Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The 150th Anniversaries of Vicksburg and Gettysburg

Tomorrow we celebrate July 4 as Independence Day. Today July 3, though, we commemorate the 150th anniversaries of the battles of Vicksburg and Gettysburg. Visitors have overrun Gettysburg the past week. We are all familiar with the battle of Gettysburg, where for three days the Union Army of the Potomac slugged it out with the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, ked by the fabled General Robert E. Lee. President Lincoln delivered a short address on November 17, 1863. The main speech was a masterful two hour oration delivered by Edward Everett. Yet, the self-taught Lincoln bested the former President of Harvard, as many of us have memorized at one time Lincoln’s immortal Gettysburg Address and its immortal lines: “Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” General Meade, who had only been appointed three days earlier as Commander of the Army of the Potomac, was the victor. He had bested Lee, who continuously defeated a host of Union generals. The battle was decisive. No longer could the South pose a physical threat to the North. Lee was condemned to waging a defensive war of attrition to save Richmond, the capital of the South. General Lee’s army started the campaign with 72,000 soldiers. The Confederates suffered 28,000 casualties at Gettysburg. 1/3 of Lee’s general officers were killed, wounded, or captured at Gettysburg. Lee’s army was spent as an offensive force. Pickett’s Charge of 12,500 soldiers, the high mark of the Confederacy, was as effective as the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimea. The South was destined to lose a war of attrition. It lacked both the manpower and resources of the North. Had General Lee won at Gettysburg, he would have been in a position to capture Philadelphia, Baltimore or Washington from a dispirited Union Army. A broken North might have capitulated. Instead, Lincoln and the Union were saved. The celebration and glorification of Gettysburg overshadow the fall of Vicksburg after a siege from May 18 to July 4, 1863. The formal surrender was on the 4th of July, but the Confederates agreed to surrender on July 3. One of the earliest strategic decisions of President Lincoln in prosecuting the war was to split the South in half by seizing control of the Mississippi River. The Mississippi was the interstate highway of the nation in 1860. It was the spinal column of America. The campaign began when General Grant and the Army of the Tennessee captured Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donaldson on the Cumberland in February 1862. These were the first major victories of a Union general in the Civil War. Major battles at Shiloh, Corinth, and Memphis followed as Grant out-maneuvered the Southern generals as he proceeded south down the Mississippi. The Navy captured New Orleans and Union forces moved north. The last Confederate bastion on the Mississippi was Vicksburg, Mississippi, which sits above the bluffs of the river. It was labeled the “Gibraltar of the Confederacy.” Vicksburg had natural geographic defensive advantages. Grant tried two bloody frontal attacks on May 17 and 20. They were easily repelled by the Confederates. General Grant then proceeded to envelope Vicksburg and subjected it to a formal siege. The Confederates ran out of food and munitions. They had no choice but to surrender. General Pemberton surrendered the garrison of 29,495 soldiers to the Union Army. The defeat doomed the South. Communications between the two halves were effectively cut. No longer could the South transport materials and shift soldiers from the west to aid its armies in the east. Between the naval blockade of its ports and the loss of Vicksburg, the South was confined to a steadily shrinking land mass, whereas the North could now ship its resources from the Midwest down the Mississippi into open commerce. Just as significantly, President Grant found the two generals who could match General Lee and other Confederate generals in leadership and ability: Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman. The eastern generals, McDowell, McClellan, Burnside, Hooker and even Meade were found wanting. Even General Meade had failed to follow up the Gettysburg victory by pursuing the fleeing, broken Army of Northern Virginia. Someone once complained to President Lincoln that Grant was an alcoholic. The President is reported to have responded: "Find out what General Grant drinks, and I will send a case to all my generals." Finally, the North had the winning general in Grant. General Grant was moved east in charge of all the Union forces. General Meade technically remained in command of the Army of the Potomac, but General Grant made the decisions until General Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House. Gettysburg limited the South. Vicksburg doomed it. Let us not forget Vicksburg as we celebrate the greatness of Gettysburg.

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