Vicksburg was a long campaign, lasting some nine months altogether. It involved many kinds of warfare - a great deal of marching to and fro, much devising and revising of plans, massive works of engineering on roads and bridges and waterways, a bold amphibious operation on the Mississippi, a rapid fighting advance of dash and brilliance, several pitched battles, and a final, relentless siege. Throughout, it was the rebels, the Southern Confederates, who were defending; the Northern Federals who were on the attack, deep in enemy territory. There was considerable bloodshed and much wasted effort and, from the Northern point of view, there were many moments of disappointment and setback. But when the victory came at last, it was crucial to the course of the American Civil War.
It is strange to recall that two years earlier, at the start of the war, President Lincoln's chief military adviser, the veteran Lieutenant General Win field Scott, had said that they should ignore the popular clamour for a march on the Confederate capital, Richmond, Virginia, and plan instead to move down the valley of the Mississippi, to gain control of the great river from its source to the sea. In this way, he argued, three of the rebel states - Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas - would be cut off from the others, and the naval blockade of the Confederacy would become complete. It was called the 'Anaconda Plan', in reference to the South American snake that kills its victims by squeezing them to death. In the summer of 1861 the old general's advice was ignored and soon after that he was replaced. For many long, bloody and profitless months the main Northern effort was concentrated on the eastern sector, directed towards the capture of Richmond, in the naive hope that the taking of their capital would destroy the rebels' will to fight on.
By the close of 1862, however, many leading men in the north, political and military, were beginning to see that Winfield Scott had been right, that control of the whole length of the Mississippi would open the way to ultimate victory. The great obstacle lay in the rebel guns on the Vicksburg bluffs. President Lincoln in Washington, who knew the river well from his youthful days as a flatboatman, had no doubts: 'Vicksburg is the key,' he said. 'The war can never be brought to a close until the key is in our pocket.'
In the South, too, the importance of Vicksburg was fully appreciated. It was known there as 'the Gibraltar of the Confederacy'. In December 1862 President Jefferson Davis left Richmond to visit the threatened Mississippi valley and see what could be done to protect it from the invaders.
The city of Vicksburg stands on, and high above, the east bank of the River Mississippi, some 300 miles, as the river flows, north of the point where it reaches the Gulf of Mexico. The river is wide and powerful here, and the city is built on steeply rising bluffs and on the summit plateau 200 feet above the river bank.
The city derives its name from a Methodist minister, the Reverend Newit Vick, who purchased more than a thousand acres of land in the early years of the 19th century and began to develop the town. The place was already a thriving trading post, sending steamboats laden with cotton up and down the river. By 1825 Vicksburg had its name and the status of a city. The cotton trade flourished and before long it was an important commercial centre, mainly dependent on river traffic but also linked to the east by the Southern Rail Road of Mississippi. By the 1860s Vicksburg was the largest city in the state.
Its commanding position above the river and the nature of its surrounding terrain made it a tricky proposition for an invading force, especially one approaching from the north. A direct attack by river was out of the question, and for many miles to the north, and spreading out both east and west, the countryside was often more water than land - the
Rivers Mississippi and Yazoo and the streams that fed them together with a bewildering maze of shallow lakes and marshy inlets, much land that was sometimes dry but frequently flooded, all of it overgrown with trees and shrubs, an untamed, watery wilderness. Any army wishing to take Vicksburg from the north had either to force a way, laboriously, through these obstacles or make a detour march of hundreds of miles across hostile territory to the east and north - or find some other, unexpected solution to the problem. This was the situation that faced Major General Ulysses S. Grant at the end of October 1862 when he was given command of the Northern Army of the Tennessee.
William Tecumseh Sherman was Grant's greatest fan and most trusted divisional commander. He thought Grant's plan Jor the march on Vicksburg was over-hold and dangerous, hut was the Jirst to admit he had been wrong. Later in the Civil War he brought the lessons learned at Vicksburg savagely to bear on the 'Deep South 7 rom Atlanta to the sea.
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