The Second-Happiest Fourth in American History

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.