July 4, 1863 (Saturday)
Confederate General John S. Bowen was, it seems, a sneaky fellow. Though he was a true Southern patriot, he knew in his heart that Vicksburg had to be surrendered. If neither Union General Ulysses S. Grant nor the Army of Mississippi’s commander, John Pemberton wanted to break the ice, he would do it for them, lying to both to get them talking.
General Bowen had battled with the Army of Mississippi all through the long campaign. He commanded at Grand Gulf and fought Grant’s Army of the Tennessee at Champion Hill and Big Black River Bridge. And he had suffered the horrors of the Siege of Vicksburg since May 18th, when Pemberton’s Army was forced back into the city.
Since that time, things had deteriorated considerably. With constant bombardments by Grants’ forces encircling Vicksburg to the east and Union gunboats patrolling the Mississippi River, many of the residents had taken to living in caves dug out into the hillsides. Rations were cut and cut again as food became more and more scarce. Even the slaves were brought into town for fear that they might be liberated by Federal soldiers.
The morale of the Confederate troops naturally plummeted. Through late May and half of June, hundreds if not thousands sought to escape the siege by surrendering to the Yankees. Every Rebel coming into Union lines told the same story – provisions were low and soon they would have to surrender.
Surrender had been on the mind of General Joe Johnston, Confederate commander of the Department of the West. At the time when Pemberton locked himself behind Vicksburg’s defenses, Johnston had warned him that doing so would eventually mean the surrender of both the city and the army. It was, in Johnston’s mind, better to give up the city rather than the army. President Jefferson Davis, however, disagreed and demanded that both be saved.
While it looked like Johnston’s prediction was about to be brought to life, he was not without his own demerits. Prior to the Gettysburg Campaign, Jefferson Davis had wanted to send part of General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to Mississippi, adding to Johnston’s own army, which was then gathering in the central part of the state in hopes of breaking the siege. General Lee refused to give up a single regiment. At first, this might have seemed a bit selfish, but as time passed, it was clear that Johnston probably wouldn’t have used the troops anyway.
By the middle of June, Grant’s 77,000 troops had thoroughly besieged Pemberton’s 28,000. The only hope of relief was placed in Joe Johnston’s so-called Army of Relief, 30,000-strong and dug in near the Big Black River, twenty miles east. Though Johnston never believed that he was strong enough to make a move on Grant, Grant wasn’t so sure about it and spent a great deal of time looking over his shoulder.
So worried was he that he detached six brigades under General Frank Blair in the direction of Johnston’s force to act as a buffer. But when Grant heard the rumor that A.P. Hill’s division from Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had been sent to Johnston, he ordered Blair to return.
John Pemberton did all he could to coordinate with him, sending out courier upon courier to get messages through the Federal lines. “When may I expect you to move and from what direction,” he asked on June 7th. Johnston immediately replied that he was “nearly ready to move,” but for some reason relied upon Pemberton to coordinate it. On June 10th and 12th, Pemberton, having never received Johnston’s reply, asked yet again.
Finally, on the 14th, Johnston got a message through and had a fine plan: “All that we can attempt is, to save you and your garrison. To do this, exact co-operation is indispensable. By fighting the enemy simultaneously at the same point of his line, you may be extricated.”
But the very next day, in a letter to Richmond, Johnston concluded: “I consider saving Vicksburg hopeless.” Secretary of War James Seddon had asked him whether it was better to hold Tennessee or Mississippi, to which Johnston replied that while it was “for the Government to determine […] Without some great blunder of the enemy we cannot hold both.”
Seddon was, of course, shocked that Johnston would say such a thing. “Vicksburg must not be lost without a desperate struggle,” replied Seddon the next day. “I rely on you still to avert the loss.” He urged Johnston – “you must hazard attack.”
On the 18th, the day Grant rid himself of General McClernand, Johnston argued that Grant had been reinforced in a number “at least equal to my whole force.” When Seddon told him to act in concert with Pemberton’s forces inside Vicksburg, Johnston countered that it was impossible, but he did promise to at least try to “extricate the garrison.”
The next day, as Pennsylvanians were in a right panic over Lee’s invasion, Johnston went a step farther by telling Richmond that not only Vicksburg, but Port Hudson, Louisiana was also doomed. Seddon did what he could to contrive several different scenarios in which Confederate troops on the western banks of the Mississippi combined with other troops here or there and tried to somehow free Pemberton’s army trapped in Vicksburg. Johnston never directly replied to his suggestions, but in various dispatches that followed explained again and again that all was hopeless.
Johnston was immovable, but still Grant worried. More rumors flooded into camp telling stories of how Johnston might be preparing to make a move. This time, he sent William Tecumseh Sherman and 34,000 troops to stop him. The alarm again proved to be false, but just in case (and because the additional Federal troops were not needed) Grant ordered Sherman to remain in position as a permanent buffer.
Still convinced that at least his army could be saved, Pemberton wrote Johnston again on the 21st that he was ready to try any plan that anyone could come up with to get his troops out of the besieged city. But by then, Johnston had given up: “If I can do nothing to relieve you, rather than surrender the garrison, endeavor to cross the river at the last moment….”
Two days later, Pemberton lamented that if he cut his way out, the city, as well as many of his men, would be lost. Since there seemed no other choice, he asked Johnston if he might not talk to Grant and see if they could come to terms that would be more beneficial for the Southern cause.
“Negotiations with Grant for the relief of the garrison,” replied Johnston on the 27th, “must be made by you. I would be a confession of weakness on my part, which I ought not to make, to propose them.”
By this time, even Pemberton knew all was hopeless. He had grown despondent and depressed. On July 1st, he called his officers together, asking them if they thought it was possible to somehow cut their way out of Vicksburg. All were in agreement – it could not be done, the army and the city must be surrendered.
Then, on July 3rd (the day previous to this), Johnston made a bold statement, promising Pemberton that he would attack Grant on the 7th, but concluded by saying that “if Vicksburg cannot be saved, the garrison must.” This was all very pointless, as Pemberton had already sent a note to Grant requesting a ceasefire “with a view to arranging terms for the capitulation of Vicksburg.”
Far from backing down, Pemberton boldly asserted that he was making the proposal “to save the further effusion of blood, which must other wise be shed to a frightful extent, feeling fully able to maintain my position for a yet indefinite period.” The message was hand-delivered to General Grant by General John Bowen.
Two hours later, Pemberton had his reply. “The useless effusion of blood you propose stopping by this course can be ended at any time you may choose,” wrote Grant quoting Pemberton’s letter, “by an unconditional surrender of the city and garrison.” Grant assured Pemberton that the surrendered troops “who have shown so much endurance and courage” would be “treated with all the respect due to prisoners of war.”
Pemberton had suggested that he and Grant appoint commissioners to arrange the terms of surrender, but Grant was not at all in favor of that because his only terms were “unconditional surrender.”
And then things got a bit strange. When General Bowen returned from his meeting with Grant, he told Pemberton that Grant wanted to meet again at 3pm. Grant never suggested such a meeting, but agreed to it when Bowen brought it up, telling Grant that Pemberton wanted to talk. Of course, Pemberton had never suggested any such thing, and in Grant’s mind, there was no reason for any meeting at all. Bowen knew that a surrender must be hammered out, and was willing to lie to both Generals to make it happen.
When Pemberton and Bowen rode out to meet with Grant, Bowen’s little ruse was discovered. Pemberton was really not thrilled about it and started to call off any idea of surrender, telling Grant, “you will bury many more of your men before you will enter Vicksburg.”
Trying to diffuse the situation he created, Bowen suggested that he and Union General James McPherson try to work something out on their own. This little stunt left both Pemberton and Grant alone. Soon, small talk cropped up. Grant brought up their time during the Mexican War and in the old army as a sort of way to while away the minutes as Bowen and McPherson held their meeting.
By the time the meeting was over, all that was concluded was that the Rebel army be allowed to leave the city unharmed to fight another day. Grant thought the proposal ridiculous, and told Pemberton that by 10pm, he would send him official terms.
Grant met with his own Generals that evening. The question came down to whether the Confederate troops would be prisoners or parolees. Logistics won the day – there was no means of feeding 30,000 addition men. They would be paroled. The surrender would be unconditional, though the officers could keep their sidearms and horses. The formal surrender was to take place at 10am the next morning, July 4th. Pemberton agreed. Vicksburg would be surrendered.
General Pemberton surrendered not only the city, but 29,491 men, 172 pieces of artillery, 50,000 stand of arms and 600,000 rounds of ammunition. To General-in-Chief Henry Halleck in Washington, Grant reported:
“The enemy surrendered this morning. The only terms allowed is their parole as prisoners of war. This I regard as a great advantage to us at the moment. It saves, probably, several days in the capture, and leaves troops and transports ready for immediate service. Sherman, with a large force, moves immediately on Johnson, to drive him from the State.”1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 24, Part 1, p227-229, 283; Part 3, p953, 955, 963, 969, 979, 987; Vicksburg by Michael Ballard; Pemberton, Defender of Vicksburg by John C. Pemberton; Grant Rises in the West by Kenneth Williams; Joseph E. Johnston by Craig L. Symonds; Nothing But Victory by Steven E. Woodworth. [↩]