarding the fighting during the second Vicksburg attack on May 22. It implied amongst other things that if Grant had better supported them, the day might have ended in victory. Grant recounts in his Memoirs, “I received a letter from General Sherman…and one from General McPherson, saying that their respective commands had complained to them of a fulsome, congratulatory order published by General MClernand…which did great injustice to the other troops engaged in the campaign. This order had been sent North and published, and now papers containing it had reached our camps. The order had not been heard of by me and certainly not by troops outside of McClernand’s command until brought in this way. I at once wrote to McClernand, directing him to send me a copy of this order. He did so, and I at once relieved him from the command of the 13th Army Corps and ordered him back to Springfield, Illinois. The publication of this order in the press was in violation of War Department orders and also of mine.” Grant replaced him with General Ord, who had been performing admirably as a division commander.

As to his grip on the city and the potential threat from Johnston to the east, Grant states in his Memoirs, “My line was more than fifteen miles long, extending from Haines’ Bluff to Vicksburg, thence to Warrenton. The line of the enemy was about seven. In addition to this, having an enemy at Canton and Jackson, in our rear, who was being constantly reinforced, we required a second line of defense facing the other way. I had not troops enough under my command to man these. General Halleck appreciated the situation and, without being asked, forwarded reinforcements with all possible dispatch…I knew that Johnston was receiving reinforcements from Bragg, who was confronting Rosecrans in Tennessee. Vicksburg was so important to the enemy that I believed he would make the most strenuous efforts to raise the siege.”

Grant’s position in between the garrison and Johnston’s potential relieving force was in some ways not unlike what historians consider one of the most famous sieges in history, that is, Julius Caesar’s siege in what is now modern day France of the Gallic leader Vercingetorix, trapped at Alesia – a hilltop “oppida” or “proto-town” – during Caesar’s campaign to subjugate Gaul in 52 BC. There, Caesar built a line of works, referred to as “contravallation,” to besiege the Gauls in the oppida of Alesia and also built a second line of outer works, “circumvallation,” to protect against the anticipated large Gallic relieving force. The siege of Alesia was undoubtedly studied by Grant and his fellow graduates of West Point.

Julius Caesar’s investment of Alesia showing the circumvallation and the contravallation

If card play was a pastime in Caesar’s day, Grant, however, had a much better hand dealt him than Caesar. Grant had lavish munitions and supplies via his control of the Mississippi River, while Caesar was inland with no secured supply line whatsoever. Also, Grant outnumbered the garrison by over 2 to 1 and was at least equal in numbers when adding in Johnston’s troops east of the Big Black River; and Grant could count on more if needed. In contrast, Caesar was greatly outnumbered and completely surrounded from outside his siege lines.

In keeping Johnston at bay, stated Sherman in his Memoirs, “We estimated Pemberton’s whole force in Vicksburg at thirty thousand men, and it was well known that the rebel General Johnston was engaged in collecting another strong force near the Big Black, with the intention to attack our rear, and thus to afford Pemberton an opportunity to escape with his men…each corps kept strong pickets well to the rear; but, as the rumors of Johnston’s accumulating force reached us, General Grant concluded to take stronger measures. He had received from the north General Parke’s corps…I reconnoitered the whole country…then, taking one division from each of the three corps…he ordered me to go out, take a general command of all and to counteract any movement on the part of General Johnston.”

William T. Sherman

Sherman thus established a line of defense with its strongest fortified position at the bridges over the Big Black River. These were the same which the Union crossed to move into position to invest Vicksburg a few weeks before. While not quite the thorough construction of Caesar’s “circumvallation,” as it covered only about 180 degrees on the compass whereas Caesar’s was 360 degrees of defensive works, it was nevertheless a good counter defensive line to keep what Sherman and Grant perceived to be up to 40,000 troops under Johnston from breaking into Vicksburg. Ed Bearss, in the second volume (Unvexed to the Sea) of his three-volume series (The Vicksburg Campaign) refers to Sherman’s defense of Grant’s rear as “the Second Front.”

During the first couple of weeks of the siege, General Sherman, commanding the northern section of the Union lines, detected that the rebels might be moving some of their heavy water batteries from the bluffs above the Mississippi River into their eastern defensive lines. Sherman’s observation was that rebel artillery fire in his direction had substantially increased. He reported this to Grant, who in turn commanded Admiral Porter to test said water batteries. Shelby Foote, again in the second volume of his The Civil War – A Narrative relates, “Porter on May 27 sent the Cincinnati…covering her movements with four other ironclads at long range. She started downriver at 7 o’clock in the morning…and by 10 the matter had been settled beyond doubt…Rounding to in order to open fire, she took a pair of solids in her shell room and a third in her magazine. As she tried to make an upstream escape, a heavy shot drove through her pilot house and her starboard tiller was carried away…Hulled repeatedly by plunging fire, she began filling rapidly…She went down in three fathoms of water, still within range of the enemy guns.” Thus, the C.S.A. river defenses were proven to still be robust, well manned, and deadly accurate. (The Cincinnati was one of the vessels known as Pook’s Turtles. These vessels are described in the October 2020 history brief.)

USS Cincinnati

One danger mostly unique to the Confederates throughout the siege was exposure to sniper fire. Being on the high ground, Confederate soldiers standing or partially exposing their bodies above the fortifications were silhouetted against the sky, and were therefore visible to blue-clad marksmen on lower elevations waiting for rebels to expose themselves. Even more at danger were Confederate officers, who were priority targets. Among the higher ranking killed by snipers during the siege were Colonel Isham W. Garrott and Brigadier General Martin E. Green. Ed Bearss, the renowned former Chief Historian Emeritus of the National Park System and a recognized expert on the Vicksburg Campaign, in his book Fields of Honor describes a particularly effective Union sniper position: “Lt. Henry C. Foster of the 23rd Indiana gets revenge on the Confederates for what they did to his regiment on May 22…He and his men use railroad ties to construct a tower. The tower is built on commanding ground south of Jackson Road…and is raised to a height sufficient to allow Foster to see over the Third Louisiana Redan’s parapet. Foster, because of his marksmanship, became a terror to the Confederates. Among the Yanks in Logan’s division, because of his coonskin cap, he became known as ‘Coonskin’ Foster and his perch as ‘Coonskin Tower.’ He is visited there on one occasion by Ulysses S. Grant.” (The battlefield sites mentioned in this history brief can be located on the map in last month’s history brief.)

A photograph of Coonskin Tower, from which Henry Foster very effectively wreaked havoc as a sniper

Speaking of Caesar, since ancient times a major nemesis to the besieged was from besiegers attempting to dig under defenses to either gain fortress access or collapse walls, battlements, and fortified positions. Grant employed this tactic with his engineers and his numerous troops with mining experience against the Vicksburg defenses. In his Memoirs: “From the 23d of May the work of fortifying and pushing forward our position nearer to the enemy had been steadily progressing. At three points on the Jackson road…a sap was run up to the enemy’s parapet, and by the 25th of June we had it undermined and the mine charged. The enemy had countermined, but did not succeed in reaching our mine.”

Ed Bearss

Mr. Bearss in Fields of Honor described what happened next: “The head of Logan’s Approach has been driven to within 30 yards of the exterior slope of the redan…Volunteers with experience as miners are called for and soldiers of the 7th Missouri and 32nd Ohio respond. Within less than 48 hours the gallery has been completed and its head extends under the redan…The Yanks hear Mississippians digging. Confronted by what could be crisis, the Federals place 2,000 pounds of black powder at the head of the gallery. At 3:30 p.m. on June 25, the fuse is lit and the Yanks hunker down. An explosion ensues; the ground shakes, a great geyser of dirt and dust ascends and then descends.” Thereafter, Union troops rushed into the resulting crater. However, the Confederates anticipated this possibility and had an alternate line of defense already constructed behind the primary, thus pinning down the Union soldiers who therefore could not emerge from the crater. Sayeth Bearss, “During the next 20 hours Union regiments, in a futile effort to break the stalemate, are rotated into and out of the crater…Grant, seeing no headway, cuts his losses and pulls his men out of the crater.”

Grant immediately puts into motion a second similar attempt. On July 1, 1,800 pounds of powder are exploded beneath the same redan, which succeeds in destroying it. Grant comments in his Memoirs, “No attempt to charge was made this time, the experience of the 25th admonishing us. Our loss in the first affair was about thirty killed and wounded. The enemy must have lost more in the two explosions than we did in the first. We lost none in the second…I determined to explode no more mines until we were ready to explode a number at different points and assault immediately after.”

A depiction of the mine explosion under the Louisiana Redan

However, events of the next few days would preclude such a coordinated mine explosions assault. Potential victory within his grasp after many months of effort, along with many hard knocks to subdue Vicksburg, we shall see next month whether Grant continues to succeed and to further grow in stature and prestige in the eyes of President Lincoln!

As mentioned in last month’s history brief, for an excellent recap of the plight of the civilians under siege in Vicksburg, which is timely to this history brief, Terry Winschel, Historian of Vicksburg National Military Park (ret.), gave a thorough and sobering account of their hardships at our May 2021 meeting, which was arranged by our immediate past president, Steve Pettyjohn. The YouTube channel of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable has a video of Terry Winschel’s presentation.

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