In the North, July 4, 1863 was called “a most glorious fourth” and with good reason. On July 3, Lee was turned back at Gettysburg and the very next day, Vicksburg fell to Grant. So, since I discussed the Gettysburg campaign in some detail, no July 4th weekend would be complete without some mention of Vicksburg. In several blog entries, I have mentioned Ulysses Grant’s execution of the Vicksburg campaign. However, unlike Gettysburg, Vicksburg has never captured the popular memory of the American public. Perhaps that is because, unlike Gettysburg, there was no great, single battle during the Vicksburg campaign to capture the public’s focus and imagination. Rather, there was a skillfully executed series of events that culminated in the surrender of 37,000 Confederate troops and Federal control of the Mississippi River.
What makes this campaign so fascinating to me is that, throughout the process, Grant’s staff and key advisors, including Sherman, doubted the strategy. Once on the eastern side of the Mississippi, Sherman wondered how Grant could possibly maintain his army in a position between two enemy-held fortresses–Port Hudson and Vicksburg. Yet, it was merely a matter of perspective. Grant was at the end of an exceedingly precarious supply line, isolated in hostile territory, outnumbered by his enemy, and unable to ford the river to his rear. Most of Grant’s subordinates considered this a trap. Grant viewed it as an opportunity. That is what makes Grant’s victory at Vicksburg in 1863 one of the greatest triumphs in military history.
The Union victory at Vicksburg should be considered a hallmark in military history for a variety reasons. This campaign serves as both an example of superb military strategy as well as a sterling example of the art of command. But, Grant’s victory at this key city on the Mississippi not only displayed his personal maturation as a commander, it also resulted from something seemingly new in the Civil War: a true campaign. Unlike much of what had occurred up to that time, especially in Union strategy, the victory at Vicksburg was not the result of a single isolated battle. Rather, it was the result of a campaign, a series of military actions, and a design that were based on a single, solid tactical concept, and executed with clarity, innovation, flexibility, and tenacity.
Grant’s tactical concept was to simply get his army on dry ground east of the Mississippi River, south of Vicksburg. This would allow him to move against the city and Pemberton’s army from the rear. Throughout the long winter of 1862-1863, Grant had his army laboring for this purpose. To be certain, some of the engineering schemes he tried in an attempt to get his army and naval support past the city and its formidable guns were long shots. But, they were all worth trying if any of them would allow him to get the army to the right position and permit them to be supplied. When none of these various attempts worked and the winter came to an end, Grant remained focused on his target. He then came to the conclusion that a march down the west bank of the river accompanied by running Admiral Porter’s naval force past Vicksburg was a risk worth taking if it would get his army where it needed to be.
This single-minded focus and the willingness to accept some risk mark another key aspect of Grant’s campaign: boldness and tenacity. However, it was not a boldness based on rash thinking or ill-considered plans. All Grant’s moves were based on calculated risk and a belief that the seizure and maintenance of the initiative were vital to the campaign. In this sense, Grant was certainly thinking along the same lines as had Robert E. Lee in his Maryland campaign of 1862. However, Lee lost the initiative in Maryland and, as a result, his campaign failed. So, Grant certainly did gamble when he ran Porter and his ships past Vicksburg’s guns, and he gambled in an even larger fashion when he decided to abandon his own lines of communication and move forward without a solid base of supply. However, both of these decisions were well conceived and always aimed at one imperative idea: maintaining the initiative. The result was that, not only did he maintain that initiative, but he also confused his enemy in the process by operating in an unconventional and innovative manner.
In fact, the entire Vicksburg campaign was marked by innovation. From the movement to place himself south of Vicksburg to his use of speed and deception, Grant seemed determined to adapt himself and his army to whatever circumstances arose. His decision to operate in enemy territory without a base of supply was both radical and brilliant. It not only allowed him to move rapidly and, thus, keep his enemy off balance, it also permitted him to deprive the enemy of a lucrative target. When Pemberton moved to threaten Grant’s communications and his rear, he discovered Grant had no rear to threaten. Again, this also allowed Grant to keep the initiative. Further, rather than turning on Pemberton immediately and permitting Johnston to attack him from the east, Grant decided to move quickly to Jackson, Mississippi, knocking Johnston off balance, seizing a vital supply link to Vicksburg, and drawing Pemberton out and away from Vicksburg, where Grant might engage him. Grant seemed to keep his army in a state of perpetual motion, always remaining near the enemy, and never surrendering the upper hand. Nothing Grant did seemed to fit the “book answer” and this confounded his opponents.
Perhaps the one thing that stands out most of all in Grant’s Vicksburg campaign is the art of command. When one looks at the entire operation, you can see Grant’s clear and unambiguous command presence. Grant was obviously not given to letting himself be influenced by “councils of war,” as had so many other commanders. He could see where he needed to go and he was determined to get there. All he asked of his subordinate commanders was to execute his orders with efficiency, even if they doubted their soundness. He conveyed such confidence, such certainty of purpose that both his commanders and even the common soldiers could feel it and they responded to it.
In addition, this campaign also demonstrated the growing atmosphere of partnership in command that Grant was fostering. Joseph Glatthaar speaks to this in his book Partners in Command: The Relationship Between Leaders in the Civil War. Grant and Sherman’s relationship was forever cemented by the Vicksburg campaign. Sherman might have thought Grant’s moves foolhardy at times, but he never wavered, finally admitting to their brilliance in the end. Even more noteworthy is the relationship Grant built with Admiral Porter. This relationship resulted in true cooperative, unified command between the Army and Navy and, perhaps, laid the foundation that American armed forces operate on to this day. According to Glatthaar, the key to these partnerships were professional relationships, forged, on occasion, by personal friendship, and always on the basis of dedication to a common goal that outweighed individual egos and ambitions-the goal of victory for the Union. Here, perhaps more than anywhere else, is where Grant’s command influence can best be seen.
The Union victory at Vicksburg, therefore, is noteworthy and Grant’s leadership is considered brilliant because, first and foremost, it was the product of a campaign, not a single battle. In addition, it is brilliant because Grant took a calculated risk and moved a combined naval and land force to place it in the best tactical position possible. He then seized the initiative, and, through adaptation and innovation, never surrendered it despite changes in circumstance. The campaign was a masterpiece that used every available tool at Grant’s disposal. He used Grierson’s cavalry to distract the enemy, moved his army in manner no one expected, ran his fleet past the guns at Vicksburg, lived off the countryside, moved rapidly, and struck where he was not expected to. In the end, as J.F.C. Fuller points out in The Generalship of Ulysses S. Grant, Grant won five battles in only two months, suffered minimal losses, inflicted far more casualties on the enemy, seized a key city, and, perhaps most important, took an entire Confederate army of 37,000 men out of the war. With the possible exception of the final campaign to Appomattox, no single military operation in the Civil War would accomplish as much.