The Battle of Port Gibson was Union general Ulysses S. Grant’s first victory in the campaign that eventually led to the fall of Vicksburg. After failing to capture the strategically important city in late 1862 and early 1863, Grant decided on a new plan. He would march his army down the Louisiana side of the Mississippi River, cross over, and attack the city from the south.
When Union gunboats failed to silence the Confederates’ formidable defenses at Grand Gulf, Mississippi, Grant’s troops landed farther south at Bruinsburg, where they faced no resistance. By late afternoon on 30 April 1863, twenty-two thousand troops had landed on Mississippi soil. A Union cavalry raid through Mississippi and a feint against the bluffs north of Vicksburg confused Confederate commander John C. Pemberton. Unsure of Grant’s intentions, Pemberton did not unite his scattered forces to resist the Union landing.
Grand Gulf’s commander, John S. Bowen, saw the danger and quickly notified Pemberton of the need for reinforcements. Bowen then began shifting some of his Grand Gulf troops to Port Gibson to meet Grant’s threat. Pemberton also began sending troops from other parts of Mississippi, but these men would not arrive in time and Bowen would be forced to fight greatly outnumbered.
Union and Confederate forces first collided after midnight on 1 May. The vanguard of Union troops ran into Confederate pickets near the A. K. Shaifer House, west of Port Gibson. A brief firefight and an artillery duel ensued. The clash quickly subsided, and both sides prepared for the upcoming battle.
Terrain played a major role at the Battle of Port Gibson. Mazes of ridges and ravines running between tangles of cane and underbrush dominated the landscape. These features provided Bowen with an ideal line of defense. Grant would not be able to take full advantage of his numerical and artillery strengths.
The Battle of Port Gibson took place along two parallel roads that led into the town. During the early phase of the battle, Bowen’s sixty-five hundred men held their ground despite being outnumbered, but as Union forces continued to attack the lines, the southern troops withdrew and reformed closer to Port Gibson. Bowen skillfully maneuvered his men against further onslaughts, but the Federals’ numerical superiority would eventually take its toll. Grant funneled more men to flank the Southerners while Bowen plugged open gaps in his lines with available men and ordered a counterattack. The attack went well at first, but Union forces were too numerous, and after a full day of fighting, Bowen ordered a retreat. His men gave up Port Gibson and crossed Bayou Pierre to safety. Each side suffered approximately eight hundred casualties.
Grant’s bold move to strike south of Vicksburg and subsequent victory at Port Gibson solidified a key beachhead, providing him a secure site where he could gather supplies for his troops as they marched further into Mississippi. Pemberton’s failure to mass his troops to stop the Union threat ultimately spelled doom for the Gibraltar of the Confederacy.
- Michael B. Ballard, Pemberton: A Biography (1991)
- Edwin C. Bearss, The Campaign for Vicksburg, vol. 2, Grant Strikes a Fatal Blow (1986)
- Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant, vol. 1 (1885)
- Terrence J. Winschel, Triumph and Defeat: The Vicksburg Campaign (1999)