The war between the States began on April 12, 1861, at Charleston, South Carolina. Within weeks, civilian river traffic on the Mississippi River had been suspended.
The steamboat UNCLE SAM was the last steamboat to make the run up to St. Louis before the Union blockade took full effect. It was fired upon, stopped, examined, and passed. Samuel Clemens was a passenger, not yet realizing that he had piloted a steamboat for the last time on his previous trip to New Orleans.
By May, 1862, the Union and Conferderate Armies were engaged in major actions along the Mississippi River and its fifty-seven navigable tributaries. Recognizing the strategic importance of the river, President Lincoln sought early control of navigation, remarking:
‘See what a lot of land these fellows hold, of which Vicksburg is the key. Here is the Red River, which will supply the Confederacy with cattle and corn to feed their armies. There are the Arkansas and White Rivers which can supply cattle and hogs by the thousand. From Vicksburg these supplies can be distributed by rail all over the Confederacy. Then there is that great depot of supplies on the Yazoo. Let us get Vicksburg and all that country is ours. The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pockets. I am acquainted with that region and know what I am talking about, and valuable as New Orleans will be to us, Vicksburg will be more so. We may take all northern ports of the Confederacy, and they can still defy us from Vicksburg. It means hog and hominy without limit, fresh troops from all the states of the far South and a cotton country where they can raise the staple without interference.’
The Confederate leaders also recognized the strategic importance of the “Hill City” of Vicksburg, where the railhead provided a two-way supply route into Arkansas, Texas, and Louisiana to the eastern Confederacy. Supplies from the Gulf of Mexico ports could also move up and down the Atchafalaya and Red Rivers.
In the spring of 1862, New Orleans, the South’s largest, wealthiest and most industrialized city, surrendered to Admiral David G. Farragut.
Natchez, Baton Rouge, and other river ports fell in succession as the Union closed in on Vicksburg from the south under General Banks, and from the north under General Ulysses S. Grant, in a campaign to seize control of the Mississippi River known as the ‘Anaconda Plan,’ during which the army and navy successfully combined their resources.
In October 1862, Ulysses S. Grant was appointed commander of the Department of the Tennessee and charged with clearing the Mississippi of Confederate resistance. That same month, Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton, a West Point graduate and a Pennsylvanian by birth, assumed command of the roughly 50,000 widely scattered Confederate troops defending the Mississippi. His orders were to keep the river open. Vicksburg became the focus of the military operations of both generals.
By the spring of 1863, Vicksburg and Port Hudson were the only two Confederate forts preventing Union control of the Mississippi River. If the Union took this last section, the Confederacy would be split. Not only would her military forces be divided, but the transportation of vital supplies such as salt, cattle and horses moving eastward, and arms and munitions moving westward, would be halted.
But Vicksburg, elevated and fortified, would not be taken quickly. The first attempt to defeat Vicksburg was made by Admiral David G. Farragut and Brigadier General Thomas Williams in June of 1862.
Williams began digging a canal across the DeSoto Peninisula, a flat strip of land on the Louisiana side formed by a bend in the river. If they had succeeded, such a canal would have allowed the Union fleet to bypass Vicksburg, rendering it unimportant. Port Hudson could then be taken more easily.
Although Williams failed, the idea remained popular and further attempts would be made to complete it. Water eventually flowed through the “ditch” but an eddy at the upstream entrance prevented the current from taking hold.
The Confederate fortifications at Port Hudson, 150 miles south of Vicksburg by the river, formed the southern end of the Confederate defenses along the Mississippi River. Vicksburg, to the north, was the northern anchor of this connection between the heartland of the Confederacy and the Trans-Mississippi.
The guns overlooking the river at both strongholds were formidable, well-placed and posed a distinct threat to the ships of the United States Navy. Once that navy gained control of the entire Mississippi River, the Confederacy would be cut in two.
Grant found that it was almost impossible to attack Vicksburg from the north or west, and decided to cross the Mississippi River south of Vicksburg and attack the city from the southeast or east.
In December, 1862, Grant launched a two-prong assault. While he marched through central Mississippi towards Vicksburg, Major William T. Sherman attacked it from the river. Confederate cavalry turned back Grant’s force by destroying his supply base at Holly Springs, while Sherman suffered a devastating defeat at Chickasaw Bluffs.
By January, 1863, Grant began assembling his ‘Army of the Tennessee’ along the Mississippi River from Lake Providence to Young’s Point, but his attempts to capture Vicksburg were thwarted by the difficult terrain and strong rebel defences.
The approaches to the city were protected from both the north and the south for almost twenty miles. Flood-plains made it impossible to land troops north of Vicksburg. There were twenty-eight heavy caliber guns mounted on the river-front bluffs well above the maximum elevation of the guns of the Union fleet. It would be suicidal to run ships below the bluffs to land troops below the city. Even if they could succeed, rifle-pits defended the ground between the river and the bluff defences.
An approach via the Yazoo River, north of Vicksburg, was blocked by rafts, chains, and torpedoes, stretched across its mouth. Even if the city could be bypassed, an approach from the rear was difficult because of rugged hills, steep ravines, thick forests, and numerous swamps and bayous.