Invaders in a Foreign Land: Nature, Climate, and the Vicksburg Campaign

By Dr Lindsay Rae Privette,

I spent seven years working as a summer seasonal at Vicksburg National Military Park. It was a natural fit. I was born and raised in Vicksburg, Mississippi, the battlefield had been a staple of my childhood, and I knew its story by heart. Dubbed the “Gibraltar of the Confederacy,” Vicksburg was the last Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River by the spring of 1863. Eager to defeat the garrison and gain full access to the river, Union General Ulysses S. Grant launched a campaign against the city that May. For a month, his army snaked through dense forests and across dirt roads. They fought—and won—six battles in ten days. And in the end, when it became evident that Vicksburg would not fall to a direct assault, Federal troops laid siege to the town for forty-seven days.

Because the campaign and siege took place from May to July, I always worked on important anniversaries. “Today marks Grant’s first assault against the Vicksburg fortifications,” I would tell visitors. “They fought on the land that you and I are currently standing on.” That was always a marvel. I often walked the battlefield, considering how much –or little—the land had changed in a century and a half. Of course there were significant differences. Today the battlefield is populated by tall trees adorned with thick foliage that offers shade to weary hikers. Thick grass covers the rolling hills, arresting the dust. The roads are paved. In other ways, however, the land has not changed much at all. It still alternates between flattened hilltops and deep ravines. By June, the sun is scorching and the humidity is unbearable. Dehydration comes easily. But while these environmental factors are simply a nuisance to visitors today, they were a central component of soldiers’ experiences in 1863.

 

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Figure 1- Today the battlefield is covered with grass and trees, but elements of the earthworks remain. (Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress)

Nineteenth-century Americans placed a lot of emphasis on their environmental surroundings. After all, the environment had an indelible effect on its inhabitants. Compelled to build lives of order and ration, rural Americans set about civilizing nature. They did so by turning the chaotic, unruly wilderness into well-ordered and productive farmland. For most of the men in Grant’s army, this was the proper relationship between man and nature. They came from Midwestern states such as Illinois, Iowa, and Ohio where family farms were fenced into neat plots and crops were planted in orderly rows. Unfortunately, when they arrived in the Lower Mississippi River Valley in December of 1862, they encountered swamps and bayous. The land was densely packed with tall cypress trees and thick underbrush, a breeding ground for alligators, snakes, aquatic birds, and countless fish, not to mention mosquitoes. It was miserable. “While down where we were all was water and swamps,” wrote William Eddington, “The weather was terrible cold and we could not have a bit of fire. I thought we would freeze to death.” [1] For many men, the wilderness contributed to a general sense of unease. Years after the war, Reuben Scott still remembered how darkness fell across the bayou on his first night: “[it] hemmed us in and all settled down into silence and gloom… by the root of the tall cypress trees to pass the night while the wintry winds moaned a tune of loneliness above us.”[2]

Yet as winter faded into spring, conditions improved for Grant’s army. A change of locations moved them from the marshy bayous north and west of Vicksburg to the agricultural communities south of the city. On April 30, Grant’s men invaded Mississippi, cutting a diagonal path across the state from Grand Gulf to Jackson. Here, soldiers encountered land abundant with fresh fruits, vegetables, and livestock. “The planters never dreamed of our coming,” wrote Brigadier General William T. Sherman, “They had planted vast fields of corn and vegetables.”[3] Seth Wells, a private from Illinois, declared Mississippi “the most beautiful [country] I have ever seen.” Wells’ declaration was a response to the way locals had tamed and cultivated the landscape. “The plantation mansions are grand and the grounds and outbuildings are fitted up in fine style,” he wrote, “Each plantation has a splendid steam gin, and some have steam cane-mills as well.” [4]

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Figure 2- Map shows Grant’s movements starting on April 30 and ending with the siege of Vicksburg on July 4. (Map by Hal Jespersen, http://www.cwmaps.com)

Abundant though the land might have been, soldiers faced new challenges as the weather grew warmer. Sunstroke became a growing concern as did dehydration. The march from Satartia, Mississippi to Snyder’s Mill just north of Vicksburg was enough for Wisconsin private Chauncey Cooke to decide he hated Mississippi. “It was a killing march,” Cooke told his parents, conducted in the “hottest sun I ever felt… Hundreds lay down in the corn rows, under the trees, and on the banks of the creeks, many of them in the faint of a sunstroke, others fanning themselves or cursing those in command.”[5] If the heat was oppressive, the lack of water made conditions almost unbearable. As the army wound its way through the country, it kicked up a thick layer of dust that seemed to coat everything in a yellow film. It was suffocating. Unable to escape their environmental surroundings, soldiers anxiously turned to the sky. They prayed for rain to allay the dust and sooth their parched throats. None came.

It was not until siege operations began on May 25 that Union soldiers set about shaping the land to meet their needs. Of course, this was not taming nature for permanent provision. They were altering the land for warfare. Over the course of the siege, Union soldiers dug over 60,000 feet of trenches and constructed 89 batteries. In their spare time, they crafted temporary shelters—referred to as shebangs—from excess timber. They buried these shelters into the hillside where they were protected from the heat, the sun, and the coming summer rains. Some soldiers were fortunate enough to camp near locals’ homes, where vegetable gardens supplemented their diets. Those that did not, regularly foraged through the countryside, enjoying freshly ripened fruits and vegetables. Clean water was the most challenging resource to find. Even then, soldiers were adept at finding fresh springs or dug wells.

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Figure 3- The only picture taken during the siege, this photo shows shelters constructed by Union soldiers. (History American Buildings Survey Collection, Library of Congress)

Of course, Confederates also tried to use the land to their benefit. Their ability to do so, however, was limited. For Union soldiers, life in the trenches alternated between monotony and excitement, between digging and shooting. But Union soldiers were not permanently confined to the trenches. Reinforcement arriving from the river allowed Grant the opportunity to rotate fresh troops to the front every few days. To this end, foraging expeditions not only supplemented soldiers’ diets, it provided them with the opportunity to escape the physical demands of life on the front lines. Confederate troops were not as fortunate. With a fighting force less than half the size of the enemy, Confederate general John C. Pemberton could not rotate troops from the front. Instead, soldiers occupied the trenches full time. The effect was impossible to ignore. “Monotony does not convey all that the sameness of these days imposes on one,” lamented Confederate William Drennan. “There is a tension of the nerves—an extreme anxiety like you may have experienced for a few moments—and [the thought] that you had to endure it long …would craze you.” [6] Enduring the same environmental threats—the heat, dust, lack of water and vital nutrients—but without the ability to mitigate their circumstances, Confederate bodies were taxed far more than their Union counterparts. Ultimately, the Union Army’s ability to manipulate the land and access its resources contributed to Vicksburg’s surrender, and in the end, the Confederate garrison collapsed.

It is easy to study battles like Vicksburg and focus only on the combatants. Historians do it all the time, carefully examining how an individual or collective decision shaped the battles’ outcome. Yet, people only account for a portion of the story. Place matters. The vegetation, climate, and water matters. And in some cases, elements of these environmental factors endure. The land around Vicksburg has changed a lot since Confederate soldiers surrendered the city on July 4, 1863. But walking the battlefield each summer, taught me so much more about soldiers’ experiences than simply reading a book.

 

 

Lindsay Rae Privette is Assistant Professor of History and Anderson University in South Carolina. She is the author of several articles including “Contaminated Water and Dehydration during the Vicksburg Campaign” which will appear this May in American Discord: The Republic and Its People in the Civil War Era


[1] William Eddington, My Civil War Memoires and Other Reminiscences, 5, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, Springfield, Illinois.

[2] Rueben Scott, The History of the 67th Regiment Indiana Infantry Volunteers, War of the Rebellion (Bedford: Herald Book and Job Print, 1892), 16.

[3] William T. Sherman to Ellen Ewing Sherman, May 6, 1863, in William T. Sherman, Sherman’s Civil War: Selected Correspondence of William T. Sherman, 1860-1865, eds. Brooks D. Simpson and Jean V. Berlin (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 468.

[4] Seth Wells, The Siege of Vicksburg form the Diary of Seth J. Wells Including Weeks of Preparation and of Occupation after the Surrender (Detroit: Wm. H. Rowe, Publisher, 1915), 16.

[5] Chauncey H. Cooke, A Badger Boy in Blue: The Civil War Letters of Chauncey H. Cooke (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2007) 61, 63.

[6] Matt Atkinson, ed., Lieutenant Drennan’s Letter: A Confederate Officer’s Account of the Battle of Champion Hill and the Siege of Vicksburg (Gettysburg: Thomas Publications, 2009), 41.