by Dr. Donald S. Frazier, McMurry University
The United States War Department established Vicksburg National Military Park on February 21, 1899. Their purpose was to commemorate the struggle to reduce this Confederate bastion on the Mississippi and to keep fresh the memory of the soldiers and sailors who struggled over those steep hillsides and ravines just thirty-three years before. Confederate President Jefferson Davis described the fortress as the nail head that bound the two halves of the Rebel nation together; U.S. President Abraham Lincoln said it was “the key” to the Mississippi and winning the war.
Most of the interpretation of the site today focuses on the siege that stretched from mid-May to early July 1863. However, the strategic importance of the so-called Walnut Hills became apparent in May 1862 when officers aboard a Union flotilla, dashing up from its recent capture of New Orleans, demanded the surrender of the town. The defenders, a hastily assembled force of Mississippi militia and Confederate soldiers, rebuffed this advance, and instead directed a gang of enslaved men to quickly build gun emplacements for artillery. These cannon, and dozens more that joined them, would discourage any future Union ships that might nose up—or down—the Mississippi River.
The development of this fort, as well as the extensive fortification at Port Hudson just north of Baton Rouge, would create a stretch of the Mississippi River that would remain under stubborn Confederate control. Authorities supplied these two citadels with rations by scouring the bounty of the local countryside as well as importing beef, hogs, and cattle from west of the river. The Red River, which flows into the Mississippi in this Confederate-controlled region, served as a supply highway stretching all the way back to Jefferson, Texas. Cattle drivers from as far away as South Texas pushed their longhorns through Louisiana, swimming their animals across the great river to feed the hungry Rebels.
In short, the battlefield park preserved by the war department and, later, transferred to the National Park Service in 1933, is only an incomplete telling of the story. Soldiers North and South not only served in the mud of the trenches but also along the bayous of Louisiana as they attempted to preserve, or sever, the vital supply arteries coming from Texas. Port Hudson—so long the overlooked younger sibling to Vicksburg—might arguably be considered more of a key than its more famous Mississippi counterpart. As a result, there is a much larger geographical context to consider that is easily overlooked by a quick visit to Vicksburg National Military Park. Little battles that loomed large in the outcome of the campaign dot the maps of the region—if one knows what they are seeking. From Avery Island, Louisiana, to Raymond, Mississippi, from Monroe to Metairie (also in Louisiana), there are a number of places that played an important part in this struggle, but which lay well outside the modern interpretation of the battle.
There is an even larger human story. The role Texans played is easily misunderstood. Monuments mark the ground held by young men from the various states. Within the Confederate lines, the men of Waul’s Texas Legion and the 2nd Texas Infantry did their part, and the impressive monument raised by the Lone Star State marks their service and sacrifice. However, few Texans make it to the recently preserved battlefield of Raymond, where a Waco lawyer named Hiram Granbury led his 7th Texas Infantry in a stubborn defense against Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s much larger army, buying time for the Confederates to develop a strategy to oppose the Yankee invasion. But where are the monuments to the men of General Lawrence “Sul” Ross’s brigade—the 3rd, 6th, 9th, and 27th Texas cavalries—which had provided so much yeoman service in the months before the siege?
And just across the river from Vicksburg, the men of Walker’s Texas Division—12 regiments of Texas troops—faced combat for the very first time at Milliken’s Bend. They were there “to do something” as one Confederate general requested but also trying in vain to push back Federal efforts at arming the liberated slaves of the lower Mississippi. Ask anyone at Vicksburg what Texans did in this campaign, and most will be at a loss to explain the whole extent of these men’s participation in this cataclysmic struggle. They will show you where two regiments—some 600 men—stood in the trenches, but they will be hard pressed to describe the contributions of the other 10,000 Texans who did their part.
For readers interested in a more comprehensive look at the Vicksburg Campaign, I have penned three books worth investigating: Fire in the Cane Field: The Federal Invasion of Louisiana and Texas, January 1861-January 1863; Thunder Across the Swamp: The Fight for the Lower Mississippi, February-May 1863; and Blood on the Bayou: Vicksburg, Port Hudson and the Trans-Mississippi. All are available on Amazon.com.
For history enthusiasts interested in learning more about Texas in the Civil War, or all of Texas in general, I have created www.diogeneslantern.com. Look for lessons 35 and 36.