I wasn’t sure what to expect at the Vicksburg National Military Park in Mississippi. I have always wanted to visit but haven’t been quite sure why. I am no Civil War scholar. I only have an average knowledge of the various battles of the Civil War. But, for some reason, I felt like I needed to pay homage to this particular battlefield.
I spent a fascinating and moving afternoon at the Military Park.
Confederate President Jefferson Davis called Vicksburg the “nailhead that holds the south’s two halves together.” President Abraham Lincoln said, “Vicksburg is the key” to victory, and could be the north’s lifeline into the south. With the Mississippi River the single most important economic driver on the continent, there was bound to be a battle over its control. Both Confederal and Union armies sought that control. With control, the Union could split the south in half. With control, the Confederates could sell cotton and receive arms and supplies.
THE BATTLE OF VICKSBURG
In the summer of 1862, Union naval vessels began a bombardment of Vicksburg. At the same time, General Grant moved overland to capture the town of Vicksburg from the rear. That effort ended when Brig. General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry ruined Grant’s rail supply line and Grant’s supply base at Holly Springs was captured.
Grant tried to capture Vicksburg again the following December but was met with failure. He decided the Union army would have to approach from the south in coordination with the navy. In April 1863, a Union naval fleet came down the Mississippi to meet up with Grant’s army. This was the largest amphibious operation ever conducted prior to WWII, with 24,000 men and 60 guns being transferred from the west bank of the river to the east side. At the same time, Grant landed his troops at a point south of Vicksburg.
The Union forces began heading south to Vicksburg during the summer of 1863 and Union troops engaged with the troops of Confederate Lt. General John C. Pemberton in a series of battles as Pemberton tried to defend Vicksburg. Grant’s men marched 180 miles, won five battles and captured approximately 6,000 prisoners.
By May 18th, General Grant had Confederate forces under siege within the city. By June, many Vicksburg residents were living in underground caves with the citizens and Confederate soldiers low on food.
A Vicksburg resident named Dora Miller, wrote in her diary:
I think all the dogs and cats must be killed, or starved, we don’t see any more pitiful animals prowling around.
The reality was that dogs and cats were being killed and eaten by starving citizens. Cited in Richard Wheeler’s book, The Siege of Vicksburg, the day before the city finally surrendered on July 3, Dora Miller wrote that her servant Martha told her:
…rats are hanging dressed in the market for sale with mule meat-there is nothing else.
LIVING IN CAVES
During the daily bombardment from Union forces, it was soon clear that basements didn’t provide much protection for families. Families that could afford to do so (or their slaves) began digging caves in the sides of nearby hills to serve as bomb shelters. According to David Martin’s book, “Vicksburg Campaign: April 1862-July 1863,” cave digging became big business. Black laborers offered to dig caves for $30-$50 each. Actual “cave realtors” sold dug-outs outright or leased them for $15 a month.
Caves were all shapes and sizes. Some housed single families while some were large enough for 200 people. Some sported carpets, shelving and furniture. In Patricia Caldwell’s book, “I’se So ‘Fraid God’s Killed Too’: The Children of Vicksburg,” a cave dweller named Lida Lord stated that:
We were almost eaten up by mosquitoes, and were in hourly dread of snakes. The vines and thickets were full of them, and a large rattlesnake was found one morning under a mattress on which some of us had slept all night.
On July 4, 1863, the city fell. General Pemberton was forced to surrender because of his desperate starving army.
THE TURNING POINT OF THE CIVIL WAR
With the loss of Pemberton’s army at Vicksburg and the Union victory at Port Hudson five days later, the Union controlled the entire Mississippi River. The Confederacy was effectively cut in half.
The Battle of Vicksburg took place on the same day as the Battle of Gettysburg. Together, these two battles changed the course of the Civil War. The Battle of Vicksburg cut off supplies and economic opportunity for the South and effectively, cut the south in half. The full Vicksburg campaign (from March the 29th) claimed 10,142 Union and 9,091 Confederate killed and wounded. Some 29,495 Confederate soldiers surrendered but were immediately set free by Grant.
The Battle of Gettysburg stopped Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s second invasion of the north. More than 50,000 men fell in the 3-day Battle of Gettysburg.
VICKSBURG’S DIFFICULT HEALING
The residents of Vicksburg felt so humiliated at the City’s fall that residents did not officially recognize America’s Independence Day for the next 81 years!
I am so happy I visited both the City of Vicksburg and the Military Park!
The City was settled in the early 1700s and is an American history lesson all by itself. Vicksburg has twelve tour homes. The oldest home in the city is the McRaven Home, built circa 1797. Antebellum and Postbellum homes surround Vicksburg. The Riverfront is spectacular-don’t forget to visit the Jesse Brent Lower Mississippi River Museum and Interpretative Center (hours: 9 am-4 p.m.). Learn the history of Coca Cola at the Biedenharn Coca-Cola Museum (hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m.), where the first Coke was bottled in 1891! The U.S.S. Cairo Museum will show you the first boat to be sunk by a torpedo. The Old Courthouse has countless Civil War artifacts (hours: 8:30 a.m.-5:00 p.m.).
And there is so much more! See our new friend describe the highlights below: