Sunday, May 17, 2009

Memorial Day, Part One - Vicksburg, Mississippi

With Memorial Day weekend now just one week away, I thought it might be a good time to devote time to some of the places in the South where the sacrifices of our military men and women touch the spirit every day of the year. Part One of this week long series focuses on Vicksburg National Military Park.

The Civil War was two years old when the Union army of General Ulysses S. Grant closed in on the powerful Confederate citadel of Vicksburg, Mississippi. The excitement of marching off to war and the dreams of glory had long since gone out of the soldiers of both sides.

By the spring of 1863, Union forces were engaged in campaigns that President Abraham Lincoln and other leaders hoped would finally implement the "Anaconda" strategy devised two years earlier by General Winfield Scott. By blockading the Southern coastline and then seizing control of the vitla Mississippi River, Scott had believed that the South might be squeezed to death, in virtually the same way that an anaconda kills its prey.

The blockade was now in place and the final key to the implementation of Scott's plan was Vicksburg. Driving into Mississippi near Port Gibson, Grant had defeated Confederate troops in a series of battles and finally closed in on Vicksburg from behind in mid-May of 1863. Confederate General John C. Pemberton pulled his men back into the powerful earthen forts, batteries and breastworks surrounding the Mississippi River city and prepared for a bitter fight that he knew might determine the outcome of the war.

Because of his recent open field victories over Pemberton's army, Grant hoped that he might break through the defenses of Vicksburg with one massive push. On May 19, 1863, he sent thousands of his men storming forward against the Stockade Redan, a powerful Confederate fort. They never even got close. When the smoke cleared, the Union army had lost 157 men killed and 777 wounded compared to only 8 killed and 62 wounded for the Confederates.

The Union general tried again two days later. Opening fire on the Confederate lines with more than 220 cannon, Grant joined with U.S. warships on the Mississippi in a 24 hour bombardment of Vicksburg. When the firing finally stopped, he sent forward his men in a line 3 miles wide, planning to storm over the Confederate fortifications. The fighting was hand to hand in places, but the Federal troops once again failed to force their way into the city. 3,000 Union soldiers fell in the attack, compared to only 500 Confederates.

The fight for Vicksburg now turned into a brutal siege. Confederate soldiers and citizens within the city burrowed into the ground for protection against the continual Union bombardments. Food ran short and soldiers and civilizans alike lived on rats, mules and anything else they could find. Union troops dug a tunnel under the Confederate defenses and set off a massive explosion on June 25th, hoping to rush through the resulting gap but once again they were thrown back.

Another explosion followed on July 1st, but in the end it was starvation and not the power of Grant's army that brought about the fall of Vicksburg. With his men on the verge of complete starvation, Pemberston surrendered on July 4, 1863.

To learn more about the Battle of Vicksburg and to explore the Vicksburg National Military Park, which preserves the scene of much of the battle, please visit

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