One hundred and fifty-four years ago, the nation was electrified by the news out of Mississippi: after a long siege, the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg, commanding the heights of the mighty river, had fallen to Ulysses S. Grant. Coming the day after the federal victory at Gettsyburg, it turned the tide of the Civil War and preserved the union for Mr. Lincoln. It was a national birthday present like none other.
Gettysburg gets most of the attention, as well it should: the three-day struggle between North and South in a small Pennsylvania town was the greatest battle ever fought on the American continent: bloody, heroic, futile, savage, and ultimately decisive, although Lee went home to Virginia to lick his wounds and fight again. But we should not overlook Grant’s feat of engineering and generalship in the west, which supplied the victory from which the Confederacy could not recover. The quartermaster in the Mexican War had become the chief general in the west, soon enough to be summoned to Washington to finish Lee and save Abraham Lincoln’s presidency.
Nearly alone among the Union generals, Grant understood the stakes and, more important, the meaning and necessity of victory. Facing the steep cliffs and formidable batteries of Vicksburg from his position across the Mississippi, Grant had to find a way to get his troops safely across the river, attack and seize the state capital at Jackson to Vicksburg’s east, then move back west to encircle the city from the land and starve and pound it into submission.
So let Grant — perhaps the greatest American who ever lived — tell us why and what happened in his own words as recorded in his Memoirs:
The intervening land is cut up by bayous filled from the river in high water—many of them navigable for steamers. All of them would be, except for overhanging trees, narrowness and tortuous course, making it impossible to turn the bends with vessels of any considerable length. Marching across this country in the face of an enemy was impossible; navigating it proved equally impracticable. The strategical way according to the rule, therefore, would have been to go back to Memphis; establish that as a base of supplies; fortify it so that the storehouses could be held by a small garrison, and move from there along the line of railroad, repairing as we advanced, to the Yallabusha, or to Jackson, Mississippi. At this time the North had become very much discouraged.
Many strong Union men believed that the war must prove a failure. The elections of 1862 had gone against the party which was for the prosecution of the war to save the Union if it took the last man and the last dollar. Voluntary enlistments had ceased throughout the greater part of the North, and the draft had been resorted to to fill up our ranks. It was my judgment at the time that to make a backward movement as long as that from Vicksburg to Memphis, would be interpreted, by many of those yet full of hope for the preservation of the Union, as a defeat, and that the draft would be resisted, desertions ensue and the power to capture and punish deserters lost. There was nothing left to be done but to go forward to a decisive victory. This was in my mind from the moment I took command in person at Young’s Point.
This is a lesson that has been lost on just about every American general since Eisenhower, alas. What Grant grasped instinctively was there was no substitute for victory; that there were a million reasons why his assault on Vicksburg might fail; why the more cautious, classical approach was to retreat upriver to Memphis, establish his supply lines and then move south. And, indeed, that was precisely the approach that even his most trusted lieutenant, Gen. William T. Sherman — no shirker when it came to danger — advocated:
When General Sherman first learned of the move I proposed to make, he called to see me about it. I recollect that I had transferred my headquarters from a boat in the river to a house a short distance back from the levee. I was seated on the piazza engaged in conversation with my staff when Sherman came up. After a few moments’ conversation he said that he would like to see me alone. We passed into the house together and shut the door after us. Sherman then expressed his alarm at the move I had ordered, saying that I was putting myself in a position voluntarily which an enemy would be glad to manoeuvre a year—or a long time—to get me in. I was going into the enemy’s country, with a large river behind me and the enemy holding points strongly fortified above and below. He said that it was an axiom in war that when any great body of troops moved against an enemy they should do so from a base of supplies, which they would guard as they would the apple of the eye, etc. He pointed out all the difficulties that might be encountered in the campaign proposed, and stated in turn what would be the true campaign to make. This was, in substance, to go back until high ground could be reached on the east bank of the river; fortify there and establish a depot of supplies, and move from there, being always prepared to fall back upon it in case of disaster.
I said this would take us back to Memphis. Sherman then said that was the very place he would go to, and would move by railroad from Memphis to Grenada, repairing the road as we advanced. To this I replied, the country is already disheartened over the lack of success on the part of our armies; the last election went against the vigorous prosecution of the war, voluntary enlistments had ceased throughout most of the North and conscription was already resorted to, and if we went back so far as Memphis it would discourage the people so much that bases of supplies would be of no use: neither men to hold them nor supplies to put in them would be furnished. The problem for us was to move forward to a decisive victory, or our cause was lost. No progress was being made in any other field, and we had to go on.
“Progress” might have been Grant’s middle name. Once set on a course of action, he never retreated, pulled back, or failed to give chase to a beaten enemy. When the National forces took a beating on the first day at Shiloh, Sherman found Grant contemplatively smoking a cigar in the rain:
Late that night tough Sherman came to see him. Sherman had found himself, in the heat of the enemy’s fire that day, but now he was licked; as far as he could see, the important next step was “to put the river between us and the enemy, and recuperate,” and he hunted up Grant to see when and how the retreat could be arranged. He came on Grant, at last, at midnight or later, standing under the tree in the heavy rain, hat slouched down over his face, coat-collar up around his ears, a dimly-glowing lantern in his hand, cigar clenched between his teeth. Sherman looked at him; then, “moved,” as he put it later, “by some wise and sudden instinct” not to talk about retreat, he said: “Well, Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?”
Grant said “Yes,” and his cigar glowed in the darkness as he gave a quick, hard puff at it, “Yes. Lick ’em tomorrow, though.”
While he admired the Confederates’ fighting spirit, he had nothing but moral contempt for their cause — both their advocacy of slavery and their attempt to destroy the Union. From his early victory at Fort Donelson, where he learned to effectively use naval forces, to his last, at Appomattox, his motto was “unconditional surrender,” and that is mostly what he got. When the rebel commander, Pemberton (whom Grant knew from the Mexican War), proposed terms for Vicksburg’s surrender, Grant gave Pemberton the same answer he had given Buckner at Fort Donelson the year before:
“Your note of this date is just received, proposing an armistice for several hours, for the purpose of arranging terms of capitulation through commissioners, to be appointed, etc. The useless effusion of blood you propose stopping by this course can be ended at any time you may choose, by the unconditional surrender of the city and garrison. Men who have shown so much endurance and courage as those now in Vicksburg, will always challenge the respect of an adversary, and I can assure you will be treated with all the respect due to prisoners of war. I do not favor the proposition of appointing commissioners to arrange the terms of capitulation, because I have no terms other than those indicated above.”
In the end, Grant relented a bit, allowing the officers to retain their personal belongings, their sidearms, and one horse apiece and paroling the men with just the clothes on their backs. This was not from mercy or weakness, but because Grant had no time to deal with prisoners. His great race across Tennessee was about to begin. But first, Grant celebrated the Fourth (even if Vicksburg didn’t for the next 81 years):
At the appointed hour the garrison of Vicksburg marched out of their works and formed line in front, stacked arms and marched back in good order. Our whole army present witnessed this scene without cheering. Logan’s division, which had approached nearest the rebel works, was the first to march in; and the flag of one of the regiments of his division was soon floating over the court-house. Our soldiers were no sooner inside the lines than the two armies began to fraternize. Our men had had full rations from the time the siege commenced, to the close. The enemy had been suffering, particularly towards the last. I myself saw our men taking bread from their haversacks and giving it to the enemy they had so recently been engaged in starving out. It was accepted with avidity and with thanks.
This news, with the victory at Gettysburg won the same day, lifted a great load of anxiety from the minds of the President, his Cabinet and the loyal people all over the North. 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.
Today’s commanders in the fields of the Middle East and Afghanistan could learn much from Grant, and no doubt they’ve studied him at West Point and elsewhere. But under the previous two administrations, their hands were often tied, their victories unexploited, which is why these wars have dragged on since 2001, with no military or political end in sight — although things may finally change under President Trump and Defense Secretary Mattis, a former Marine commander himself. Grant was lucky in his commander-in-chief, whose goal was the preservation of the nation at whatever cost, and at Vicksburg he gave Lincoln the best Fourth of July present the White House could have wished for.
During the siege there had been a good deal of friendly sparring between the soldiers of the two armies, on picket and where the lines were close together. All rebels were known as “Johnnies,” all Union troops as “Yanks.” Often “Johnny” would call: “Well, Yank, when are you coming into town?” The reply was sometimes: “We propose to celebrate the 4th of July there.”
The Vicksburg paper, which we received regularly through the courtesy of the rebel pickets, said prior to the fourth, in speaking of the “Yankee” boast that they would take dinner in Vicksburg that day, that the best receipt for cooking a rabbit was “First ketch your rabbit.” The paper at this time and for some time previous was printed on the plain side of wall paper. The last number was issued on the fourth and announced that we had “caught our rabbit.”
Grant had indeed caught his rabbit. And now the big prize was now in sight: the great stag of Robert E. Lee.