Siege of Vicksburg
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"Vicksburg is ours!"
Union forces were repulsed in the first engagement of Vicksburg (Miss.) in December 1862. After taking command of the Department of the Tennessee on October 16, Union Major General Ulysses S. Grant wasted no time in moving against the river port. Vicksburg was the key to land under Confederate control and Lincoln wanted that key in his pocket. Rail lines were vulnerable, but supplies could arrive on the mighty river from the north or from Union depots in Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Louisiana.
Beginning in March, road building and trench digging operations led soldiers to wonder about the nature of the war they were fighting. The 13th, 15th, 16th, and 17th Corps of the Army of the Tennessee proceeded south, facing Confederate forces commanded by Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton at Vicksburg and General Joseph E. Johnston near Jackson.
Admiral David D. Porter led naval operations and Brigadier General Benjamin H. Grierson's legendary cavalry raids in April provided diversion as Grant's men built roads, drawing closer to Pemberton's command near Vicksburg.
Siege operations began in earnest on May 22, 1863. Major General William T. Sherman had taken the hills overlooking the Yazoo River, keeping a northerly route open for reinforcements and supplies, and the Union dug in to shell the city and wait out the Rebels.
At 10:04 a.m. Captain John H. Groce and Lieutenant George O'Neal, with Private Howell G. Trogden as color bearer, led a "volunteer storming party" of about 150 men. Each bore a plank, pole, or rail, with which to make something to cross the deep ditch before the fortification.
"Brave men fell in heaps around me," a wounded Captain Groce wrote about the "furlorn hope" assault. Halfway up the exterior slope, the flag was planted, unfurled. The storming party accounted for two-thirds of the Medals of Honor awarded for service at Vicksburg, with twenty-nine of the men hailing from Illinois.
From May to early July, Pemberton's 20,000 troops were reduced by disease and deprivation while Vicksburg civilians took cover in caves and bombproof shelters.
William Lovelace Foster, an ordained Baptist minister, was a chaplain in Company F of the 35th Mississippi Volunteer Infantry (C.S.A.). Writing to his wife Mildred about the defense of Vicksburg, Foster recalled the Union bombardment, "Houses are no protection from these mighty monsters of death."
Pro-secession Missourian Mary Ann Webster Loughborough had fled south with her husband, a Confederate officer, and small daughter. She endured the shelling and shortages of Vicksburg in a cave dug into a hillside facing away from the river, with only a tent fly stretched over it for shade and privacy.
She recalls "a shell that fell...screaming and hissing, immediately before the mouth of our cave...sending up a huge column of smoke and earth, and jarring the ground where we stood. What seemed very strange, the earth closed in around the shell, and left only the newly upturned soil to show where it had fallen."
After the July 3rd surrender, she observed, "I could see how very near to the rifle pits my cave lay: only a small ravine between the two hills separated us." A Federal soldier who spoke kindly to her daughter reaped the reward of kindness and courtesy when Mary Ann offered him the tent fly that had sheltered her "cave home."
Among the Union ranks was Charles Edwards Wilcox of the 33rd Illinois Infantry, the Normal Teacher's Regiment. Excerpts from his diary were published in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society in 1938. It cuts off in August 1863, and Wilcox accepted a captiancy in Company B of the 92nd U.S. Colored Troops in September. Humanitarian inclinations made him perfectly suited to this role, as he had supported the service of free blacks in the Union army.
On Friday, July 3rd, Wilcox writes "There has been a death-like silence since twilight...as though two friendly armies confronted each other..." and the next day, "This day in American history is only second to the one of which to-day is the eighty-seventh anniversary. The fate of the American Republic has been positively decided this day...How the loyal heart will throb with joy! Vicksburg is ours!"
Grant's western War continued, but he had delivered a critical victory for fellow Illinoisan, President Abraham Lincoln. Together with a victory on the bloody fields of Gettysburg, the tide was turning ever more surely in favor of the Union. His efforts did not go unnoticed, and his place in history was assured.
On October 26, 1906, Governor Charles Deneen transferred the Illinois State Memorial to the Vicksburg National Military Park upon its completion. Designed by W. L. B. Jenney and sculpted by Charles J. Mulligan, the marble and granite monument features forty-seven steps, one for each day of the siege. Sixty bronze tablets line the interior walls, bearing the 36,325 names of the men who fought for the Prairie State at Vicksburg. Photographs of the tablets illustrate the 1907 title Illinois at Vicksburg, published under the authority of the Illinois 45th General Assembly by the Illinois-Vicksburg Military Park Commission. The monument is on Union Avenue at Vicksburg at milepost 1.8, tour stop #2.