Vicksburg Falls – Pemberton Surrenders to Grant – July 2 to July 4, 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 July 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 where we left off last month with the second underground mine explosion by the Union on July 1, which destroyed the Confederate’s Third Louisiana Redan in the fortified line defending besieged Vicksburg. This was the second such detonation at this redan. The first was followed by a failed Union assault. After the second blast no assault was attempted pending General Grant’s desire to do so at such time when numerous underground mines could be detonated simultaneously.

After over 40 days of living under siege, conditions for residents in the city had deteriorated. To avoid the incessant shelling by Union forces, many civilians had resorted to living in caves. This offered some protection but in and of itself was fraught with peril from exposure to, for instance, vermin and insects. Food supplies for both civilians and soldiers were running out. For example, bread was now being made with corn and dried peas, and butcher shops were selling only horse, dog, or rat meat. The harsh summer Mississippi sun and heat, already hard to endure, were made even more acute under these conditions. As mentioned last month, for an excellent recap timely to this history brief of the full plight of the civilians in Vicksburg, Terry Winschel, Historian of Vicksburg National Military Park (ret.), gave a thorough and sobering account of their hardships at our most recent monthly meeting 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.

The entrance to one of the caves (photographed after the war) in which residents of Vicksburg lived during much of the siege

With each passing day, Confederate General Pemberton, in charge of the C.S.A. forces inside Vicksburg, became more desperate and pessimistic that his army could further endure the siege. Starvation or slaughterous defeat by Union assault of his ever weakening troops loomed. He began exploring escape possibilities for his soldiers.

One seemingly plausible idea was to flee over water with a direct crossing of the Mississippi River into Louisiana. Accordingly, construction of crude watercraft began but was soon discovered and dashed by Admiral Porter’s Union fleet. In his Memoirs, Grant states, “All necessary steps were at once taken to render such an attempt abortive. Our pickets were doubled; Admiral Porter was notified, so that the river might be more closely watched; material was collected on the west bank of the river to be set on fire and light up the river if the attempt was made; and batteries were established…on the Louisiana side. Had the attempt been made the garrison of Vicksburg would have been drowned, or made prisoners.”

Beyond a doubt, the best hope and opportunity for Pemberton to escape clearly lay with General Johnston’s army gathering east of the Big Black River; by the end of June it had about 32,000 troops. Johnston, in communication by messenger with Pemberton, made known that an attempt to break the siege was planned for July 6 and that his troops should plan to fight their way out that day. Pemberton brought this plan to his generals in a council of war. After considering the options, his generals overwhelmingly concluded that although their troops were capable of manning fixed fortifications, their physical condition was not conducive to attempting a break-out through fortified Union siege lines and fighting a field battle.

The Willis-Cowan House, which John Pemberton used as his headquarters
In this house Pemberton met with his generals to discuss plans for escape and made the decision to surrender.

Finally, on the morning of July 3, Pemberton decided to negotiate surrender with Grant. At midmorning white flags appeared on the rebel line, and at about 10 a.m. a pair of Confederate officers rode out, one of them being division commander General Bowen, carrying a letter from Pemberton to Grant. In the letter, Pemberton stated that the garrison could hold out much longer, but in the interest of avoiding further casualties, hostilities should be brought to a close. Pemberton specifically requested an armistice commission that would establish terms of surrender. General Grant replied with a letter to Pemberton, which he recounted in his Memoirs and that read in part, “The useless effusion of blood you propose stopping by this course can be ended at any time you may choose, by the unconditional surrender of the city and garrison.” Thus, Grant hearkened back to his victory and subjugation of the rebel garrison at Fort Donelson, which earned him the nickname “Unconditional Surrender Grant,” and, as an unexpected bonus, the showering of cigars on Grant by hordes of Union well-wishers for the remainder of the war!

A depiction of the meeting between Grant and Pemberton
John Bowen

Shortly, Pemberton and Grant met during the afternoon with supporting staff on a hill several hundred feet from Confederate lines. Grant records it in his Memoirs this way: “He soon asked what terms I proposed to give his army if it surrendered. My answer was the same as proposed in my reply to his letter. Pemberton then said, rather snappishly, ‘The conference might as well end,’ and turned abruptly as if to leave. I said, ‘Very well.’ General Bowen, I saw, was very anxious that the surrender should be consummated…He now proposed that he and one of our generals should have a conference. I had no objection…Smith and Bowen accordingly had a conference, during which Pemberton and I, moving a short distance away toward the enemy’s lines were in conversation. After a while Bowen suggested that the Confederate army should be allowed to march out with the honors of war, carrying their small arms and field artillery. This was promptly and unceremoniously rejected.”

Marker denoting the site of the meeting between Grant and Pemberton

It was noted in the Union headquarters that Johnston’s now substantial army was about 12 miles east of Vicksburg. Why risk a potential battle when a more expedient surrender and decisive victory could be achieved with more relaxed surrender terms? Grant met with his generals to share the status of negotiations with Pemberton. Shelby Foote in the second volume of his famous The Civil War – A Narrative describes the result of Grant’s conference: “Grant found his officers of a mind to offer what was acceptable, although he himself did not concur; ‘My own feelings are against this,’ he declared. But presently, being shielded in part from the possible wrath of his Washington superiors by the overwhelming vote of his advisers, he ‘reluctantly gave way,’ and put his terms on paper for delivery to Pemberton at the designated hour. Vicksburg was to be surrendered, together with all public stores, and its garrison paroled; a single Union division would move in and take possession of the place next morning.”

Vicksburg (circa 1860) – the conquered Gibraltar of the Confederacy

So it was that on July 4, Independence Day, the Confederate troops marched out and the Union troops marched into Vicksburg. Many Civil War historians posit that on July 4, 1863 the war was effectively won, and by that act could arguably say “Grant won the war!” It was at the very least the moment in time that saw the completion of perhaps the most difficult part of the Anaconda Plan to strangle the South and cut in two. With the Union navy’s success in blockading the eastern seaboard growing evermore significant with each passing month, Vicksburg is also correctly thought of as the turning point and perhaps the most victorious moment of the war. Indeed, General Grant’s prestige was ever rising in the eyes of Lincoln, and would continue to rise even higher during the last two years of the war. The great victory after so many other important triumphs was indeed further positioning Grant as the indispensable man of the American Civil War.

The monument to Ulysses S. Grant, the architect of the campaign that culminated in the fall of Vicksburg
The extraordinary Ed Bearss

Ed Bearss in the third volume, Unvexed to the Sea, of his three-volume series, The Vicksburg Campaign, summed up the campaign: “Grant’s Army of the Tennessee, during the campaign lost 10,142…while inflicting 9,901 battle casualties on the Southerners. To the Confederate losses must be added the 29,491 officers and men surrendered by General Pemberton…A formidable army had been destroyed. The great disparity between the losses of the opposing armies was a result of Grant’s grand strategy. The oft told story that Grant was a heedless, conscienceless butcher, devoid of the skills associated with history’s great captains is shown by the Vicksburg Campaign to be a shallow canard. Grant had dared to be daring and innovative…No longer could the trans-Mississippi Confederates send food stuffs, livestock, and manpower to their compatriots east of the river. ..Scott’s Anaconda Plan had been vindicated.”

Part of the terrible cost of the conquest of Vicksburg: the Vicksburg National Cemetery

Admiral Porter dispatched the news of Vicksburg’s surrender in a fast gunboat up the Mississippi River to the telegraph office in Cairo, Illinois. On July 7, a telegram message was typed with the news of Vicksburg’s fall and sent to the Naval Department in Washington with instructions to immediately advise the president. Lincoln famously expressed on hearing the news, “The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea.” He stated to Gideon Welles, the navy secretary who first told him of Grant’s success, “I cannot, in words, tell you my joy over this result. It is great, Mr. Welles, it is great!”

Note: The author thanks Steve Pettyjohn for the photographs of the surrender marker, the Ulysses Grant monument, and the Vicksburg National Cemetery.

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