Most of the Civil War was fought, of course, on the east coast. There were however, some important battles and events that occurred along the Mississippi River and even west of the river. The first significant event to occur where I was traveling was the capture of New Orleans. You might remember me mentioning General Benjamin Butler on my post about Andrew Jackson and the words Butler ordered to be inscribed on Jackson’s statue in New Orleans. Butler had captured New Orleans on May 1, 1862 with a force of only 5,000 men. He eventually had 15,000 men under his command – but at times he only had 2,500 men to control the entire city. He decided that in order to maintain order and control that he needed to be brutal. An example of this was his infamous Order No. 28. It was made on May 15, 1862 – only two weeks after he had taken the city. It was in response to the fact that his troops were not exactly welcomed into the city. Women especially would hit and spit on his troops – even emptying chamber pots on them – the women felt somewhat safe doing this because by the rules of chivalrous society of the day his troops didn’t feel like they could attack “a lady.” His order was kind of a permission slip for his men to defend themselves or even to retaliate against abuse coming from anyone.
“As the officers and soldiers of the United States have been subject to repeated insults from the women (calling themselves ladies) of New Orleans in return for the most scrupulous non-interference and courtesy on our part, it is ordered that hereafter when any female shall by word, gesture, or movement insult or show contempt for any officer or soldier of the United States she shall be regarded and held liable to be treated as a woman of the town plying her avocation.”
If you didn’t quite get that last part - it meant that these women would be treated as if they were prostitutes. He was rather vague as to what that meant. Many in the south (and even the north and Europe) were enraged and thought it might mean that his men could interpret this as a license to rape. His nickname in the south became “The Beast.”
Vicksburg occurred at approximately the same time as Gettysburg. Both battles came to an end – as Union victories – on the same day, July 4th, 1863. While the destruction of Robert E. Lee’s army in Pennsylvania was important (never again would the Confederate army invade the north) Vicksburg was arguably more important to ending the war. Lincoln certainly appeared to feel that way. For it was the General who won Vicksburg who would eventually become the leader of the entire Union Army (Ulysses S. Grant) – not the victorious General at Gettysburg (George Meade).
For one thing – the siege of Vicksburg was in many ways the more complicated of the two. Vicksburg was such a difficult prize for the Union because it is positioned high on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi. It earned the nickname “Gibraltar of the South” because of this advantageous position. President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, called Vicksburg the “nail head that holds the South’s two halves together.”
Grant and his 2nd in command – William Tecumseh Sherman (best known for his “march to the sea” later in the war) planned a two prong approach. Coming from the North Sherman took 32,000 troops along the railroad that ran basically parallel to the river. Grant took his 40,000 troops to Oxford, Mississippi – hoping to lure the Confederates from Vicksburg, which would make it easier for Sherman’s force to take the city. This plan had limited success. From late December, 1862 – May, 1863 there were many expeditions – coming at Vicksburg at different angles. Most of them were abject failures. But by May they had cut off most of the supply lines of the Confederates.
Grant realized that the most prudent way to take Vicksburg with the least loss of life was to “out camp” them. The fortifications built by both sides are still evident at the National Park site today. In some ways it is the most beautiful Civil War battlefield that I’ve seen (and I’ve seen pretty much all of them). The entrenchments are still visible. And the monuments are the most impressive I’ve seen – even more impressive than Gettysburg. Here are some pictures – the most impressive monument – a Greek inspired temple – is from the state of Illinois.
Vicksburg had both symbolic and strategic value. In the words of Abraham Lincoln after the Union victory, "The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea." It was demoralizing to the South because many people thought it would never be taken. Even the people of Vicksburg were confident of their success. When their homes came under threat of Union cannon – many of them dug out caves on the bluff over the Mississippi. The steep hills meant that the Union guns were most likely not going to hit these caves.
The deep trenches presaged World War I, which wouldn’t happen for another 50 years. Many historians have said that the American Civil War was a bridge between the strategy of Napoleon and the strategy of the bunker in WWI. The use of new guns and cannon using old strategy meant that that Civil War was incredibly bloody. At least 620,000 soldiers died in the Civil War. The population of the entire US at that time was only 31 million. Today we have 10 times the population – meaning that if we had the same per capita losses today 6.2 million people would die. That doesn’t take into consideration the wounded – which was almost twice that amount.
The question I always ask myself is “did it have to happen this way?” John Brown thought so – just before he was hanged over a year before the start of the Civil War he wrote a note that stated “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land can never be purged away but with blood.”
My hesitancy at just saying – “this is how it had to happen” is mostly because I think that does not fully appreciate how uncertain the future was at that time. This might seem like something that is so obvious that it isn’t worth saying – but the past has already happened. The bias of being in the future is that it seems to us as if we live in the only possible future. The past appears settled and therefore we don’t appreciate how uncertain it was for our ancestors. The fact that we know the outcome makes the past less dramatic than it actually was. And by pretending that everything had to happen in exactly the way it happened – or the saying that really bugs me, “everything happens for a reason” – we minimize how difficult the road was for our ancestors. We also minimize how much of a difference we can make today. We seem to think that it was obvious to our ancestors how the future was going to play out – it wasn’t obvious. They were grasping at the right path just as clumsily as we do now.
The biggest question about the Civil War is – could we have gotten rid of slavery in a less violent way? Tomorrow my question will be – what did the Civil War actually settle? What position were Black people in our society after the Emancipation Proclamation? or even after the 13th and 14th amendments?