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The Siege of Vicksburg

The Illustrated London News, vol. 43, no. 1212, p. 27.

July 11, 1863


In a contest conducted upon so stupendous a scale as the war now waging between the rival Confederacies of America it must often happen that operations of the greatest import to those concerned in them and to the ultimate issue of the struggle become for a time neglected in the interest excited by still more stirring events occurring elsewhere. Thus, while with the keenest interest we were following the army of the Potomac, as, broken and breathless, it recrossed the Rappahannock after its last advance on Richmond, our attention was diverted to the masterly and successful march of General Grant to the very threshold of Vicksburg. And, again, while we were looking anxiously for news which should tell that the fall of this city of the Mississippi had rewarded the efforts of the one Federal General who seems to combine skill in action with boldness at the council-table, or that the Confederates had succeeded in raising the siege, we are diverted by the intelligence of Lee's invasion of the North; and the fate of Vicksburg, which at one time seemed likely even to influence the issue of the war, becomes at once of secondary importance. Satisfied, however, that before long the operations having for their object the possession of the Mississippi will once again assume the importance which they deserve, we do not hesitate, while we are busy preparing a map that shall illustrate General Lee's present movements, to lay before our readers a plan of Vicksburg which may explain the operations by which General Grant brought his forces to the gates of the town, and help them to comprehend the news which any mail may bring of further events affecting his position.

Before relating the movements of the opposing armies a short space may advantageously be devoted to a description of the arena to which their struggles have been confined. We will ask our readers, then, to imagine a wide, deep canal 1000 miles long, extending from, say Birmingham, through France and Austria, to the Black Sea. Let them further fancy England at war with France, Austria, and the Swiss Confederacy for the possession of such a canal, and picture upon the map of Europe, which it would intersect, two powerful fortified positions upon bluffs overlooking and commanding its passage, situated say in the heart of France and garrisoned by French soldiers. Such a condition represents fairly the Mississippi River, having Pittsburg [sic] , the Federal Birmingham, on one of its branches, running for 1000 miles through hostile peoples with its free navigation which is one great object of the Federal party to secure, impeded by the strong positions of Vicksburg and Port Hudson. To gain this end, and acquire the free navigation of this noble river, no sacrifice of life and means has been spared by the North.

To begin with, it will be remembered that Columbus, Island No. 10, Memphis, New Orleans, and Baton Rouge were all taken at a great outlay of men, money, and material of war. So much being secured, it was projected to render the position of Vicksburg harmless by cutting an enormous canal into which the water of the Mississippi might be diverted and Vicksburg avoided. The work was begun, and a cutting made across the heel of the horse-shoe bend of the river indicated in our Map. The work was completed, the river rose and fell, but the Mississippi refused to accommodate itself to the new channel prepared for its waters, and remained obstinately "secesh."

General Grant next ordered the Admiral in charge of the Federal fleet above Vicksburg to force some of his transports and gunboats past the town at every hazard, and to meet him below the point of confluence of the Big Black and Mississippi rivers, for the purpose of conveying his army across the latter river at Grand Gulf. This movement was effected with remarkable skill and success on the 10th of May. Several valuable vessels were lost in the attempt, but those that succeeded in making the passage were quickly repaired, and were found sufficient to carry out General Grant's purpose. Following up this success by rapid marches, in pursuance of a singularly skilful strategic plan, General Grant at once sought the rear of Vicksburg.

He was first met and his way disputed at Thompson's Mill, near Jackson, by a small body of men under General Bowen. Grant's army numbered 70,000 men, not all of whom were, however, available for action in the field. The fleet which he had at his command may fairly be regarded as a contribution equal to 25,000 more. But it was only available at such points of his march when he came upon the river, where it not only furnished him with artillery, but brought him stores and kept open his long line of supply and, if need were, retreat. General Bowen had only two brigades under his command. They fought well; but after contesting his passage for twelve hours, gave way, and Grant, unable in his haste to give due care to his dead and wounded, hurried on. The difficulties of his advance, and the sufferings of his army under a sultry sun, in a tropical climate, with short supplies and forced marches may easily be imagined. Upon his way to Jackson he was next met at Raymond, where General Gregg, with 4000 men, disputed his passage for three hours; and

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again, in the vicinity of Jackson, he was held in check by General Johnson, who fought to gain time, which was spent in sending provisions into Vicksburg, and by General Pemberton there in completing the defences of the town.

Jackson having been occupied, Grant moved towards Vicksburg. At the bridges that crossed the Big Black River he was met, on the 16th of May, by Pemberton, with a much inferior force, by whom he was fought on that day and on the next at Big Black River Bridge. General Pemberton effectually checked Grant's progress; but was compelled to fall back, in consequence of being outflanked by a division of Grant's army, thrown across the river higher up, some eight miles. Forced to retire, and exhausted with the unequal strife, General Pemberton found so much difficulty in carrying his artillery from the field that he spiked many pieces, and, having transported his forces over the river, burnt the bridges behind him. At this time, too, Haines Bluff was abandoned by the Confederates.

On the 18th of May Grant, having rebuilt the bridges destroyed by Pemberton, found himself in communication with the Federal fleet upon the Yazoo River, which had previously been commanded by Haines Bluff. On the same night General Pemberton, in anticipation of the strait to which he might soon be reduced, sent from Vicksburg all his spare horses and mules, which, after many perils, succeeded in running the gauntlet of the Federal lines. No time was lost, and, on the 18th, the Federal fleet was directed to shell and bombard the town from the river, while Grant attempted to carry it by a coup de main. The assault, however, was repulsed with terrible slaughter. In three other attempts, made with equal gallantry, the Federal troops met with the same dogged resistance, and were beaten back. In narrating these events it is difficult to know whether to award the greater praise to the skill, endurance, and gallantry with which the Federal army overcame the vast difficulties which lay between the landing at Grand Gulf and their position before Vicksburg, or the indomitable gallantry with which the Confederate forces contested their march and hold them now in check.

But, meanwhile, a cloud somewhat larger than a man's hand gathers on the rear of Grant's position. General Joseph B. Johnson [sic] , known to be one of the most skilful, experienced, and prudent of the Confederate chiefs, has been busy collecting an army at Jackson, and only waits for sufficient artillery to advance upon Grant's position. Artillery is being conveyed to him as fast as the railroads can carry it, while General Lee threatens the source of his supplies from the upper rivers; and, in all probability, before these words are read, a blow of some decisive kind to one or other of the combatants will have been struck.

When General Grant advanced on Vicksburg General Banks was directed to attack Port Hudson, in order to detain at or near that place such of the Confederate forces as might otherwise be made available for the relief of Vicksburg. Accordingly, about the 26th of May, General Banks invested the works at Port Hudson by land and water with an army which was amply provided with the military resources which the Federals possess in such abundance. As in the case of Vicksburg, the fleet poured upon the garrison a continuous and heavy fire, after which, on the 27th, General Banks ordered the assault to be made. It was upon this occasion that the experiment was first tried of using the new levies of negroes, with such dire results to them, that out of 900 who went under fire but 200 returned alive. The slaughter of the Federals generally was fearful, as again and again General Banks threw his gallant and unfortunate army upon the Confederate lines of defence, until it became but too evident that the place could only be reduced by the slow operations of a siege.

Such, then, are the relative positions of the combatants upon this part of the banks of the Mississippi. It would be premature as yet to speculate upon the news which must soon reach us; but time, which is all, probably, that the Confederate Generals require to complete the plans which are in progress to raise the siege of Vicksburg, must be telling seriously upon the Federal army, operating at a great distance, from their supplies, in an unhealthy season, and hemmed in on all sides by watchful guerrillas who lurk about their camps and along the water-courses. What its present condition is it is impossible to say; but it has been stated that General Grant's forces, which on landing at Grand Gulf amounted to 70,000 men, had been reduced on the way to Vicksburg to 45,000.

The disposition of the Federal forces around Vicksburg are so plainly indicated in the Map that no verbal description is necessary. It will be remembered that during the determined assaults upon the tower, in the earlier stage of the siege, General Sherman met his death.

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