Vicksburg along the Mississippi was perhaps the most critical of Civil War strongholds. Capture of the city allowed for control of the river which meant that Union generals could effectively cut the Confederate States in half and grasp ultimate victory through a stratagem of deliberate divide and conquer. While the river remained in Confederate hands however, it allowed for rapid reinforcement, redeployment and resupply all along the Mississippi river bed and served as a central hub to connect all the major rivers of the south, connecting the eastern states with the west. With Vicksburg captured and thus the Mississippi river the Union was able to effectively cut the CSA into two disconnected blocs which were both unable to reinforce each other while also being subject to limited mobility and supply. The importance of controlling the Mississippi would inspire Honest Abe to proclaim “Vicksburg is the key. The war can never be brought to a close until the key is in our pocket.”
Lincoln was aware that if the CSA was divided into two blocs with broken supply lines that it would be difficult for considerable Confederate counter-offensives to form in the face of a final and grand Union invasion of the south. It would come to pass that the fate of the war, which up to that time was favoring the austere Confederates, would rest upon control of the Mississippi.
As the siege of Vicksburg by Ulysses S. Grant came to a terminal end the Union army of General Meade repelled the last major Confederate offensive at Gettysburg and the turning point of the war was at hand. The Confederacy, outnumbered and outgunned even while whole, had no possible chance of surviving an invasion by the Union while severed in two. Lincoln was also aware that controlling the Mississippi would cause even more duress on the already collapsing and rapidly inflationary southern economy and might have swayed the CSA government to surrender. While Vicksburg did not guarantee total control of the Mississippi it was the primary stronghold necessary for controlling access to it and its capture would ensure a swift sack of the other gate to the Mississippi: Fort Hudson, which fell just weeks after Vicksburg did.
It is interesting to theorize about how the war might have gone differently if Lee had prevailed as victorious at Gettysburg or if his army had not struck into the north but instead camped further south and assisted in relieving the Vicksburg siege. The 77,000 men under Grant at Vicksburg[i] would surely have been repelled, if not annihilated by Lee’s 71,699[ii] when combined with the sizable garrison already defending Vicksburg. If Lee had been victorious at Gettysburg instead of falling prey to his own hubris[iii] in ordering the disastrous Pickett’s Charge the fall of Vicksburg by siege may have had an irrelevant effect on the war, as Union forces would have had to withdraw themselves back toward the north to defend Washington anyway, making the control of the Mississippi a moot point.
The threat posed to the north by Lee at Gettysburg was the last “ace” up the sleeve of the CSA and his defeat, combined with loss of control of the Mississippi following the capture of Vicksburg would prove to be the death sentence for the CSA, as the rebels would never be able to strike within the heartland of the north again. While the road to victory from that point on seemed grim, filled with attrition, scorched earth campaigning and inch by inch offensives, it must have seemed eventually inevitable, just as it was clear to the troops on the road to Berlin during the Second World War. The enemy would fight the Union all the way but could not again mount any serious offensive. The CSA’s manpower pool had been divided and the precious few resources the country had were unable to be freely exchanged amongst the eastern and western divisions. While ocean transport was made difficult early in the war due to Union naval superiority, it was now difficult to ferry supplies, and it was surely impossible to transport troops via the river.
Lincoln’s decision to spread his armies out to simultaneously attack strongholds along the Mississippi in order to cut the CSA in half while also leaving a large force to defend the north east was probably the most sound tactical decision of the war and ensured a victory in the final years soon to come. Rather than spearheading with a gigantic army in hopes of a sudden victory as McClellan was charged with doing during the Peninsula Campaign Lincoln instead opted to weaken the CSA’s ability to fight by attacking its jugular vein, gambling that his force in Pennsylvania would be able to stop any unexpected offensive. The gamble paid off and soon the CSA would be fully invaded by a dual pronged attack by Sherman into Georgia and Grant into Virginia, concluding the Civil War and forever unifying the nation.
[i] Kennedy, Frances H., ed., The Civil War Battlefield Guide, 2nd ed., Houghton Mifflin Co., 1998, ISBN 0-395-74012-6. p. 172.
[ii] Busey, John W., and Martin, David G., Regimental Strengths and Losses at Gettysburg, 4th Ed., Longstreet House, 2005, p. 260
[iii] Trudeau, Noah Andre, Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, HarperCollins, 2002, p. 530