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Historical Overview

Civil War (22KB)

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.
Laura Plantation (22KB)
Laura Plantation
Vacberie, Louisiana

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 plantation 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 (31KB)
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 troops—the 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 (32KB)
"The Battle of Shiloh," by Thure de Thulstrup

Water Battery (18KB)
Water Battery at Fort Donelson National Battlefield, Tennessee

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 (19KB)
Gunboats on the Mississippi River - Courtesy of Chicago Historical Society

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 (40KB)
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 day.
Bombardment of Port Hudson (26KB)
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 of slavery.

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 ultimate victory.

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 history—Reconstruction.

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.

The Thousand-Mile Front
Thousand-Mile Front - Introduction
Historical Overview
Summary of Events by State
Sites to Visit
Key Map
Offices of Tourism in each state
About “The Thousand-Mile Front”

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Last Updated: March 14, 2001