May 1863 saw two major events of the American Civil War. The first of these was the death of ‘Stonewall’ Jackson. The South was experiencing many difficulties – be it military or economic – and the loss of a highly talented military commander who seemed to thrive on being in the field as opposed to being in a tent studying maps was a major one. The second important event of May 1863 was the North’s attack on Vicksburg.
May 1st: Stonewall Jackson halted the Union advance against Lee near Charlottesville. Hooker told his junior commanders, much to their astonishment, that the Union army would go on the defensive as a result of this setback despite having a 2 to 1 advantage in terms of men over the South (90,000 to 40,000).
May 2nd: Jackson commanded a force of 25,000 men in an attempt to get behind Hooker’s main force and to attack them in the rear. It was a very bold plan that had to work. If Jackson’s army was wiped out, Lee would have been left with just 15,000 men. To convince Hooker that his men were retreating, Lee ordered numerous trains to ride up and down the Fredericksburg/Richmond railway – even if their carriages were empty. His plan worked and Hooker became convinced that Lee was pulling back his men. Lulled into a false sense of security, Hooker may well have taken his eye off of what was going on and when Jackson launched his attack behind Hooker’s line, the Union army was unprepared. Many parts of the Union army were driven back. However, in an attempt to know what was going on at the front, Jackson went to the front line to assess the situation for himself. One of his own men did not recognise him and shot him. Jackson was badly wounded.
May 3rd: Hooker lost the Battle of Chancellorsville and he ordered the Army of the Potomac to prepare for a retreat. However, not knowing of this, General Sedgwick, believing that an attack on Fredericksburg would be successful, ordered such an attack. Initially he was very successful and captured 15 cannon and 1000 prisoners. However, without any support from Hooker he was totally isolated and at the mercy of Lee’s army.
May 4th: Sedgwick’s men held off the first assaults on their positions by Lee’s army. Then in a stroke of fortune, the whole area was shrouded in fog and Sedgwick used this to get his men out of Fredericksburg without further loss. In a Council of War, Hooker announced that the Army of the Potomac was to retreat to Falmouth, Virginia.
May 5th: Very heavy rain helped Hooker’s army in their retreat as it greatly hindered Lee’s army in its efforts to follow up its successes in May.
May 6th: The last of the Union’s army had withdrawn. The Battle of Chancellorsville was a huge success for Lee and Jackson and if the weather had been better could have been a lot worse for Hooker. Hooker lost 17,000 men despite a 2 to 1 advantage over Lee. However, while the Union could sustain such losses, the South lost 13,000 men and they could not survive such a rate of attrition. The Confederacy agreed to spend $2 million on purchasing European naval ships. The requirement for the ships was simple: they had to be able to operate in the Atlantic yet be able to sail up the River Mississippi. The leaders of the Confederacy believed that such a ship would be able to break the Union blockade of southern ports.
May 8th: Nearly a week after being accidentally shot by one of his own men, it became obvious that the wounds suffered by ‘Stonewall’ Jackson were life threatening. An arm had already been amputated but a chronic infection meant that he wasn’t expected to live. Nearly one week after the shooting, Jackson was drifting in and out of consciousness.
May 9th: General Grant threatened to take Vicksburg, the key to the Mississippi. The Confederate leader, Davis, promised commanders in the city every means of support. The Confederate defenders of Vicksburg had a dislocated intelligence system and so had little knowledge of Grant’s movements.
May 10th: ‘Stonewall’ Jackson died.
May 14th: Jackson fell to Generals Sherman and McPherson. The Union government continued to put pressure on Great Britain not to sell naval boats to the South.
May 15th: Sherman destroyed manufacturing centres and railroads in and around Jackson so that when Union forces moved on, they could not be reused by those who lived in Jackson – and supported the Confederacy. It was a foretaste of what he would do in future months.
May 16th: Union forces attacked Southern forces defending Vicksburg at Champion’s Hill. The South had 22,000 men and faced a Union force of 27,000. Both sides suffered 2,000 casualties – though the Union army was better able to cope with such casualties. However, the South commander, John Pemberton, made one major error. Rather than keeping his men out in the field to face Union forces, Pemberton withdrew them to the poorly defended Vicksburg.
May 17th: At dawn Union forces attacked Confederate defences at Big Black Rock, just outside of Vicksburg. The attack was so swift that the defenders only had time to get off one volley of shots before being overrun. The North captured 1,700 Confederate troops and 18 cannon and lost just 39 dead and 237 wounded.
May 18th: Sherman’s leading men reached the outskirts of Vicksburg.
May 19th: General Grant ordered a hasty and not well-prepared attack on Vicksburg. There were two reasons for this. The first was that he hoped to take advantage of what he hoped would be Confederate demoralisation within Vicksburg. The second was that prior to the success at Big Black Rock he had ignored and effectively disobeyed an order by his superior, General Halleck, to withdrew his men from Vicksburg and march to Port Hudson to assist General Banks in an attack there. One way of smoothing over this breach of military discipline would have been a swift, decisive and successful attack on Vicksburg. However, the attack failed and the North lost 900 men.
May 20th: Grant’s men dug themselves in around Vicksburg. Union warships patrolled the River Mississippi around Vicksburg to hinder any Confederate use of the river. However, despite their military success, Union forces had not had it all their own way. They had to make do with five days rations over a three-week stretch.
May 21st: Grant’s troops received their first batch of food in weeks when bread arrived along with coffee. Grant hoped that this would boost the morale of his men and ordered an attack on Vicksburg the following day.
May 22nd: The attack was a failure and the North lost 500 killed and 2,500 wounded. The ruined Grant’s misguided belief that Vicksburg was not well defended. He withdrew his men and ordered Vicksburg to be besieged. Grant later described this as an attempt to “out-camp the enemy”. Grant’s siege line stretched for 15 miles around Vicksburg.
May 27th: Union forces attacked Port Hudson. It was a failure as Confederate troops were well dug in. The North lost 293 dead and 1545 wounded. As at Vicksburg, a decision was taken to besiege Port Hudson.
May 28th: The Union siege at Vicksburg was hampered by the fact that Grant had marched with small and manoeuvrable artillery. Therefore he did not have the necessary artillery to bombard Vicksburg. However, this problem was solved when large Union naval guns were brought up the Mississippi and installed ashore. Once operational, they were used to destroy known Confederate defences. In 1862, extensive defence lines had been built around Vicksburg. However, during the winter of 1862/63, they had fallen into disrepair and were only repaired after the clash at Big Black Rock on May 17th. 30,000 Confederate troops manned these defences commanded by General John Pemberton. They faced 41,000 Union troops commanded by Grant – though this figure was to rise to 70,000 men by the summer. Life for the besieged citizens of Vicksburg and Port Hudson was hard as food and fresh water supplies dwindled.