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American Civil War: Turning Points

Battle of Gettysburg & the Campaign for Vicksburg

By

American Civil War: Turning Points

Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter, USN

Photograph Courtesy of the US Naval Historical Center
Previous: War in the West, 1861-1863 | Civil War 101 | Next: War in the West, 1863-1865

Gettysburg: Third Day - Lee's Plan

After nearly achieving success on July 2, Lee decided to employ a similar plan on the 3rd, with Longstreet attacking the Union left and Ewell on the right. This plan was quickly disrupted when troops from the XII Corps attacked Confederate positions around Culp's Hill at dawn. Lee then decided to focus the day's action on the Union center on Cemetery Ridge. For the attack, Lee selected Longstreet for command and assigned him Maj. Gen. George Pickett's division from his own corps and six brigades from Hill's corps.

Gettysburg: Third Day - Longstreet's Assault a.k.a. Pickett's Charge

At 1:00 PM, all the Confederate artillery that could be brought to bear opened fire on the Union position along Cemetery Ridge. After waiting approximately fifteen minutes to conserve ammunition, eighty Union guns replied. Despite being one of the largest cannonades of the war, little damage was inflicted. Around 3:00, Longstreet, who had little confidence in the plan, gave the signal and 12,500 soldiers advanced across the open three-quarter mile gap between the ridges. Pounded by artillery as they marched, the Confederate troops were bloodily repulsed by the Union soldiers on the ridge, suffering over 50% casualties. Only one breakthrough was achieved, and it was quickly contained by Union reserves.

Gettysburg: Aftermath

Following the repulse of Longstreet's Assault, both armies stayed in place, with Lee forming a defensive position against an anticipated Union attack. On July 5, in heavy rain, Lee began the retreat back to Virginia. Meade, despite pleas from Lincoln for speed, slowly followed and was unable to trap Lee before he crossed the Potomac. The Battle of Gettysburg turned the tide in the East in favor of the Union. Never again would Lee pursue offensive operations, instead solely focusing on defending Richmond. The battle was the bloodiest ever fought in North America with the Union suffering 23,055 casualties (3,155 killed, 14,531 wounded, 5,369 captured/missing) and the Confederates 23,231 (4,708 killed, 12,693 wounded, 5,830 captured/missing).

Vicksburg: Grant's Campaign Plan

After spending the winter of 1863 seeking a way to bypass Vicksburg with no success, Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant devised a bold plan for capturing the Confederate fortress. Grant proposed to move down the west bank of the Mississippi, then cut loose from his supply lines by crossing the river and attacking the city from the south and east. This risky move was to be supported by gunboats commanded by RAdm. David D. Porter, which would run downstream past the Vicksburg batteries prior to Grant crossing the river.

Vicksburg: Moving South

On the night of April 16, Porter led seven ironclads and three transports downstream towards Vicksburg. Despite alerting the Confederates, he was able to pass the batteries with little damage. Six days later, Porter ran six more ships loaded with supplies past Vicksburg. With a naval force established below the town, Grant began his march south. After feinting towards Snyder's Bluff, the 44,000 men of his army crossed the Mississippi at Bruinsburg on the 30th. Moving northeast, Grant sought to cut the rail lines to Vicksburg before turning on the town itself.

Vicksburg: Fighting Across Mississippi

Brushing aside a small Confederate force at Port Gibson on May 1, Grant pressed on toward Raymond, MS. Opposing him were elements of Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton's Confederate army which attempted to make a stand near Raymond, but were defeated on the 12th. This victory allowed Union troops to sever the Southern Railroad, isolating Vicksburg. With the situation collapsing, Gen. Joseph Johnston was dispatched to take command of all Confederate troops in Mississippi. Arriving in Jackson, he found he lacked the men to defend to city and fell back in the face of the Union advance. Northern troops entered the city on May 14 and destroyed everything of military value.

With Vicksburg cut off, Grant turned west toward Pemberton's retreating army. On May 16, Pemberton assumed a defensive position near Champion Hill twenty miles east of Vicksburg. Attacking with Maj. Gen. John McClernand's and Maj. Gen. James McPherson's corps, Grant was able break Pemberton's line causing him to retreat to the Big Black River. The following day, Grant dislodged Pemberton from this position forcing him to fall back the defenses at Vicksburg.

Vicksburg: Assaults & Siege

Arriving on Pemberton's heels and wishing to avoid a siege, Grant assaulted Vicksburg on May 19 and again on May 22 with no success. As Grant prepared to lay siege to the town, Pemberton received orders from Johnston to abandon the city and save the 30,000 men of his command. Not believing he could safely escape, Pemberton dug in hoping that Johnston would be able to attack and relieve the town. Grant swiftly invested Vicksburg and began the process of starving out the Confederate garrison.

As Pemberton's troops began to fall to disease and hunger, Grant's army grew larger as fresh troops arrived and his supply lines were reopened. With the situation in Vicksburg deteriorating, the defenders began to openly wonder about the whereabouts of Johnston's forces. The Confederate commander was in Jackson trying to assemble troops to attack Grant's rear. On June 25, Union troops detonated a mine under part of the Confederate lines, but the follow-up assault failed to breach the defenses.

By the end of June, over half of Pemberton's men were ill or in the hospital. Feeling that Vicksburg was doomed, Pemberton contacted Grant on July 3 and requested terms for surrender. After initially demanding an unconditional surrender, Grant relented and allowed the Confederate troops to be paroled. The following day, the 4th of July, Pemberton turned the town over to Grant, giving the Union control of the Mississippi River. Combined with the victory at Gettysburg the day before, the fall of Vicksburg signaled the ascendancy of the Union and the decline of the Confederacy.

Previous: War in the West, 1861-1863 | Civil War 101 | Next: War in the West, 1863-1865
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