What if Robert E. Lee Had Sent Troops to Vicksburg?

Why was Robert E. Lee so opposed to sending help to Mississippi in 1863?

That question was certainly on the mind of Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon that season. By default, then, it was also on Lee’s.

Anchored on bluffs lining the Mississippi River, Vicksburg was the key to success in the West for either side as the war entered its third year. The “fortress” city’s topographical dominance gave Confederates the ability to control traffic up and down the river and also served as a vital connection to Southern interests in the Trans-Mississippi Theater. 

The Union high command in Washington and the region’s army commander, Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, were well aware of Vicksburg’s strategic importance. Grant had made stabs at the city for months, to no avail, but his tenaciousness worried the once-confident Mississippians, who demanded a strong response and reliable leadership.

Department commander General Joseph E. Johnston was the highest-ranking Confederate commander in the Western Theater. He was, however, ensconced at the headquarters of General Braxton Bragg in Tullahoma, Tenn., where Bragg’s Army of Tennessee seemed to dominate Johnston’s attention. Meanwhile, the commander of the Vicksburg garrison, Lt. Gen. John Pemberton, was a Pennsylvanian who had thrown his loyalty in with the Confederacy only because of his marriage to Virginia native Martha Thompson—and thus, to some Southerners, could not be trusted. Worse, he had never held such an important field command in his career.

As the situation along the Mississippi looked more and more questionable, Seddon sought solutions. One option would be to send reinforcements directly to Pemberton, another to send them to Johnston, who left Bragg’s headquarters and arrived in the Mississippi capital of Jackson on May 13, with orders from Seddon to take command of troops in the Magnolia State and coordinate the struggle for Vicksburg.

But from where would those reinforcements come?


Comment: One more on the Civil War. While Lee at Gettysburg may have been the Confederacy’s hight water mark, the fall of Vicksburg on the following day could be described at the beginning of the inexorable end of the Confederacy. Many historians and Civil War buffs have asked the question posed above by Chris Mackowski. These “what ifs” and alternate history theories are little more than academic exercises, but this essay is eye opening about what was debated in Richmond in the Spring and early Summer of 1863.

I wish I had a chance to discuss this question with Colonel Lang. He said he was not that familiar with the western theater, but I bet he was intimately familiar with the war deliberations in Richmond. A missed opportunity. My initial thoughts were that Lee’s reluctance to shore up the western theater had much to do with his fighting for Virginia rather than the Confederacy, but his reasons were clearly not that simple. He had valid strategic considerations as outlined in Mackowski’s essay. He probably also had no idea how brilliantly Rosecrans would prosecute the Tullahoma Campaign or was yet aware that Grant had the mind and stomach to prosecute the war to its finish.


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19 Responses to What if Robert E. Lee Had Sent Troops to Vicksburg?

  1. Babeltuap says:

    There was a plan by Lee’s staff to hunker down into guerrilla warfare. I learned of it in my history of modern warfare class. Lee decided against it but another what if. How long could it have lasted? 2-3 decades? We will never know but it is the current formula to defeat the US. Just simmer down for a while. Eventually the US will quit like clockwork and take their defeat.

    I hear Russia can go for a couple of years at this pace. Is it long enough? It likely is plenty long enough. At some point the illegal immigrants and black communities are going to start asking serious questions. Where is our welfare? Why is Ukraine getting all of it? I know I would be asking these questions in that situation.

    • John Minehan says:

      You could argue that the KKK and Bedford Forrest did exactly that, ending military reconstuction by 1876 and allowing the old system to more or less persist until the 1950s, especially after the Plessy decision in 1896.

      Until the period after 1912 or so, most Americans thought of themselves as citizens of their states, rather than the US as a whole. You could also argue that view doomed the Cofederacy, but also doomed Military Reconstruction.

  2. Christian Chuba says:

    Great topic and the answer is yes. This book made a big impression on me regarding Lee as a General … https://www.amazon.com/Lee-Moves-North-Robert-Offensive/dp/0471164011

    The author suggests that Lee was a good General but impulsive and careless when it came to offensive operations. Jefferson Davis had the insight that the South could use their railroads to move east / west to concentrate troops where needed while the North had to struggle with terrain that made movind south difficult. Davis wanted to relieve Vicksburg but Lee talked him out of it so that he could invade the north.

    BTW the author complements Lee by saying that he was extraordinarily gifted in defensive tactics that he used at the end of the war to inflict massive casualties on the Union. His premise was that Lee preferred to take the initiative even if it meant flying blind.

    • Mark Logan says:


      Reminds me of an “old” (he was 33 at the time–which seemed like a grandpa to us) gunny who took the wind out of a new captain’s sails one day on maneuvers.

      “We MUST take the initiative! We gotta MOVE!”

      “Captain, George Foreman had the initiative for all but 15 seconds in his fight with Ali.”

      And he was right, we were being baited. Our route had been anticipated and after it was over the captain was complemented for not falling for the trap.

      Gettysburg was all about seizing the initiative. Lee was convinced that without it they had no shot. It’s just the way he thought. I recall Pat several times mentioning the officers of that day were heavily influenced by Napoleon. Somehow they seem to all forget what happened to him. Tactically brilliant, strategically dumb.

  3. ked says:

    I think that it isn’t just that Lee was a Virginian, but that he (among many others, N & S) also viewed the war itself as an Eastern one, even a Washington DC one. The Confederacy having less manpower & time to win needed battlefield victories w/ political impact. The Union could sustain battle despite losses, fight everywhere, & for longer than the South. It was hard enough to fight West of the Appalachians… but all the way to Texas?! Better chances to defend in the West & attack in the East.

  4. Poppa Rollo says:

    Sending more troops into a besieged city only means more mouths to feed. Grant had some 77,000 troops facing the 30,000+ Confederates in the city. Remember that the siege was conducted only after Shiloh. Grant had already built twin defensive lines around Vicksburg to protect against attack from the East as well as the city. The Confederates could succeed only if Grant ran short of provisions and was forced to attack.
    Lee’s greatest advantage was the kinetics of the fight. The Union in the East had to attack which gave the advantage to the grays in defense.

    • TTG says:

      Poppa Rollo,

      The reinforcing troops would have gone to Johnston to operate against Grant outside of Vicksburg, not into the besieged city.

      • Poppa Rollo says:

        Yes, it is obvious that the CSA reinforcements would have to attack Grant directly or his lines of supply. Given Grant’s extensive trench network facing east the Union supply lines look to be the logical choice. Likely there would be insufficient time before Vicksburg would collapse. The relieving CSA force is unable to stay in any one place for any length of time and in the west the Union has the freedom to maneuver.

        • TTG says:

          Poppa Rollo,

          Remember Grant didn’t cross the Mississippi south of Vicksburg until 30 April. He fought several battles against Pemberton and Johnston before he first struck at Vicksburg on 22 May. Only after that failed did he put Vicksburg under siege. To be truly effective the reinforcements (Longstreet) would have to join Johnston in early May. Or Longstreet could have reinforced Bragg and went on the offensive in Tennessee against Rosecrans. Confederate success there may have forced Grant to march to Tennessee rather than continue at Vicksburg. Longstreet was already in SW Virginia at the time.

  5. Whitewall says:

    Following the theme of ‘what if’, I have always wondered if P.T. Beauregard had not opened fire on Ft. Sumter, would there have even been a shooting civil war? Just a very cold civil war similar to what we have today minus the bullets.

    • TTG says:


      Interesting proposition, but Beauregard wasn’t the only hothead in the new Confederacy. Any armed seizure of Federal assets across the South could have sparked the war.

  6. Fred says:

    Detaching a corps, probably Longstreet’s, and sending it West would have weakened his army and placed many of his best troops under Johnston’s command. He’s the one that allowed Pemberton and his 30,000 to be besieged to begin with.

    • TTG says:


      Johnston didn’t have the numbers necessary to stand and fight, much less attack Grant’s army. If Longstreet went west instead of north earlier in 1863, it might have made a difference in Tennessee and Mississippi.

      • Fred says:


        One corps of 30,000 more or less would not have made Johnston’s decision making better nor given it more of an advantage. They never should have gotten trapped in the city to begin with.

        • TTG says:


          That would have doubled the size of Johnston’s army at Jackson. That could have been enough to give Johnston a little more git up and go in preventing Grant from sieging Vicksburg. Only Pemberton’s army of 35,000 was in Vicksburg.

          • Fred says:


            Pemberton was not Vercingetorix trapped in Alesia but he certainly made the same mistake the Gauls did.

    • Stephanie says:

      I have a feeling that somehow Johnston would have found a reason not to move even with reinforcements. He ordered a retreat almost as soon as he arrived in Jackson, as I recall. He was in a very difficult situation and of course the eternal friction with His Excellency did not help, but even so…a talented and infuriating general. Also by the time Lee’s reinforcements would have arrived Grant was exceptionally well prepared.

      It’s also true that the eyes of the world were mainly fixed on the Eastern theater. A big win there would have done much to neutralize another Western disaster for the Confederacy.

  7. scott s. says:

    I think the expectation was that Davis had the military expertise (certainly more than Lincoln) to manage the strategic planning. But Lee I don’t think liked being managed, and was able to convince Davis to bypass Smith and place himself in command in the East. The failed strategic-level campaigns of 1862 set up a situation where Lee was able to dictate his own planning irrespective of inter-theater goals. Of course if Johnston would be able to effectively act as a theater commander is another problem.

  8. Whitewall says:

    When I was a youngster growing up in NC, I often heard the term ‘unreconstructed Rebel’. A little later I learned of a ballad written by a Confederate officer called “I’m a good ole Rebel”. Sometimes referred to by the name ‘unreconstructed Rebel’. Years ago I heard a or maybe the early recording of the song. It was scratchy and calm sounding and could give a listener a chill. Updates have been done, Hoyt Axton doing one. Nothing was as cold as the original.

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