Why Was Vicksburg “The Gibraltar of the Confederacy”

Battle of Vicksburg

As the calendar flipped from June to July in 1863, two events changed the Civil War course. The first event occurred in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Gettysburg, a small market town founded in the soft, rolling hills of south-central Pennsylvania on Samuel Gettys farm half a century before, was unknown to most Americans. On July 4, it had become "The Most Famous Small Town in America," as boosters would come to call it.

On the morning of July 1, Robert E. Lee and 76,000 troops of the Army of Northern Virginia arrived in Gettysburg, where they were engaged by 92,000 men under the command of Union General George Meade. [1] Over the next three days fighting would rage across 25 square miles surrounding Gettysburg, finally ending with a desperate Confederate infantry charge across open ground directly into the heart of the Union's defensive line. The attack ended in disaster, and Lee's only invasion into Northern territory was over. More men fought at Gettysburg, and more men died than any battle ever contested on American soil.

With Lee and his army in full retreat on July 4, it was obvious that the South's armies would never be able to conquer their Northern opposition in the “War of Northern Aggression.” However, it did not mean that the rebel cause was lost and, in fact, the Army of Northern Virginia would continue to fight for nearly two more years. The same day, the events took place 1,000 miles in Vicksburg to the west that doomed the Confederacy and ensured their defeat.

An American River Port City Becomes “The Gibraltar of the Confederacy”

Shirley's White House during the siege of Vickburg, 1863

Newitt Vick was an ambitious Virginia minister who arrived on the Mississippi River in 1814 and split his time acquiring Methodist converts and productive farmland. He especially favored the thick, black soils of the bottomlands where the Yazoo River flowed into the Mississippi. He bought as much as he could afford and envisioned a great cotton-shipping port city rising on his land, but Vick contracted yellow fever and died in 1819 before his dreams could be realized. [2]

Family members would carry out Vick's plans, and his namesake town indeed developed into a bustling center of trade. When the Civil War exploded, and Mississippi broke away from the Union, Vicksburg boasted mills, factories, four fire companies, and three newspapers. Military strategists on both sides recognized the city's importance, which became known as "The Gibraltar of the Confederacy," borrowing from the Greek tale of strongman Hercules and the towering rock formation at the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea. [3] Whichever side could control Vicksburg would surely reign supreme on the Mississippi River during the war.

How Ulysses S. Grant broke the Confederate Fortress of Vicksburg

General Ulysses S. Grant

The man put in charge of wresting the Vicksburg stronghold from Southern hands was Ulysses S. Grant. Before the secession of the Southern states, Grant had been a struggling Illinois businessman who had performed without distinction in his training at West Point and combated with the United States Army during the Mexican War. However, the advent of the Civil War energized him and organized a company of volunteers to fight without the benefit of any formal connection to the United States Army.

Grant performed well around the training camps and quickly earned the rank of Colonel. In the western theater, Grant aggressively led his command into battle. After a triumphant assault on Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River in Tennessee, he was promoted to General by Abraham Lincoln. His exploits were trumpeted in the northern press who branded the brash general "Unconditional Surrender Grant," playing off his initials. [4]

Back in Washington, General-in-Chief Winfield Scott had devised a two-prong strategy for executing the war that involved, first, blockading all Southern ports and, second, attacking incisively at the Confederacy the Mississippi River. For its emphasis on inevitably strangling the life out of its adversary, Scott’s scheme was dubbed the Anaconda Plan. [5] But while U.S. naval forces moved swiftly to bottle up ports in the South, the Union commander in the West, Major General Henry Halleck, did little to press the northern advantage in securing the vital river artery. Moves against Vicksburg, perched high on defensive bluffs two hundred feet above the water, were delayed until Southern forces had ample time to fortify the position. In the spring of 1863, Halleck was recalled to Washington to replace Scott and Grant, and his Army of Tennessee was given Vicksburg's job.

Executing the Vicksburg Campaign

It was no small assignment, as Abraham Lincoln had pointed out to his civilian and military leaders, “See what a lot of land these fellows hold, of which Vicksburg is the key! The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket...We can take all the northern ports of the Confederacy, and they can defy us from Vicksburg." Lincoln assured his listeners that, "I am acquainted with that region and know what I am talking about, and as valuable as New Orleans will be to us, Vicksburg will be more so." [6]

Grant examined his position and decided to lay siege to Vicksburg on May 18, 1863. As he later stated in his memoirs, "Vicksburg was so important to the enemy that I believed he would make the most strenuous efforts to raise the siege, even at the risk of losing ground elsewhere." [7]Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant, page 37. He was right. Union troops scored important victories in several skirmishes in places like Champion Hill and Port Gibson, and Jackson during the Vicksburg Campaign. Reinforcements for Confederate Lt. General John Clifford Pemberton inside Vicksburg never materialized as hoped, and with food running out, he surrendered the city on July 4, 1863. The South also gave up 30,000 men, 60,000 much-needed rifles, and roughly 12 percent of the nascent nation's canon. [8]

Lincoln Finally finds His Man

Vicksburg's loss severed the states of Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas from the Confederacy's remainder. But the implications of the Vicksburg Campaign range far beyond the material and strategic losses. What sealed the South's ultimate fate was that Abraham Lincoln had finally found a general who was willing to fight, a commander who would hound Robert E. Lee’s army to the ends of the Confederacy - unlike George Meade who felt it more prudent to allow his victorious army to remain in Pennsylvania after Gettysburg rather than chasing and destroying the rebel invaders.

That very day - July 4, 1863 - Ulysses S. Grant was promoted to Major General, and he would soon replace Halleck as the Union General-in-Chief. It would be Grant's relentless pursuit of Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia, pressing the North's vastly superior resources against his understaffed foes, that would bring the war to an end. The Battle of Gettysburg ensured that the Confederacy would not win the Civil War; the Siege of Vicksburg ensured the Confederacy would lose the war.


  1. Kennedy, David, Cohen, Lizabeth, Lemley, Piehl, Mel, The Brief American Pageant: A History of the Republic, Volume I: To 1877, Wadsworth Publishing, 2005, page 322
  2. ” The Founding of Vicksburg and Methodism: The Legacy of Tobias Gibson and Newitt Vick,” Vicksburg Downtown Murals, Historic Downtown Vicksburg, 2008
  3. Meyer, Ryan, ”The Confederate Gibraltar Falls,” Army Heritage Museum, 2007
  4. Brands, H.W., The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses S. Grant in War and Peace, Doubleday, 2012, page 164
  5. Allen, Thomas B, and Allen, Roger MacBride, Mr. Lincoln’s High-Tech War, National Geographic, 2009, page 23
  6. De Togni, Elisa, “The Key in Lincoln’s Pocket: Unlocking the Door to Union Victory,” Civil War Trust, 2014
  7. Grant, Ulysses S., ‘’’ Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant’’’, Charles L. Webster & Company, 1885–86, page 37
  8. De Togni, Elisa, “The Key in Lincoln’s Pocket: Unlocking the Door to Union Victory,” Civil War Trust, 2014

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