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"Fall of Vicksburg 1863 - why the ACW's turning point?" Topic

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American Civil War

717 hits since 11 Jul 2018
©1994-2019 Bill Armintrout
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redcoat11 Jul 2018 12:02 p.m. PST

Hi all,

Please excuse my ignorance, but – in layman's terms – why was Vickburg's fall so disastrous for the Confederacy? Which of these was the key issue that made this the war's turning point?

1. In Ken Burns' Civil War series (curently available in the UK on Netflix), the significance of Vicksburg's fall is repeatedly summed up in the words: 'it split the South in two'. What does this actually mean? Did the fall of the city really *absolutely prevent* the Confederacy from shifting resources across the (surely very long??) Mississippi?

2. Loss of troops – 30,000 men of Pemberton's army.

3. Grant emerged as the Union's #1 commander.

Any others?

Thanks in advance for any observations.

Personal logo Saber6 Supporting Member of TMP Fezian11 Jul 2018 12:15 p.m. PST

Mississippi closed to Confederate traffic and opened it for the Union.

Texas and Arkansas separated.

Basically freed a Union Army operationally.

Union Troops able to plan operations into Texas,Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

Winston Smith11 Jul 2018 1:07 p.m. PST

Before Vicksburg and Port Hudson fell, there was a 100 mike stretch of the river where supplies could be transported with impunity.
After that, Union gunboats had free reign to hinder such traffic.
Did you ever read about any division size units getting across after Vicksburg fell?

Yes, the Union could now operate freely in Arkansas in the wasteful Red River campaign, but that was political. Not strategic.

It was also a morale blow. Vicksburg held out so long, it was invincible. Then it wasn't.

Personal logo ColCampbell Supporting Member of TMP11 Jul 2018 1:34 p.m. PST

It was the "double whammy" of the fall of Vicksburg and the defeat of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg, followed closely by the fall of Chattanooga, that sealed the Confederacy's doom.

Even though there was a 100 mile stretch of the Mississippi River between Port Hudson and Vicksburg that was still open to the Confederacy before both fortresses fall, there was a significant flow of military supplies (both imported from Mexico and made in Louisiana's arsenals) and foodstuffs (including cattle) across the river from Texas and Louisiana into the rest of the South. The fortresses fall stopped that supply line.

The defeat of Lee's army effectively took away the Confederacy's ability in the east to conduct any more significant northern invasions.

Finally, Rosecrans Tullahoma/Chattanooga campaign shoved the Confederate Army of Tennessee out of the state and deprived them of the supplies from that state. The taking and holding of Chattanooga cracked open the gate to Atlanta and the deep South.

Lincoln's initial naming of Grant as the commander of the Western Department, allowing him to coordinate the forces to relieve Chattanooga after the disaster at Chickamauga and then appointing him as Union commander-in-chief placed probably the Union's best general in direction of the entire Union war effort. Grant's subsequent actions with the Army of the Potomac's concentration against Lee's army and Grant's appointment of Sherman to succeed him in the west gave a concerted strategy to the Union efforts in 1864 and 1865.

The Confederacy had almost nothing left to oppose either Grant's or Sherman's offensives in 1864 and 1865, Hood's and Early's attempts not withstanding.

Although the fall of Vicksburg has been mainly overshadowed by the Union victory at Gettysburg, it was much more significant in that it unlocked the deep South to multiple axes of advance for the Union.

I would highly recommend Receding Tide: Vicksburg and Gettysburg, the Campaigns that Changed the Civil War by Edwin C. Bearss with J. Parker Hills (National Geographic Society, 2010).


mikec260 Supporting Member of TMP11 Jul 2018 2:37 p.m. PST

The previous points are well stated and bear much to answer your question, redcoat. I would add that the opening of the Mississippi enabled western Union states to resume commerce on this super highway. That would help strengthen the already great economic advantage the north had. So, not only did it "split the Confederacy in two," it increased the economic pressure on the south.

Likewise, as Jim related the "double whammy" of Lee's failed invasion of Pennsylvania, the British and French governments began to only entertain southern diplomats as a courtesy. They were no longer willing to consider southern interests as before.

While total losses were around 30,720 men, Pemberton did surrender approximately, 29,500 men. They were mostly paroled to a south that was having greater difficulty feeding its population. And the loss of 60,000 arms, and 300+ artillery pieces (many heavy artillery), as well as powder/shot et cetera that the south couldn't really replace was hurtful.

Grant's move to Chattanooga and then Washington precipitated the strategic cooperation of all Union armies much better than at any other time in the war. Now the pressure on the southern field armies grew, as presented by Jim. Interestingly, Sherman's March through Georgia was practiced on Mississippi to Meridian within months of the fall of Vicksburg. The area along the Mississippi River became a useful base of operations for the northern troops striking east as well as West holding southern troops needed elsewhere.

Very good question redcoat. I appreciate your interest in this area. Thanks.

mildbill11 Jul 2018 2:56 p.m. PST

Opening the river to goods traffic from the old northwest also hurt copperhead sucession talk. Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, etc.

donlowry11 Jul 2018 3:04 p.m. PST

As well as cutting the Confederacy in two (unequal) parts, opening the Mississippi River also quieted much dissent in the Northwest, which used that river as an outlet for much of its trade.

It was an equally great blow to the morale of the Confederate southwest.

But probably the most important result was the rise of Grant.

Blutarski11 Jul 2018 5:45 p.m. PST

Another factor that made Vicksburg important to the Confederacy is that it represented the last RR crossing of the Mississippi. After the blockade of the Confederate Atlantic and Gulf ports and the loss of New Orleans, the last real link between the Confederacy and the outside world was across the Mississippi via Vicksburg, then across Texas to Brownsville, thence to the port of Matamoros, Mexico.

See Fremantle's Diary for commentary.


Lee49411 Jul 2018 9:54 p.m. PST

As usual I'm going to come in from left field and suggest the biggest factor was that the twin victories of Vicksburg and Gettysburg once and for all slammed the door on any possibility of European recognition of or intervention on behalf of The South. And without that they could never win the war. Also consider that Southern victories in both of these battles might well have yielded European involvement and caused an increasing war weary North to consider pursuing peace.

Winston Smith11 Jul 2018 10:08 p.m. PST

For those of us who sometimes think that the "political generals" were unfairly picked on…
Why isn't Banks given any credit for Port Hudson? It was almost as difficult as Vicksburg and solved in essentially the same manor. Of course, Banks followed up with the ridiculous, venal and political Red River campaign, but still. Port Hudson was in its way brilliant also.

Bill N12 Jul 2018 7:39 a.m. PST

The fall of Vicksburg by itself was no big deal. It was the fall of Port Hudson slightly over a week later that opened the Mississippi to navigation. The relocation of the main Confederate field force to East Tennessee and the subsequent Confederate defeats at Baton Rouge, Corinth, Perryville and Stones River made the fall of the remaining Confederate posts on the Mississippi likely. By the end of 1862 so much Confederate transportation in the area had been disrupted that Confederate traffic across the river was mostly local.

What matters is the destruction of Pemberton's army. The Confederates had shown in 1862 that it was possible to re-establish positions on the Mississippi after they had been lost. They were unable to do so after Vicksburg because they no longer had the troops to do so.

donlowry12 Jul 2018 9:18 a.m. PST

The fall of Vicksburg made the fall of Port Hudson inevitable, which its defenders recognized (and thus surrendered).

But you're right, Bill, that Banks doesn't get enough credit for his Port Hudson campaign (the maneuvering beforehand). His handling of the siege itself was more clumsy, but got the job done in the end.

As for his Red River campaign, he lost one battle and won one, and probably would have won overall in the end if he had not been under orders to wind it up and return Sherman's troops, which prevented him from renewing his advance. (Sherman, by the way, suggested the campaign in the first place.)

67thtigers13 Jul 2018 1:37 a.m. PST

Also, the ca. 18,000 troops that surrendered were mostly exchanged in September. A couple of divisions of them were at Missionary Ridge.

138SquadronRAF Supporting Member of TMP13 Jul 2018 7:07 a.m. PST


General point. Lot of authors on the Civil War, especially in the 19th and early 20thC considered the Eastern Theater to be the most important theater of operation. Look Washington and Richmond are only about 110 miles apart. Lee's surrender is regarded as the end of the War the better known battles take place in an area not much 20,000 square miles.

Beginning in the mid 20thC there is a reexamination of the war and a "Western School" of thought arises that argues the war was won west of the Application Mountains because the Confederates lost the great swaths of their territory.

The Fall of Vicksburg is part of the longer term "Anaconda Plan" developed by Winfield Scott. It was supported by the Navy. There was an opportunity for Union to capture Vicksburg in June of 1862 but Henry Halleck did not consider the town important and refused to commit troops to the operation. Halleck believed that Tennessee was the main strategic axis in the West, an idea he got from McClellan.

The fall of Vicksburg fits neatly into the Western School of the Civil War.

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