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Visiting Vicksburg, Miss., a city that was key to North's victory in Civil War

150 years ago, the Union Army laid siege to the vital Mississippi River town. Some surprising details of the campaign, which ended in Confederate surrender on July 4, 1863.

June 30, 2013|By Millie Ball

VICKSBURG, Miss. — The Siege of Vicksburg was all about the Mississippi River. Whoever controlled Vicksburg controlled the river, and whoever controlled the river was going to win the Civil War.

"Vicksburg is the key," said President Lincoln. "This war can never be brought to a close until the key is in our pocket...."

There's a reason Natchez, Miss., an hour and a half south of Vicksburg, has more stately antebellum mansions today than Vicksburg, which has a few lovelies of its own. When Union troops knocked at Natchez's door in the spring of 1862, it practically laid down and rolled over. New Orleans? The same.

Vicksburg, a city on 300-foot bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River? No way.

Granted, the Union commanded all but the 250 miles of river from Vicksburg south to Port Hudson, La., just above Baton Rouge. But that 250 miles mattered. The Union needed the entire Mississippi River from southern Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico to freely move troops and supplies from north to south and east to west.

It was 150 years ago this week, after the 47-day siege of Vicksburg, that the Confederates surrendered. Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's troops had nearly surrounded the city, and after several failed attacks, Grant decided to cut off all access to Vicksburg and outwait his enemies, depriving them of food and supplies.

Aided by a simultaneous Union victory at Gettysburg, Pa., the Civil War turned from Advantage South to Advantage North.

In late May, I drove 41/2 hours north from New Orleans to Vicksburg for the first time in years, having forgotten more Civil War history than I remembered. It was sunny and sweltering, as it was during the siege, when civilians living here suffered with soldiers.

After a bit, as we say in the South, I understood that at least a few Vicksburg residents still believe the phrase I heard die-hard Rebel descendants say when I was growing up: "Forget? Hell no!"

It's more subtle now, of course.

On the second floor of the Old Court House Museum, an old-fashioned yet fascinating repository of photos, documents and more about Vicksburg, there's a sign over a door: "Honoring President and Mrs. Jefferson Davis." Isn't the word "Confederate" missing?

And when I asked a perky, 75-year-old guide whether she thought the South should have won, she answered, "As a Southerner, I think the South should have won. But as an American, I'm glad we're one country."

Then she smiled like a little girl with a secret.

And I learned one more thing about the Mississippi River. Although Grant's troops couldn't divert it by digging canals, the river changed course naturally on April 26, 1876. It took the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 25 years to force it back so Vicksburg could again be a riverside city.

These are the main facts. Read on for other surprising details and highlights of the Vicksburg Campaign:

A general with few fans. Confederate Lt. Gen. John Pemberton and his vastly outnumbered troops waited and waited during the siege for help from his superior officer, Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, who had amassed 25,000 soldiers north of Jackson, Miss., 45 miles east of Vicksburg.

Was he too much of a perfectionist?, as a park guide suggested. Or incompetent? Or chicken? Johnston was rarely aggressive in leading his troops into battle and had several disputes with Jefferson Davis, who gave him a lesser command than he wanted. Johnston wrote Davis that he thought it was "hopeless" to try to save Vicksburg. He never came.

Soldier with a secret. Those who fought beside Union Pvt. Albert Cashier at Vicksburg thought he was OK, even if he didn't mingle much.

A soldier with the 95th Regiment from Illinois, Cashier was "barely five-feet tall, thin and laconic." He smoked a pipe and liked to sit alone, but he fought, and escaped when captured by the Confederates.

It wasn't until a doctor examined him after an accident in 1911 that anyone knew Cashier was a woman. The physician kept his secret; however, attendants in a mental hospital later outed her after a bath, and hospital officials forced her to wear women's clothes. When she died in 1915, she was buried in her Union uniform. In the 1980s, a second tombstone was erected in Illinois, with her male name and the one she was born with in Ireland, Jenny Hodgers.

Fierce and determined. Black troops fought for the Union for the first time in the Vicksburg Campaign.

Thousands of free men and former slaves had signed up with the Union Army, but many Northerners didn't want to associate with them and considered them incapable of fighting. They had to work as laborers.

Union troops were losing battles, however, and Lincoln wanted the black troops to prove they could fight. They did so May 27 at Port Hudson and June 7 at Milliken's Bend, La. The Union lost both battles, but the black troops were fierce and determined, receiving praise from military and political leaders.

There reportedly were black enlisted men on the Confederate side, but they did not fight.

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