Ed Bearss’ ‘The Vicksburg Campaign’ Part I

“Vicksburg is the Key”

This is the title of Volume I of Ed Bearss’ study of the campaigns to take the city of Vicksburg in the Civil War, and open the Mississippi River to commerce and divide the Confederacy.  The period covered in this volume is Fall 1862 to April 1863.

This covers the initial two prong assault with Grant advancing overland through Mississippi and Sherman taking the troops raised by McClernand down the river to attack from that side. It was McClernand’s idea to lead that attack as an independent commander, but army politics managed to finesse his troops away.

The attempt was defeated by a combination of bold cavalry raids under Forrest and Earl Van Dorn on Grant’s rear and railroad communications, forcing him to retreat north, leaving Pemberton free to concentrate against Sherman, who was defeated at Chickasaw Bayou.

After this, Sherman and McClernand used the time to raid Arkansas Post and capture the 5000 man garrison. Grant then joined them to manage the attack on Vicksburg as a single direction along the river.

It was now winter, and the river was flooding. Grant spent time trying to bypass the city or gain a foothold on the dry ground near the city with a series of operations – digging a canal to divert the river, trying to cut a route around the city, or using expeditions to gain the rear of the city from the north, through the Yazoo Delta swamps.  All failed, but at least kept the men busy and the enemy confused as to what was planned.

There is also a good description of Naval Operations that winter, where Admiral Porter tried to cut the traffic below the city with raiding vessels. A remarkable incident is the capture of the Indianola.

This ironclad was sent below to support the Queen of the West, which was tasked with hunting down the last boats the Rebels had.  In attacking a fort on the Red River, the Queen was grounded, and abandoned almost undamaged.  Now they had a second vessel in their fleet and went on the offensive, chasing the ironclad back toward Vicksburg.

In a savage action, the two rams attacked the Indianola and captured it. Now the Rebels had three boats, and an ironclad, if they could get it repaired.  Admiral Porter didn’t have enough ships to risk sending more down, so in one of those events that make the Civil War so fascinating, he tried on of the most spectacular bluffs in history.

He built a fake ‘ironclad’ in hours, using discarded parts and 8 dollars in material. The smoke in the stacks was just a bucket holding burning material inside a smokestack made of old barrels. This monster “Black Terror” with its slogan painted on its fake wheelhouse “Deluded People Cave In” was sent past the Vicksburg batteries which had no effect on it, and eventually drifted down to the Indianola. It was so impressive the Rebel Navy fled, and destroyed the Indianola wreck themselves!

This volume ends just as the main campaign is about to jump off. Grierson’s cavalry will raid from the north and Grant will swing to the south without a supply line to gain the city’s rear. Beset by threats from all sides over the last months, Pemberton will lose his grasp of the situation and have his forces broken up and penned into the city, where surrender is inevitable unless a new army can be raised to break Grant’s grip.

As it turned out, the north could and did pour troops into the area far faster than the south could or did, and the army and the city were lost.

As a history, the book has all the detail you could ask, and is written in a clear style that is easy reading. There are references to the original sources. Bearss’ himself is a legendary figure in Civil War historian circles, having worked as a Park Historian at Vicksburg itself and other parks for more than a generation.  It’s a classic, and deserves its reputation. I’m glad I finally got a hold it for my collection.

I have the Morningside Book reprint.  This is a small Ohio publisher that reprints a lot of these old sources.  I’ve picked up quite a few of their books over the years and the quality is absolutely first-rate.

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