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Siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi
May 23 to July 4, 1863
by Pvt. Frank H. Mason, 42nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry
Web Author's Notes:
The following is a description of the siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi, written by Pvt. Frank Mason of the 42nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, brigaded with the 16th Ohio. After the 16th Ohio was ordered to the Big Black River to defend against Confederate General Joe Johnston on June 8, the 42nd remained at the siege of Vicksburg for 14 more days until it, and Gen. Osterhaus' entire Ninth Division was sent east to join the 16th Ohio to defend against Johnston.

Mason provides excellent detail on the life and activity on the siege line.

The Siege of Vicksburg

The siege began on the 23d. Batteries were pushed forward to favorable points, within close range of the enemy's line, and protected by heavy earthworks thrown up by night; trenches and covered ways were cut connecting the batteries with the ravines. The extraordinary ruggedness of the ground, which had been such an obstruction to the assault, now proved of great advantage to the besiegers. In front of nearly every division was a natural covered approach, through some defile, to within three or four hundred yards of the enemy's line -- in some cases these distances were less than one hundred yards.

At these advanced points the sap began, and the first and second parallels incident to ordinary sieges being thus rendered unnecessary, were omitted. There was a serious lack of experienced engineer officers to conduct the siege. Generals Sherman and McPherson were themselves educated engineers, and kept an intelligent supervision of their own operations; but McClernand knew nothing of such work, and trenches of his right wing were in charge of a Lieutenant of Engineers, a graduate of the class of 1861 at West Point, and those of his left wing were managed by an enlisted man of the Forty-Second Ohio, who studied "Mahan" and the work of McPherson's Engineers as the siege progressed. Col. Harry Wilson, of Gen. Grant's staff, maintained an informal oversight over the operations in front of the Thirteenth Corps, and saved the novices there from making any serious mistakes; but from want of experienced direction at the start, many a useless shovelful of earth was thrown, and the excellent ground in front of Hovey's Division was not utilized until the latter part of the siege. But with all the difficulties, progress was rapid and substantial. The wonderful ingenuity and adaptability of that army of mechanics, farmers and tradesmen shone out conspicuously from first to last. Men who had never heard of a gabion or fascine, were taught in an hour to make them acceptably of cane and grapevines.

Admiral Porter lent Gen. Grant a heavy battery from the fleet, and volunteers who had never trod a deck in their lives, hauled them up, put the mysterious navy carriages together, mounted the guns, and worked them with consummate skill. Sap-rollers were made by fastening two barrels head to head and wrapping them with the cane that grew plentifully in the ravines. The trenches were revetted with cotton bales, with empty break and flour barrels, or when better work was required, with gabions and fascines, made in the manner already described. A heavy parallel trench, or rifle-pit was cut along the front, in many cases within fifty yards of the hostile salients. These trenches were wide and spacious, with banquettes for riflemen, who ingeniously protected their heads with sand-bags, or by laying heavy green logs, notched on the under side, along the parapets. These advanced trenches were occupied during the day by sharpshooters, who stood with their rifles pushed out through the loop-holes, ready to shatter any head that appeared above the enemy's parapet. Batteries were advanced and shifted from point to point, as closer observation suggested, the field-guns were brought up so close that they could fire through the embrasures of the hostile line, and actually forced the enemy to withdraw his heavy guns to save them from destruction. In all, eighty-nine different earthworks were built during the siege for the protection of Grant's artillery, which, on the 5th of June, numbered two hundred and twenty guns. The ingenuity displayed in protecting these guns in advanced positions from the enemy's sharpshooters, was one of the curious incidents of the siege. The trenches advanced rapidly, the work being done, as usual, mainly at night. It soon became a matter of extreme difficulty and risk to secure ground upon which the zigzag approaches could advance. In some places this was done behind sap-rollers, but work by that method was necessarily slow, from the limited number of men who could be employed. The plan that suited the ardent volunteers best was to push forward the picket-line at sunset, secure ground enough to work upon during the night, and then boldly dig the trench from the top downward. This method was extensively practices in front of the Thirteenth Corps.

The Rebels had from the first thrown out a strong picket-line at night, to hold the besiegers as far back as possible and prevent night assaults. Soon the two picket-lines came together, talked over the situation amicably, and agreed not to fire upon each other at night without first giving warning. This suited the besiegers; but, as they were advancing all the time, and needed to push the Confederates back about thirty feet further on each succeeding night, the harmonious relations were not preserved without great tact and diplomacy on the part of the Union sentinels and their officers. On several occasions, when crowded too far, the Confederate officers swore they would no longer submit to such aggression, gave notice of hostilities, and withdrew within their works. At such times the Union soldiers retired within their advanced trenches, let the enemy blaze away for a time, gave them as good as they sent, taking good care that the enemy gained nothing by such peevishness. The policy was adopted of concentrating all the Union batteries within range upon such portions of the Rebel line as showed any such perverseness, and several highly-spirited and picturesque bombardments ensued from these causes, in which the Rebels invariably got the worst of it. They lost many in killed and wounded, their men were prevented from sleeping or cooking by night, and more than all, nothing was gained -- the persistent Yankees kept on digging and advancing as before. As each evening came on, the Federal pickets would emerge from the front trenches and advance until the met the Rebel line. Lying down within a few yards of each other they discussed various questions -- the origin of the war, the emancipation proclamation, the battles of the May campaign, probabilities of the sieges, etc., et. Hot disputes sometimes arose, but no actual collision occurred. On the narrow belt of neutral ground between the two lines the officers of both armies met, West Point classmates in blue and gray chatted over school-boy reminiscences, and agreed that it was a monstrous pity for two such armies of the same race to be cutting each other's throats.

In all this hard, but varied and interesting work, the Forty-Second bore its full share until Monday, the 22d of June, thirty three days after the investment. The front held by Lindsay's Brigade being, as already stated, within a re-entrant angle of the enemy's line, was unfavorable for sieging operations, which were directed mainly against the salients. The work of the Forty-Second had been largely guard duty and sharp-shooting at the front, and special fatigue duty at other points of the line. On the 18th, several Companies of the Regiment were engaged in planting some heavy guns on the right near the Jackson railroad, and on returning to camp found orders issued to pack knapsacks, cook two days' rations, and be prepared to march at a moment's warning. Ever since the siege began, every intelligent soldier in Grant's army saw that the greatest danger threatening them was not in front, but at the rear. Gen. Joe Johnston, one of the ablest of Confederate Generals, was at Carthage, a few mile North of Jackson, in the midst of a rich country, collecting and organizing an army with which to fall upon Grant's rear and raise the siege.

On the 16th of June, prisoners captured by the small force of Cavalry which Gen. Grant kept reconnoitering beyond the Big Black river, had reported that Johnston's army already amounted to thirty thousand infantry, six field batteries, and two thousand cavalry. Of this force, ten thousand were veteran troops from Bragg's army in Tennessee, and the garrisons of Mobile, Port Hudson and various other places had been reduced to the smallest safe proportions to fit out this army to save Vicksburgh , or at least to extricated its garrison. Gen. Grant's watchful eye had not failed to note carefully the progress of Johnston's preparations. Our reinforcements that had come down the river during the siege, including two Divisions of the Night Corps under Gen. Parke, had been sent to confront the army in the rear.

On the 22d positive information was received that Johnston with a heavy force was approaching the Big Black. Osterhaus was immediately detached from the Thirteenth Corps, and with his find Division marched on the afternoon of that day to Black River Bridge, the point at which McClernand and McPherson had crossed on the 18th of May. The Division reached the railroad bridge at ten o'clock in the evening, and having a high, bluff bank from which to guard the crossing of a deep river with log ground beyond, Osterhaus' position was one of great strength.

The country was moreover pleasant and healthy, and the Forty-Second, like the rest of the Division, was not sorry to be out of the broiling trenches and where duty did not occupy two-thirds of the entire time. All felt sure that Vicksburgh was surely ours, and there was a pang of regret in the thought that after all the hard fighting of the past six months we should not be in at the death, but the consciousness of guarding at Black River one of the most important approaches by which the rear of the besiegers could be attacked, fully consoled the Division for giving up its share in the siege.

Gen. Sherman had meanwhile been detached from his Corps and sent back to take command of this army in the rear. His command included Gen. Parke's two Divisions of the Ninth Corps, reaching from Haines' Bluff to the Benton, or ridge road, then Tuttle's Division of the Fifteenth Corps, then McArthur's Division of the Seventeenth, and finally, Osterhaus' at Black River Bridge -- five Divisions of the finest troops in the service. A line of rifle pits, armed with several field batteries was now quickly cut across the neck of land between the Big Black and the Yazoo, eight miles wide, and occupied by Sherman's command.

Blair's Division went on the 26th and destroyed all the food and forage through the country between the two rivers for a distance of sixty or seventy miles to the Northeast. Johnston could not march an army in by that route without hauling his subsistence, and that Grant was certain he could not do. After that Monroe's Brigade was sent up the Yazoo river to Mechanicsburgh to watch the crossing there and at Bridgeport on the Big Black, and to obstruct the roads.

Osterhaus, finding that Johnston had not come, crossed the Big Black with a strong force, gathered cattle and forage, destroyed what he could not bring away, and likewise obstructed the road. This done he remained on the defensive, and the Forty-Second in its pleasant camp took occasion to wash its clothing free from the red earth which had been ground into it during its days and nights in the trenches at Vicksburgh .

On the 30th the Regiment was mustered for pay, always an event of interest, and on the following day the monotony of camp life was varied by the report of a hot skirmish between Osterhaus' Cavalry Regiment across the river and a force of Confederate cavalry, in which the latter were routed and driven. Thus the days wore on until the night of July 3d, when a courier came with the news that negotiations looking to the surrender of Vicksburgh were in progress, and that it was expected that the evacuation would take place on the morrow. This was great news, all the greater in that the capitulation was to be consummated on Independence Day. The telegraph along the railroad had been repaired back to the city, and we had regular reports. Capt. Ross and several other members of the Regiment were back at the lines on the Fourth, and returned that night, bringing full news of the surrender which they witnessed. It was a happy, glorious day!

Not a moment was lost in idle rejoicings. Gen. Grant was not even present when the Confederate army marched out and stacked its arms. He was in his tent dictating instructions to Gen. Sherman to immediately cross the Big Black, defeat Johnston, and drive him from the State. For this purpose there was to be sent to his support the remaining three Divisions of the Thirteenth Corps, to which was also attached Lauman's Division, and the remaining two Divisions of Sherman's own Corps, (the Fifteenth.)

On the 19th of June, Gen. McClernand had been relieved from the command of the Thirteenth Corps, and sent home to Springfield, Illinois. His place was filled by Gen. E. O. C. Ord, one of the most accomplished officers in the service. On the afternoon of the Fourth of July, within six hours of the surrender of Vicksburgh, Ord's Corps was on the march. The weather was intensely hot and dry, and the march was begun at night to save the strength of the men. Osterhaus' Division at Black River prepared the floating bridge, and, when the Corps came along early next morning, took the advance of the column. The Thirteenth Corps was now reunited, and, with Lauman's Division, was nearly twenty thousand strong Gen. Ord got his Corps across by noon of the 6th...

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