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The surrender of Vicksburg—a defence of General Pemberton.

By Major R. W. Memminger, A. A. G. and Chief of Staff, Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana.
[Written not long after the fall of the city.]

A sufficient time has elapsed since the fall of Vicksburg for the excitement caused by that event to have somewhat subsided. The judgment of the community was passed while this excitement was at its height, and when the public was comparatively unacquainted with the facts in the case. It would seem at least fair that this judgment should withhold its fiat until the friends of Lieutenant-General John C. Pemberton can be heard in his defence. The Roman citizen could appeal unto Caesar, should justice not be meted out to him. The friends of General Pemberton appeal to the public, and only desire that a man be not condemned unheard.

In passing judgment upon Lieutenant-General Pemberton the people seem to have considered, not what he has done, but what he has not done. They say, ‘Why did he not provision Vicksburg,’ and not ‘Did he do everything that could be done towards that object?’ The army of Lieutenant-General Pemberton, numbering some forty thousand effectives, had to contend against the armies of Grant and Banks, the smaller of which nearly equalled his entire force; the other was vastly superior—and these armies operating three hundred miles apart. In the campaign in North Mississippi, Grant was completely [353] out manoeuvered and forced to retire to Memphis from whence he had set out; the advance of the enemy on Vicksburg via Chickasaw Bayou, met with disastrous defeat, and the combined naval and land attack on Fort Pemberton, Tallahatchie River, was signally repulsed—all these successes are overlooked.

In October 1862, Lieutenant-General Pemberton was assigned to the Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana, and upon assuming command, he at once perceived the magnitude of the undertaking. The army of North Mississippi, but lately defeated at Corinth, and considerably demoralized, required a thorough reorganization. Confusion reigned equally in the Quartermaster, Commissary, Engineer and Ordnance Departments. No system of any kind prevailed, and the whole department was one Chaos.

From this disorganization, order began gradually to arise; chiefs of the various departments were appointed, and through their untiring exertion, aided and directed by the Lieutenant-General commanding, the department was reorganized, remodelled and supplied. Any officer or soldier who served in the army of Mississippi and East Louisiana, can vouch for the truth of this speedy revolution. The duties of the department were arduous and extended, and were met with vigor and energy. Holly Springs, Port Hudson, Vicksburg, points separated by hundreds of miles, were continually visited, and the works at the two latter places were pushed forward to speedy completion. At the same time the administration of the department was by no means neglected; and frequently the nights which might have been given to rest were devoted to the labors of the office.

When the winter season had closed in, and the enemy had begun to threaten Vicksburg and Port Hudson, the army which had hitherto served in North Mississippi was withdrawn to these points. The cavalry—five thousand strong—which had belonged to that army, was separated and sent to General Bragg. To the withdrawal of this, almost the entire cavalry force of the department, much of the subsequent disaster is to be attributed. This proceeding was contrary to the wishes and judgment of the Lieutenant-General commanding, and against his protest. General Pemberton is known to have professed himself totally unable to keep his railroad communications open, and to protect the country from inroads without the aid of a strong force of cavalry.

Grierson's Raid, which occurred in April, and closely preceeded Grant's advance upon Vicksburg, was evidently concerted for the [354] purpose of cutting all railroad communications, and so embarassing the transportation of supplies. It succeeded in this object, which success is wholly attributable to the absence of a sufficient force of cavalry. To supply this deficiency, under the exigency, General Pemberton was compelled to resort to the impressment of private horses, and to mount infantry, which could illy be spared.

On the night bf the 16th of April, the enemy's fleet attempted to pass the batteries at Vicksburg. Some six or seven gunboats and transports succeeded; one boat was burned, another sunk, and the remainder were forced to put back. With the number of guns and weight of metal, it was impossible to effect more damage. Vicksburg, the grand key to the Mississippi—had only twenty-eight guns, of which two were smooth-bore thirty-two-pounders, two twenty-four-pounders, one thirty-pound Parrott, one Whitworth, and one ten-inch Mortar. Compare this with the armament of Charleston Harbor: Fort Pemberton alone, on Stono River, can compete with the entire batteries of Vicksburg. Every possible exertion was made to procure more ordnance, and even guns intended for the navy were diverted for army use. But probably owing to a scarcety of guns, and the time required to transport them, no further supply could be procured, and Vicksburg repelled every assault of the vaunted ironclads, and stood a siege of forty eight days, with an armament of twenty eight guns.

After the passage of the boats alluded to, the character of the defence of Vicksburg, as expressed by General Pemberton, was changed. The enemy could operate from below. He now made a demonstration on our left flank, landing a force at Chickasaw Bayou, also a naval attack on Haines' Bluff, Yazoo River, and at the same time threw a heavy column across the Mississippi River, on the right flank at Brunisburg, below Port Gibson. To meet this column, Brigadier-General Bowen was ordered to move out from Grand Gulf, which he did, holding the enemy for some time in check near Bayou Pierre. Reinforcements were at the same time hurried forward, Major-General Loring in command. General Bowen however, being pressed by vastly superior numbers, was forced to fall back, crossing the Big Black River, after having destroyed the works at Grand Gulf.

In was now General Pemberton's intention to concentrate his troops behind the Big Black, the question of subsistence, proximity to base, and necessity of supporting Vicksburg, being the determining causes. At the same time the arrival of reinforcements was anxiously awaited. [355]

In the meantime the enemy was heavily reinforcing, and apparently moving on Jackson.

On the 14th of May General Pemberton received instructions to move and attack the enemy towards Clinton, Mississippi. A council of war was called of the general officers, and the matter laid before them for their deliberation and opinions. The majority of those present expressed themselves in favor the movement. The minority (among whom was General Pemberton) expressed themselves averse, regarding it as too hazardous, preferring a movement by which it might be endeavored to cut off the enemy's supplies from the Mississippi, and not to move the army from its base—Vicksburg. Subsequent developments show that this policy would probably have defeated the objects of Grant's campaign. His army was furnished with only five days rations, and, as expressed by their own officers, was in almost a starving condition; and the transportation from the Mississippi, a distance of forty miles, open to constant interruption from our forces, was precarious and almost impracticable. It was therefore essential that he should obtain a new base, which could be established only by the opening of the Yazoo river; and his policy was to bring about a battle, as the means of obtaining this end. Certainly under these circumstances, and with our known inferiority of numbers, our policy would have been to have avoided an engagement. Pursuant to instructions, however, General Pemberton moved out of Vicksburg with seventeen thousand five hundred men, and met and engaged the enemy at Baker's Creek, near Raymond. The enemy were at first repulsed; but continuing to receive heavy reinforcements, General Pemberton was overwhelmed by numbers and forced to fall back to the entrenchments on the Big Black. The enemy pushed on rapidly, and again encountered our forces behind these entrenchments, which, however, we failed to defend, and retired in rather a disorderly manner to the inner line of works around Vicksburg. The abandonment of the entrenchments on Big Black necessitated the evacuation of Haines' Bluff, the left flank of that line, thus opening the Yazoo river to the enemy's fleet, and rendering his transportation easy.

Although considerably demoralized by the defeats at Baker's Creek and Big Black, the army was now posted within the trenches around Vicksburg. At this juncture, instructions were received by General Pemberton to evacuate Vicksburg and bring out his army. A council of war of the general officers was immediately called, in which the opinion was unanimously expressed that it was impossible to withdraw [356] the army from its position with such morale and materiel as to be of further service to the Confederacy. While the council of war was assembled, the guns of the enemy opened on our works and Vicksburg was besieged. General Pemberton determined to hold the place, hoping that he would receive assistance in maintaining this obstruction to the enemy's free navigation of the Mississippi river.

At the time of the investment, the garrison of Vicksburg was eighteen thousand strong—scarcely sufficient to man the trenches, and affording no force for reserve. The amount of provisions on hand was estimated at forty days rations, the full ration however being considerably reduced. General Pemberton has been censured for not provisioning Vicksburg for a protracted siege; and to this cause is attributed, as we think erroniously, the fall of that city.

Vicksburg did stand a protracted siege of forty-eight days. It was not provisioned for an indefinite siege nor could be. It has been stated that General Pemberton assumed command of this department in October, 1862; it has further been shown against what difficulties he had to contend in the organization of his department. Some time must necessarily elapse between such organization, and the time when its effects could be felt, before contracts could be made, and supplies begin to come in.

The sources from which Vicksburg could be supplied, were from the country west of the Mississippi via Red River and Big Black; from Yazoo River via Haines' Bluff (the supplies in this case consisting almost exculsively of corn, and being drawn from the section of country on Sunflower and Tallahatchie Rivers, Deer Creek, &c.;) and lastly, from the interior of the State of Mississippi—in which which case they must be transported over long lines of railroad. Port Hudson could be supplied only from the Mississippi River; being distant sixty miles from the nearest depot on the New Orleans and Jackson railroad.

Large standing garrisons were to be supplied at each of these points, at the one varying from ten to twenty thousand, and at the other from eight to fifteen thousand. To accumulate at these points, was evidently a difficult undertaking, considering the daily consumption to be met, and the small number of boats at Government disposal. As soon as the wet season set in, and navigations became practicable, supplies of beef cattle, bacon, corn, and salt were forwarded by Government agents purchasing in the Trans-Mississippi department. But in the midst of this occupation, early in February, the enemy's gunboats, Queen of the West and Indianola, succeeded in [357] passing the Vicksburg batteries, and thus prevented the safe navigation of the Mississippi. The route was re-opened by the capture of the Indianola and Queen of the West, but almost immediately reclosed by a movement of the enemy's fleet. Commodore Farragut attacked our batteries at Port Hudson; two of his vessels, the Hartford and Monongahela, succeeded in passing; the frigate Mississippi was burned; the Richmond disabled and forced to put back. Farragut immediately proceeded to blockade the mouth of Red river, as also that of Big Black. Thus ended all hopes of drawing supplies from the Trans-Mississippi Department. Some few boats subsequently succeeded in running the blockade, but such mode of supply was precarious in the extreme, and was finally destroyed by the passage of the enemy's fleet by Vicksburg.

As a source of supply, the country on Sunflower River, Deer Creek, etc., was not neglected. These streams were not navigable until later in the winter season, and operations could not be commenced so soon. Light draft boats from those above the Raft at Haines' Bluff, were fitted up and sent after corn; but the great difficulty was to obtain the corn on the banks of the river. The planters generally expressed their inability to haul to such points, being without any means of transportation. Hence very little of the grain in those fertile sections was available to the army. Any one acquainted with the Mississippi bottom lands can vouch for the difficulty—almost impracticability—of transportation during the winter season. But even these operations were frustrated by the passage of the enemy through Yazoo Pass, their descent upon Fort Pemberton, Tallahatchie river, and their naval raids through the numerous bayous which ramify this portion of Mississippi. Previous to this interruption, the grain intended for Vicksburg was unloaded at Haines' Bluff, eleven miles distant, this being rendered necessary by the raft at that point, which was intended to obstruct the passage of the enemy's fleet by our batteries. Furthermore, the mouth of the Yazoo river was closely blockaded by the enemy's fleet, and here again the difficulty of transportation over impracticable roads presented itself. The transportation of a single eight or ten-inch Columbiad from Vicksburg to Haines' Bluff—eleven miles—was a matter of two weeks. Nevertheless corn, and a considerable supply, was hauled over this road.

Lastly, as to drawing supplies from the interior of the State, every means was taken to accomplish this object. All exportation of supplies from the department was prohibited. Depots were established, and agents dispatched in all directions. Supplies were forwarded to [358] Vicksburg, and even Port Hudson, as rapidly as they could be accumulated. The necessity for constantly moving troops to various parts of the department, as they might be threatened, was a serious inconvenience, and impeded the transportation of supplies. That portion of the Southern railroad between Jackson and Vicksburg was in a miserable and even dangerous condition. Accidents occurred almost daily, engines being broken up, and there being a lamentable scarcity of any species of cars. This, the great thoroughfare to Vicksburg, was entirely out of repair and almost impassable. The obstruction offered to transportation by such a thoroughfare can easily be imagined. Notwithstanding all these difficulties, Vicksburg was sufficiently provisioned to hold out for forty days, and Port Hudson sustained a siege of seven weeks.

As above stated, the effective garrison of Vicksburg numbered eighteen thousand. This small force, directed by the untiring vigilance of the Lieutenant-General commanding, and defended by his engineering skill, were enabled to repel the repeated assaults of an enemy flushed with success and numbering, at the lowest estimate, some sixty thousand men. All confess that the defence of Vicksburg was resolute and gallant. Soon after the investment Grant attempted to carry the place by two general assaults, apparently bringing his whole army to the attack. His columns, hurled upon the resolute garrison, were as often hurled back with heavy loss, and leaving five stands of colors in our hands, and the field for miles strewn with his dead, he was compelled to fall back and sit down to a formal investment of the place.

During the siege, the enginerring skill of the commander and his fertility and expedients, were conspicuously displayed. Works which under the unceasing and concentrated fire of hundreds of guns were demolished, reappeared in improved forms which could be suggested only by consummate ingenuity. Works built to withstand guns used in ordinary warfare, were found wholly inadequate to resist the heavy metal of the enemy, and subjected to incessant and galling fire of musketry, the artillery could with difficulty be worked. Here it was particularly that the ingenuity of the Commanding General was exhibited. The position of the pieces was constantly changing; embankments disappeared under the fire of the enemy's guns, but the artillery would still be found in position, and stronger than before. No difficulty could occur for which an expedient was not at hand.

But energy and ingenuity although tending to postpone, could [359] not prevent the fall of Vicksburg. At the beginning of the siege, it was understood and confidently expected that a force from without would relieve the garrison; and this hope sustained the soldiery and the Commanding General during the protracted struggle. But this hope, continually deferred, and finally abandoned, resolved the matter into a question of time and honor. Honor was considered to have been sufficienty vindicated. The time it was considered had come. The soldiers who for forty-eight days and nights, vigilant and undaunted, had watched and fought in the trenches, were worn out. A general assault of the besieging army was confidently anticipated on the 4th of July, and it was improbable that the garrison, exhausted by fatigues, and diminished to fifteen thousand, would be able to withstand this overwhelming assault. The lines of the enemy at some points, were within a few yards of our own; their mines sapped our works at numerous points, and were supposed to be only awaiting springing. Attempts to countermine were made, but of course not always successfully, and in one of these endeavors, the enemy sprung a mine loaded with a ton of powder, blowing up eighty of our men, some of whom were then engaged in the work. Believing themselves to be undermined, the men were becoming restive in the trenches. Provisions also were at a low ebb; it would have been impossible under any circumstances to hold out much longer; and should the place be carried by assault, no terms could be expected, and all the horrors of a sacked city were to be anticipated. The only alternative was to cut through the enemy's lines, or to capitulate. There being no hope of relief, a council of war of the General officers was called, and this alternative presented. It was the opinion of the majority, that it was physically impossible for the men to cut through the enemy's lines and carry the works obstructing their exit—works known to be as formidable as our own. The minority (among whom was the Lieutenant General commanding,) were of a contrary opinion, and advocated an attempt to cut their way out. The opinion of the majority prevailed, the Commanding General yielding to their discretion; and preparations for the negotiation of terms were entered upon—with what success is before the public.

After the surrender, the Lieutenant-General commanding remained with his army, attending to their wants; and shared with them the hardships of the march to Enterprise, where the army of Vicksburg was dissolved on parole.

Such, in the humble opinion of the undersigned, is a brief synopsis of the events, preceeding and attending the fall of Vicksburg. The [360] friends of Lieutenant-General Pemberton cannot see his name made a target for public odium, without doing him the justice of stating such facts as can now be made public. He did his duty manfully. Let justice be awarded.

R. W. Memminger, A. A. G., and Chief of Staff.

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