April 30, 1863

Some 150 years ago this week two Union armies crossed two rivers. In one case the army stayed across the river; in the other case it recrossed the river within a week. Therein lies a tale worth remembering.

We’re going to hear a great deal about what happened at Chancellorsville 150 years ago this week. Sometimes termed “Lee’s greatest victory,” it was a perfect example of what the Army of Northern Virginia could do under the right circumstances. Of course, it helped that the commander of the Army of the Potomac, Joseph Hooker, failed to live up to expectations (including his own), and that several subordinates fell short. The daring Confederate victory came at serious cost, however: some 13,000 casualties (more than the Union lost at Fredericksburg the previous December), including the loss of Thomas J. Jackson, who fell a victim to “friendly” fire on the evening of May 2 and died eight days later. Moreover, Lee’s men were spared even more losses when a planned Confederate attack on May 6 discovered that Hooker had withdrawn overnight. Had an assault taken place, the Confederates might have encountered a foe ready to do serious damage, much as the Army of the Potomac would ponder the same what-ifs just over two months later.

Yet Chancellorsville achieved little: it is in what Hooker failed to achieved that one must find its significance. Such is usually the case in the major battles in the Eastern theater. Only in our counterfactual speculations do we glimpse the prospect of a truly decisive battlefield victory. If anything, Chancellorsville may have cost the Confederacy in the long term. Convinced of his men’s invincibility (and perhaps his own), Lee would make decisions some two months later that remain open to question and resulted in the bloodiest battle of the entire war; he would make those decisions deprived of his right arm, Jackson, and would soon discover that Stonewall’s absence had forever transformed his command structure’s effectiveness. Personally, I’m not a fan of the “what had Stonewall lived?” school of Civil War history, but neither Richard S. Ewell or A. P. Hill quite measured up to Jackson in the months to come, even if Ewell may have been unfairly and excessively abused by some for his actions on the first three days of July 1863. The fact remains that as tremendous the battlefield victory at Chancellorsville might have been, Confederate triumph there did not translate to strategic advantage, but simply perpetuated a stalemate. The termination of two-year enlistments did as much to diminish the strength of the Army of the Potomac as did the losses suffered in combat in May 1863, and two months later the army would show that it could still fight. If anything, what happened at Chancellorsville blinded Lee to that fact, although he would soon have his eyes opened.

But it is the other river crossing that truly deserves our attention as a game-changer. On April 30 Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee finally crossed the Mississippi south of Vicksburg. It had been the move Grant had waited to make for months. Since the end of January his men had wrestled with weather and wetness to find some way of getting at Vicksburg, as Grant came under more scrutiny and questions were raised about his competence. Washington authorities had sent representatives to report back on what was going on, and Grant understood their purpose. A corps commander schemed to replace him, something that would have seemed more natural had it happened in the Army of the Potomac. All the while, Grant knew that when spring came and the roads and levees dried, he could swing south of Vicksburg and cross the Mississippi. All that was needed was to make sure that the enemy did not know what he was doing and that there were enough transports to ferry his men across the river. By the end of April he had achieved both goals, for Confederate commander John Pemberton was still not yet sure of what Grant might do, while Union gunboats and transports had run past the Vicksburg batteries and were now ready to support the crossing.

On April 30 the crossing took place. Let Grant tell you how he felt once his men were on the east bank of the river:

When this was effected I felt a degree of relief scarcely ever equalled since. Vicksburg was not yet taken it is true, nor were its defenders demoralized by any of our previous moves. I was now in the enemy’s country, with a vast river and the stronghold of Vicksburg between me and my base of supplies. But I was on dry ground on the same side of the river with the enemy. All the campaigns, labors, hardships and exposures from the month of December previous to this time that had been made and endured, were for the accomplishment of this one object. 

It would take Grant just over three weeks to achieve the sort of game-changing campaign that eluded Robert E. Lee in 1863. If Chancellorsville was Lee’s greatest battle, Vicksburg was Grant’s greatest campaign … and it changed things in a way Chancellorsville never did.

21 thoughts on “April 30, 1863

  1. jfepperson April 30, 2013 / 10:34 am

    Amen!

  2. Michael Confoy April 30, 2013 / 10:51 am

    The Army of the Potomac knew it could fight after Antietam. They felt robbed of the complete victory that was staring them in the face. While Grant’s Vicksburg campaign opened the Mississippi, nothing decisive to end the war could occur that far west. There is a reason Grant went east.

    • SF Walker April 30, 2013 / 12:01 pm

      “nothing decisive to end the war could occur that far west.”

      I’m not so sure about that. The war in Virginia was a strategic stalemate up until April 2, 1865, with neither opponent able to capture Richmond or Washington. Meanwhile the Federal armies in the Western theater were crushing the life out of the Confederacy, slowly but surely.

      Union control of the Mississippi had far-reaching effects that had a great deal to do with the outcome of the war. It cut the Confederacy’s supplies of livestock (needed for both food and leather goods) from Texas, as well as its source of mercury from Mexico. Mercury was needed to make percussion caps for small arms and friction primers for artillery pieces.

      The Union victory at Chattanooga in November, 1863 deprived the South of its remaining source of copper; as a result, it had to stop producing 12pdr Napoleon cannon, a mainstay of field artillery during the war. Federal conquests in the West stripped the Confederacy of virtually all the food and raw materials it needed to wage war. On top of that, the Confederates’ loss of the West eventually allowed Sherman’s armies to march nearly onto Robert E. Lee’s back doorstep at Petersburg, where the Army of the Potomac had been stalemated for the better part of a year.

      If anything of strategically lasting value occurred in Virginia later in the war, it was the Federal destruction of the farms in the Shenandoah Valley. But overall, as long as Union forces ranged far and wide in the West, a stalemate in Virginia meant victory for the North.

      • Tony April 30, 2013 / 4:47 pm

        The separation from Texas also severed Confederate ties to the new nitrate deposits discovered in Texas. As a result, the Confederacy was forced to divert much-needed manpower and money into working poor mines in the Appalachians. By the end of the war, the cost to produce gunpowder for the confederacy was ten times higher than that of the union.

        • SF Walker May 1, 2013 / 4:56 am

          Thanks for the information–I wasn’t aware of the nitrate deposits in Texas. Where can I read more about this? I can see how the elevated price of niter would have been a major obstacle—late in the war the CS government already owed to the Georgia Railroad alone some $700,000 in hauling fees which it couldn’t pay.

          I forgot to mention that Texas was also a major supplier of horses for the CS cavalry. Once they lost the Mississippi, the replenishment of cavalry mounts lost in battle became much more difficult, not to mention draft animals needed by the army and civilians alike.

          • Tony May 3, 2013 / 3:16 pm

            I stumbled onto a journal article a couple of years ago that detailed nitrate production in the CSA. I’ll look it up when I get time.

          • Tony May 3, 2013 / 10:24 pm

            Derp! Actually, it was a book:

            DU PONT, DAHLGREN, AND THE CIVIL WAR NITRE SHORTAGE, ALFRED D. CHANDLER, JR., 1949

            Interesting reading … the nitre deposits that the Confederates were working by the end of the war were so poor, that most of the time the Union army simply left them abandoned after capturing them.

  3. John Randolph April 30, 2013 / 11:29 am

    Indeed, Vicksburg was not just another major battle, but a game changer that altered the course of the Civil War. When the Rebel fortress finally surrendered in July 1863, the Union had re-established control over the whole length of the Mississippi River, an absolutely vital strategic transportation corridor for both sides. The Confederacy was effectivey cut in half. From a strategic point of view, it was Vicksburg, and not Chancellorsville or Gettysburg, that was decisive. I agree that Vicksburg was Grant’s greatest campaign, and his brilliant move was a classic example of what English military historian and theorist B. H. Liddle Hart would later call “the indirect approach”.

  4. Mark May 1, 2013 / 8:45 am

    Can anyone recommend good books on the Vicksburg campaign? And how does “The Web of Victory: Grant at Vicksburg” by Earl Schenck Miers rate? It looks interesting.

    • Joshism May 1, 2013 / 4:50 pm

      Based on what I’ve heard, “Vicksburg: The Campaign That Opened the Mississippi” by Michael Ballard is probably one of the best books available on the campaign. I plan to read it myself within the next couple months.

      Winston Groom also wrote a book a few years ago on Vicksburg. Given the nature of his other nonfiction books, it is probably very good writing but a little weak on the research.

  5. rcocean May 1, 2013 / 2:51 pm

    How did the taking of Vicksburg “cut the Confederacy in half”? People seem to forget that the Union controlled the West Bank of the Mississippi opposite Vicksburg from Jan 1863 onward. You also have to wonder why the war went on for almost another 2 years after the Confederacy was “cut in half’ but ended two months after Richmond and Lee’s Army were in Union hands. Looks like Lee and Jeff Davis didn’t get the message that Vicksburg was the “decisive” battle. Further, the battle would’ve been less “decisive” if Pemberton hadn’t stupidly and voluntarily shut himself in and lost 30,000 (?) men not to mention huge amounts of equipment.

    • TF Smith May 1, 2013 / 9:43 pm

      I wasn’t aware that US forces controlled all of northeastern Louisiana in early 1863…huh. Wonder why they laid siege to Port Hudson…

    • SF Walker May 2, 2013 / 1:48 am

      Davis knew exactly how important Vicksburg was. There were two problems, though: first, the Confederates didn’t have enough troops to properly defend both Vicksburg and middle Tennessee, which were both crucial; second, Lee consistently objected to detaching troops from his army to reinforce armies in other theaters. As Sherman noted, Lee, for all his tactical brilliance, was a regional general. His strategic world revolved around Virginia—he was stomping out the fire on the front porch while the whole house was burning down.

      A big part of the reason why Richmond and Lee’s army fell when they did was because of what happened in the West. Because of Sherman’s activities in the South’s heartland, desertion in the ANV went through the roof due to desperate letters from home and because Sherman wiped out the crops of Georgia’s richest farmland, putting the ANV on starvation rations. Sheridan’s elimination of the Shenandoah Valley crops finished the job.

      Between October ’64 and February ’65 some 70,000 Confederates in Virginia went “over the hill.” That’s more men than Lee had on the eve of the Wilderness. Would Richmond and Petersburg have fallen when they did if those Rebs were still in the ranks? Look at how much trouble they were STILL able to give the Army of the Potomac’s $300 bounty men at battles like Ream’s Station, where 3 of the regiments in Hancock’s much-diluted II Corps refused to fight!

      Getting back to Vicksburg, Grant’s clever maneuvering and his victories at Jackson and Champion’s Hill, along with support from Porter’s fleet, left Pemberton with little choice but to defend Vicksburg; it was either that or give up the city without a fight. Both options would have had the exact same outcome. Had Pemberton decided to hand Vicksburg to Grant, how could he have gotten his army out safely and still have been able to supply 34,000 men? He was sandwiched between Grant to the east and the Mississippi to the west, and hemmed in by the Yazoo River to his north and the Big Black to his south. Port Hudson, La. (over 100 miles away and also under Union attack) was the nearest friendly city Pemberton could have tried for.

      • rcocean May 2, 2013 / 6:39 pm

        “Both options would have had the exact same outcome. Had Pemberton decided to hand Vicksburg to Grant, how could he have gotten his army out safely and still have been able to supply 34,000 men?”

        Pemberton could have escaped Grant and joined Johnston at Jackson, which is what Johnston wanted. Grant never thought he had Pemberton “encircled”. You’re the first person I’ve ever read that thought Pemberton was “trapped” and had “no option” but to retreat to Vicksburg . Where did Pemberton ever assert this? Or Grant? Certainly Johnston never thought this.

        • SF Walker May 3, 2013 / 12:47 pm

          Pemberton was indeed trapped and forced into siege by the results of the battle of Big Black River, which happened shortly after his defeat at Champion Hill–that’s what my point was based on–I should have been more specific in my earlier post. He may well have had a chance to avoid disaster by joining Johnston at Jackson, Miss. John Pemberton was thoroughly out-generaled by Grant in this campaign, no doubt about it.

    • John Randolph May 2, 2013 / 8:58 pm

      As I recall, it was Bruce Catton who characterized the outcome of Vicksburg as splitting the Confederacy into halves. I believe his words were “…Vicksburg broke the Confederacy into halves …”

  6. rcocean May 1, 2013 / 2:54 pm

    People forget that out of the 5/12 white Confederates – no more than 1 million lived west of the Mississippi and i may be overstating that. It may be less than 1 million. Add in the railroads, access to blockrunners, factories, food, salt, etc and the Confederacy west of the Old Man river wasn’t that significant.

    • SF Walker May 2, 2013 / 12:33 am

      The strategically significant factor here was not the population; it was the trade in raw materials and other goods from both this region and Mexico, railroad links or no. Particularly the trade in mercury, as I mentioned above. Rifles and cannon are useless without mercury fulminate caps and primers to make them go “boom.”

      Mercury and, as Tony mentioned, niter got a lot more expensive and harder for the Rebels to acquire once the Union riverine fleet was able to blockade and patrol the whole Mississippi. Despite the fact that there were no railroads linking the whole region to the rest of the South, roads and wagons could still do the job, albeit less quickly—and in many places east of the river they had to rely on roads as well.

      Lincoln, Scott, Grant, Halleck, and the U.S. War Department thought the Trans-Mississippi trade was significant enough to spend a whole year and tons of troops and resources to seal it off—this was part of Scott’s Anaconda plan, along with the Atlantic and Gulf blockades.

      It is true however, that the Trans-Miss. itself wasn’t significant enough for the Federals to completely occupy with troops; it was a tertiary theater throughout the war. All that was required was cut it off from the rest of the Confederacy.

  7. TF Smith May 1, 2013 / 9:30 pm

    Steven E. Woodworth’s “Nothing but Victory: The Army of the Tennessee, 1861 – 1865” covers the Vicksburg Campaign pretty well, as well as putting the campaign into perspective in the history of AotT.

    Best,

  8. Ethan S. Rafuse May 2, 2013 / 5:34 am

    Hooker did win the Battle of Chancellorsville. Lee’s army was hurt far worse by the battle.

    Sheez, didn’t anyone read my article in The Civil War Monitor?

    • SF Walker May 2, 2013 / 1:04 pm

      Dr. Rafuse–I’ve been searching for your article without success–what is its title?

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