Fortress Vicksburg? Part One
By Morgan Gates, Author, Blogger, & Tours
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Vicksburg, in the Civil War, was often referred to as “Fortress Vicksburg” or, the Gibraltar of the South. (Actually, in the day, it was Gibraltar of the West, but that often gives people images of the “Old West” which did not yet exist in the Civil War, so to avoid confusion, I substitute South!) While these statements are true, they can be somewhat confusing to some. So, allow me to make a few more generalized points before I get too specific.
If you say the word fortress or fort –to be fair fort is just a shorter form of fortress-- and ask people to describe the first thing that pops into their minds, you might get a wide variety of answers. Quite a few people might think of a Medieval Castle--even those with only a passing interest in history are familar with these glowering stone fortresses from recent movies and TV series and/or video games. These impressive citadels still dot the European countryside today, but of course their era had passed many hundreds of years before the Civil War began. Massive stone or brick forts were not unheard of on this side of the pond either. While not castles like the European forts were, Forts like Ticonderoga, of American Revolution fame, were very impressive defensive edifices. These however would have been useless at Vicksburg.
Many people would picture a wooden fort of the old Western Movies! These were perhaps the most common fortification in North American history. Some of these could be substantial structures with block houses made of interlocking logs lain horizontally, but many were the rather simple log palisades that were widely used in frontier areas in both the pre and post Civil War eras. Martins Station, in Virginia, is an excellent reproduction of one of these frontier outposts. These types of forts would have been worse than useless at Vicksburg.
Why would these traditional historic forts have been useless? Artillery is the answer! It was the introduction of artillery, in the form of heavy siege guns, that reigned in the warlords of Medieval Europe. The kings, with their greater resources, could equip their armies with artillery that could batter down the strongest castle wall in time, and the nobles finally had to toe the royal line, bringing about the modern nations of Europe. Wars continued to rage as the Armies of now kings marched back and forth across the largely open, treeless fields of Europe, but by the late 17th and early 18th Centuries, castles had been abandoned or converted into luxurious palaces for the kings and their favorites.
Artillery is, however, very heavy and slow to move about. In the heavily forested, and often mountainous, semi-wilderness of the Americas, it was not very mobile, and thus could not be as easily employed. Ships were the only way to move significant amounts of artillery to a battle. Ships of wood powered by wind and buffeted by wave could not match the firepower of a solidly built fortress, so forts like Ticonderoga and the Spanish Caribbean Forts were, for a time, useful once more. The Native-Americans had no artillery and not even a preponderance of firearms in most of their long losing fight against the westward expansion. So, wooden forts maintained their usefulness on the frontier almost until the turn of the twentieth century. The area in and around what would become Vicksburg did have some of these wooden palisade forts. The most notable being the French Fort St. Pierre (1719-29) and the Spanish Fort Nogales (1781-98).
Things, however were beginning to change in the early 19th century. The introduction of two new technologies would, by the Civil War, mean that fort of wood and brick could not be counted on to defend Vicksburg. The changes can be summed up in two words, steam and rifling………………………….to be continued.