Many of the most decisive battles of the Civil War were fought in the territory west of the Appalachian Mountains and east of the Mississippi River – a section of the country known during the war as the “Western Theater.” And the military commander who enjoyed the greatest success there was none other than Maj. General Ulysses S. Grant.
He is widely considered to be one of the greatest military strategists of his generation. Appointed a brigadier general at 39 years old, the West Point graduate was promoted to major general before he turned 40. President Abraham Lincoln considered him a decisive commander, and Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman stated, “He dismisses all possibility of defeat. He believes in himself and in victory. If his plans go wrong, he is never disconcerted but promptly devises a new one and is sure to win in the end.”
Grant needed to draw on all of those qualities to achieve what many consider his finest hour and a major turning point in the war – victory at the highly fortified Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg, Mississippi. Defended by forces under the direct command of Lt. General John C. Pemberton, the city would ultimately surrender to Gen. Grant and the Army of the Tennessee on July 4, 1863 after an intensive six week siege. But it was a victory that did not come without its share of earlier strategic miscalculations.
The first attempt to conquer Vicksburg in December of 1862 was a two-pronged assault by over 70,000 Union troops which failed due to planning and supply line issues. Additional attempts were made over the next four months, but none succeeded. It wasn’t until the bloody Siege itself, which included vicious hand to hand combat in the trenches and a resolute pounding by the Union Fleet of gunboats positioned on the Mississippi River, that the “City on the Hill” would ultimately fall.
One of those failed attempts was an overly ambitious effort to bypass the guns of Vicksburg by digging a canal below the famous “Vicksburg Bend” in the river, located immediately south of the city. Starting in January of 1863, soldiers and slaves worked around the clock to widen a previously unsuccessful attempt to dig the canal, but torrential rains impeded their efforts and the project quickly stalled.
In early March, Union dredges arrived to finish the job, but the dam gave way four days later and the canal flooded. By the end of March, the Confederate batteries on the bluffs overlooking the river made further work impossible. The dredges were withdrawn and the canal vacated. Several more bypasses were attempted without success, and the idea was finally abandoned. The siege would begin two months later.
Thomas C. Mathews joined the 77th Illinois Infantry with his brother John in September of 1862 and was present during the Vicksburg operations. The two letters presented here, written by Thomas to his other brother William and his cousin back home in Knox County, Illinois, provide us with a firsthand account of the collapse of the canal, the movement of Union gunboats up and down the Mississippi, and the difficulty of digging a rifle pit on the front lines during the bloody Siege of Vicksburg.
– Clifford B. Davids
Aboard the Steamer “Sunny South”
March 9, 1863
Well Brother you must not think that I have forgotten you because I have not written to you for a short time. You know how I always hated to write, but since I have taken this Provost job I have been the only one that we have for this duty, so to tell the truth I have the Company to run and draw for and I also ensure rations to all the prisoners and stragglers–which keeps me busy. Besides, as you know I wrote you since I received your last. I am thankful to say that I still enjoy good health. John is well and has done as much duty as any man in the Company.
Well we were paid at last as the boys call it but only up to the first of November, which was about one and a half months pay—I received $26.60. I will not send any of it home since I have some cook and other little bills to pay, and I will keep the rest to speculate on after a while when the boys get out again.
Well there is a little excitement on the boat just now caused by a new gunboat steaming down past the fleet and opening up on the city with her new guns. She is nearly a year being built in St. Louis, and came down today at noon for the first time and never stopped to say how-do-you-do, but steamed right past and opened up on the city.
The river is very high and still rising and it is getting very difficult to land boats. The weather is quite warm and the woods quite green and the peach trees in full bloom.
The canal is full of water—the dam having broke the night before last. It was not quite done in two or three places, but it will be impossible for anything but the dredges to do anything more. They are moving slowly down and will be through in a week if the Rebs do not knock them to pieces when they go to the lower end, which they can easily do if they choose. The water is from 7 to 9 feet deep in the channel. I see nothing to hinder boats from going through but the rebel battery on the opposite bank–and that will hinder transports till it is silenced.
Our Regiment went on board of a boat this morning to go up the river to the next bend, as a good many troops have already gone there.
Now the boat has stopped firing, run back past us, and is making for the Yazoo where somebody’s big guns have been making quite a noise for the past half-hour. I think just between you and me that there will be a big fuss down here somewhere before two weeks pass, as the canal is nearly finished and the river is high enough to do most anything.
Well Watson, when I left home I thought that the war would be over and the rebellion put down before the last of April next, but I do not think so now. I understand a great many things now about war in general and about this war in particular that I did not understand before, and would just say here that no man outside of the army can know anything about war. Let me add that no man should ever want to know anything about war. Further, you may be thankful that you do not have to know anything about war still. Since we left home we have traveled a right smart distance and have learned a great deal about men and the geography of the country that no man can learn outside of the army.
We have not been off the boats, only the few days that we spent in the Vicksburg swamps, since the last little time that we were down here–and those few days were at the post since we left Memphis–so you see that we are getting to be old boatmen. But I think that the Rebs have a secret society, I mean the Knights of the Golden Circle, that they expect help from–they are determined to hold out, whipped or not, till they have time to do all they say they can. They think that if they can hold out till the next Congress meets, that Congress will say to our soldiers we did not send you out to fight for the negroes—lay down your arms and come home.
This and the fact that Vicksburg, Port Hudson, Mobile, Charleston, Port Royal, Richmond are all harder points to take and further away then any I was going to say. This leads me to believe that the war will last at least till next winter, and I think that there will have to be more men called out, but we must hope for the best. If the one who rules all things sees fit to give me health than I am well willing, even as I love home and friends, to fight any length of time for the downfall of slavery and the rebellion.
Write when you can. Yours as ever.
Thomas C. Mathews
Still Behind Vicksburg
June 4, 1863
I received a letter from you for John today, and by his request when leaving opened and read it. It contained a piece from Chambers which was very well written and worded for him. John was always very glad to hear from home, especially from the little folks. He would have been very much pleased with Chambers letter if he had been here, but I hope that he will soon be where he can talk to the little folks and the big folks, which is much better than letters.
As I said before, I think that John is entitled to a discharge and I think that whoever goes after him had better apply for one before he is taken, as it is very difficult to get one afterwards. I feel very uneasy about John and want you to write to me the very first time that you hear anything from or about him.
The weather is warm but there is nothing to hinder men from fighting and marching yet. Things are very much as they were the last time that I wrote. We are still digging rifle pits nearly to the enemy’s works. They are very quiet and have not returned the fire of our guns for several days.
We have about two hundred eighty guns planted around the line and they have all got a fresh two hundred rounds of ammunition. They are ordered to open at four in the morning and keep it up for all of twenty-four hours. The gunboats on the river and mortars are to open at the same time.
I do not hear anything more from the east, but I think that if the thing is not played out here before long that Johnson will get a force there that will bother us. Our guns are giving the Rebs twenty or thirty rounds just now. I have not seen or heard anything of Banks forces that are reported to be on their way to reinforce us.
I now believe all the narrow escape stories that I have heard after the sights that I have seen in the past three weeks. I have seen more than a dozen hats cut in every imaginable way in our own Regiment–holes cut through coats and pants and dozens of canteens split with balls and grapeshot. Two of our boys just had their canteens split with pieces of a shell. A man was walking down the hollow yesterday when a stray ball came singing over the hill and knocked the pipe out of his mouth and filled his eyes with ashes.
There is a great game playing here now, and I think that there will be some decisive movements made here before long. Maybe the great deciding battles of the war will be fought in the neighborhood of Vicksburg–we are getting reinforcements every day and the Rebs are reported to be concentrating a large force in our rear.
My health is very good and the health of the boys is generally good. I am glad to hear that things are so good at home. I would like to know how you are getting along with the plow.
Let us hope for the best and leave the event with Him who buildeth up nations and destroyeth them at his will.
Thomas C. Mathews