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The Taking of Vicksburg

sailing-past-vicksburgAs already stated, Vicksburg stands on a steep bluff; it is more than two hundred feet above the river. It was, besides, well fortified on all sides, and very ably defended by the Confederate General Pemberton.

Grant soon saw that it would be best to attack Vicksburg from the land side; but to do that he had to convey his troops across the river at a point many miles below that city. The only fleet Grant had lay above Vicksburg, and as he did not like it to run the gantlet of the fire from the forts, he tried to find another way to get the gunboats down the river.

The west shore of the Mississippi River is very low, and there are so many bayous that Grant fancied they might perhaps afford a passage to his fleet. The gunboats, under his orders, therefore went in and out of every bayou, working their way over and under fallen trees, through mud and marshes, until the soldiers laughingly called them “Uncle Sam’s webfeet.” As no passage was found, an attempt was made to dig a canal. But to do this, trees had to be cut six feet under water, and the job was soon given up as hopeless.

Upon the failure of this plan, Grant saw that the fleet must steam rapidly down the river past the forts. This was considered so dangerous an undertaking that the men were told that only such as wished need take part in the expedition. But the Union navy was so brave, and the volunteers so many, that all could not be accepted, and lots had to be drawn to select the number of men needed to man the boats. We are told that those thus chosen for dangerous duty were so proud of their luck that they would not give up their places to their comrades, some of whom vainly tried to bribe them to exchange places.

When all was ready, Porter’s fleet rushed down the Mississippi, one dark night. But the Confederates had such bright fires kindled along the river bank, that the Union fleet was seen as plainly as if it had been broad daylight, and a hail of cannon balls and shells was instantly poured down upon it.

Nevertheless, Porter safely ran the gantlet of the deadly Vicksburg batteries, and, having reached the spot where Grant’s troops awaited him, carried them safely across the Mississippi. As soon as they had landed, Grant marched them to the northeast, so as to get between Vicksburg and the Confederate forces, under General Johnston, which were moving toward that city.

During the next seventeen days Grant defeated Confederate forces at Port Gibson, Jackson, Champion Hills, and Big Black River, and prevented Johnston from uniting with the army that was defending Vicksburg.

Then he completely surrounded Vicksburg by means of his own army, a force under General Sherman, and the fleet commanded by Porter.

Thus hemmed in on all sides, Vicksburg suffered all the horrors of a frightful siege. Before it ended even “mule steaks” gave out, and people were reduced to such strange fare as mice, rats, and pieces of old leather. Meanwhile shells and cannon balls poured into the city from all sides, and as the inhabitants no longer dared stay in their houses, they dug caves in the soft, clayey soil, and went to live there.

The bombardment lasted forty–seven days, and we are told that little children grew so accustomed to flying bullets, and to the noise of exploding shells, that they ceased to mind them, and played out in the streets as merrily as if no siege were going on. But the grown people were very anxious, for the Union troops kept such a keen watch on every part of the fortifications, that when some one put a hat on the end of a stick, and held it for a moment above the ramparts, it was instantly riddled with bullets.

As he had no food left, was surrounded on all sides, and could not expect any relief, gallant General Pemberton was finally forced to surrender to Grant. So, at noon, on July 4, 1863, the Confederate flag was replaced by the stars and stripes in Vicksburg. The Union troops made the courthouse ring with the sounds of their new song, “We’ll rally round the flag, boys,” while “Old Abe,” the pet eagle of one regiment, flapped his wings and screamed aloud; as in battle when the din grew greatest.

The news of the surrender of Vicksburg, with more than thirty thousand prisoners, reached Washington on the day after the battle of Gettysburg, and caused great rejoicing. Five days later Port Hudson surrendered also, and, as Lincoln gladly said, “the Father of Waters rolled unvexed to the sea.” Besides, the Confederates west of the Mississippi were entirely cut off from their companions on the east side, for Union men held the river.

Still, the war was far from over, and the hardships it forced upon the people were daily growing harder to bear. When it first broke out it cost the Union about one million dollars a day, but by this time the expense was nearly three times as much. To raise the necessary funds, Congress little by little ordered internal taxes, and “revenue stamps” were placed on photographs, pianos, and many other objects which were not absolutely necessary. This was a “stamp tax,” like the one which helped to cause the Revolution; but this time the representatives of the people voted for it, and the people were willing to pay it.

Besides this, taxes were laid on other articles, large sums of money were borrowed, and paper bills were issued, which from their color came to be known as “greenbacks.” Every one knew that if the Union came out of the storm safely, silver or gold would be given in exchange for these bills. When the Union troops were successful, therefore, no one objected to paper money; but whenever the Federals were beaten, the value of greenbacks fell, until at one time a paper dollar was worth only thirty–five cents in coin.