In the pre-dawn darkness on the outskirts of Edwards, Mississippi , 17,000 Confederate infantry in three divisions set out southward, for the crossroads of Dillion. Leading the force is General Pemberton himself. He is looking for the supply trains of Grant's army, which he knows must be strung out behind the site where Grant's army crossed the Mississippi River and the Mississippi state capital at Jackson. But a mile and a half out of Edward's Pemberton's three divisions are stopped at the ford over tiny Bakers Creek. The usually placid stream has been swollen by the downpour from the 13/14 May. The ford is so flooded, it is unusable. Because of a lack of simple scouting, Pemberton's little army is forced to backtrack 1 ½ miles on the Clinton Road to cross the same stream via the bridge of the Jackson/Vicksburg road. Then the collumn must detour another four miles south before rejoining the road south. Wirt Adam’s cavalry leads, followed by Loring’s and then Bowen’s Division, and finally Stevenson’s division, followed by the army’s supply trains. Pemberton does not know it, but this is a lucky break for his army.
Also this morning, another 4,000 Confederate militia arrive at General Johnston’s position on the Canton Road, six miles north of Jackson. Johnston now has a force of 15,000 men, about a quarter the size of the Union Army in Mississippi. But together with Pemberton's force, the Confederates now have a numerical advantage over Grant's army. But Johnston's troops are not a single cohesive unit, and cannot be expected to fight an engagement with Grant’s veterans. So Johnston can only dig in and wait for word of what General
Pemberton is doing.
Meanwhile, in Jackson itself, two divisions of Sherman’s Corps begin their work destroying the industry and communications centers of the city. At seven, McPherson’s Corps marches out of Jackson, led by Logan’s division, and bound for Clinton. Waiting for them out on the Vicksburg road is General McClernard’s Corps, now with orders to advance toward Edwards. But McClernard is also cautioned by Grant not to bring on a general engagement, not just yet.
Grant (above) rides as far as Clinton, where he meets two captured workers from the Vicksburg and Jackson Railroad. They tell him that Pemberton is at Edward’s with 3 divisions. Having earlier captured one of the couriers carrying a copy of Johnston’s message to Pemberton, Grant thus expects there to be contact with Pemberton’s army this day near Edwards. He urges Sherman to hurry the destruction of Jackson and bring up his full Corps westward.
SATURDAY, MAY 16, 1863
Awakening in a house along the road near Dillion, Pemberton is confused. He was expecting to find this morning that he had Grant's supply trains in his grasp. But Wirt Adam’s cavalry reports from overnight that he finds no traffic on the Grand Gulf to Jackson road. Where are Grant's supply trains? The troops of Generals' Stevenson and Loring have been on the march past midnight, searching at every crossroads for evidence of the Yankee wagons. They have found nothing. Pemberton is adrift, and uncertain where to send his men next. What is Grant up to? Where is Grant?.
Then, at 6:30 am cavalry commander Wirt Adams reports in person that his pickets are skirmishing with Federal troops near the Raymond road. During Adam's report a messager arrives from Johnston, carrying a copy of Pemberton's message which Grant has already intercepted: “Our being compelled to leave Jackson makes your plan (to fall on the supply trains) impractical. The only mode by which we can unite is by your moving directly to Clinton..."
It is an ominous message. Pemberton is already out a limb, and suddenly he hears it cracking. He orders an immediate countermarch, so he can shift his axis of advance toward Clinton. Thus, at the very moment of contact with Grant, Pemberton is like a boxer, caught off balance, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.
Later that morning on the Confederate left flank, General Stevenson (above) has just reversed his march when, at about 7:00 am, he receives word of enemy skirmishers just beyond the Raymond road junction. Immediately he throws his own skirmish line across the road, and hurries (as best he can) the supply wagons back across the still flooded Baker’s Creek. He also throws his men to work building a defensive position three miles long across the hilltop farm of Matilda and Sid Champion. At about 9:30 am this morning Union General McClernand’s cavalry captures the tiny village of Bolton, and continues to press forward.
Pemberton arrives at the Champion Hill battleground and finds he also faces Federal troops on his right flank, in front of Loring’s division, south of the Raymond road. Still, most of the firing seems to be coming from Champion Hill and north of the road. When Stevenson reports that he must be reinforced or lose the hill, Pemberton orders General Bowen’s (above) division to reinforce his left flank. But Bowen says he can not move until Loring gets out of his way. And Loring says he cannot do so because of Federal troops massing to his front. Frustrated, Pemberton convinces Bowen to send at least one brigade to Stevenson’s assistance by marching around Loring's men.
By 10:00 am Sherman’s men have finished their destruction in Jackson and are on the road toward the battle. Johnston’s troops do not follow the retreating Yankees. Instead they struggle to put out fires and resurrect the telegraph lines in Jackson. At about the same time Grant arrives on the field before Champion Hill and orders an immediate assault by McPherson’s men on the right and McClernand’s Corp on the left. By 1:00 pm McPherson’s men have carried the Confederate works atop Champion's hill.
Frustrated by the behavior of both Loring and Bowen, General Pemberton has been reduced to feeding individual battalions of Bowen's men into the fight for Champions Hill - piecemeal. Now, in reaction to the Union success, Col. Cockrell, the same man who had so harassed McClernand on the Louisiana shore, now leads a charge that retakes the captured works for the Confederates. But Pemberton knows the hill cannot be held if things continue as they have. He sends yet another order to Loring, instructing him to move to the left in support of Bowen and Stevenson. But Loring replies that the Federal troops to his front are moving to flank him. It is a reasonable argument, except that Pemberton hears no firing coming from that flank.
What Pemberton cannot know is that the Federal troops in front of Loring are commanded by General McClernand, who is showing no more inclination to force a fight than Loring has. Grant has chosen not to press McClernand, even though his inaction is in violation of direct orders from Grant. Instead the Union commander reaches out for Sherman’s leading units coming out of Jackson. He throws these men into a counter attack on Champion Hill, retaking the crucial position by about 4:00 pm. At last Confederate General Stevenson’s division breaks under the pressure.
Confederate General Loyd Tilghman’s brigade fights the rearguard action until he is killed. Then, the Confederate forces retreat across Bakers Creek. Luckily the stream has now fallen enough to make the ford useful again, but this means it will also be useful for the following Yankees as well. Pemberton makes the decision to retreat all the way back to the Big Black River.
All that way, Pemberton expects General Loring (above) to act as his rear guard. But Loring has used the excuse of distant fire from Union cannon to retreat south along Bakers Creek, wandering for several days, as if a petulant child resisting the call to come home for dinner. Eventually Loring turns north and east, until he rejoins the Confederacy at Jackson, Mississippi. Johnston thus acquires yet another temperamental general, something he did not really need. Worse, in addition to combat losses suffered at Champion's Hill, Pemberton has lost one third of his little army by Loring's wanderings.
Champions Hill will prove to be the crucial battle of the entire campaign. The Union army (32,000 strong now) suffer 410 dead, 1,844 wounded and 187 missing (total casualties 2,441), while the Confederates, weaker at the start of the battle (just 17,000 men), have suffered 3,840 dead, 1,018 wounded and 2,441 missing (total casualties, 7,299). Pemberton has lost 13% of his strength, in addittion to the 1/3 under Loring who has declared independence. This proves that Pemberton chose the worst possible course of action.
To have kept all five divisions behing the Vicksburg fortifications, as Davis had ordered, would have simply made Grant’s job that much easier. If Pemberton had brought all five of his divisions out to defeat Grant in battle, as Johnston has urged, Vicksburg might have been captured in his rear by a U.S. Naval landing force, just as had happened at Memphis and Grand Gulf. But Pemberton might have defeated Grant in the field, and then retaken the city at his leisure. Instead, by choosing not risk everything, he has lost everything.
To quote Bruce Catton on the subject, “Vicksburg was one of the places which the Confederate nation had to possess if it was to win its independence…But all the troops that could conceivably be brought in were urgently needed somewhere else…(However) To accept this argument was in effect to admit that the Confederacy was being tried beyond its strength, an admission Mr. Davis would never make.”(Catton, “Never Call Retreat” pp 3-4.)
Pemberton’s battered army marches through the night. They now number less than 10,000 men. They have been exhausted, defeated and mishandled. And Pemberton decides he cannot stop at the Big Black River (above), but must reach the safety of the Vicksburg entrenchments, occupied by his remaining two healthy divisions. He leaves three brigades from General Bowen’s division behind, perhaps 2,000 men, to slow the Union advance, and drives the rest of his weary men the final 20 miles to Vicksburg.
Bowen’s rearguard occupies positions prepared a week earlier, with their backs across the open mouth of a "U" shaped bend in the Big Black river. The river at the bottom of the "U" is so narrow that a riverboat has been jammed between the banks, and is being used by the Confederates as a footbridge. The Vicksburg and Jackson railroad also bridges the river here, but the bridge can not be used by horses or wagons. Grant later describes the rebel position as once having been an old bayou “...grown up with timber, which the enemy had felled into the ditch. All this time there was a foot or two of water in it. The rebels had constructed a parapet along the inner bank...using cotton bales from the plantation close by and throwing dirt over them. The whole was thoroughly commanded from the height west of the river.”
Now General John McClernand’s Corps is in the lead again, and as Grant watches, Federal artillery begins firing on the rebel trenches while Union General Michael K. Carr’s division prepares to assault the Confederate works.
It is at this moment that (according to Grant) a staff officer arrives with instructions from General Halleck in far off Washington. The message is dated May 11 (a week earlier) and orders Grant to immediately return to Grand Gulf and from there to proceed against Port Hudson. Only after the fall of Fort Hudson will Grant be "allowed" to return to his actions against Vicksburg. After reading the message Grant tells the messenger that if Halleck knew the present situation he would not insist on the order. The messenger insists that Grant must obey his instructions.
Just at this moment, with a bold charge, Irishman General Michael K. Lawler puts his military philosophy into practice (“If you see a head, hit it.”). His division storms the Confederate breastworks in the face of a withering fire. Union Secretary of War Charles Dana would later describe Lawler as “…brave as a lion,…and has as much brains”, but with this one dtermined charge the battle of the Big Black River is won. Allegedly Grant now turns to the messenger and says, “It may be too early to end this campaign.” Whatever Grant actually said (if anything), he later wrote, “I immediately mounted my horse and rode in the direction of the charge, and saw no more of the officer who delivered the dispatch, I think not even to this day.”
As the Confederate troops began to flee, Confederate engineers set fire to the railroad bridge and boat, to deny their use by the Union. The Union could claim 1,751 Confederates killed, wounded and captured (out of the 2,000 man force), and an unknown number drowned when their bridges burned beneath their feet. Union losses are 39 killed, 237 wounded and 3 missing. The next day Pemberton will return to his original position inside the Vicksburg fortifications, leading now less than half the 17,000 men he had on the morning of Saturday, May 16.
Also on this morning General Sherman rouses his men before daylight and spends the entire day marching up the Vicksburg/Jackson road. He finally calls a halt after 2:00 am.
MONDAY MAY 18, 1863
It is just 18 days since Grant's first troops crossed the Mississippi River below Vicksburg. This morning. Sherman’s Corps crosses the Big Black River some 11 miles above the point at which McCernand’s and McPherson’s Corps have thrown pontoon bridges across the river (above). By 8:00 am the pontoon bridges are open and Grant is one of the first to cross over them. He quickly moves cross-country to join the rapidly advancing Sherman's Corps.
It is early that afternoon that Sherman and Grant together reach the rear of the Confederate batteries atop Haynes Bluff’s. Below them Confederate troops are evacuating the position, and retreating inside Vicksburg's main defenses. And Grant is happy to allow them to leave. With Haynes Bluff in Union hands, supplies and reinforcements can now flow unimpeded to Grant’s army from naval units on the Mississippi. Grant later wrote, “(Sherman) turned to me, saying that up to this minute he had felt no positive assurance of success. This, however, he said, was the end of one of the greatest campaigns in history, and I ought to make a report of it at once. Vicksburg was not yet captured, and there was no telling what might happen before it was taken; but whether captured or not, this was a complete and successful campaign.” Grant's response is to order a morning assault against the city's defenses. Then he sends the telegram.
Including the men from the two divisions he left behind, General Pemberton now has some 18,500 troops and 102 artillery pieces with which to defend the 6 ½ mile long fortification line facing Vicksburg's land side. The time spent improving the cities' defenses has been well used, digging trenches, forts and redoubts. The old addage about the defense multiplying defenders by a factor of three, is about to be put to the test.
TUESDAY MAY 19, 1863
At 9:00 am Union artillery opens fire on the northern flank of the Confederate fortifications, where the "Graveyard Road" enters the city. Then at 2:00 pm Francis Blair's division throws itself against the Rebel line, and the Union troops are suddenly up against the terrain of Vicksburg. Approaching the "Stockade Redan", they are forced to descend a deep ravine, At the bottom their way is blocked by wooden stakes, wire entanglements, and disguised man traps. From the fort above, Rebel infantry rakes the Federal troops with musket shot and exploding cannon shells, rolled down the slope. Three times Blair's division throws itself against the Confederates and three times they are repulsed. The firing is so heavy that the farthest advanced Union troops cannot be pulled back until after nightfall. Union casualites are about 157 dead, just under 800 wounded and 8 missing. The Confederates suffer less than 200 casualities.
WEDNESDAY MAY 20, 1863
Grant now has some 35,000 troops in hand. It is not enough to invest the city, so he decides on a second, larger assault, and spends the day putting his troops to work finishing a road from Haynes Bluffs to the rear of his positions outside of Vicksburg. Meanwhile he sends officers forward to inspect the rebele positons and plan an attack for the day after tomorrow. As he is inspecting the camps, the chant of "Hardtack, Hardtack!" breaks out. For over a week now the the men have been marching and fighting while living off the three days rations they were issued in Port Gibson, and the foodstuffs they foraged from the Mississippi countryside. That night the Army dines on standard army fare of hardtack, beans and coffee brought up the new road from the Navy transports in the river. The obligation of a good General is that he give his soldiers the tools they need. Their obligation is to fight to kill and if need be, to die.
THURSDAY, MAY 21, 1863
April operations out of New Orleans have cut the western shore Red River supply route for the Confederate fort at Port Hudson. Today, before dawn, newly promoted Brigadier General Benjamin Grierson and his now rested cavalry troopers, lead the 7,000 infantrymen under Major General Christopher Augurs north out of Baton Rouge. They are headed for a road junction just 12 miles north, occupied by a single two story building. The first floor contains a general store run by a family named Young, and the second floor contains meeting rooms for the Plains Masonic Lodge. The crosroads is called Plains Store. Five miles due east of this crossroads, overlooking the Mississippi River, are the cannon of Port Hudson (above). Occupying this insignificant crossroads will cut off the last communications and supply line for those rebel cannon.
As the Grierson's cavalry approaches the Plains Store crossroads this morning, they skirmish with 600 Rebel defenders. But the arrival of Union infantry brigades a few hours later force the Confederates to withdraw. The arrival of Confederate reinforcements a few hours after this the Union infantry to draw back. But numbers and determination eventually tell, and by the end of the day the Confederates are forced to withdraw inside their fortifications at Port Hudson. Union casualities are 100, while the Rebels lose 89.
Over the next 48 hours, the rest of General Banks' (above) 40, 000 men cross from the Louisiana shore and take up positions on the land side of the 7,500 Rebels in the fortress of Port Hudson (below). Banks hopes to take the fortress quickly, and then transfer his men north, to take command of the siege of Vicksburg. Grant has no intention of allowing him the opportunity.
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