Lincoln, Davis both knew the value of the Mississippi River

Published 10:39 pm Saturday, October 6, 2012

This is part of a series on the Vicksburg Campaign appearing weekly during the sesquicentennial of the Civil War.

To fully appreciate the story of the Vicksburg campaign, we must first understand the significance of the Mississippi River to the people of the North and South and recognize that the struggle for Vicksburg was a campaign for control of the “Father of Waters.”

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Biographer and newspaperman Lloyd Lewis accurately portrayed the Mississippi River in the mid-19th century as “the spinal column of America … the symbol of geographic unity.” He referred to the great river as “the trunk of the American tree, with limbs and branches reaching to the Alleghenies, the Canadian border, the Rocky Mountains.”

For more than 2,000 miles the river flows silently on its course to the sea, providing a natural artery of commerce.

Gliding along the Mississippi’s muddy water were steamers and flatboats of all descriptions heavily laden with the rich agricultural produce of the land en route to world markets. Indeed, the silent water of the great river was — as it remains today — the single most important economic feature of the continent, the very lifeblood of America. One contemporary wrote emphatically that “The Valley of the Mississippi is America.”

Upon the secession of the Southern states, and in particular Mississippi and Louisiana, the river was closed to unfettered navigation, threatening to strangle Northern commercial interests.

With the advent of civil war, President Abraham Lincoln assembled his civil and military leaders to discuss strategy for opening the Mississippi River and for ending what he termed a “rebellion” in the Southern states.

Standing at a large table, examining a map of the nation, Lincoln made a wide-sweeping gesture with his hand then placed his finger on the map at Vicksburg and said to those around him: “See what a lot of land these fellows hold, of which Vicksburg is the key. The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket.” It was the president’s belief that, “We can take all the northern ports of the Confederacy (meaning on the inland rivers), and they can defy us from Vicksburg. It means hog and hominy without limit, fresh troops from all the states of the far South, and a cotton country in which they can raise the staple without interference.”

Lincoln assured his listeners that “I am acquainted with that region and know what I am talking about, and, as valuable as New Orleans will be to us, Vicksburg will be moreso.”

He closed by stating emphatically, “Let us take Vicksburg and all that land will be ours.”

Confederate President Jefferson Davis equally recognized the importance of the Mississippi River. Long a resident of Warren County, Davis was uniquely qualified to understand and appreciate the river’s significance to a people struggling to establish their independence. He referred to Vicksburg as “the nailhead that held the South’s two halves together,” and said a successful defense of the Mississippi “would conduce more than in any other way to the perpetuation of the Confederacy and the success of the cause.”

Control of the Mississippi River thus became a major objective of Union and Confederate leaders who focused their military might on Vicksburg and brought war to the Hill City.

Terrence J. Winschel is a former historian for the Vicksburg National Military Park.

Next: Vicksburg’s first test