Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Mississippi Learnin': Vicksburg

I'd mentioned Vicksburg and it's Independence Day protest in the previous post, but there's a lot more to know about the town than that bit of infamy.  I was lucky enough to get to spend a day in Vicksburg with a local historian and anthropologist.  Along with visiting the Old Warren County Courthouse Museum we spent a big chunk of time at the Vicksburg National Military Park.  Until visiting that park, I can't say I ever really found myself drawn towards Civil War history, but having since been there, I care enough to tell you all about it.  Quickly and with many links for more reading.  If you are a historian, please stop reading.  You'll burst a blood vessel yelling at the screen otherwise.

Vicksburg National Military Park

The turning point in the Civil War, as everyone knows, was Lee's defeat at the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863).  A battle that's lesser known to non-history buffs, but also extremely important for a Union/Federal victory, was the Seige of Vicksburg.  Why was it important?  Because Vicksburg was the last Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi river.  If the union could control the Mississippi, they could get get supplies and troops to the South quickly and easily with their Ironclad Ships.  And if they could do that, victory would be within reach.

So the only thing standing between Union and control of the Mississippi was the fortified, high-ground city of Vicksburg.  Grant knew this, so he came up with a plan.  The first part of the plan was to get south of Vicksburg and approach it from underneath.  The only way to do that was to bypass the Mississippi by breaking down levees to reroute through the Yazoo Pass.  While a successful maneuver, the Yazoo Pass Expedition did mark the first sinking of an iron clad, as the USS Cairo was taken down by a submerged mine.  Two fun facts about that: 1) The Cairo was eventually removed (after a failed attempt that split it in half) and is now on display in the Vicksburg NMP, and 2) Submerged mines back then were manually detonated, not pressure-triggered.  Soldiers would hide and wait along the side of the river and then blow the mine with a detonator that was wired the long distance to the mine.

USS Cairo

Anyway, once they had the Yazoo, they could dip south and really raise hell.  Up first, Grant split up his troops and started clearing out Confederate battalions throughout Mississippi.  While that was going on, Confederate Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton fortified and regrouped at Vicksburg.  Grant marched as far east as Jackson, MS, tallying victory after victory.  Eventually, as Mississippi cleared out of Confederates, Grant headed west to Vicksburg.  On May 8, Grant launched the first assault, with 35,000 soldiers on his line to Pemberton's 18,500 (out of 40,000 total).  The Union lost 135 soldiers with nearly another 800 wounded.  Whereas the South only lost 8 with 62 injured.  Not a bad start for the Confederates.  If they could just hold out until Lee finished the North off up in Pennsylvania, they'd probably be ok.

Grant, not being a dumdum, changed his plans.  Instead of attacking and losing men, he was going to play the long game.  At this point, the North controlled the Mississippi above and below Vicksburg, so the first thing to do was cut off all supplies.  It was a big city, eventually they would need food and other necessities, and that would be reason enough to surrender.  

The Confederates also knew that breaking up the supply chain for the North would be a path to victory, which led to the famous Battle of Milliken's Bend.  The Bend was where the North had nearby supply depots and hospitals, which were mostly guarded by freed slaves.  So on June 7, 1863, the South attacked, and guess what?  A group of poorly trained, under armed, former slaves kicked some Confederate asses in what was the first victory for a black battalion.

Back in Vicksburg, Grant decided to "out-camp the enemy," so he hunkered down, lined up cannons, and let it rain on the city.  All day and all night, random cannon fire fell on the city, making it unsafe to be out in the open.  This was a problem that the townspeople found a creative solution to, as they began digging caves to live in.  There's a good book about this, My Cave Life in Vicksburg, that is a first person account of life during the seige.  And it worked, as very few civilians died.

Meanwhile, more and more Federal troops arrived, until the North had nearly double the troops of the South, forming a 12-mile ring of fire around the city.  Pemberton was screwed.  On top of that, his troops were starving and disease was spreading.  He was trapped like a rat, and Grant was the cat sitting outside of the hole in the wall just waiting to pounce.

On July 3, 1863, Pemberton realized he had lost and sent a message to Grant to discuss terms of surrender.  That is the same day that Lee's dramatic defeat on Cemetery Ridge, ending the Battle of Gettysburg in a Union victory.  The next day, Pemberton officially surrendered, which was why Vicksburg didn't celebrate the Fourth of July for the next 80 or so years.  Two major Confederate losses in cities separated by 1,000 miles signaled the beginning of the end for the Confederate States of America.  Good riddance.

Illinois Memorial to fallen soldiers in Vicksburg NMP

With how divided our country is currently, it might be a good time for all of us to take some time to visit these battlefields to get a reminder of what can happen if we can't settle our differences.  Over 620,000 Americans died in the Civil War, roughly 2% of the American population at the time.  Would it be worth 6,000,000 lives to defund education, environmental protection, and take health care away from those who need it?  And who are the 6,000,000 that die?  The people that most need those social services, not the wealthy elite that use the rest of us as disposable soldiers on their front lines.

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