Merchant steamers unloading supplies at Vicksburg after the
Courtesy Library of Congress.
ACROSS THE IMPERISHABLE CANVAS of the American
Civil War are vividly recorded feats of arms and armies, and acts of
courage and steadfast devotion which have since become a treasured
heritage for all Americans. Among the military campaigns, few, if any,
present action over so vast an area, of such singular diversity, and so
consequential to the outcome of the war, as the great struggle for
control of the Mississippi River. Seagoing men-of-war and ironclad
gunboats engaged shore defenses and escorted troops along river and
bayou; cavalry raids struck far behind enemy lines as the armies of the
West marched and countermarched in a gigantic operation which culminated
in the campaign and siege of Vicksburg. Protected by heavy artillery
batteries on the riverfront and with land approaches to the north and
south guarded by densely wooded swamplands, Vicksburg defied large-scale
land and river expeditions for over a year. Finally the tenacious Grant,
in a campaign since accepted as a model of bold strategy and skillful
execution, forced the surrender of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863, splitting
the Confederacy in two and securing for the North its great objective in
the Western Theater.
VICKSBURG AND THE MISSISSIPPI. Control of the
Mississippi River, whose course meandered over 1,000 miles from Cairo,
Ill., to the Gulf of Mexico and divided the Confederacy into almost
equal parts, was of inestimable importance to the Union from the
outbreak of hostilities. The agricultural and industrial products of the
Northwest, denied their natural outlet to markets down the great
commercial artery to New Orleans, would be afforded uninterrupted
passage. It would provide a safe avenue for the transportation of troops
and their supplies through a tremendous area ill-provided with roads and
railroads; the numerous navigable streams tributary to the Mississippi
would offer ready routes of invasion into the heart of the South. Union
control would cut off and isolate the section of the Confederacy lying
west of the riverTexas, Arkansas, and most of
Louisianacomprising almost half of the land area of the
Confederacy and an important source of food, military supplies, and
recruits for the Southern armies. Forcefully emphasizing the strategic
value of the Mississippi was the dispatch of the General in Chief of the
Union armies to Maj. Gen. U. S. Grant on March 20, 1863, as Grant
prepared to launch his Vicksburg campaign:
"Johnny Reb." A volunteer soldier of the
Courtesy Confederate Museum, Richmond.
The great objective on your line now is the opening
of the Mississippi River, and everything else must tend to that purpose.
The eyes and hopes of the whole country are now directed to your army.
In my opinion, the opening of the Mississippi River will be to us of
more advantage than the capture of forty Richmonds.
To protect this vital lifeline, the Confederacy had
erected a series of fortifications at readily defensible locations along
the river from which the Union advance could be checked. Pushing
southward from Illinois by land and water, and northward from the Gulf
of Mexico by river, Union army and naval units attacked the Confederate
strongpoints from both ends of the line. They captured post by post and
city by city until, after the first year of the war, Vicksburg alone
barred complete Union possession of the Mississippi River. From the city
ran the only railroad west of the river between Memphis and New Orleans.
Through the city most of the supplies from the trans-Mississippi were
shipped to Confederate armies in the East. The city's batteries on the
bluffs, commanding a 5-mile stretch of the river, effectively prevented
Union control of the Mississippi. Vicksburg was indeed the key, declared
Lincoln, and the war could not be brought to a successful conclusion
"until that key is in our pocket."