By L&T Columnist Gary Damron
Last week, while our nation celebrated the signing of the Declaration of Independence ,there were also observances of two key events which 150 years ago served as turning points in the Civil War.
The battle at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, has gained much national attention, possibly because of its Northern location where re-enactors are able to celebrate freedom and victory in the greatest battle of the war.
Fighting at Gettysburg took place from July 1 to July 3, 1863 and ended with the Confederate approach to the U.S. capital blocked. It resulted in such loss of life that the Army of Virginia would no longer pose an offensive threat to the North.
The other battle, on the western front, was at Vicksburg, Mississippi and ended July 4, 1863 after a month and an half siege and surrender to Ulysses S. Grant. For more than a hundred years after the war, citizens of Vicksburg did not celebrate the 4th which marked a painful time in their history.
Union troops had been attempting to take Vicksburg since the year before, and finally in May General Grant decided the only way to win the city - and control of the Mississippi River - was by laying siege, cutting off all supplies and reinforcements. Grant also ordered a series of zig-zag trenches dug, by which he moved troops ever closer to the city. By the time of the surrender, he had 70,000 men in position around the city which contained only 29,500 soldiers. However, Union losses in the battle totaled nearly twice as many as those who died inside Vicksburg.
The Confederate general in charge at Vicksburg was John C. Pemberton. An engineer, he had built up defensive earthen barricades, and used high bluffs on the river side to repel Union attacks. Hardship on civilians inside Vicksburg was tremendous; citizens had dug caves for safety from the Union bombardment, and were reduced to desperate measures as food dwindled.
The battle included the largest amphibious assault in American history until World War II. Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter brought ships down the Mississippi, ran the gauntlet of Vicksburg, then loaded 24,000 of Grant's troops and 60 guns from the Louisiana side and transported them east across the river.
An interesting sidelight was that General Pemberton was from Pennsylvania but married to a Southern wife. He was so devoted to the cause that after being relieved of his command following the defeat, he reenlisted as a Confederate private. This so impressed Jefferson Davis that he appointed Pemberton as Lieutenant Colonel in charge of artillery.
Grant, in order to gain surrender paroled nearly 30,000 men, most of whom rejoined Confederate companies and were encountered again. After this battle, he would never allow that and truly became “Unconditional Surrender” Grant.
By July 4, 1863, the North controlled transportation on the Mississippi to move supplies and troops. Also the Confederacy was divided in two, isolating factories in the east from food and timber in the west. The victory helped reelect Abraham Lincoln, and Ulysses S. Grant would be elevated to Commander in Chief of Union Armies.
Lincoln noted early on, "Vicksburg is the key; the war never can be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket.” After the surrender he said, "The Father of Waters again flows unvexed to the sea." Its significance to the North cannot be overstated.