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100 Years Ago

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Some Civil War scholars rate the siege of Vicksburg in the western theater as more significant than the Battle of Gettysburg in the east. When Vicksburg fell, the control of the Mississippi River passed into the Union's hands. A major artery for goods and arms from the south was therefore cut off.

General Grant surrounded the town of Vicksburg in early May. The siege continued until July 3, 1863. The 20th Ohio was on the front lines the entire time. As the Union troops rained shot and shell into the city, the rebels fired back from behind their heavily fortified lines. Sgt. Oldroyd of the 20th made a diary entry about what it was like to be part of the siege: "If they put their heads above their works we sent a hundred or more shots at them, and on the other hand, if any on our side made themselves too conspicuous, they fired in turn. So each army is watching the other like eagles."

Col. M. F. Force of the 20th vividly recalled receiving orders on May 22, 1863, to move into line behind a sharp ridge on a steep slope, with orders to be ready to move on a moment's notice. The men lay there for two or three days. At night the men would fall asleep and roll down the hill. "Not a man moved so much as ten feet without a special order," Force remembered.  The men eventually got back to their camp. A constant hazard was rebel shot and shell landing in the camp. On May 23, Oldroyd commented in his diary that bullets whizzed by his head as he 'double-quicked' to his quarters. Jackson Township farmer Jesse Babcock was not as lucky. While resting in his tent with other members of the 20th Ohio, he was struck and killed by a rebel bullet.

The Union perseverance paid off. By the end of June, the residents of Vicksburg were reduced to eating mules, dogs, and rats. Confederate soldier William Tunnard of the 3rd Louisiana noted that rats "...were consumed in such quantity that they actually became a scarcity." An anonymous letter to the Confederate commander from many of his soldiers concluded: "If you can't feed us, you had better surrender us, horrible as the idea is, than suffer this noble army to disgrace themselves by desertion..."

Toward the end of the siege, General Grant decided to send in his troops. Harrison Wilson of Sidney recalled after the war seeing Grant standing on the levee below Vicksburg 'pale as a ghost,' clenching a cigar between his teeth, watching the first Union troops crossing the Mississippi. Grant, with the color returning to his face, was relieved when the men entered Vicksburg to claim it. The surrender of Vicksburg on the same day as the victory at Gettysburg in the east marked a major turning point in the war.

'Civil War' segment written in July, 1998 by Rich Wallace


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