When the Civil War began at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, in April 1861, Mississippi had already left the United States. On 9 January 1861, Mississippi had become the second state to secede, following South Carolina’s lead. But Mississippi’s population was not unanimous in supporting secession.
African Americans—most of whom were slaves—had no say in the matter, while whites whose livelihoods were based on Mississippi River commerce, especially in port towns such as Natchez and Vicksburg, feared the effects of war on the state’s economy. Many residents of the northeastern and southern areas of the state, where slavery was a minor factor, also objected to secession.
Yet secessionists had carried the day, mainly by turning slavery into an emotional issue that could be sold to most of the people as something worth fighting for. Although later observers have claimed that the war was about states’ rights, the Mississippi secession convention declared, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery. . . . We must either submit to degradation, and to the loss of property worth four billions of money, or we must secede from the Union framed by our fathers, to secure this as well as every other species of property. For far less cause than this, our fathers separated from the Crown of England.”
Like many other members of the newly formed Confederate States of America, Mississippi was ill prepared for war. Vicksburg had local guards and a few cannons, but the town did not need protecting early in the war. Untrained men occasionally fired at passenger vessels, causing no damage or casualties. Mississippi’s governor, James J. Pettus, a fiery prosecessionist, attempted to get some small arms shipped to Jackson but received only a pile of metal and wood junk. Though many white Mississippians joyfully joined in the war spirit spreading across the new Confederacy, their cause ended up a pile of rubble like Pettus’s guns.
In early 1862 Vicksburg became the first place in the state to come under attack by Union forces—specifically, the Union Navy. Historians have debated Vicksburg’s military significance, but because both Jefferson Davis, the Mississippian who became the Confederacy’s first and only president, and US president Abraham Lincoln decided that the town was important, the two sides fought furiously over it. Lincoln believed that Vicksburg was the key to Union control of the Mississippi, while Davis not only thought that the town was symbolically important but also knew that the Central Railroad of Mississippi, which ran east to Jackson from Vicksburg, constituted a vital lifeline that had to be protected.
David Farragut’s navy had already taken New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Natchez but failed in its initial attack on Vicksburg, even with the help of Charles Davis’s flotilla coming down from Memphis. Although the river north of Vicksburg had been cleared of the few Confederate naval vessels that had been protecting it, Farragut and Davis realized that taking Vicksburg would require infantry support. Confederate cannons positioned at various levels along the Vicksburg bluffs put up a good fight. And the only Confederate ironclad vessel of note in the Western Theater of the war, the Arkansas, came down the Yazoo River north of Vicksburg, ran the gauntlet of the Union Navy, and held its own until Farragut and Davis decided to retreat until a combined operation with the army could be organized. The crippled Arkansas was later blown up downriver to prevent its capture by Union forces.
But US ground troops were not sent to Vicksburg, primarily as a consequence of events in Northeast Mississippi. After the Battle of Shiloh, Tennessee, in early April 1862, Gen. Henry W. Halleck led a massive force composed of three federal armies to Corinth, where two vital railroads intersected. Halleck’s campaign moved very slowly: Lincoln, frustrated by George McClellan’s inaction in Virginia, had cautioned the general not to risk losing a battle. Halleck’s one hundred thousand men eventually forced Confederate general P. G. T. Beauregard, with half that number, to withdraw south from Corinth. But rather than marching to Vicksburg and easily taking the town, Halleck began dividing up his army, sending forces to Tennessee and Arkansas.
Braxton Bragg, who took command of the Confederate forces at Corinth after Beauregard left under controversial circumstances, led most of his army into Tennessee, both to take pressure off North Mississippi and Memphis and to try to regain territory in the Volunteer State. Halleck ultimately was called to Washington to take command of all of Lincoln’s armies, bringing Grant back into the picture in Mississippi. The scattering of the Union Army had left Grant with the challenges not only of holding the Memphis-Corinth line but also of figuring out how to take Vicksburg.
Before any action could be taken against Vicksburg, two battles cemented Grant’s hold on Northeast Mississippi. At Iuka, east of Corinth, near the Alabama state line, Grant led forces to trap Sterling Price, whom Bragg had left behind. Fighting took place at Iuka primarily because Price and Grant were trying to keep each other from sending reinforcements to Tennessee—Grant to Don Carlos Buell, and Price to Bragg. Price won a tactical victory at Iuka but had to withdraw to avoid becoming trapped between Grant’s two wings, one of which never got into the battle. A short time later, Confederate general Earl Van Dorn, commanding at Vicksburg, came north, joined Price, and after feinting a march into Tennessee turned and attacked Corinth in an effort to return the town and its railroads to Confederate hands. The Union forces there, under the immediate command of William S. Rosecrans, were well dug in, and after two days of hard fighting, Van Dorn retreated, his army shattered by losses, heat, and lack of food.
The Iuka-Corinth Campaign ended military action for several weeks as both sides rested and sought reinforcements for their armies. Jefferson Davis sent John C. Pemberton, a Pennsylvania-born Confederate general, to take Van Dorn’s place after the disaster at Corinth.
The second phase of the Vicksburg Campaign began when Grant advanced south into North Mississippi along the Mississippi Central Railroad, which he used as his supply line. Difficult terrain, bad weather, and Pemberton’s army slowed progress until Grant heard that John A. McClernand, a well-connected Illinois politician, was scheming in Washington to put together his own army to float down the Mississippi and capture Vicksburg. McClernand’s plan was less ominous than Grant thought, but Grant took immediate action.
His friend William Tecumseh Sherman marched his men from Grant’s front to Memphis to lead an expedition down the Mississippi ahead of McClernand. The plan fell apart when Sherman suffered a resounding defeat at Chickasaw Bayou north of Vicksburg, and Van Dorn led a cavalry raid to Holly Springs in Grant’s rear, destroying tons of supplies and forcing Grant to retreat back to Tennessee. Thus, by the end of 1862, Mississippi had seen a good deal of fighting, but it would become much more severe over the next two years.
As 1863 dawned, Grant ordered a series of attempts to approach Vicksburg either from the Delta region of Northwest Mississippi or from the south. Various problems doomed his efforts, though his army’s activities led to mass flooding and damage to Delta farmland, a source of supplies for Confederate forces in Vicksburg.
Finally, in April Grant marched his army down the Louisiana side of the river, while Union naval commander David Porter ran ironclads and other vessels south past Vicksburg, suffering only minor losses from the Confederate guns. Grant planned to ferry his army across the Mississippi to begin an inland campaign south of Vicksburg. Beaten back at the town of Grand Gulf, Grant had to settle for a landing further south at Bruinsburg.
The last phase of the Vicksburg Campaign had begun. After winning the Battle of Port Gibson on 1 May, Grant established a supply base at Grand Gulf, from which wagons loaded with supplies followed the Union Army inland to the northeast. Pemberton kept Grant east of the Big Black River, creating a natural barrier between Grant and Vicksburg. Grant’s army then won victories at Raymond and Jackson before turning west and defeating Confederate forces at Champion Hill (the key confrontation) and the Big Black Bridge. On 17 May the Union Army began crossing the Big Black River.
On 19 and 22 May, Grant launched unsuccessful attacks against Pemberton’s well-entrenched army in Vicksburg. On 23 May, Grant began siege operations, which continued until Pemberton’s surrender on 4 July. A Rebel “army of relief” commanded by Joseph E. Johnston east of the Big Black did not move to relieve Pemberton until it was too late. Grant then sent Sherman to Jackson to chase away Johnston. After several days of fighting, Johnston abandoned the city. Sherman let him go. Johnston’s force was no longer a threat. With Vicksburg now in Union hands, the only other Rebel obstacle on the Mississippi, at Port Hudson, Louisiana, had no choice but to surrender, and large military operations in Mississippi ceased.
In early 1864 Sherman led a march from Vicksburg to Meridian to make sure that the Confederates did not have enough men or supplies to attempt to retake Vicksburg. Sherman’s men met little resistance and destroyed much of the land they crossed, much as his forces later did in Georgia. The only hitch occurred when a cavalry detachment led by Gen. William Sooy Smith encountered Nathan Bedford Forrest at West Point and was chased nearly all the way back to Memphis.
Later that summer Sherman, campaigning in Georgia, sent three expeditions from the Memphis area into Mississippi to neutralize Forrest and keep him away from the Union supply line that ran north of Chattanooga and beyond. These forays resulted in a brilliant Forrest victory at Brice’s Crossroads in June and a bloody two-day fight at Harrisburg (or Tupelo) in July in which the Confederates, technically commanded by Stephen Lee but mostly Forrest’s men, suffered heavy casualties. Union forces led by A. J. Smith were victorious but nevertheless marched back to Memphis because of supply problems.
Sherman immediately sent Smith back into Mississippi to find and attack Forrest. Smith marched his troops down the Mississippi Central, but Forrest, his force weakened by the Tupelo fight, chose not to stand and fight and instead made an end run to raid Memphis.
A winter 1864–65 operation led by Benjamin Grierson, who had commanded a successful raid during the Vicksburg Campaign, ended campaigning in Mississippi. Grierson’s men cut a path of destruction through northeastern and central Mississippi. His troops were so effective that when John Bell Hood retreated back into Mississippi after the disastrous Franklin-Nashville Campaign, few supplies remained.
All of this military action meant that Mississippi’s civilians, towns, and farmland suffered greatly. Houses were burned, especially if Union troops found them empty, as they often were because so many families had fled the state or were hiding in the woods. Towns and crops were looted and burned. Jackson suffered greatly, though both armies contributed to destruction there. Barns, fences, and other farm structures were trampled and used as firewood, as both armies sought food and warmth.
Guerrilla warfare by Confederate partisans contributed to the destruction by provoking the Union troops to retaliate. Despite the fact that such actions contributed to civilians’ misery, the guerrillas remained active for most of the war. Their practice of shooting at Union vessels going down the Mississippi led to so many house burnings that the east side of the river became dotted with chimneys standing where homes had been.
Though little evidence indicates that Union soldiers directly attacked white women and children, accounts show that some slave women were raped by Northern troops. White civilians nevertheless were terrorized by the presence of the hated Yankees, who robbed gardens, stole valuables, cut up furniture and bedding, and in general wreaked havoc everywhere they went. Such examples of destruction grew more numerous as the war went on, but Union officers often attempted to control their men, a few of whom were arrested. White women’s experiences led them to take a hard line against the North after the war, and they were very active in the creation of the Lost Cause movement.
Many Mississippians never accepted the war or the Confederacy, though most dissenters kept their opinions to themselves. A few Vicksburg citizens spoke up after Grant captured the city, and others in the state aided the Union cause by acting as spies or simply by sharing important military information. When most Mississippians realized that the war was lost, especially after the surrender of Vicksburg, some pro-Confederates became depressed and opposed the continuation of the fighting. They may have believed in the ideal of the Confederate cause, but they had no faith in the Confederate government’s ability to protect them. They may have respected their soldiers, but they knew the odds against the Confederate Army were too great to overcome. Aside from anger at Union soldiers’ mistreatment of civilians, many if not most Mississippians turned their backs on war and embraced hopes for peace in the belief that nothing could be worse than the war.
It has been said that the South lost the war and won the peace. But that peace was for whites only, and the seeds of white supremacy sown during Reconstruction crippled the state for decades to come. The effects still have not completely disappeared.
- Michael B. Ballard, The Civil War in Mississippi: Major Campaigns and Battles (2011)
- Michael B. Ballard, Vicksburg: The Campaign That Opened the Mississippi (2004)
- Edwin C. Bearss, Rebel Victory at Vicksburg (1963)
- Peter Cozzens, The Darkest Days of the War: The Battles of Iuka and Corinth (1997)
- Nicholas Lemann, Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War (2006)
- William L. Shea and Terrence V. Winschel, Vicksburg Is the Key: The Struggle for the Mississippi River (2005)
- Timothy B. Smith, Champion Hill: Decisive Battle for Vicksburg (2004)
- Brian Steel Wills, A Battle from the Start: The Life of Nathan Bedford Forrest (1992)