“To save the further effusion of blood”: Major General John S. Bowen and the Surrender of Vicksburg

John S. Bowen as an officer in the pre-war Missouri Volunteer Militia. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Emerging Civil War welcomes back guest author Kristen M. Pawlak

On July 3, 1863, Major General John S. Bowen and Lieutenant Colonel Louis Montgomery entered the Union siege lines surrounding Vicksburg to deliver a message from Army of Mississippi Lieutenant General John Pemberton and discuss the upcoming surrender of the Army of Mississippi. Himself stricken with dysentery, Bowen commanded a division of Missourians and Arkansans who were slowly dying of starvation and disease within the blockaded river town. Bowen hoped that through his personal connections with Army of the Tennessee commander Major General Ulysses Grant, he could somehow negotiate reasonable terms of surrender to save the army – and his own men.

Though Grant refused to meet with his former St. Louis, Missouri neighbor and friend initially, Bowen at least loosened the tension between the two warring armies positioned in and around the “Gibraltar of the Confederacy.” A veteran of the Camp Jackson affair, Shiloh, Corinth, Iuka, Champion Hill, and the entirety of the campaign to defend Vicksburg, Bowen was considered one of the best division commanders in the Confederacy. His reputation and performance on the battlefield was commended by many of his fellow officers, including General P.G.T. Beauregard, who called him a “meritorious officer.” [1]

After returning to the Confederate lines, Bowen delivered Grant’s message to Pemberton. “The useless effusion of blood you propose stopping by this course can be ended at any time you may choose,” Grant wrote, “by an unconditional surrender of the city and garrison.” Though disappointed with Grant’s stubbornness for an unconditional surrender, Bowen stated that Grant would be willing to meet the defeated Southern general to discuss the terms of surrender. The ball was once again in the Rebels’ court to end the bloodshed.

Around 3:00pm along the Confederate defense works, flags of truce rose and the firing was silenced. Pemberton, Bowen, and Montgomery rode out on horseback towards a swale along the Jackson Road between the siege lines, where Grant, James McPherson, and  A.J. Smith were waiting. After dismounting, the enemies shook hands and reminisced on the fond memories of their Mexican War days before discussing the heavy matter at hand.

Grant and Pemberton discuss the terms of surrender. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Recalling what Bowen told him, Pemberton said to Grant that it was his understanding that the Federal commander wished to interview him regarding Vicksburg’s surrender. Grant, with a puzzled expression, denied that he ever said that to Bowen. Embarrassed, Bowen admitted to making it up in hopes of instigating negotiations. Just like before, Grant refused anything but unconditional surrender. Pemberton thought it was hopeless. “I can assure you, you will bury more of your men before you enter Vicksburg,” he threatened.

To prevent further destruction and death between the two armies, Bowen suggested that Grant and Pemberton leave their four officers to negotiate the terms of surrender. Soon, Bowen, Montgomery, McPherson, and Smith were left to determine the fate of the Confederate garrison at Vicksburg.

At 8:00am on July 4, 1863 – Independence Day – Grant’s victorious troops began to march into Vicksburg. All of Pemberton’s Confederate troops were to be paroled and to march east to a location designated for exchange. Just under 30,000 Rebel troops surrendered. The siege of Vicksburg was finally over.

Bust of John Bowen at Vicksburg National Military Park. Courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Though many Confederate soldiers were exchanged and able to continue their fight in the war, Bowen’s service was about to come to an end, just like the thousands of his fellow Rebels who perished at the hands of disease during the Vicksburg Campaign. The day of the surrender, Bowen’s health took a dark turn. He was cared for in Vicksburg until he could recover. On July 11, 1863, his physician and chaplain decided that he needed better medical care in Raymond and departed that day by ambulance. Bowen’s wife Mary and newborn baby spent the siege in nearby Edwards, Mississippi and they joined the entourage there.

Just six miles outside of Raymond, on July 12, the caravan was forced to stop at the small wooden home of John Walton. The heat and humidity took a tremendous toll on Bowen, and he could not survive the rest of the journey to Raymond. In the morning of July 13, Bowen passed away. Using a coffin built by a local carpenter, the fallen Rebel general was buried in the backyard of the Walton home. Later, Bowen’s body was re-interred with a military headstone at Cedar Hill Cemetery in Vicksburg, where many of his men are buried today.

Though hardly known beyond historians and students of the campaign, Bowen’s role at Vicksburg and its surrender to the Federals was tragic, but quite important. Through his negotiations with the Union high command, he sought peace to end the bloodshed and inglorious deaths suffered on both sides. Bowen’s legacy can be seen at Vicksburg National military, where a bust of him stands today.

Kristen M. Pawlak is the Development Associate for Stewardship at the Civil War Trust. She also sits on the Board of Directors at the Missouri Civil War Museum, and actively volunteers with the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation. She graduated from Gettysburg College in 2014 with a BA in History and Civil War Era Studies, and is currently pursuing her MA in Nonprofit Leadership and Management at Webster University. From St. Louis, Kristen has a fond interest in the Civil War in Missouri, Civil War medicine, and the war experiences of soldiers.

Sources:

Ballard, Michael. Vicksburg: The Campaign That Opened the Mississippi. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010.

Shea, William L. & Terrence Winschel. Vicksburg is the Key: The Struggle for the Mississippi River. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2003.

Tucker, Phillip Thomas. The Forgotten “Stonewall of the West”: Major General John Stevens Bowen. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1997.

[1] Report of P.G.T. Beauregard, April 11, 1862, in War of the Rebellion: The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, ser. 1, vol. 10, pt. 1, (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1880), 390.