Two of the most famous battles of the war, Gettysburg and Vicksburg, symbolize the challenges and achievements of Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant respectively. These iconic battles took place hundreds of miles from each other but when both contests culminated in Union victory on the same day, July 4, 1863, across the North it was truly “the most glorious fourth.”
Grant’s victory at Vicksburg was a more important battle from a military standpoint than Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg.
But in its impact on the politics of the Civil War both at home and abroad, the three-day battle in Pennsylvania trumped the months-long siege in Mississippi.
Vicksburg: Can’t Get No Respect
Vicksburg was an important military target taken through a dogged effort marked by daring, creativity and strategic brilliance with unprecedented cooperation between the army and the navy.
Historian Donald Miller argues that Vicksburg deserves much more attention for its impact on the war, its role in Grant’s career and its place in military history.
After more than a year of trying to capture the Confederacy’s Gibraltar on the Mississippi, a heavily fortified citadel protecting one of the wealthiest cotton trading ports in the South, Grant came up with a bold plan and executed it successfully.
He enlisted the help of Admiral David Dixon Porter to run a flotilla with troops and supplies past the guns of Vicksburg and safely land downriver at a safe site on the Mississippi side of the river.
Then, Grant marched his army east into the interior of the state, burning the capital at Jackson, and then turning back west to attack Vicksburg from its rear. Finally, after six failed attempts over a period of seven months, Grant was at the gates of Vicksburg.
He tried twice, first on May 19 and again on May 22, to take the city by direct assault. Both attempts failed. Suffering heavy casualties with little success from these two attacks, Grant settled down to lay siege to the city. After 47 days, Grant starved out Vicksburg’s citizens and defenders alike, leading to the surrender of General John Pemberton’s Confederate army of nearly 30,000 on July 4, 1863.
Taking Vicksburg opened the Mississippi River for Union shipping — “Thank God,” said Lincoln on receiving Grant’s message about Pemberton’s surrender, “The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea” — while slicing the Confederacy in half. That cut off Arkansas and Texas from the eastern states of the Confederacy, reducing valuable shipments of food only a couple of months after bread riots in Richmond.
And to add insult to injury, Vicksburg was the hometown of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, whose family ran large plantations nearby. It was a humiliating loss that should have demonstrated to the world that the Confederacy was not a viable nation able to maintain the integrity of its territory.
If anybody was paying much attention, that is.
Gettysburg: The Sizzle, not the Steak
Gaining such a wealthy and highly fortified city as Vicksburg was a huge military victory, carefully planned and executed. By contrast, Confederates under Lee and Union forces under General George Meade wound up in the rural Pennsylvania college town of Gettysburg by accident.
Over three days of fighting from July 1-3, 1863 both armies suffered nearly 50,000 combined casualties (that’s a combination of killed, wounded, captured and missing). But Lee lost 28,000, more than a third of his army, while Union commander George Meade lost 20,000. Since Confederate troops were harder to replace than Union losses, for its impact on depleting Lee’s army alone, Gettysburg counted as a big Union victory.
It also didn’t hurt that Gettysburg was made for storytelling then and for a century and a half to come. In our own time, its battlefield heroes on both sides were dramatized so memorably in Michael Shaara’s 1974 novel The Killer Angels and Ron Maxwell’s 1993 film Gettysburg, from Lee himself to James Longstreet, George Pickett and Joshua Chamberlain to the stalwart Billy Yank, often an immigrant, represented by fictional Sergeant Buster Kilrain. The capture of Seminary Ridge, the defense of Little Round Top and of course Pickett’s Charge are the stuff of epic poetry.
Lee has been criticized ever since for ordering the famous suicidal charge under George Pickett. But the daring move also enhanced Lee’s reputation for battlefield risk-taking and even panache, which appealed to the Confederate public and continued to frighten Northerners.
Despite the huge loss to both armies but especially to Lee’s, the battle’s military impact on the outcome of the war was marginal. After accounting for their casualties on July 4, both the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac remained in the field. Lee and Meade simply left the area and both sides continued to fight much as they had before the battle. They did that for nearly two more years.
Vicksburg was a bigger deal in military terms than Gettysburg. Yet, from a political standpoint, there’s no comparison between these two battles.
Grant’s victory way down in far-away Vicksburg was big news for a few weeks but soon faded from the headlines in eastern cities whose newspapers were read by leaders on both sides.
Gettysburg, accessible by train from Washington, became much more than a college town in southern Pennsylvania or even a big battle. Gettysburg went on to become the most famous presidential speech in American history, the country’s first national cemetery and, in the decades after the war, the Vatican of Civil War memory. Civil War tourism defines the identity of Gettysburg today, boosted by a best-selling novel and an epic movie.
Lee was never going to capture and hold Gettysburg as Grant did with Vicksburg, keeping the Mississippi open to Union shipping for the remainder of the war. While it wasn’t about capturing enemy territory, Lee’s raid into the North did have limited military objectives, primarily to take the attack to the enemy’s home turf and spare Virginia from fighting for a while.
But Lee’s incursion north of the Mason Dixon line was more about politics than battle strategy. A Southern offensive into the North was meant to boost civilian morale back home in Richmond and bust morale in Washington, New York, Boston and Chicago, hoping to hurt Lincoln’s party and boost anti-war Democrats.
Even in his loss — celebrated in the North, mourned in the South and noted in Europe — Lee succeeded in taking the war to the enemy, burnishing his image as an impossibly bold and nearly godlike commander.
These two battles were some of the most important in the Civil War. Yet, neither Vicksburg nor Gettysburg were turning points that ensured Union victory as of July 1863, according to historian Gary Gallagher.
The Confederates still could have won the war after mid-1863, as Lincoln himself recognized when he wrote the famous “Blind Memorandum” to his cabinet in August 1864. That’s when Lincoln feared it was likely that he would lose reelection in November and bring in Democrats who would be much more open to peace overtures from Richmond. As the price of peace, Democrats might have been willing to recognize Confederate independence or at least agreed to reverse the Emancipation Proclamation to allow Southern states to return to the Union with slavery intact.
Gettysburg didn’t even dim Confederates’ enthusiasm for Lee, who remained their chosen champion until he surrendered at Appomattox.
But Vicksburg was hugely significant for Grant, making him into the Union’s hero. Within months, after Grant’s next victory at Chattanooga, Lincoln elevated Grant to command all United States armies, setting up the decisive phase of the war where Grant faced Lee in Virginia in 1864-1865.