Saturday, May 18, 2013


Today, May 18, marks the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the seige of Vicksburg. This was the culmination of a long and complicated campaign, that stretched back, really into the middle of 1862.

I sometimes regret that most of my Civil War posts have been about battles and generals - the Civil War is the defining event in United States history, and it encompasses every aspect of American life. I know that, at the very least, I should be writing about politics and about slavery - the war emerged from political conflicts, and specifically, political conflicts over slavery - the war came to be fought over slavery, and its place is utterly central. And I should find ways to talk about all the things that went with the war - the economic developments, the technological changes, the relationship between the war and the west, the war and immigration, the war and - Christ - everything... But - so far, it's been all battles and generals, with the occasional consideration of underwear. Well - there it goes. There will be time - and the anniversaries are on us now...

So Vicksburg. It is generally regarded as U.S. Grant's finest hour - this part, May 1863, especially. But even taking it as a whole, it illustrates one of the things that made him successful. He kept at the thing. He tried a host of schemes over the previous winter - direct assault, marching overland, building canals, trying to use the rivers and bayous to get around behind the city - everything failing, sometimes disastrously. But he kept at it, and the activity didn't stop him from thinking about the problem until he came up with the plan that worked - run ships past the city, gunships and transports, march the army down the western shore of the Mississippi, cross the river, and attack from the south and east. Lee gets credit for dividing his forces and making daring attacks, counting on the passivity of the enemy, maybe - Grant deserves the same credit. And this, with much larger distances and a bloody great river splitting his army in half, is even more audacious. Though it is true - Grant had significant advantages in manpower and equipment - he had all those ships - he could get away with it.

He also had some particularly passive enemies. The North has a bad reputation for generalship, but other than Lee, and Virginia generally, the South was a pretty consistent mess. Not the field commanders - people like Forest and Cleburne and Wheeler were quite superb - but the higher command was a mess. They weren't helped by the central government - Jefferson Davis fancied himself a Military Genius, and meddled quite a bit in western affairs. (Grant is rather fond of mocking him in his memoirs.) Davis' part in the Vicksburg campaign wasn't too helpful - he was very determined to hold Mississippi at all costs - and his pressure kept the confederates in Vicksburg itself beyond what might have been wise. It was a difficult situation, of course - in they lost control of the Mississippi, they were done and they knew it - but they also lacked the resources to hold it. Militarily, they would have been better consolidating their forced, and finding the Union armies and beating them, preferably one at a time.... Bus was that practical? And if they let the Mississippi go, could they have sustained armies in the field? You see the problem...

In any case - the south couldn't decide what to do, so they did everything badly. Davis and Pemberton, commander at Vicksburg, wanted to hold the city, but Joe Johnston, sent to support the city, saw no point in it. He did very little to help, made no effort to reinforce the city, relieve the city, or force the men in the city to join him and fight elsewhere. And when he was attacked, at Jackson, May 14 - he declared defeat and took off. Meanwhile Pemberton waffled - he went out to meet Grant, but late, and so met him after Grant's army had all crossed the Mississippi. He started one way, lost a battle or two and went back to Vicksburg. An altogether uninspired campaign. The results are that Grant did exactly what he wanted - marched up east of Vicksburg. Chased Pemberton back, sent part of his army to drive off Johnston from Jackson, to the east, then gathered the full army and met Pendleton at Champion's Hill. Gave them a beating there, then at the Battle of the Big Black, and so pinned them up in Vicksburg proper. It was very neatly done.

Though it left Grant facing Pendleton's army in Vicksburg, dug in to their eyeballs, able to last god knows how long. So Grant tried to take them by storm, first on the 19th, which was repulsed with heavy casualties, then again on the 22nd, attacking with the whole army, and again, repulsed with heavy casualties. (Lessons there about attacking fortifications in the age of the rifle that he unfortunately did not take to heart before the Virginia campaign of 1864.) And so Grant settled in for a siege, and no one in the South could do anything about it - and on July 4, the garrison surrendered. The father or waters would flow unfettered to the sea. Grant would be lionized. The South was finished, though they still had armies in the field, and wee able to kill a lot of people for not much purpose in the coming 2 years.

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