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Grant at Vicksburg

A masterpiece of military art

Jul 8, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 41 • By MACKUBIN THOMAS OWENS
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Although weakened by the naval bombardment, the Confederate defenses at Grand Gulf appeared to be a tough nut to crack. Grant feared a reprise of Chickasaw Bayou if he tried to land at a place commanded by towering bluffs where entrenched defenders could extract a high price. Upon reflection, he decided to cross further south and land at Bruinsburg, Mississippi, which he did on April 30. 

Hal Jespersen / cwmaps.com, adapted by The Weekly StandardHal Jespersen / cwmaps.com, adapted by The Weekly Standard

When he realized what Grant was doing, the energetic Confederate commander at Grand Gulf, Brig. Gen. John Bowen, rushed his troops to block Grant’s way at Port Gibson, 10 miles east of Bruinsburg. While Grant had only two of his corps across the river (after his demonstration at Haynes’ Bluff, Sherman was just now marching south on the west bank of the Mississippi), he still outnumbered the Confederate force. The Confederates put up a spirited defense at Port Gibson but were ultimately pushed aside. Grant had now established a secure lodgment on the east side of the river. Fearing that the garrison at Grand Gulf would be trapped, Pemberton ordered the position abandoned. 

Grant understood that it was the beginning of the end for Vicksburg. In his memoirs he wrote: 

When [the crossing] was effected I felt a degree of relief scarcely ever equaled since. Vicksburg was not yet taken it is true, nor were its defenders demoralized by any of our previous moves. I was now in the enemy’s country, with a vast river and the stronghold of Vicksburg between me and my base of supplies. But I was on dry ground on the same side of the river with the enemy. All the campaigns, labors, hardships and exposures from the month of December previous to this time that had been made and endured, were for the accomplishment of this one objective.

Pemberton finally understood that Grant now had most of his army south of Vicksburg, but he was still in a quandary concerning what the Federals would do next. The most direct—and predictable—approach, one that would maintain lines of communication and supply with the river, was to drive due north. But Grant was aware that the general designated by Jefferson Davis as the overall Confederate commander in the West, Joseph Johnston, was gathering a force near Jackson, 40 miles east of Vicksburg. If Grant did the predictable thing, Johnson could conceivably pose a potential threat to Grant’s right flank. 

Instead, Grant decided to eliminate the Johnston threat before dealing with Pemberton. To do so, he abandoned his supply line, heading northeast toward Jackson. There were plenty of smokehouses and full corn bins on the way, and Grant’s soldiers proved to be excellent foragers. 

During the 17-day period after landing at Bruinsburg, Grant’s Army of the Tennessee marched 180 miles, fought and won five major engagements—Port Gibson (May 1), Raymond (May 12), Jackson (May 14), Champion Hill (May 16), and Big Black River (May 17)—inflicting 7,200 casualties to 4,300 of his own, pinned Pemberton’s army inside the defenses of Vicksburg, and with his right flank now anchored on the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers north of the city, reestablished his lines of communication and supply. 

The Confederate defenders repulsed several direct assaults against Vicksburg’s lines, so Grant settled in for a siege, the outcome of which was not in doubt. On May 24, Grant advised Halleck that the enemy “was in our grasp. The fall of Vicksburg and the capture of most of the garrison can only be a matter of time.” The city surrendered on July 4, one day after Lee was turned back at Gettysburg.

The keys to the Union victory at Vicksburg were Grant’s bold decision to cross the Mississippi River south of the city, his risky decision to abandon his supply and communication lines with the Mississippi, and his subsequent execution of the lightning campaign of maneuver during May 1863. Those who think of Grant as a butcher need to examine this masterpiece of operational art.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and teaches in the American history and government M.A. program at Ashland University of Ohio.

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