Small Wars Journal

The Urban Warfare Lessons from Vicksburg

Tue, 03/29/2022 - 10:00pm

The Urban Warfare Lessons from Vicksburg


By Ben Phocas



When the 1863 Civil War Siege of Vicksburg is mentioned, few who are familiar with the battle would describe urban warfare as one of the defining features. The battles and siege that comprised the Vicksburg campaign were fought entirely outside the confines of the city. Some of the more prominent aspects of this campaign could include the rampant disease, starvation, endless swamps and bayous, and oppressive heat that characterize the Mississippi Delta region of the United States. That being said, the battle does provide some very valuable takeaways for students of modern urban warfare, as the Union forces were able to successfully capture a zealously defended fortress city, without stepping a foot inside of it.

The main reference used in this article is Donald L. Miller's excellent book, a culmination of over twenty years of research.



The siege and preceding battles and maneuvers that create what is known today as the Vicksburg Campaign, was part of a grand strategy of the United States of America (the Union) to divide and isolate the renegade Confederate States of America in the early phases of the US Civil War. The Confederate States of America were divided into the East and West by the Mississippi River, a massive geographic barrier, and vital economic lifeline that both sides of the war desperately needed to control. The city of Vicksburg, Mississippi, is located at a tight bend in the river, where any ship sailing up or down would have to run a three-mile-long stretch of city defenses. Vicksburg was also the central rail hub connecting the Western Confederacy, such as Texas and Louisiana to the Eastern rebel states.

The Union needed to seize or destroy the city of Vicksburg to allow Union freedom of maneuver up and down the length of the river, and to completely sever the Western Confederacy from the East. The Union campaign was led by the recent victor of the battle of Shiloh and future US President, General Ulysses S. Grant. Under his command of the Army of the Tennessee were other famous Union generals, most notably General William Tecumseh Sherman. On the Confederate side, the CSA Army of Mississippi, and the defense of Vicksburg, was commanded by General John Pemberton, a native Pennsylvanian and graduate of West Point who had served in the Mexican American War.

The series of maneuvers and engagements that led up to the siege, was an absolute catastrophe to modern observers. After a failed initial attempt by the US Navy alone to capture the city on May 18, 1862, the Union Army was given the task of coordinating with the Navy to open the waterway and capture Vicksburg. Setback after setback hounded the Army. For over a year they dawdled around, trying every possible method of getting to Vicksburg, beginning with an overland campaign from the North that was defeated by an overextended supply chain. The Union forces then began probing in every direction to try and find a suitable place to land their troops to march on the city. This included digging entirely new rivers to bypass the defenses, to leading fruitless expeditions into the unnavigable maze of Bayous north of the city, swarming with Confederate cavalry. Eventually, Grant was able to move his forces South of Vicksburg on the river, and stage an amphibious landing at Bruinsburg. Grant bypassed Confederate forces and captured Jackson, the state capital of Mississippi, before turning and beating the Rebel forces back in a series of battles, forcing them back into a defensive perimeter around the city. The siege began on May 18, exactly one year after the Navy had failed to take Vicksburg. After several initial attempts to break through the Confederate defenses on the 19th and 20th of May, Grant settled in for a siege that eerily foreshadowed the meat grinding trench warfare of the First World War. Forty-seven days later, on July 4, 1863, the city surrendered, just one day after General George Meade defeated Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg, hundreds of miles away in Pennsylvania.




US Army doctrine regarding cities dictates for all enemy controlled urban centers to be bypassed and isolated, with the commander making the decision whether or not to penetrate in. This luxury is no longer feasible in future urban warfare, where the cities themselves become the key terrain that must be physically controlled. Grant was in a similar position, with the city of Vicksburg being a key control node over the Mississippi river. The Union needed to control Vicksburg, but Grant was unable to even reach the city due to the strength of the defenses around and within it. However, he still managed to isolate and subdue it and then penetrate the city to seize the forts along the river. What finally broke the Confederate defenders was starvation. The soldiers and civilians of Vicksburg had been reduced to eating rats and horses and mules killed in the streets by Union artillery. When the commander of the Vicksburg's defense, CSA General John C Pemberton, finally surrendered the city, he stated that he feared that his soldiers had become too enfeebled by starvation to continue the defense. So how does this correlate to modern urban warfare? While US forces are no longer going to be ‘bypassing and isolating’, isolation can still provide a critical advantage to the forces engaged in the urban area. Enemy forces that are unable to replace rapidly expended ammunition, food, and water, are cut off from all forms of reinforcement or escape, will suffer and be degraded. Whether their morale waivers or remains the same, the lack of material support will degrade their combat power.



Grant was only able to accomplish the isolation of the city by, whether consciously or intuitively, understanding the natural flows of the city, and disrupting them beyond the capacity of the city to adjust. It began with Grant's forces severing the railheads on the Louisiana side of the river, cutting off Vicksburg from the Western Confederacy. This was then followed by a heavily contested riverine blockade of the entire Vicksburg area, with special focus on the Red River. Then, after Grant had made landfall on the Mississippi side of the coincidentally named Mississippi River, he first moved against lightly defended Jackson, the State capital, located West of Vicksburg, before moving against Vicksburg itself. These actions severed Vicksburg's maritime and overland lines of communication with the outside world, Grant then camped his army on these lines of communication, strangling any attempt at resupply, and forcing any relief effort to pass directly through the entirety of Grant's army. By understanding the external lines of flow that directly affected the urban area, Grant could effectively disrupt them and accomplish the complete isolation of the city.

            Another facet of disruption of the natural flow was the sustained joint fires conducted by the Union brown water navy. While the coordination between Army and Naval elements throughout the campaign, on its own is worth observing. The sustained mortar and artillery bombardment of the city quickly resulted in a breakdown in the city infrastructure. Trash that was already regularly dumped into city gutters began overflowing. Animals were killed in the streets and left to rot, often their rotting flesh was soon consumed by starving civilians, who were hiding out in their cellars and bunkers, living in their own refuse. There were no fresh water sources in the city, and defenders were reduced to drinking the poisonous water of the Mississippi, where the carcasses of killed horses were being dumped. This was accompanied by seasonal infestations of mosquitos laden with malaria and other tropical diseases. The spread of disease further crippled the defenders, only deepening their predicament and weakening their physical ability to fight for days and weeks on end.



Despite successfully disrupting external lines of communication, the Union Army did not fully understand the city, and utterly failed to understand the human element. Consistently throughout the campaign, especially as Union forces drew closer to the city itself, Grant believed that the city was ready to collapse. He believed the people had been disheartened so greatly by the defeats of the Confederate Army in the engagements leading up to the siege, that they would be ready to quickly surrender to the Union forces. This could not have been further from the truth. Grant and his commanders failed to understand the cultural, economic, and political aspect of the operational environment. Throughout the campaign, as the Union army ‘lived off the land’ and effectively conducted a scorched earth campaign of the entire area. This, coupled with the recent Emancipation Proclamation issued by US President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863, built the image of the Union Army as a force of complete destruction to the Southern way of life. As the Union Army advanced, it brought with it new freedom for thousands of slaves in the area. Many of these former slaves were inducted into newly created All-Black US Army regiments. The intentional freeing and arming of former slaves by the Union forces, was particularly offensive to the fiercely pro slavery population of Vicksburg. Suddenly their slaves were being freed, armed, and turned against them, eager to get revenge against their former captors. This created a kind of desperate defiance amongst the Secessionist population. The defenders of Vicksburg were literally fighting for their way of life. Regardless of how racist and sickening this way of life was, this strengthened their resolve to defy the Union invader at all costs. Fighting him to the last bullet for their ideology. 


            In modern urban combat, by understanding the natural flows of the city, the metaphorical ‘ecosystem’, and the human aspect. At the strategic and operational level, a commander is much better positioned to defend, destroy, seize, or somehow dominate a city. An attacking force can know where to apply pressure in the city itself to cause critical breakdowns in infrastructure to hinder the defenders, where to exploit political, religious, even geographical divides within the population. Defending commanders must know the same critical pieces of information to prevent such events from occurring.



Another interesting piece of Vicksburg that could provide insight for urban warfare was a Union invention called a ‘sap-roller’. It was essentially a massive ball of cotton bound into a log shape by wood and rope. This was then rolled along in front of Union engineers. This provided an effective mobile protection from rifle fire for the sappers as they dug, directly towards the Confederate lines, in what would have otherwise been a beautiful enfilade for rebel sharpshooters. The US military used something similar in Sadr City in Iraq, building T-walls to screen off entire sections of the city from insurgent snipers. The need for mobile protection has not gone over the past two hundred years and will only become more valuable in the linear confines of dense urban terrain. Creative innovations must continue to be encouraged before they are an AAR comment of what could have been done better. The Urban Warfare Project Christmas list is a good starting point.



The combination of Naval and ground force pressure to squeeze Vicksburg demonstrated very early the importance of littoral understanding in urban operations. It also demonstrates a quality early historical example of the power of joint fires. The Naval bombardment was ceaseless, and the city was well within artillery range of the river. Most modern cities are connected in some way to a waterway. Whether straddling a river or abutted on one end by an ocean, these cities fundamentally are shaped by the littoral terrain features they are situated by. Throughout the Vicksburg campaign, almost every major Army operation was conducted using the river and the Navy. General Sherman attempted an amphibious assault from the North of the city that was repulsed in the Chickasaw Bayou. The blockade over the river and the artillery bombardment of the city proper were both conducted by US Navy vessels and guns. The Army had to rely on the Navy to traverse the river under the guns of the city, and at one point even had to consider a direct amphibious assault against the shore. However, in the end Grant landed to the south of the city. While not amphibiously assaulting directly into the city, Grant still had to conduct landing operations that were not organic to the Army and required the US Navy. The personal built relationship built between the naval commander, Admiral Porter and General Grant was a vital factor in the cooperation of the two branches that allowed for the US Army to be ferried up and down the river, have on-call fires from Naval artillery, and completely cut off Vicksburg River supply chains. For modern combat leaders, the ability to build rapport with interservice counterparts will remain a critical aspect of joint operations, and littoral urban environments will be a tough proving ground for the success of joint operations.


While the Vicksburg campaign was not an exact study in tactical city fighting, it can provide qualitative examples that can help urban warfare practitioners conceptualize aspects of urban warfare planning. Isolating the enemy, understanding natural flows and human elements, utilizing innovative technology to screen and cover maneuver, and conducting joint operations, particularly in a littoral environment.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policies or positions of the United States Military Academy, US Army, or the Department of Defense.


About the Author(s)

Ben Phocas is a Cadet at the United States Military Academy where he studies Defense and Strategic Studies. He is an intern at the Urban Warfare Project of the Modern War Institute.