In July of 1863, 150 years ago, Blue still fought Gray and the fate of a nation was hanging in the balance. Two great battles ensued simultaneously, one to control the western nation and one as an invasion of the north.
At Vicksburg, Mississippi, a great siege was in progress under the command of General Grant. His old friend and companion, John Pemberton, led Confederate forces holding a vital city on the river, in fact, the key to controlling access to the mighty Mississippi. Previously the Union had captured New Orleans, and with the capture of Vicksburg, Union forces would dominate the river, cutting off supplies to the eastern confederacy and opening up trade to the north.
Meanwhile, at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, a titanic battle was unfolding in a place where two armies stumbled against each other. Forces under General Lee had come to the place looking for supplies like shoes. Union forces under General George Gordon Meade had encountered them there and the press of the two armies together had begun.
Coincidentally, both battles concluded on the Fourth of July. Upon hearing the news about Vicksburg, President Lincoln said, “The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea.” Upon hearing the results of Gettysburg, Lincoln began to ponder the meaning of the war and the sacrifices of blood. “Four score, seven years ago,” began his commemorative address at the battle site.
These battles inspired some of the great questions of Civil War history—why did Lee choose to invade the north instead of conserving his forces in defense? Why was the Mississippi allowed to fall? The following books explore these questions.
The Library of Congress Illustrated Timeline of the Civil War by Margaret E. Wagner features photographs from the Library of Congress’ archive and brings you into the war day by day. In late June and early July of 1863 the entries are usually double stacked with the events of the two battles. You can imagine what the telegraph offices in Richmond and Washington must have been like.
For insights into the thinking of the leaders, these two fine books by father and son Michael and Jeff Shaara set the tale and illuminate the stratagems of the generals and the lives of the common soldiers:
Killer Angels by Michael Shaara is one of the great classic fictional works about the Civil War. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1975 and is the basis for the film Gettysburg.
A Chain of Thunder : a Novel of the Siege of Vicksburg by Jeff Shaara, is currently on the New York Times bestseller list and is the second in a four-book series on the Civil War.
Lastly, Receding Tide : Vicksburg and Gettysburg : The Campaigns that Changed the Civil War by Edwin Bearss with J. Parker Hills offers perspective on these two battles. Bearss is the author of more than a dozen books and was the Chief Historian with the National Park Service for 13 years.
150 years ago in June 1863, the ultimate fate of the United States was unknown. By July 1863 it was possible to foresee how the war would end. It was one of the great months of American history.