Battle of Vicksburg, The
DESCRIPTION: "On Vicksburg's globes and bloody grounds A wounded soldier lay, His thoughts was on his happy home Some thousand miles away." The dying man recalls mother and sweetheart and prepares for the end
EARLIEST DATE: 1928 (Randolph)
KEYWORDS: death battle separation Civilwar
April 6-7, 1862 - Battle of Shiloh. The army of U.S. Grant is forced back but, reinforced by Buell, beats off the army of A.S. Johnston. Johnston is killed. Both sides suffer heavy casualties (Shiloh was the first battle to show how bloody the Civil War would be)
Nov 1862 - Union general Ulysses S. Grant begins his Vicksburg campaign. His first four attempts to reach the city fail
Apr 16, 1863 - Porter's gunboats run past Vicksburg, opening the way for Grant's final successful campaign
May 12-17, 1863 - Grant fights a series of minor battles which bring him to the defences of Vicksburg
May 22, 1863 - Grant's attempt to take Vicksburg by storm is a bloody failure. The Union army settles down to a siege
July 4, 1863 - Lt. General Pemberton surrenders Vicksburg
FOUND IN: US(So)
REFERENCES (4 citations):
Randolph 225, "The Battle of Vicksburg" (1 text, 1 tune, plus a fragmentary text of the original song, "On Buena Vista's Battlefield")
Hudson-FolksongsOfMississippi 120, p. 261, "The Vicksburg Soldier" (1 text)
Fuson-BalladsOfTheKentuckyHighlands, p. 93, "Shallows Field" (1 text, clearly this song although the battle site is "Shallows Field"="Shiloh's Field"; this may come from confusion with "The Drummer Boy of Shiloh")
Cohen-AmericanFolkSongsARegionalEncyclopedia1, p. 334, "The Battle of Vicksburg" (1 text plus an except from "On Buena Vista's Battlefield")
ST R225 (Partial)
cf. "On Buena Vista's Battlefield" (tune & meter, theme)
cf. "Victorious March" (subject)
cf. "Late Battle in the West" (subject)
cf. "The Drummer Boy of Shiloh" [Laws A15] (lyrics)
NOTES [1845 words]: This song is a clear rewrite of the Mexican War song "On Buena Vista's Battlefield." The choice of Vicksburg is perhaps curious; although the Vicksburg campaign led to even more deaths by disease than usual, battle casualties were relatively light compared to the great battles in Virginia and Tennessee. On the other hand, the "Buena Vista" song seems to have spawned other Civil War pieces, e.g. about Shiloh (see Fuson-BalladsOfTheKentuckyHighlands's "Shallows Field," which I lump here but which Roud splits off; it's his #4284)
And it should be admitted that Vicksburg was important -- arguably the single most important Union victory of the war. In the early spring of 1863, the Union war effort seemed stalled. If the war were to be won, something had to be done, but no progress was being made anywhere. In Virginia the Army of the Potomac had had a two to one advantage in manpower at the Battle of Chancellorsville, but still managed to lose. William S. Rosecrans's Army of the Cumberland, operating in central Tennessee, had been inert since the bloody draw of Stones River/Murfreesboro (for which see "The Battle of Stone River.")
That left only the western army of Ulysses S. Grant. And even he seemed to be stuck. A major part of the Federal war plan was to capture the Mississippi and split the Confederacy in two. A large part of this had been done; New Orleans had fallen early in 1862 (for this see "The New Ballad of Lord Lovell (Mansfield Lovell)"). Memphis had been lost almost without a struggle; the navy moved in and the Confederates moved out (McPherson, p. 418). The only thing still linking the Confederate east with Arkansas, Texas, and the trans-Mississippi portion of Louisiana was Vicksburg.
The city was still young; Newet Vicks, the founder, had first seen Walnut Heights above the river in 1814, the site of a ruined military encampment called Fort Nogales (Carter, p. 12). Settlers began to move there around 1819. The population was still fairly small.
Although a relatively minor town, Vicksburg was an incredibly strong military position. The bluffs guarded the city on the north and west, with the river an additional barrier on those sides (although Vicksburg stands along the Mississippi, the river near the city ran almost west to east; the river made a great bow there, like a reverse letter C, with Vicksburg on the lower right part of the curve; for details, see the map on the frontispiece of Carter. This curve also meant that boats trying to make it past Vicksburg could not build up much head of steam -- a real advantage to defenders trying to prevent ships from running past the town). Plus there were great marshes to the north which made it impossible to bring supplies down the east bank of the Mississippi.
Flag Officer Farragut, who had taken New Orleans and gone on to capture Natchez and Baton Rouge, eventually took his fleet to Vicksburg. He called on the city to surrender, received a contemtuous reply (McPherson, pp. 421-422) -- and tried to attack it with gunfire, as he had attacked New Orleans. But Vickburg, high on its bluff and guarded by 10,000 Confederates, was too tough for him. He didn't have enough soldiers to attack, and while he could damage the city, he couldn't seriously soften it up. Eventually, after his ships had suffered enough damage, he had to give up.
What it meant was that there was only one really practical way to get at Vicksburg: An army had to come at it by land from the east or southeast (RandallDonald, p. 409) -- and that meant that somehow the Union army had to get itself to the south or east of the city. And *that* meant being cut off from their supply lines from Memphis.
If the Union had moved fast enough, it might not have mattered; they could have come from the south. But in the aftermath of Farragut's repulse before Vicksburg, the Confederates had retaken Port Hudson south of Vicksburg. It was too weak a position to hold if Vicksburg fell -- but, as long as Vicksburg stood, Port Hudson guarded its vulnerable side from an attack from the Union base at New Orleans.
Farragut in 1862 made the first of many attempts to lever the Confederates out: He started a canal to route the Mississippi away from the town. If he had managed to create a usable waterway, then then Union navy could have gotten around Vicksburg and supplied an army to the south of the town. The idea failed; before the canal could be more than begun, summer drought lowered the level of the Mississippi. Farragut's ships were ocean vessels, and in danger of being stranded, and his men were sick from the heat and the bugs. He gave up and headed back to New Orleans, leaving the problem to the army.
The problem stymied Ulysses S. Grant, the commander of the forces along the Mississippi, for more than half a year. An attempt to build a supply line from the north failed when Confederate cavalry destroyed his depot at Holly Springs (Grant, pp. 432-433; Catton; p. 33). Two attempts to work an army through the rivers and marshes northeast of the town nearly ended in disaster. A second attempt to dig a canal to bypass the town failed (Catton, pp. 80-85). By the spring of 1863, Grant seemed stymied. As Anders says on p. 362, "By early April it took the fingers of both hands to count the number of times General Grant had tried to get at the rebel fortress, only to fail."
But Grant would not have been Grant had he been willing to give up -- years later, describing this period of frustrations, he wrote, "The elections of 1862 had gone against the party which was for the prosecution of the war.... It was my judgment at the time that to make a backward move 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.... There was nothing left to be done but to go forward to a decisive victory" (Grant, p. 443).
Finally Grant ran his river fleet past Vicksburg, marched his army south of the town on the western bank of the Mississippi, and crossed to attack Vicksburg from the south and east.
It was a bold move. Flag Officer Porter, commanding his fleet, had warned him that the ships could not go back (Anders, p. 363). There was no retreat.
That wasn't the only risk. He had to go through Confederate country to reach the back of Vicksburg. It meant that, for several days, he had no supply line, but he was able to carry what his scavengers could not find. He said of the effort, "Early on the morning of the 30th of April [1863,] McClernand's corps and one division of McPherson's corps were speedily landed. When this was effected I felt a degree of relief scarcely ever equalled since. Vicksburg was not yet taken it is true, nor were its defenders demoralized by any of our previous moves. I was now in the enemy's country, with a vast river and the stronghold of Vicksburg between me and my base of supplies. But I was on dry ground on the same side of the river as the enemy" (Grant, p. 480).
As RandallDonald comments on p. 409, it was "an enterprise which only a daring and resourceful general could have conceived and carried to a successful conclusion."
A truly tough general might yet have made Grant pay. The Confederate general Pemberton, who had done little to prevent Grant's crossing, was not such a general -- and Grant had in any case done a find job of confusing him with a cavalry raid on his railroad links led by Col. Benjamin Grierson and a demonstration near Vicksburg by Sherman's corps (Anders, pp. 364-367) before the latter joined Grant south of Vicksburg.
Grant, having made his landing south of Vicksburg, won several battles against small local forces, then captured Jackson, the main rail center and capitol of Mississippi, then (with Sherman having joined him) on May 16 and 17 faced Pemberton's main army at Champion's Hill and Big Black River (RandallDonald, p. 411).
Champion's Hill was not an overwhelming victory for Grant; he never managed to get half his army into action, and that let Pemberton escape (Woodworth, p. 387). But Pemberton, having escaped one trap, put himself in another. He should have retreated north or east, keeping himself in contact with the rest of the Confederacy -- the theater commander, Joseph E. Johnston, had in fact ordered him to retreat in that direction if he were defeated; Johnston correctly saw that if Pemberton went into Vicksburg, both the town and the army would be lost; if he abandoned Vicksburg, at least the army would be saved. But Jefferson Davis had told Pemberton to hold Vicksburg at all costs (Catton, p. 191), and back to Vicksburg Pemberton went (Catton, p. 193). Many Confederates were so angry that they accused Pemberton of selling Vicksburg (Catton, p. 193).
Grant encircled the town, meaning that he once again had communications with the North, and began to starve it out Pemberton. The defenses on the land side of Vicksburg, although not comparable to those on the river side, were strong; had the defenders had more supplies, they might have held out indefinitely, but by July 1863, they were starving. Johnston had ordered Pemberton to try to break out (Catton, p. 194), but Pemberton didn't even try. In response to a letter on July 1, his subordinates indicated no hope (Grant, p. 556).
Grant was by then preparing an assault, which he thought would succeed (though I am much less sure -- Grant's single biggest defect as a commander was that he seemed to have very little sense of how strong a defensive position was. In the course of the war, he repeatedly sent troops on head-first assaults on trench lines, resulting in a one-sided slaughter of his own troops). Grant said of what happened at this time, "Pemberton commenced his correspondence on the third [of July] with a two-fold purpose: to prevent an assault, which he knew would be successful, and second, to prevent the capture taking place on the great national holiday [i.e. the Fourth of July]... Holding out for better terms as he did he defeated his aim in the latter particular" (Grant, p. 564). Pemberton surrendered on July 4, 1863 -- which was also the day after the end of the Battle of Gettysburg. Those two days were probably the best for the Union until Sherman captured Atlanta in 1864.
Grant had captured the third-largest army in the Confederacy. He had also eliminated the strongest fortress guarding the Mississippi. Within days, there would be no Confederate forces left along the river; the Confederacy would be split in two -- meaning that men and supplies from Texas and Arkansas and western Louisiana could no longer reach the armies further east. It was not immediately decisive, but it was a deadly blow -- far more deadly than Gettysburg, which was strategically very nearly a draw (Lee was forced out of Pennsylvania but still had his army intact).
It's one of those little ironies that Gettysburg, the most written-about battle of the Civil War, has almost no place in traditional song, and Vicksburg, the most decisive battle, has only a slightly stronger place in the folk repertoire. - RBW
Last updated in version 5.0
- Anders: Curt Anders, Hearts in Conflict:a One-Volume History of the Civil War, 1994 (I use the 1999 Barnes & Noble edition)
- Carter: Samuel Carter III, The Final Fortress: The Campaign for Vicksburg 1862-1863, St. Martin's, 1980
- Catton: Bruce Catton, Never Call Retreat (being the third volume of The Centennial History of the Civil War), Doubleday, 1965 (I use the 1976 Pocket Books edition)
- Grant: (Ulysses S. Grant), Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant, Volume I, Charles L. Webster & Company, 1885
- McPherson: James M. McPherson, The Battle Cry of Freedom (The Oxford History of the United States: The Civil War Era; Oxford, 1988)
- Randall/Donald: J. G. Randall, The Civil War and Reconstruction, second edition by David Donald, Heath, 1961
- Woodworth: Steven E. Woodworth, Nothing But Victory: The Army of the Tennessee 1861-1865, Vintage Civil War Library, 2005
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