While Robert E. Lee was whipping Joe Hooker at Chancellorsville in May 1863, there were ominous developments for the Confederacy in Mississippi. During that month, Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee crossed the Mississippi River south of Vicksburg and then executed a lightning campaign of maneuver that sealed the doom of that important Confederate stronghold, which surrendered on July 4.
In examining the Vicksburg campaign, it is useful to go back to the beginning of the war in the West. The primary Union goal in this theater was to penetrate deep into the Confederate heartland, opening the way to Chattanooga and Atlanta on the one hand and gaining control of the Mississippi River on the other. The overall Union commander in the West was Henry Halleck, who recognized that the Tennessee River constituted the main “line of operation” for Union forces.
In keeping with Halleck’s observation, a Union army under Grant and a naval flotilla under Flag Officer Andrew Foote captured Forts Henry and Donelson, on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers respectively, in February 1862. Grant continued to move south toward the critical rail center of Corinth, Mississippi. Before Grant could reach Corinth, however, a Confederate army under Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston surprised him near Shiloh, Tennessee. Union forces were mauled on the first day of the battle, but after reinforcement arrived that evening, they drove the Confederates from the field. Both sides suffered unprecedented casualties at Shiloh—indeed, more soldiers died in this battle than in all of the nation’s previous wars. But Shiloh was only a foretaste of things to come.
Although Grant had been surprised at Shiloh, he learned from the experience. In addition, his victory at Shiloh led to the capture of Corinth. The way was now open toward both Vicksburg on the Mississippi River and Chattanooga—the gap through the Appalachian barrier necessary to the capture of Atlanta.
In December, Grant launched his first attempt to capture Vicksburg. The problem was how to “get at” the city. It sits on a high bluff above a sharp bend in the Mississippi. Its guns commanded the bend in the river at De Soto Point. To the north lies the Mississippi Delta, a swampy area between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers. The Confederates held strong defensive positions on the higher, drier ground to the east and northeast of the city.
Grant first attempted a direct approach. Sending his favorite and most reliable subordinate, William Tecumseh Sherman, and a naval force to assault Vicksburg via Chickasaw Bayou, an offshoot of the Mississippi, Grant moved the bulk of his army south from Memphis on the high ground east of the Yazoo, planning to launch a coordinated assault against the city. As Grant approached Grenada, however, a Confederate cavalry force raided his supply base at Holly Springs, forcing him to retreat. Before Grant could get word to Sherman that his attack had been aborted, the latter launched his assault at Chickasaw Bayou and was decisively repulsed.
Rather than return to Memphis for the winter and wait for the waters of the Mississippi to recede in the spring, Grant initiated a number of other attempts to get at Vicksburg. In attempting to reach the dry ground east of the Mississippi, he confronted a formidable obstacle: the combination of high water and Confederate defenders.
In early 1863, Grant undertook two engineering projects to get south of the city. The first was the attempt to dredge the “old canal,” which, had it been successfully accomplished, conceivably would have permitted the passage of naval transports from the Mississippi above Vicksburg to points south without exposing them to the fire of the Confederate batteries that commanded the river at De Soto Point. The second was the Lake Providence Canal project, a plan to connect a network of rivers and bayous in the bottomlands of northeast Louisiana, creating a navigable, though circuitous, route that would enable shallow-draft steam craft to get south of the city.
High water and endless swamplands made life miserable for the soldiers attempting to implement these projects. A contemporary jingle captures the essence of the soldiers’ plight: Now I lay me down to sleep / in mud that’s many fathoms deep. / If I’m not here when you awake / just hunt me up with an oyster rake.
Grant also tried again to get directly at Vicksburg from the north, first by approaching the city by means of the Yazoo Pass, then by way of Steel Bayou. Both of these joint Army-Navy operations failed.