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The Key is Captured: Ulysses S. Grant and the Conquest of Vicksburg


“Vicksburg is the key,” declared President Abraham Lincoln early in the American Civil War. “The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket.” On Saturday, July 4, 1863, the Union finally had that key in hand, courtesy of Major General Ulysses S. Grant and his Army of the Tennessee. On what Grant’s trusted protégé William T. Sherman called, “the best Fourth of July since 1776,” Confederate Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton surrendered the Rebel stronghold of Vicksburg on the Mississippi River and its garrison of nearly 30,000 soldiers. Grant’s triumph was one of the most momentous victories of the Civil War and enabled the Union to gain unimpeded control of the entire Mississippi River, which effectively split the Confederacy in two. His operations against Vicksburg were hailed by men like Sherman as “one of the greatest campaigns in history,” and his ultimate conquest of the city also provided further confirmation to the people of the North that U.S. Grant was their trusted military champion.

Vicksburg had nearly every advantage that a defender could hope for. Towering over a commanding bluff and overlooking a 180-degree bend in the Mississippi River, Rebel artillery was perfectly positioned to guard against Union warships. On top of that, the fortress was surrounded by thick swamps and bayous, making it very difficult for Union troops to attempt a cross-country assault. With the land and water approaches to the city protected by heavy guns and stout fortifications, confident Southerners nicknamed their stronghold the “Gibraltar of the Confederacy.” The job of taming this great gray beast fell to Ulysses S. Grant.

A Double-Banded Brooke Rifle in the Vicksburg river defenses. (Photo Credit: Vicksburg's Old Court House Museum)

In December 1862 and through the early months of 1863, Grant tried and failed in his efforts to reach Vicksburg. His many “experiments” to find the best path forward included an attempt to dig a large canal, creating a new route to allow Union ships to bypass Vicksburg’s formidable defenses, but despite his ingenuity, this endeavor, like all of the others, came up empty. Some in the North grew impatient with the lack of progress in Grant’s campaign, but the general himself remained as committed as ever and unleashed a bold new plan in the spring.

Under the cover of darkness on April 16, 1863, Union Admiral David Dixon Porter’s fleet daringly streamed past the mighty guns of Vicksburg. This bold move placed Federal naval power in the optimal position and allowed Grant and his army to cross the river below Vicksburg on April 30. Over the next three weeks, the general and his troops were simply unstoppable. As the great Civil War historian James M. McPherson explains, during that span, “Grant’s men marched 130 miles, fought and won five battles against separate forces that, if combined, would have been nearly as large as Grant’s own, and penned the Confederates up in the Vicksburg defenses.”

Admiral Porter's fleet running the guns of Vicksburg on the night of April 16, 1863. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

After nearly six months of frustration and failure, U.S. Grant and his soldiers finally had Vicksburg in their sights. Once the city was surrounded, the general launched two heavy assaults on May 19 and 22, both of which were bloodily beaten back by the Rebels. Adapting once again to the challenges before him, Grant made the decision to dispense with costly direct assaults against the strong Confederate defenses and ordered his army to dig in to besiege the city. After 47 days of siege, the Rebels finally surrendered on the fourth of July, and the great prize of Vicksburg was at last in Union hands.

On what was truly a triumphant Independence Day for the Union, nearly 30,000 Rebel soldiers filed “out of their entrenchments, stacked their arms, removed their accouterments, and furled their flags,” according to the National Park Service. Rather than holding the Confederates as prisoners of war, under Grant's surrender terms, the defeated defenders of Vicksburg were allowed to sign a parole notice promising not to take up arms against the United States until they were exchanged by the proper authorities. The victorious commander believed that the immense setbacks and sufferings endured by the Rebels would lead many of them to return to their homes. Instead of using up manpower and resources on guarding, transporting, and providing for prisoners, Grant also reasoned that Union forces would instead be free to continue further operations in the field. Some men in gray did go on to violate their paroles and fought again, but for the majority who did return home, their part in the war was at an end. The Confederacy could not afford such losses of manpower.

The Fourth Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment entering Vicksburg on July 4, 1863. (Photo Credit: Minnesota Historical Society)

The news of the fall of Vicksburg led President Lincoln to exclaim, “The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea.” With the victory at Vicksburg and at Port Hudson five days later, the Union gained unimpeded control of the entire Mississippi River. Confederate President Jefferson Davis had said that Vicksburg was “the nail head that holds the South’s two halves together.” Now, that nail had been removed, effectively splitting the Confederacy in two.

Grant’s triumph at Vicksburg and Major General George G. Meade’s hard-fought victory over General Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Gettysburg from July 1-3, 1863 turned the tide of the war toward ultimate victory for the Union. As General Grant later wrote in his Personal Memoirs, “The fate of the Confederacy was sealed when Vicksburg fell. Much hard fighting was to be done afterwards and many precious lives were to be sacrificed; but the MORALE was with the supporters of the Union ever after.”

Monument to Ulysses S. Grant at Vicksburg National Military Park. (Photo Credit: Preservation in Mississippi)

Following his brilliance at Vicksburg, Grant continued to fight and win. In March 1864, President Lincoln named him general-in-chief of the Armies of the United States. With over a million men under his command across the war-torn nation, Grant harmonized the many forces under his command so that they functioned as one grand war machine. With his ability to comprehend the big picture of the war, he went on to mastermind the Union's ultimate victory over the Confederacy.


American Battlefield Trust: Battle of Vicksburg.

American Battlefield Trust: Grant's Operation's Against Vicksburg.

Grant by Ron Chernow.

National Park Service: Confederate Parole Records.

National Park Service: Surrender of Vicksburg.

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