Monday, December 27, 2010

No Help for Vicksburg

In the collections of the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond is a small bottle that contains a bullet and a scrap of paper. The bottle was given to the museum in 1896 by Confederate Capt. William A. Smith, of Virginia, who served in the Mississippi theater. This year curators finally opened bottle, and they found that the paper bore a six-line message in code. The code was a simple substitution cipher, easily broken by retired CIA and military intelligence officers contacted by the museum. It is dated July 4, 1863, and reads:
Gen'l Pemberton: You can expect no help from this side of the river. Let Gen'l Johnston know, if possible, when you can attack the same point on the enemy's lines. Inform me also and I will endeavor to make a diversion. I have sent some caps (explosive devices). I subjoin a despatch from General Johnston.
Lt. General John Pemberton was the commander of Vicksburg, and the date of the message was the day he surrendered the besieged city to U.S. Grant. The message came from some Confederate commander on the west side of the river, probably Major General John Walker of the Texas division, under whom Smith was serving. Walker could not help Vicksburg for the same reason Grant had so much trouble attacking it -- it was isolated on a high bluff and much of the surrounding country was treacherous swamp, besides which the river was patrolled by heavily armed Union gunboats.

It is interesting that nearby Confederates had no more idea that Vicksburg was about to surrender than Grant did. Conditions in the city were grim during the six-week seige, but the defenders could have held out for many more weeks if they had wanted to. Pemberton himself made the decision, for the humanitarian reason that without realistic hope of relief any further suffering by his men would be pointless. He chose to surrender on July 4th because he thought his men would be treated better on the national holiday. Some of Vicksburg's defenders thought Pemberton had betrayed them, and he is remembered more among the Civil War's many weak-willed generals than among its heroes.

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