By the time Ulysses S. Grant contemplated a campaign in Mississippi in 1862, he was no longer an obscure officer from Illinois. Victory at Fort Donelson in February 1862 made him a national hero, and a ferocious battle at Shiloh followed 6–7 April. Grant was initially surprised at Shiloh, but his troops recovered and on the second day of the fighting compelled the Confederates to retreat to Corinth. Grant was temporarily superseded by Henry W. Halleck but was restored to departmental command after Halleck went to Washington as general in chief. That autumn Grant contemplated a two-pronged assault against Vicksburg . He would move overland through the state while William Tecumseh Sherman sailed from Memphis; together the two might capture Vicksburg. Grant’s plan went awry after Confederate cavalry under Earl Van Dorn captured and burned the Union supply depot at Holly Springs while Nathan Bedford Forrest wreaked havoc on Grant’s communications line. Grant abandoned his plan and withdrew to Memphis while Sherman debarked above Vicksburg and was repulsed at Chickasaw Bayou in late December.
Despite this inauspicious beginning, an undaunted Grant took charge of an assortment of Federal units on both sides of the Mississippi River. He did so in part because an army rival, Maj. Gen. John A. McClernand, was contemplating the idea of leading a force down the river against Vicksburg. Both Grant and Sherman distrusted McClernand’s abilities and eventually loathed him. Throughout the winter and spring of 1862–63 Grant attempted to gain ground and thus position himself to attack Vicksburg: his unsuccessful efforts included several canal projects designed in part to bypass Vicksburg batteries, an ambitious plan to utilize the waterways of the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta (the Yazoo Pass expedition), and another involving naval vessels moving through a labyrinth of bayous, rivers, and streams (the Steele’s Bayou expedition). Grant later downplayed these efforts, but he may have harbored greater hopes than he later implied. He defended the canal projects as a means of keeping the men busy, but disease stalked the regiments and stirred criticism.
In mid-April, Grant and Adm. David Dixon Porter agreed to a bold venture. Porter ran several gunboats and transports past the Vicksburg batteries while army units marched down the Louisiana side of the river. On 30 April 1863 the navy began ferrying Grant’s forces across the Mississippi. Grant felt enormous relief when his men had safely reached “dry ground on the same side of the river with the enemy.” He rapidly spread out his army, keeping the Confederates unsure of his movements and intentions. His soldiers carried just a few days’ rations. Battles were fought and won at Grand Gulf, Port Gibson, Raymond, Jackson, Champion Hill, and the Big Black River. Two assaults on Vicksburg were repelled in May, and Grant reluctantly settled down to a siege that ended with Confederate capitulation on 4 July. It was a masterful campaign of maneuver and combat, boldly conceived and expertly executed. Sherman had remonstrated against Grant’s plan, arguing that it might end disastrously, and Lincoln confessed in a congratulatory message that he had viewed Grant’s movements after his initial successes at Grand Gulf and Port Gibson as mistaken. Grant allayed those fears.
Grant also paid attention to political realities. The 1862 elections had not gone well for the administration, and he recognized that victories were needed to buoy spirits in the North. Unlike Sherman, who disliked African Americans and resented the idea of enlisting black men, Grant accepted the Emancipation Proclamation and supported humanitarian efforts on behalf of escaped slaves. When Adj. Gen. Lorenzo Thomas came to the Mississippi Valley in 1863 to enlist black men into military service, Grant allowed Thomas to work unfettered and posed no obstacles. All of these things help to explain why Lincoln sustained Grant despite some considerable false starts in late 1862 and early 1863. One can only speculate how Lincoln would have reacted if Grant had suffered a dreadful reverse after crossing the Mississippi.
Vicksburg was Grant’s greatest campaign. Lost Cause apologists later assailed Grant as a butcher, citing his high casualties during the 1864–65 campaign in Virginia. But Grant was no butcher in Mississippi in the spring and summer of 1863. He abandoned his supply base, moved quickly, landed one blow after another, and kept one eye on Gen. Joseph E. Johnston’s forces while attacking Vicksburg. Grant suffered relatively low casualties while keeping the enemy confused and off balance, and military officers still study his campaign.
Grant subsequently went from Vicksburg to Chattanooga, where he won fresh laurels that resulted in his being summoned to Washington and placed in charge of the entire Union war effort. His efforts in Mississippi transformed Grant and dealt the Confederacy an incalculable blow.
In 2012 Mississippi State University became the new home of the Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, building a new presidential library for materials about Grant at the Mitchell Memorial Library.
- Michael B. Ballard, Vicksburg: The Campaign that Opened the Mississippi (2004)
- Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant (1885–1886)
- Brooks D. Simpson, Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph over Adversity, 1822–1865 (2000)
- Ulysses S. Grant Collection, Mississippi State University