Vicksburg Falls

By: Dr. Trevor Smith
In 1863, during the Civil War, the Union captured the city of Vicksburg, and also defeated a Confederate army at the Battle of Gettysburg. These two events were crushing blows to the South’s ability to fight the North. Although the war continued for almost two more years, July 1863 marked a clear turning point after which the South could no longer expect to with the war militarily.
By early 1863 the Union controlled most of the Mississippi River, but was unable to take advantage of it because the South still controlled Vicksburg. The terrain surrounding the city as well as its location on the river made any assault by the Union next to impossible. Earlier attempts by the North to capture it had ended in catastrophic failure.

In early 1863 Ulysses S. Grant, who had already won a number of victories in the West, embarked on a bold plan to invade Mississippi from the south, capture Jackson, and approach Vicksburg from the east, where the land was favorable for his army. This plan worked until he reached the city in early May. Although outnumbered, the Confederates under the command of General John Pemberton successfully repelled Union attacks on May 19 and 22. Grant, realizing that the city’s defenses were nearly impregnable, reluctantly chose to besiege the city.
The siege of Vicksburg would become one of the most enduring symbols of the South’s determination to win the war against a much more powerful enemy. The constant bombardment by Union artillery reduced the city to ruble, and the lack of supplies created widespread starvation and disease among the citizens and soldiers. Pemberton repeatedly defied orders from his superiors to surrender, and was hailed as a hero for doing so.
Pemberton surrendered the city on July 4, choosing that date in hopes of receiving better terms from Grant. Grant pardoned the thirty thousand Confederate soldiers on the condition that they no longer fight for the South, although many would go on to do so. This fact angered many Northern leaders, and for the remainder of the war the two sides refused to exchange prisoners, which had earlier been common practice.
In the east, also in early July, 1863, Robert E. Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg was an equally bitter loss. Lee’s army had earlier repelled two Union invasions of Virginia despite being far outnumbered. Many had come to view Lee as “unbeatable.” He invaded Pennsylvania hoping to win a decisive victory that would force the Union to capitulate and seek peace. Instead, a Union army under the command of George Meade defeated him.
By the Fall of 1863 the Confederacy was in dire straights. The victory at Vicksburg split the Confederacy and blocked the transfer of men and supplies from the trans-Mississippi West. The city would not celebrate the Fourth of July holiday until after World War II. Grant became a hero in the North, and President Lincoln gave him command of an army that would invade Virginia and decisively defeat Robert E. Lee.
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