Gettysburg having over 50,000 casualties and Vicksburg only 17,000, I could not understand why Vicksburg was considered more important until I recently visited the Vicksburg National Military Park.
The visit was made all the more interesting when I met park ranger Dr. David Slay. He grew up here in west Cobb, graduated from Shorter University, and received his Ph.D. from TCU.
His warmth was exceeded only by his brilliance regarding the war.
The battle at Gettysburg lasted only three days. The Vicksburg battle actually became a siege that lasted from December 24, 1862, until July 4, 1863. The 178 markers in the battlefield park are spread across such an expansive terrain that the 16 mile road requires two hours to drive through it.
The siege was so extensive that citizens of the once beautiful city were reduced to living in caves. They were literally starved out. Hoped-for relief by Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston never came, thus dooming the city.
To achieve their victory, Generals Grant and Sherman brought their armies down the Louisiana side of the Mississippi River and crossed into Mississippi below Vicksburg at Bruinsburg. They proceeded to capture Jackson before returning to engage in battle at Vicksburg.
At times the battle lines were entrenched within 10 feet of each other. At night, when most of the battle ceased, the men in the opposing trenches talked with each other. Opposing officers often visited during truces declared to remove the dead.
The cost of the battle became more evident as we drove through the graveyard known as the “Bivouac of the Dead” and viewed the 18,000 Union grave markers. The Confederates are buried outside the park.
For two reasons it was called key to the Union winning the war. President Lincoln said of the victory “The Father of Waters, again goes unvexed to the sea.” This enabled Union commerce on the river and for all practical purposes cut off Texas, Arkansas and much of Louisiana.
The primary reason for the battle being considered “the most important and complex battle of the war” was not merely the loss of 9,091 casualties and the surrender of 29,495 soldiers, but that the Confederates lost 20 percent of all of their army’s artillery.
On July 4, 1863, the day after General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Gettysburg, when Confederate Gen. John Pemberton surrendered, it was said General Grant enabled the key to the “Gibraltar of America” to be put in Lincoln’s pocket.
Grant’s strategy is considered one of the most brilliant of the entire war. His success led to him becoming general-in-chief of the Union Army and ultimately the 18th president of the United States.
Five thousand black soldiers were assigned to patrol and govern the city. It began a transition that is still going on.
They, like many of us in Georgia, live on soil once fought over. Even an elementary study of the war will prove to be fascinating with many morals to be learned. I share this as an encouragement to explore the fascinating history found all around us.
The Rev. Dr. Nelson Price is pastor emeritus of Roswell Street Baptist Church.