150 Years Ago This Week: The siege of Vicksburg begins

May 1863

On Friday, May 15, Lt. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s last earthly journey came to an end. After lying in state in the governor’s mansion in Richmond, his coffin covered with the newly-approved “Stainless Banner” consisting of the Army of Northern Virginia battlefield on a field of white, Gen. Jackson’s remains were conveyed by rail and riverboat to Lexington, his pre-war home, where they were received at the Virginia Military Institute before being taken to the cemetery in town for interment.

In Mississippi the following day, May 16, Maj. Gen. Ulysses Grant’s Federal army advanced from Jackson toward Vicksburg and threatened to cut the feeble Confederate lines of communication out of the city. This was the only link between Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton’s troops in Vicksburg and Gen. Joseph E. Johnston’s army to the north.

In an effort to cut Gen. Grant’s lines of communication, Gen. Pemberton’s Confederates moved east and came in contact with Union troops at Champion’s Hill. There the two forces clashed in hard-fought combat; Gen. Pemberton’s troops faced overwhelming odds and retreated to Vicksburg, leaving behind nearly 4,000 casualties. Federal losses in the battle at Champion’s Hill numbered a little more than 2,400 casualties.

The next day, May 17, one of Gen. Pemberton’s divisions, cut off from the retreat to Vicksburg, marched quickly to join Gen. Johnston’s command. Gen. Pemberton’s troops, waiting near the Big Black River Bridge for the missing division to return, were attacked by Union troops. The Confederates burned the bridge across the river during the withdrawal to Vicksburg, halting the advance of Gen. Grant’s troops, who had to rebuild the bridge to get across the swamps and river. Federal losses in this engagement numbered 280, while some 1,700 Confederate soldiers were captured.

On May 18, one of the great campaigns of military history ended when Gen. Grant’s triumphant Union army crossed the Big Black River on hastily constructed bridges and moved in to surround Vicksburg on the three land sides. Gen. Johnston ordered Gen. Pemberton to evacuate and leave the city to the Union troops. Gen. Pemberton, however, looked at his options to escape with his army intact, and, mindful of what the loss of Vicksburg meant to the Confederacy, decided to remain. The siege of Vicksburg had begun.

In Richmond, President Jefferson Davis called for civilians and local militia to join Gen. Johnston’s troops in Mississippi and then to come in and attack the Union army from behind. He urged Gen. Johnston to link with Gen. Pemberton and attack the Federal forces.

In Great Britain, the House of Lords in Parliament debated the decisions of American prize courts (ruling on valuables and cargo seized on the high seas) and demanded that Britain actively defend the rights of her shipowners. Lord John Russell stated that the Crown had no objections to the prize courts’ proceedings, and that Britain had no wish to interfere with the American conflict.

In Mississippi, Gen. Grant was determined to end his campaign with Vicksburg’s surrender. His troops now completely surrounded the city on three sides: Maj. Gen. William Sherman’s troops were on the north or right of the city; Maj. Gen. James McPherson’s troops occupied the center; and Maj. Gen. John McClernand’s troops occupied the left. The first assault on Vicksburg took place, but the Confederate lines were too strong and the Union attacks failed. A second assault took place three days later, with the same results. The Confederate lines were too strong and Gen. Grant decided not to try to assault the city again. Instead, Gen. Grant laid siege to the city, with the intent of starving the Confederates into surrender. It was going to be a long siege.

Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 193 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.