Scholar’s Blog - Brooks D. Simpson

MAY 22, 1863: GRANT LAYS SIEGE TO VICKSBURG

It had been a long and difficult winter for Ulysses S. Grant. For months his army had struggled in the bayous and swamps around Vicksburg, Mississippi, looking for some way to attack the Confederate citadel that blocked Union control of the Mississippi River. He had come under heavy criticism from many quarters, including some of his own subordinates. One of his corps commanders, the politically connected former congressman John A. McClernand, was busily intriguing to replace him by writing to President Lincoln about his shortcomings. Rumors circulated that Grant was drunk, stupid, or both. Newspaper reporters and editors freely abused him, and the authorities at Washington had dispatched several emissaries whose mission included finding out exactly what was going on in the Army of the Tennessee.

With the coming of spring, however, the roads and the levees began to dry, allowing Grant to make the move he had wanted to undertake since his arrival opposite Vicksburg at the end of January. Once Union gunboats and transports ran past the batteries defending Vicksburg, Grant would move south, cross the Mississippi, and secure a foothold on dry land that would finally allow him to advance against the enemy citadel. He was aware that much depended upon the success of this maneuver. “I am doing my best and am full of hope for complete success,” he wrote to his father. Although he was aware of the criticism directed at him, “I have no idea of being driven to do a desperate or foolish act by the howlings of the press.” If he was to be removed from command, so be it; until then, he would continue to try “to put down the rebellion in the shortest possible time without expecting or desiring any other recognition than a quiet approval of my course.”[1]

The course Grant took over the next month won him more than quiet approval: his campaign against Vicksburg is hailed today as a military masterpiece. Crossing the Mississippi on April 30, the lead elements of Grant’s command defeated a Confederate force at Port Gibson, Mississippi, the following day. As Iowa soldier Taylor Peirce recalled in a letter home, “when the victory was complete you ought to have heard the shout that rung out on the evening air. It was enough to pay us for all our fatigues and dangers.”[2] Two weeks later Grant entered the state capital at Jackson and drove off the Confederate forces gathering there before turning to face John C. Pemberton’s army east of Vicksburg. At Champion Hill on May 16 and Big Black River on May 17 Union forces scored decisive triumphs, driving Pemberton’s men back into the city. After two attempts to take Vicksburg by assault failed, Grant settled down on May 22 to lay siege to the city and its 30,000 defenders.

Within three weeks in May Grant had won five battles. Outnumbered at the outset of the campaign, he had beaten back two Confederate forces as they had attempted to converge on his army and annihilate it. His men lived off the land as they marched through the Mississippi countryside, while a flustered foe flailed away in an effort to sever non-existent supply lines (Grant had wagon convoys move his army’s medical supplies and munitions). Now he had Vicksburg and its defenders by the throat. William T. Sherman, who earlier had expressed his doubts about the operation, greeted his commander warmly as blue-clad soldiers crossed the Big Black River, declaring, “General Grant, I want to congratulate you on the success of your great plan. And it is ‘your plan,’ too, by heaven, and nobody else’s. For nobody else believed in it!”[3]

Back in Washington, Grant received an even more important seal of approval. “Whether Gen. Grant shall or shall not consummate the capture of Vicksburg, his campaign from the beginning of this month up to the twenty second day of it, is one of the most brilliant in the world,” Abraham Lincoln wrote to an Illinois congressman who had been critical of his military appointments.[4] A few weeks later, the President declared that if Grant succeeded in opening the Mississippi, “why, Grant is my man and I am his the rest of the war!”[5]

Little did Lincoln know when he thus spoke that Ulysses S. Grant had entered Vicksburg the previous day, July 4, 1863. Grant had bagged an entire Confederate army for the second time in the war. The President had found his general.


[1] Ulysses S. Grant to Jesse Root Grant, April 21, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It, ed. Brooks D. Simpson (New York: The Library of America, 2013), 152.

[2] Taylor Peirce to Catharine Peirce, May 4, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It, ed. Brooks D. Simpson (New York: The Library of America, 2013), 187.

[3] James F. Rusling, Men and Things I Saw in Civil War Days (New York: Eaton and Mains, 1899), 140.

[4] Abraham Lincoln to Isaac N. Arnold, May 26, 1863, in Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1859–1865, ed. Don E. Fehrenbacher (New York: The Library of America, 1989), 449.

[5] James F. Rusling, Men and Things I Saw in Civil War Days (New York: Eaton and Mains, 1899), 17.


Brooks D. Simpson is Foundation Professor of History at Arizona State University.


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