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Thom Bassett: Rashomon at Vicksburg

Thom Bassett is writing a novel about William Tecumseh Sherman. He lives in Providence, R.I., and teaches at Bryant University.

The fall of Vicksburg, Miss., on July 4 sent a shock wave through both North and South – it split the Confederacy in two and gave the Union nearly unfettered control of the Mississippi River. Less clear was what brought about the surrender. Indeed, the principal players in the surrender drama — John C. Pemberton for the South and Ulysses S. Grant for the North — insisted on very different accounts.

On the night of July 2, Pemberton laid out for his divisional commanders a dismal set of options. According to his subordinate S.H. Lockett, Pemberton said that they had the stark choice “either to surrender while we still had ammunition enough to demand terms, or to sell our lives as dearly as possible” in a doomed assault against the Yankees.

When virtually all his generals voted to surrender, Pemberton said that he would offer to give up the city on July 4. Pemberton (who was born in Philadelphia, but had married a Virginia woman) further stated that doing so would be to the Confederates’ advantage. “I am a Northern man,” he told his officers, and “I know my people; I know their peculiar weaknesses and their national vanity; I know we can get better terms from them on July 4 than any other day of the year.”

Accordingly, on the morning of July 3, Confederate Maj. Gen. John S. Bowen approached the federal lines under a white flag. Upon being met by Maj. Gen. A.J. Smith, he asked to see Grant, who refused to meet him (despite having been neighbors with Bowen in Missouri before the war)....

Read entire article at NYT