July 1863: Tide turns for South

By Dr. Terry L. Jones
Special to The Journal

Louisiana provided more soldiers for defense of
Vicksburg than any other state.
Artillery bombardments, sharpshooters, and starvation
overwhelmed the South finally.
Those fighting for Southern independence suffered a staggering setback in July 1863 when they were defeated in three separate campaigns. On July 4, Robert E. Lee retreated from the Battle of Gettysburg, and Vicksburg, Mississippi, surrendered to Gen. U.S. Grant. Five days later the Confederates lost their last Mississippi River stronghold at Port Hudson, Louisiana.

At Gettysburg, the Louisiana Tigers were in thick of the fighting. On the first day of battle, they helped smash the Union army and send it fleeing to the safety of Cemetery Hill. During the rout, the Louisianians captured approximately 3,000 Yankee prisoners--twice as many men as served in the Tiger brigade.

At the end of the second day, the Tigers made a dramatic twilight attack on Cemetery Hill. In vicious hand-to-hand fighting, they captured several cannons and then awaited reinforcements that were supposed to help them exploit the breakthrough. When no one came to their support, the Tigers were forced to retreat after being counterattacked by superior numbers.

It was one of the Civil War's great "might have been" moments. The Tigers were the only soldiers in Lee's army who managed to break the Union line at Gettysburg and hold their ground, albeit temporarily. If the expected reinforcements had been sent, the battle might have ended in a great Southern victory.

On the Mississippi River, Louisiana provided more soldiers for the defense of Vicksburg than any other state. They endured daily artillery bombardments, sharpshooter fire, disease, and near starvation conditions. One of the most important defensive positions was held by the 3rd Louisiana Infantry. Known as the 3rd Louisiana Redan, it was subjected to several Union attacks.

Sergeant William H. Tunnard, a 26-year-old New Jersey native who grew up in Louisiana, kept a diary throughout the bloody siege:
May 25th: Another clear and hot day. . . .In the afternoon, a flag of truce was sent into the lines, requesting a cessation of hostilities for the purpose of burying the dead. The effluvia from the putrefying bodies had become almost unbearable to friend and foe, and \tab the request was granted, to continue for three hours.

June 8th: The struggle raged with unabated fury. The enemy's lines were slowly but surely approaching nearer to our own breastworks, and the struggle was daily becoming more fierce and deadly.

June 17th: The enemy's lines were now so near, that scraps of paper could be thrown by the combatants into each other's ranks. Thus, a Yankee threw a "hard-tack" biscuit among the men of the regiment, having written on it "starvation."

Eventually, the Confederates inside Vicksburg were reduced to eating mules and rats, and the civilians lived in caves to escape the constant bombardments. Soldiers like Sergeant Tunnard successfully defended their position, but starvation forced the 30,000 men to surrender to Grant on July 4.\tab \tab \par }{\plain Union Troops Attacking the 3rd Louisiana Redan (Frank Leslie's)

While Grant kept a stranglehold on Vicksburg, another siege was taking place farther down river at Port Hudson. There, Union Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks surrounded Confederate Gen. Franklin Gardner's 7,500-man garrison. A New York native, Gardner was a West Point graduate and Mexican War veteran. He married a former Louisiana governor's daughter (becoming brother-in-law of Louisiana Gen. Alfred Mouton) and resigned from the U.S. Army to join the Confederates.

Gardner's men beat back every attack Banks made on their position. In one day Banks lost approximately 2,000 men while Gardner counted fewer than 500 casualties. A Confederate defender wrote, "We moad them down and made them disperse, leaving there dead and wounded on the field to stink."

Despite their tactical victories, the Rebels could not escape their constant hunger. To set an example for his men, General Gardner was the first to eat mule meat and he later dined on dried magnolia leaves. One soldier wrote, "Rats, which are very numerous in our camps, are considered a dainty dish, and are being considerably sought after."

Despite the inhuman conditions, the Confederates held on until Gardner learned Vicksburg had fallen. Realizing it was hopeless to continue the fight, he surrendered Port Hudson on July 9.

July 1863 saw the tide of war finally turn in favor of the Union. At Gettysburg, Lee suffered 25,000 casualties, and his army never fully recovered. The capture of Vicksburg and Port Hudson was even more devastating because it put the Mississippi River under Union control and split the Confederacy in two. As President Lincoln eloquently put it, those twin victories ensured the "Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea."

Dr. Terry L. Jones is a professor of history at the University of Louisiana at Monroe and has published several books on the American Civil War.