Our friend Brian wanted to see at least one Civil War battlefield on our trip. Given that we were coming down the Mississippi there were quite a few to choose from…but if you only have time to see one, the choice is obvious: Vicksburg. Which was just as important a battle as Gettysburg (and culminated on the same day, July 3, 1863) but isn’t anywhere near as well known because it didn’t feature titanic battles or Bobbie Lee (whose fame, despite losing, was set in stone by the apologizing manipulators of The Lost Cause)1.
But it did feature Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman and a tactical breakthrough which changed warfare as we know it2.
The Vicksburg Military Park has an interesting history in its own right. Being deep in formerly Confederate territory it wasn’t something the locals wanted to turn into a tourist attraction. Instead, it was veterans organizations — on both sides — that worked hard to get it established. They were joined in that effort by various individuals and groups who saw Vicksburg as a way for literally warring factions to come to terms and foster peace.
That effort continues today, because the park is still not a particularly high priority, politically, for the local, state and federal governments3. In fact, one of the major developments in the park took place over the last decade, with a philanthropist donating money to clear out the brush and trees that had grown up on the battlefield since the conflict.
The Confederates, holding the high ground, wanted brush and trees to complicate the Union advance, coupled to clear fields of fire so they could mow down their opponents once they got close. I’d visited the park twenty some odd years ago with my brother Art, and I can tell you being able to see the lay of the land makes the experience of touring the battlefield much more powerful.
If you visit Vicksburg — and you should — I highly recommend hiring a local guide. Art & I had done that on our trip, so I wanted to do it again. And we lucked out, spectacularly, because we ended up with one of the best battlefield guides I’ve ever seen: Michael Logue, a Vicksburg Master Historian. He not only made the tour come alive, he also personalized it, because both Barbara and our friend Cathrin had ancestors who fought in the battle on the Union side.
Vicksburg’s strategic importance rested on several factors. Control of it would cut the Confederacy off from its western elements (e.g., Arkansas, Texas).
More importantly, it would give the Union pretty much total control over the Mississippi River. Which was important because Confederate control of the river prevented the Union’s northwest elements (e.g., Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa) from shipping crops overseas. According to Michael there was serious pressure building within those areas to secede from the Union and cut a separate peace deal with the Confederacy to re-open the Mississippi to those grain shipments. I’d never heard this angle before4, but, if true, it makes perfect sense. Because, as with much of American politics, it’s all about the money5.
Lastly, Lincoln needed some victories to maintain political support for the war (and to help in his own pending re-election bid, when he would be challenged by the former head of the Union armies, George McClellan, who wanted peace and was willing to sunder the country to get it.
Which is why Vicksburg is also the scene of one of the major naval engagements of the Civil War, with Union ironclads running supplies south of the city to enable Grant’s forces to encircle it.
One interesting tidbit (from the many Michael shared with us). As conditions in Vicksburg worsened dramatically, a senior Confederate general, James Bown, offered to “feel out” his Union opponents to see if they were open to ending the siege. Pemberton, the Confederate commander, wasn’t ready to surrender but he was willing to have Bown talk to the Union commanders.
Grant told Bowen he’d be willing to talk, provided what they were talking about was surrender. Bowen brought back word Grant was willing to talk…but left out the part that it had to include surrender.
So, when Grant and Pemberton met things did not go well. In fact, according to Miachel it was the subordinates on both sides who developed the eventual terms of surrender that were Grant and Pemberton signed.
You can see more photos of Vicksburg (and Natchez and New Orleans) in my Google photo album.
I’m looking at you, Jeff Davis — you should’ve been hung as a traitor rather than allowed to rewrite history in a way that downplayed the evils of the enslavers. ↩
cutting your army loose from its supply base, with resupply being “provided” by the people and territory you stormed your way through ↩
I was amazed to learn that some of the state monuments weren’t erected until the 1950s, nearly a century after the war ended! ↩
and plan on reading up on it ↩
That was true even during the Revolutionary War. Washington’s troops were starving at Valley Forge in order to win freedom for farmers from whom they could not purchase food for lack of money. Fortunately for those farmers, Washington didn’t do the obvious thing and simply take what he needed. ↩