Carl Sandburg on the Siege of Vicksburg

by Daniel Russ on September 13, 2009

The Siege of Vicksburg Involved Ironclads and Shore Batteries

The Siege of Vicksburg Involved Ironclads and Shore Batteries

History tends to paint a simple broad stroke over what is complex, pulls a single colored thread out of a tapestry and attempts to represent the whole with the part. It must be hard to deliver a ten page summary of the experience of living under a siege. But Sandburg uses simple language and cold frankness and a lovely turn of phrase all at the same time to give you the sense of what it must have looked and felt like both outside and inside of Vicksburg when the Union Army surrounded it and began a relentless artillery barrage; the terror, the boredom, the blood, the humanity,  the frustration. That said, the siege of Vicksburg was a series of lunges, false starts, disastrous assaults, and atrocities committed on both sides. Vicksburg was the key to controlling the Mississippi. To make an analogy, the port of Antwerp was the primary re-supply line for the Allies in Europe. Whoever controlled it would have the key to winning the war in northern Europe. Similarly, whoever controlled Vicksburg would dictate the re-supply of either army for the remainder of the conflict. Grant was determined to take it and Lee was determined to keep it.

Poet and biographer Carl Sandburg wrote voluminously about the Civil War, collecting correspondence, pouring over letters and orders of battle, he made sense of what was hardly and barely understood. In his incredible book, A Storm Over The Land, he describes the six month battle for Vicksburg in a way no textbook ever could.

“Grant’s hometown Congressman, E. B. Washburne wrote to Lincoln in May [1863-Ed.] that Grant lacked style. “On this whole march for five days he has neither a horse nor an orderly or servant, a blanket, an overcoat or clean shirt. His entire baggage consists of a toothbrush.” For weeks the army lived on the country, took the cattle, hogs, grain, supplies, from the farming sections where they were fighting. Mississippi citizens, seeing their food supplies running low, came to Grant asking, “What do we do?” he replied his army had brought along its own food but Confederate cavalry had torn up the railroads and raided hi supply depots; their friends in gray had been uncivil; men with arms must refuse to starve in the midst of plenty.

Grant slogged and plodded, trying a plan to find it fail, devising another plan, hanging to one purpose, that of taking Vicksburg and clearing the Mississippi. His men marched one hundred and eighty miles; fought five battles, killed more than the enemy; took 6000 prisoners, 90 cannon, in twenty days. Porters ironclad gunboats ran the fire of the heavy shore batteries around the long U-bend of the Mississippi, took terrific pounding, lost coal barges and one transport, but came through with the armored flotilla safe. Two other flotillas were put on the Vicksburg operation, cutting off that city from all lines of communication in three directions. Thus with the navy taking care of three sides by water and Grants army moving on the fourth by land side, the Mississippi River was in control of Union forces aiming to make the temporary control permanent.”

Author, Poet, Carl Sandburg.

Author, Poet, Carl Sandburg.

Time and again, Sandburg talks about a hallowed American tradition: bad reporting and it effects on those who follow warfare. What once was a mishap of reporting is now an art in America. Where bad reporting isn’t a twist of fate or an honest accident, it is the policy of media owners who have a stake in a war. William Randolph Hearst was a tyke compared to Sumner Redstone and Roger Ailes in manufacturing lies for profit and expressing faux outrages when the young men and women they mislead go into battle.

“The people in the North, fed by alarmist newspaper correspondents, expected any day to hear that Grant’s army had been crushed between two Confederate armies outnumbering his own. Grant meantime took Jackson, the Mississippi State capital, destroyed railroads, bridges, factories there, ended up cooping up in Vicksburg the army of Confederate General John C. Pemberton…For six month or more Grant, to many people in the North, seemed to be wandering around, stumbling and bungling on a job beyond him. He had outplayed enemy armies twice his own number, far in the Deep South, a long way from home, with climate, mosquitoes, swamp fever of a stranger soil, ever a threat. Food, guns, powder had to be hauled hundreds of miles to reach his men. The imagination of the North was slow picturing what Grant was doing. What was a bayou or a jigger to any citizen of Chicago or Boston? The adventure sagged, came forward, sagged again.”

“War is Hell,” said William Tecumseh Sherman. He knew it well and made Hell for those on the receiving end of his cannons. Like the Allies who bombed German cities into powder, killing mostly the innocent, Sherman felt that making war hell would hasten its end. I’ll leave it up to the moralists and God to judge them. I am a military historian.

Sandburg describes the hell that innocent families went through to survive a siege.

“In hundreds of caves dig in the clay hillsides of the besieged city, women and children wondered how long until the end. One eyewitness told of seeing a woman faint as a shell burst a few feet from her. He saw three children knocked down by the dirt flung out from one explosion. ‘The little ones picked themselves up, and wiping the dust from their eyes, hastened on.’”

War is Hell, indeed.

Sources: Storm Over The Land. Konecky &Konecky, 1939, Carl Sandburg



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