The lower Mississippi River valley was the most critical theater of
the Civil War. The Mississippi River served as the major interstate
highway of nineteenth-century America. The river enabled people to transport
goods from St. Louis and Pittsburgh through New Orleans to the world.
Rivers were extremely valuable as transportation networks, but beginning
in the 1840s, railroad construction linked major cities that were unconnected
by water. Both sides realized the significance of these transportation
networks and knew they must control them to win the war.
Early in the war, Union General Winfield Scott envisioned a broad sweeping
plan to crush the rebellion. His strategy, known as the "Anaconda Plan,"
reflected the importance of the Mississippi River in the overall strategy
of the war. Scott's plan called for blockading the southern coast and
a drive down the Mississippi River to cut the Confederacy in two.
Regional economic and cultural diversity controlled national politics.
Over the years, compromises maintained a delicate balance in Congress
between free and slave states. With the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska
Act in 1854, which allowed territories to decide for themselves whether
to become free or slave
states, the spirit of compromise was lost. Southerners feared this
change would forever rob them of their way of life.
Agriculture was the foundation of the economy of America, but its practice
varied between the North and the South. The South was dependent on a
economy for its livelihood, but it also relied on northern factories
for everything it needed to grow, refine, and market its crops. Northerners
forged the plows that broke southern earth, northerners built the steamboats
that shipped southern crops, and northerners purchased the final products.
The election of Abraham Lincoln as president in 1860 changed the lives
of all Americans almost overnight and the nation itself forever. Lincoln's
belief that "a house divided against itself cannot stand," created a
sense of crisis in the South and brought the issues that divided the
nation into sharp focus.
South Carolina seceded from the Union soon after the election and was
joined by other states to form the Confederate States of America before
Lincoln took office. War erupted when Confederate troops fired on Fort
Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, on April 12, 1861. Following
these opening shots, both the North and South quickly raised troops,
organized armies, and began to develop strategies for victory.
Battle of Pea Ridge, Arkansas
The Mississippi River became a focus in the war plans of both sides.
"The Father of Waters" had moved lumber, wheat, corn, and meat from
the midwest, cotton and tobacco from the upper south to New Orleans,
and European goods upriver. Control of the Mississippi and the rivers
that flow into it would allow the North to move troops and supplies
deep into the South while crippling the Confederacy's ability to survive.
The South needed to protect itself, especially the rich farmland of
the Mississippi River valley, from northern invasion. The Mississippi,
carrier of commerce, became the bearer of dreams as a divided nation
struggled with itself over its future.
With Missouri securely under Union control by the fall of 1861, both
sides massed troopsthe North along the Ohio River and the South
across Tennessee. Newly commissioned Union General Ulysses S. Grant
was stationed in Cairo, Illinois, to watch southern troops in Tennessee.
Each side waited and watched, careful not to tip the balance in Kentucky
toward the other.
On September 1, 1861, Confederate General Leonidas Polk seized the
Kentucky river towns of Hickman and Columbus. He began erecting fortifications
at Columbus to defend the river as part of a Confederate defense line
that stretched across southern Kentucky from Columbus to Cumberland
Gap. Grant quickly countered by occupying Paducah and Smithland. The
watching and waiting was over.
Late in 1861, Union land and naval forces launched a key element of
the Anaconda Plan by simultaneously heading south from Paducah, Kentucky,
and north from the Gulf of Mexico to wrest control of the lower Mississippi
River valley from the Confederates. The initial engagement at Belmont,
Missouri, provided valuable experience for Grant who became the most
important Union general of the war.
"The Battle of Shiloh," by Thure de Thulstrup
Water Battery at Fort Donelson National Battlefield,
Moving along the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, Union forces seized
Forts Henry and Donelson, opening the pathway for invasion of the Deep
South. Continuing their advance, the Federals gained victory in the
bloody battle at Shiloh in April, at Corinth in May, and having forced
the surrender of Island No. 10 in the Mississippi River, seized Memphis
by early June.
Entering the mouth of the Mississippi River, the ships of the West
Gulf Blockading Squadron, commanded by Union Flag Officer David Glasgow
Farragut, fought past Confederate Forts Jackson and St. Philip. Left
defenseless, New Orleans, the largest city in the Confederacy, surrendered
in late April. Moving steadily upriver, Farragut captured Baton Rouge
and Natchez and steamed on to Vicksburg.
Gunboats on the Mississippi River - Courtesy of Chicago Historical
Responding to Farragut's demand for surrender, Confederate Lt. Col.
James L. Autrey, the post commander at Vicksburg, answered, "Mississippians
don't know, and refuse to learn, how to surrender to an enemy." Shelling
the city until late July, Union ships and gunboats were unable to force
surrender of Vicksburg. Sickness and rapidly falling waters forced the
Federals to withdraw to deeper water below Baton Rouge.
Upriver, Federal inactivity in and around Memphis during the summer
enabled Confederate forces to counterattack to regain lost portions
of the lower Mississippi River valley. These efforts ended in failure
at Iuka and Corinth, Mississippi, and Baton Rouge. General Ulysses S.
Grant then directed his forces in a two-pronged advance on Vicksburg.
One wing marched south from LaGrange and Grand Junction, Tennessee,
into north Mississippi while the other wing, under General William T.
Sherman, pushed rapidly downriver from Memphis to seize Vicksburg. Cavalry
under Confederate General Earl Van Dorn sacked Grant's supply base at
Holly Springs, Mississippi, and troopers under General Nathan Bedford
Forrest cut Union supply lines in Tennessee forcing the northerners
back to Memphis.
USS Cairo, Vicksburg National Military Park
On Christmas Eve, the flotilla carrying Sherman's troops arrived near
Vicksburg. A warning of his approach interrupted a festive gathering
at the Balfour House. Declaring, "This ball is at an end. The enemy
is coming down river," Confederate General Martin Luther Smith, the
garrison commander, ordered his troops to man their batteries. Landing
north of the city near the mouth of Chickasaw Bayou, Sherman ordered
his troops forward saying, "We will lose 5,000 men before we take Vicksburg,
and may as well lose them here as anywhere else." As his soldiers were
hurled back with bloody loss, his words proved prophetic.
Unable to take Vicksburg, Union forces began 1863 by moving up the
Arkansas River and capturing the Confederate garrison at Arkansas Post.
After a series of ill-fated bayou expeditions during the winter months,
Grant boldly launched his army on a march through the northeastern corner
of Louisiana from Milliken's Bend in search of a favorable point to
cross the Mississippi River below Vicksburg. Union gunboats and transports
battled their way past Confederate shore batteries at Vicksburg and
rendezvoused with Grant. In the largest amphibious landing in American
military history up to that time, the Union commander hurled his army
across the river at Bruinsburg and pushed inland.
Overcoming Confederate resistance at Port Gibson, Raymond, Jackson,
Champion Hill, and Big Black River Bridge, Federal troops captured the
capital of Mississippi and reached Vicksburg. Failing to take the city
by storm, Grant's forces encircled the city and laid siege. Cut off
from the outside world, the citizens and soldiers of Vicksburg, many
of whom sought refuge in caves, withstood the constant bombardment of
Union guns for forty-seven days. On July 4, 1863, the city surrendered
to Grant. Ironically, a Confederate attack on Helena, Arkansas, intended
to ease the pressure on Vicksburg, was bloodily repulsed on the same
The Bombardment of Port Hudson
When Port Hudson, Louisiana, the last remaining Confederate stronghold
on the Mississippi River, fell five days later, the Confederacy was
split in two and President Abraham Lincoln declared, "The Father of
Waters again goes unvexed to the sea."
To strengthen their hold on the Mississippi River, Union troops moved
quickly from Vicksburg to drive Confederate forces that had assembled
near Jackson from the state. Strategic points along the river were garrisoned
by black troops, most of whom had been slaves just weeks before joining
the Union army. With the Mississippi River secured, northern armies
advanced deep into the interiors of Mississippi and Louisiana in 1864.
In Mississippi, Sherman advanced across the state from Vicksburg to
Meridian, first demonstrating his concept of total war which he later
used more effectively in Georgia and the Carolinas. West of the Mississippi
River, Union General Nathaniel P. Banks advanced up the Red River of
Louisiana along with naval forces under Union Admiral David Dixon Porter
and was defeated at Mansfield by Confederate General Richard Taylor
and forced to withdraw. A Union army from Little Rock, moving to join
Banks, was also soundly defeated near Camden, Arkansas, and forced to
retreat. The lower Mississippi River valley was the scene of no major
military operations for the remainder of the war.
A key element of this Union success was the use of a powerful new weapon:
black soldiers. In September 1862, President Lincoln announced the Emancipation
Proclamation which would free slaves in those areas still in active
rebellion against the government on January 1, 1863. The decree expanded
the war aims from preservation of the Union to include the abolition
The proclamation paved the way for blacks to formally enlist in the
Union forces. The first major action of blacks in uniform was at Port
Hudson, Louisiana, on May 23, 1863, when the First and Third Native
Guards stormed the Confederate defenses, suffering severe losses. Two
weeks later, black troops successfully defended Grant's supply base
at Milliken's Bend, Louisiana, against a determined attack by Confederate
infantry. These engagements firmly answered the question of whether
the freedmen would fight. For the remainder of the war, black soldiers
fought on fields of battle across the land and garrisoned strategic
posts along the Mississippi River. More than 300,000 blacks served in
the army and navy of the United States during the Civil War, sixteen
of whom were awarded the Medal of Honor.
The fall of the Mississippi River into Union hands was disastrous for
the Confederacy. A permanent southern nation would never exist. Divided
in two and cut off from vital supplies, the Confederacy was doomed in
the coils of the Anaconda.
Lincoln, Grant, and Sherman's efforts in the West made Union victory
inevitable. The United States now had military leaders whose experience
in the Western Theater had given them the vision and will to lead to
The military effort along the Thousand-Mile Front now shifted east
to concentrate on a hundred-mile front from The Wilderness past Richmond
to Petersburg and finally to Appomattox.
The Civil War changed not only the South but the nation. War ravaged
the South, destroying railroads, factories, and homes. The end of the
Civil War brought an uneasy peace, and was followed by one of the most
traumatic periods in American historyReconstruction.
As you visit sites along the Thousand-Mile Front you can experience
the Civil War. What happened along this thousand-mile front is reenacted
everyday in memory and reality, with you as witness.