(Due to the complex nature of this story, & two more, the text here is longer than the video format of the tale.)

Vicksburg was a might pretty town, yeah, Vicksburg was a mighty pretty town,

‘Till the Union we came and we just burned it down, Vicksburg was a mighty pretty town!

Vicksburg is built on a bluff above the Mississippi where the river does a variety of huge hairpin curves, twisting around on itself like a serpent. The Yazoo River comes in from the north where the town is protected by an ancient, entangled, river bottom thicket, hills and gullies. On the south is an impenetrable swamp. If a steamboat comes down stream to attack the town it will have a hard time firing up onto the bluff, while that same bluff makes it very easy for the town to fire down onto the boat. 

Grant tried several lines of attack. Some folks said he was wasting time, but Grant knew what he was doing; he was testing the defenses. Now a Brigadier General in charge of the Third Division of the XVIIth Corps, I marched my boys south along the Louisiana shore of the Mississippi arriving at the rendezvous opposite Bruinsburg. Steamboats that had finally run the gauntlet ferried us across the river. Once we got south of Vicksburg we could range overland and close them in. The real battle for Vicksburg lay in the weeks leading up to the siege.

At Port Gibson we were met by 5,000 Confederates as a welcoming party. They appeared to have the superior position on the hill above us with nature providing their defenses. We charged up the hill, out flanked them and sent them scurrying into retreat. Once we had captured Port Gibson it would have been natural for Grant to build fortifications and await more troops and supplies. But Grant did not think this way. We had the advantage. So he sent men out to forage for supplies and we started marching towards Jackson, the capitol of Mississippi, to divide the Confederate forces, cut off their supplies, and chase Pemberton into Vicksburg. We learned something very important at this point in the war. We did not need long supply chains deep into enemy territory, supply chains that could be easily cut by the enemy. We decided to live off the fat of the land, taking what rations we needed from local farmers. As we marched towards Jackson we met a flurry of retreating rebels, encountered a few skirmishers, but generally we moved on unimpeded until we got to Raymond. Since my division was leading the foray, when we encountered the Confederate officer Gregg and his men we charged their position on the ridge and were driven back a few times. There was an open field and a creek that gave him the advantage. I encountered a tall private who said he had crossed that creek downstream and saw a hill there that might give us the upper hand. I scouted out the territory. My old unit the Thirty-First swam and waded across the creek, claimed the hill and our artillery opened fire on the Confederate line. Gregg fell back and retreated. By nightfall Raymond was ours. Though I was disappointed we did not catch Gregg and his troops, my division had captured the crossroads without the aid of any others. 

The next day we headed up the Vicksburg-Jackson rail line tearing up railroad tracks to stop any enemy progress or regress. The Confederate General Joe Johnston had just arrived in Jackson from the East. He threw up a line of defense that our friend General Crocker was able to push through before my boys could even get into the action. By the end of the day the 49th Indiana regimental flag flew from their state capitol!

That night as the Union command was huddled around the campfire discussing the battle thus far, a spy came into the circle of the fire light and said he had captured a note from Johnston to Pemberton. Johnston was ordering Pemberton to smash through Sherman’s division, and join him in a united effort to defeat Union forces. Word was sent to McClernand to reinforce Sherman and put an end to this effort before it could began. Pemberton had also received orders from Jeff Davis to save Vicksburg at any costs. I can only imagine Pemberton’s confusion at these conflicting orders. Pemberton divided his forces and sent troops to join Johnston while also holding reserves to protect Vicksburg. 

We encountered Pemberton’s rebel army at Champion Hill. They were on the heights firing down upon us. I called my lead artillery-man, Major Charles Stollbrand, a Swede from Chicago. I was always proud of those Swedish boys, there was an entire Swedish Brigade that included many men from Bishop Hill, Illinois. Stollbrand rained a hail of grape shot down on the rebel forces as my men charged up the hill, pushing the Confederates ahead of them.  When Grant asked if we needed reinforcements I told him “there are not rebels enough outside of hell to drive back the Third Division!” If only McClernand had held the flank we might have captured Pemberton and ended it there, but Pemberton was able to escape with most of his men and hurried back to Vicksburg. 

If Vicksburg was a turning point in the war, as many have claimed, and the battle at Champion Hill is what allowed us to win Vicksburg, then I should have been glad that my division played such a pivotal role that day… it was a stunning victory. We caught more than 1,300 prisoners and captured 11 cannon, even Grant told me “that we are making history today”… but I was beside myself with the grief that I lost 407 men from my division, 407 men killed, wounded or missing in action… and Pemberton got away from us.

There was not time to lick our wounds. We chased Pemberton into Vicksburg. As he burned bridges and threw up embattlements to slow our progress, we forded creeks and burned those embattlements to hasten his retreat. As he closed the gates, we locked him in. 

It quickly became apparent that we were going to settle in for a long siege and starve him out. For 45 days we grew fat living off the bounty of the land as they were reduced to eating their horses and dogs, rats and even shoe leather. 

But we did not just sit there idle. With the help of Major Stollbrand, I knew how far a cannon ball could fly, so I placed my tent on a hill just outside their range of fire. Oh, they took shots at my tent a hundred times a day, often landing cannonballs within a few feet of us. Other officers, including Grant, would visit my tent because it afforded a capitol view of the enemy’s defenses. When they spied other officers gathered there the cannonballs would fly. Union officers swore I was crazy, but I told them, I know how far a cannonball can fly!

Eventually, eventually, Vicksburg surrendered. Now, I must ask: Do you know your American history? Do you recall which day Vicksburg surrendered? Which day they choose to wave the white flag? That’s right, the fourth of July! Clearly the Confederates did not appreciate the significance of Independence Day! It was splashed across the headlines all across the nation! “Vicksburg Liberated on Independence Day”! There is no doubt this was a turning point in the war. Those headlines helped to buoy up a nation hungry for good news. It helped to turn the tide. Why even Lincoln said, “The Mississippi flows unvexed onto the sea.” And, “We have cut off hogs and hominy from the west.” Paraphrasing ol’ Jeff Davis, we cut the South in two.

Grant put me in charge of feeding the women and children who had been held captive by the Confederates during the siege. Isn’t it always true that women and children suffer most when a nation chooses to go to war? I made my men give up their rations to make sure that not one child went hungry. 


13. Grant’s Letter