Fortunately, I was able to make it to Vicksburg this holiday season, which has been a personal desire for many years. The main reason for visit was the battlefield and the opportunity to visit the USS Cairo. Upon arrival, I quickly found the whole affair quite solemn.
In 1863, the Mississippi river had been blocked for some time at Vicksburg by Southern cannons overlooking bend in the river, from the jutting Louisiana salient. President Lincoln, in a political fight for his life, had to show victory in the south before the elections. The north was growing tired of supporting the war effort and seeing so many young men die.
To that end, it was essential to secure Vicksburg so that northern shipping routes could be re-opened to the Gulf of Mexico. Vicksburg had ideal natural defenses, was the gateway to the west for the confederacy and was so vital that the town was nicknamed “The Gibraltar of the Confederacy”.
In May of 1863, with the south expecting an attack on Vicksburg, General Grant appeared to move well south of the town towards the Mississippi State Capital in Jackson. Shortly after securing Jackson, he turned his forces sharply to the west and moved quickly towards Vicksburg, fighting through Clinton. Upon arrival to Vicksburg, both forces dug in and went to ground, beginning a six week siege on the 18th of May. Over 200 cannons bombarded each other along Battle lines around the city. The local populace could not evacuate and was forced to literally dig in underneath their houses and into the side of the hills nearby.
Ironclad ships continue to bombard the batteries on the hill tops of the Mississippi river. All told, nearly 17,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were killed in and around Vicksburg during the siege. On July 4th 1863, one day after Gettysburg, Confederate General Pemberton (Pennsylvania born and George Meade’s roommate at West Point) surrendered 2,166 officers and 27,000 men to General Grant.
In 1861 the US Navy was faced with difficult task of taking control of the Mississippi river from the Confederacy. With few ships capable of navigating the shallow waters of the river, the Navy developed the Brown Water Navy. A diverse fleet, multiple ironclad gunboats such as the USS Cairo, Tyler, Red rover and Choctaw were developed to bombard fortifications and open navigation routes. Naval forces assisted Grant in the long, complex Vicksburg campaign, securing control of the Mississippi River to the Union.
During the battle, the USS Cairo was sunk in the Mississippi. 103 years later in 1966, the Cairo was raised from the Mississippi Riverbed. The Cairo went through a minor restoration and is on display in Vicksburg National Battlefield, not far from where she sank.
With the COVID-19 virus raging and the multifaceted political unrest in this country this year, most have stated they are ready to move on from 2020, many believing this is the worst year they have ever seen. However, there have been many years that were more difficult for Americans at home and abroad. 1863 was one such year.
The Civil War had total losses of around 700,000 with nearly half in 1863. Coupled with civilian casualties, cholera, dysentery, starvation, the misery index had to be significantly higher in 1863 than it has been this year. As 2020 is ending, count your blessings and let us hope for a wonderful and prosperous 2021.