The Siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi took place during June and July of 1863. Controlling the Mississippi river was paramount to success for the Union army under the direction of Ulysses S. Grant. He had systematically divided the Confederacy into sections with decisive campaigns to take strategic locations and weaken the enemy. Vicksburg was located on a range of high bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River about equal distances from Memphis, Tennessee and the Gulf of Mexico. These bluffs were composed of hard packed clay and the erosion of several streams had separated the bluffs by deep ravines which were choked with cane and vines.
Of the 17 local military units fighting in the Civil War, 11 of these units participated in the Siege of Vicksburg. Although they were not much different than other units, I am using a “History of the 40th Illinois Volunteer Infantry” to assist in writing this article.
On May 14, 1863, Federal forces had attempted to engage Confederate troops under the command of Joseph E. Johnson at Jackson, MS, some 50 miles east of Vicksburg. Knowing he was outnumbered, Johnson slipped away but remained in the area and threatened Federal troops as they surrounded Vicksburg. The following day Grant moved his forces west towards Vicksburg. General William T. Sherman, as part of Grant’s forces remained at Jackson and destroyed Confederate supplies and any buildings and military installations there. Confederate forces under Pemberton attempted to join Johnson but were blocked by an attack by Grant’s troops at Champion’s Hill, a bloody battle where the same ground changed hands three times during the day. Pemberton ultimately retreated with his troops towards Vicksburg and entrenched on the Big Black River. This river runs roughly southwest between Jackson and Vicksburg and empties into the Mississippi about 25 miles below Vicksburg. The historic Natchez Trace crosses the Big Black River. Confederate forces had to retreat across the river but burned the bridges after crossing, delaying Union forces in their march toward Vicksburg. The 40th Illinois Regiment moved to Sherman’s command on June 23, 1863 at Black River and skirmished with Johnson’s army until the fall of Vicksburg.
After Confederate forces burned the bridge on the Big Black River, Federal troops were slowed down but did cross and took Haines/Haynes Bluff on May 18. On June 2 the Illinois 18th Infantry on board a steamboat , moved up the Yazoo River to Haines Bluff where they marched five miles and went into camp on the hills about 12 miles northeast of Vicksburg, within hearing distance of the incessant bombardment of Vicksburg. On June 16 the 18th Illinois Infantry, composed of 369 men ready for duty, moved near Division Headquarters, close to the center of the Federal line surrounding Vicksburg. Their duty here was to protect the Federal forces surrounding the city from attack by Confederate forces in their rear.
Vicksburg was easy to defend and difficult to attack. The city was impregnable from the Mississippi River. In May 1862, Farragut, the commander of the Union forces on the river had attacked from the river to no avail. The people of Vicksburg were pro-Union, having close ties to the mid west through river trade. After Confederate troops occupied the city Confederate Major Samuel Lockett reinforced and fortified the city. The work took several months to complete and took advantage of the natural terrain. Seven forts protected roads and the Vicksburg and Jackson Railroad. Every 200 yards advanced artillery batteries were placed, completing 8 miles of entrenchments to defend the city. Confederate troops burned houses along their line so their firing would not be obstructed. Federal sharpshooters picked off rebels inside lines so rebels built covered passageways from camps to the front.
By May 19 Pemberton’s men had begun to run out of supplies. The Union had built roads from a supply depot on the Yazoo River and was well supplied. The surrounding countryside was stripped of provisions so no provisions were available to aid the people and soldiers at Vicksburg. Grant’s troops attacked the city on this date but the attack was strongly repulsed. Confederates knew the city would eventually fall and Confederate General Pemberton asked his president, Jefferson Davis, for reinforcements but they could not come. General Longstreet would have been the most likely to assist but General Robert E. Lee had planned to invade the North (Gettysburg) and would not spare any troops to attack the Union from the rear. A different decision by Lee could have changed the course of history.
May 22, Union gunboats under Porter began bombarding Vicksburg from the Mississippi. Citizens in the city dug caves into the earth to stay in during the shelling. Negroes hired out to dig and were much in demand. This was a coordinated attack by land and water, using field cannon and sharpshooters from the land and mortars from the Mississippi. The attack came from west, north, northeast and east but the south was not covered. If Confederates tried to escape south they would be trapped between the Big Black River and the Mississippi. The synchronized attack began at dawn as five ironclads came up the Mississippi to attack Confederate positions and artillery shelling came from the land to soften up Rebel forces. At 10:00 a.m. Union troops advanced, some carrying ladders to scale the steep hills. The Rebels, low on ammunition, held their fire until that point to save ammo. The fierce fight continued until late afternoon with great losses of Union soldiers without any advance in Union position. Grant concluded the city could only be taken by siege.
After the battle Confederate soldiers crept onto the battlefield and took rifles and ammunition from the Union dead. They reinforced their position with cotton bales, sand bags and timbers and waited for the next attack. Rebel morale had been low after a series of defeats by had now returned.
A sustained bombardment by mortars from gunboats on the Mississippi began on May 23 and continued to the end of the siege. The citizens of Vicksburg were living in their caves. On June 20 Grant again began intensely bombarding with all cannon on land and all the fleet in the river, beginning at 4 a.m. and ending at 10 a.m. 2/3 of the shots over shot their military targets and landed in the city.
Much of the month of June was consumed with mining and tunneling underground to go under Confederate positions with explosives so these rebel strongholds could be disrupted and then overrun immediately after the explosion. The largest of these explosions was under the 3rd Louisiana Redan (a V-shaped fortification projecting toward an expected attack) at 3 p.m. on June 25. The one ton mine blew off the top of the hill and created a crater 12 feet deep and 50 feet in diameter but only killed 6 Confederates working on a counter-mine (a mine to stop or subvert the planned attack). The Confederates at the 3rd Louisiana Redan had pulled back to another fortification and strongly defended their position against the Illinois infantrymen who stormed the area after the explosion but who had to negotiate the massive crater.
Grant continued to keep one eye on the rear hoping Johnson’s troops would not come to attack the Federal troop’s rear flank and come to Pemberton’s defense.
By late June Confederate troops were on ½ rations—14 oz. of food per day. They were exhausted from constant attacks, weak, sick and almost starving. Citizens of Vicksburg were paying exorbitant prices for food when they could get it. Water was in short supply because of the dry summer. On June 28 Pemberton received a letter signed “many troops” which praised the struggle of his command but insisted it was useless to continue the struggle. A mutiny was threatened if Pemberton did not surrender. Commanders under Pemberton were polled and most agreed there was little to no hope. At 10 a.m. on July 3 white flags were placed along the Confederate works. At 3 p.m. Grant and Pemberton met to discuss terms. Confederate troops were paroled, saving the Union the cost of feeding and transporting 30,000 prisoners to Cairo, IL and then on to Washington, D.C. or Baltimore and then to POW camp on the James River. At 10:00 a.m. on July 4, 1863 Confederate troops marched out of Vicksburg, weeping, after 47 days of siege.
After Vicksburg fell, Johnson pulled east again and was engaged by Federal troops again at the battle of Jackson in July. The Illinois 40th Infantry was engaged in the battle at Jackson on July 16 the officers and men of the Regiment were compliments in public orders for bravery and gallant conduct. After the battle the Regiment destroyed bridged and railroads in and around Jackson and then returned to black River, north of Vicksburg until September 25, when they marched into Vicksburg then boarded vessels to Memphis.