The 400 "Allerbammer yallerhammers" burst from the woods shrieking the rebel yell like banshees. They were met at once by a volley of cannon fire that plowed gaping bloody lanes in their ranks. But the men of 23rd Alabama had something to prove - to themselves, to their fellow rebels, and to the damned Yankees. They kept coming. One hundred yards short of the Federal line the butternuts disappeared into a narrow defile and struggled against the canebrake grasses. And as they burst free, momentum held them suspended for the Federal musketry and cannon grapeshot which butchered them with a cruel volley. They were staggered by the violence.
But in a final burst of will, they threw their bayonets into the thin Yankee line. After a brief struggle, the Yankees fell back. The sons of Dixie had captured the guns. And for a brief moment it was a lovely, bright May Day morning of 1863. There were only 2 dozen Yellowhammers still standing atop the Magnolia Church Ridge.
Arguably, 32 year old Brigadier General John Stevens Bowen (above) was the best Confederate division commander in Mississippi that summer. After telegraphing details of the 1:00pm repulse of the Federal ironclads at Grand Gulf on Wednesday, 29 April, 1863, Bowen warned his boss Lieutenant General John Clifford Pemberton back in Jackson, "When they cross again, they may move to Rodney" - the little port town 30 miles down the Mississippi river from Grand Gulf. Bowen was telling Pemberton - again - that his entire army was about to be outflanked.
To his credit, Pemberton responded immediately - finally - ordering 2 more brigades of infantry to Grand Gulf. Within hours, 1,000 men under 29 year old lawyer and Colonel Edward Dorr Tracy left Warrenton, 40 miles to the north. And from Vicksburg another thousand men under 35 year old bibliophile, William Edwin Baldwin set off about 7:00pm. None of these men would reach Bowen before Thursday evening at the earliest. In the meantime, if the Yankees had landed on the Mississippi shore, the key to the defense of Grand Gulf would shift 12 miles inland, to the town on the south fork of Bayou Pierre - Port Gibson. The two brigades rushing to Bowen's support would have to cross that bridge over the south fork in Port Gibson. That town and the bridge had to be secured as soon as possible.
Bowen's best brigade, lead by 29 year old Colonel Francis Marion Cockrell (above), had just returned from the Louisiana shore and were still getting reorganized.
So Bowen turned to his second brigade, commanded by 62 year old Brigadier General Martin Edwin Green (above). And although Green was a little old for field duty, his drive was beyond question. The year before, on the second day of the Battle of Corinth, Green's attack had plunged deep into the Yankee defenses, capturing 40 cannon and had come within yards of capturing the Federal commander, Brigadier General William Rosecrans. But the bloody, hand-to-hand assault had also decimated his battalion. And by afternoon, Green had been forced to give back most of what he had captured.
On the morning of Thursday, 30 April, Green marched his men via the Old Mill Road to Port Gibson and secured the vital bridge. Then Green climbed the forested ridge lines south of town, looking for a good defensive position. A half mile out he crossed the junction with the Bruinsburg road.
The Brunisburg Road (above) led west before following the circuitous levee along the main stream of the Bayou Pierre south, until that stream entered the Mississippi. Eventually the road reached Buinisburg Landing. But Bowen was expecting the Yankees to land at Rodney, although a scout had reported about 3,000 blue bellies coming up the road from Brunisurg. So General Green continued along the sinuous crest of the Rodney Road for another 3 miles until the trees opened up on a plateau called Thompson Hill, just wide enough for a couple of small farms.
General Green set his skirmish line across the southern crest of Thompson Hill - over looking Widow's Creek. They were supported by The Arkansas Sharpshooters under Lieutenant William Tisdale, dug in around the junction of a north/south farm road and the white 2 story house of A.K. Shafier. Just 100 yards north of this was a low ridge, topped by the tiny Magnolia Church (above) and the Shafier house.
However Green drew his main battle line 300 yards further north (above), around the house and barn of a man named Foster (a). In the center, north/south across the Rodney Road, were the 200 picked men of the elite 12th "Arkansas Battalion". To their left, extending toward Widows Creek, were the 21st and the 15th Arkansas regiments. Right of The Battalion were the 12th Arkansas and the 6th Mississippi Regiments. Anchoring the center of the Foster Farm line were the two 6 pound and two 4 pound cannon of Captain Alfred Hudson's battery.
General Bowen briefly inspected Green's dispositions that afternoon. Then he returned to Grand Gulf, where he still expected the primary federal assault to land. And after a 40 mile forced march in just 27 hours, at about 10:00pm that Thursday evening, Colonel Tracy's exhausted brigade reached the battlefield, "jaded...and without provisions". They staggered onto the far right flank of Green's line, straddling the Bruinsburg road where it joined the Shafier road. Between them Green and Tracy now had about 2,500 men on the field. Two hours later, the weary Alabamians were awakened by the blind collision between Green's battalion and General Osterhouse's division coming up the Rodney Road.
General Bowen came rushing back to Port Gibson, reaching the plateau about 7:30 the morning of Friday, 1 May, 1863. He found the battle had already resumed and now realized the Foster farm position was vulnerable to the massed Yankee cannon atop the Magnolia Church ridge. In fact his 2,500 men were up against the 23,000 men of General McClernand's entire corps. Bowen sent word back to Grand Gulf for Colonel Cockrell's entire brigade to come at once.
And to stabilize the immediate situation he pressed Colonel Tracey on the Bruinsburg Road, to shift a regiment to the Foster Farm. The regiment picked by the reluctant Tracy was the eager 23rd Alabamians, under the 49 year old politician Colonel Franklin King Beck (above).
The 23rd Alabama volunteer infantry had been formed in Montgomery in November of 1861 with 672 men. During their first 2 months of service near Mobile they lost 88 men to sickness. They were then transferred to Tennessee, where they were ravaged by an epidemic of typhoid fever. After a year of marching back and forth across the state without facing combat, in December of 1862 they were transferred to Vicksburg, and folded into Colonel Tracy's brigade, but too late to aid in the battle of Chickasaw Bayou.
This morning it took the sleep deprived Alabamians 90 minutes to cover the 8 miles of unfamiliar, crowded road. By the time they reached the left flank on the Foster Farm, the 23rd Alabama numbered only about 400 men, but they were anxious to prove themselves. This time they had arrived just in time.
Bowen realized the gathering Federal artillery was preparing the way for an assault. So as soon as the "Yellowhammers" arrived - nicknamed after the yellow trim worn on some Alabama cavalry uniforms, which resembled the Yellow-shafted flicker - Bowen prepared to launch them in a preemptive assault with the 6th Mississippi and the 12th Arkansas.
The 6th Mississippi had earned the title of "The Bloody 6th" at Shiloh, on 6 April, 1862. During 30 horrific minutes that Easter Sunday morning (above) the 425 men of the 6th had charged 3 times uphill against the battle line of the 53rd Ohio infantry supported by artillery. As one of the Mississippi officers wrote later, "Again and again the Sixth Mississippi, unaided, charged the enemy's line, and it was only when the regiment had lost 300 officers and men killed and wounded....that it yielded and retreated in disorder over its own dead and dying." Slowly rebuilt, a year later the Bloody Sixth supplied 540 men for General Bowen's attack.
Just six months after their formation the 600 plus men of the 12th Arkansas Volunteer Infantry, were forced to surrender at Fort Donelson, Tennessee in February of 1862.
Six months later, after being quickly paroled and exchanged, the Razorbacks were then assigned to defend Island Number 10 at the New Madrid Bend in the Mississippi River, where - six months later - they were again forced to surrender on 7 April, 1862. Paroled a second time, most of the disgusted razorbacks simply went home. Those few who remained became an orphaned regiment, not being exchanged until November, when they were dispatched to Vicksburg under the scion of a powerful family, Colonel Thomas J. Reid, Jr.
And in a cruel fate, six months later, on 1 May, 1863, as the 500 Sad Sacks of 12th were forming the right flank of General Bowen's attack, they inadvertently presented their naked flank to the 400 hidden muskets of 47th Indiana Volunteers. Three brutal volleys broke the 12th before they had even launched their assault.
On horseback, his saber sparkling in the light over his head, and shouting "Follow me! Let's take that battery!", General Bowen lead the Mississippi men across the 200 yards of young green corn. Again the massed Yankee artillery slashed corridors of blood through their ranks. And still the Mississippians came one.
Then 100 yards from the Magnolia Church Ridge the Iowan battery let loose double canister rounds, butchering the Mississippians. The line of rebels shuddered at the impact and their will dissolved in the smoke. Bowen, unable to approach the line on horseback, because of the Canebrake, did not press the attack. Instead he shepherded his men back to the Foster house.
The Choctaw Confederate, 35 year old Captain William Clyde Thompson, bleeding from a bad head wound, still remembered, “As we went back we were amazed and shocked to see how many of our men were lying dead or wounded in the path of our advance.” Almost 20% of the Bloody Sixth fell that day.
Only the men of the 23rd Alabama captured the guns. But they could not use them. The artillerymen who had accompanied the attack, intending on turning those cannon on the retreating Yankees, had all been killed or wounded. Private Martin Calk told his sister it was, "...the fight the Alabama 23rd has been long hunting and at last we found it. I tell you it was a hot one. I Saw many fall and heard many cries and groans of the dying and wounded. But the Lord was good and merciful to me." After a stubborn 30 minutes pinned down under a merciless musketry and without any support, the Yellowhammers staggered back to their starting point.
The assault had proved of little value, because more Yankees were pushing up the Rodney Road every minute, driven by a determined, quiet man in the worn blue uniform,
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