In 1861 Abraham Lincoln stated emphatically, “Vicksburg is the key. The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket.” For both the United States and the Confederacy, Vicksburg was a strategic focal point from the outset of the Civil War. Situated on a large bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, Vicksburg controlled the river. Lincoln and his generals knew that if they could wrest Vicksburg from the Confederates, they could control river traffic and effectively split the Confederacy in two. Likewise, the Confederates realized that holding Vicksburg was essential to their war effort. An attempt by the Federals to take the city in 1862 failed, but Ulysses S. Grant moved on Vicksburg again the following year. The decisive battle of the 1863 Vicksburg Campaign was fought on and around ground known as Champion Hill, a rise named for the Champion family, who were local property owners.
Grant moved twenty-three thousand Federal troops down the western bank of the Mississippi River and on 30 April 1863 crossed the river into Mississippi at Bruinsburg, well below his intended target. The Federals moved steadily northeast toward Jackson. John C. Pemberton, the Confederate general in charge of the region, had thirty thousand troops at his disposal, but they were scattered in various detachments around the state and consequently would provide little impediment to the Federals’ progress. The Union won victories against Confederate commands at Port Gibson and Raymond before capturing the state capital on 14 May. With Jackson secure, the Federals turned their full attention toward Vicksburg, moving on the port city from the east. With the addition of troops who had been operating in North Mississippi under William Tecumseh Sherman, Grant had more than forty thousand men at his disposal.
Union and Confederate troops clashed in the largest and most important battle of the Vicksburg Campaign on 16 May at Champion Hill, near Edward’s Station, about halfway between Jackson and Vicksburg. There Grant concentrated twenty-nine thousand men against twenty-three thousand under Pemberton. Grant’s men were organized into two corps, commanded by John A. McClernand and James B. McPherson. Pemberton’s command was made up of three divisions under John S. Bowen, Carter L. Stevenson, and William W. Loring. Early on 16 May Pemberton deployed his men. At about 10:30 in the morning Grant launched an all-out assault on the Confederate positions. During several hours of bitter fighting, Champion Hill changed hands three times. The outnumbered Confederates eventually lost the field and by 5:00 that evening were in full retreat, leaving behind twenty-seven cannons and hundreds of prisoners. The Confederates suffered 3,840 casualties, compared to 2,441 for the Union. While covering the Confederate retreat, Loring’s division was cut off and forced to move east toward Crystal Springs. The bulk of the Confederate Army fell back to the west and eventually entered Vicksburg. Grant’s troops followed and, after a forty-seven-day siege, Pemberton surrendered the city on 4 July 1863.
- Edwin C. Bearss, The Campaign for Vicksburg (1986)
- Richard Wheeler, The Siege of Vicksburg (1978)