Brigadier General John Stevens Bowen (above) knew what was coming, even as the tattered remnants of the 23rd Alabama fell back to their former positions around the Foster Farm. They had bought with their lives and souls nothing more than a few precious minutes. And now it was up to the 32 year old Georgian to give their sacrifice meaning. He grabbed a fresh horse and raced back down the Rodney Road, looking for more men.
John Bowen knew what was coming up that road because he knew 41 year old Lieutenant General Ulysses Simpson Grant, personally. They had graduated West Point a decade apart, (Lt. Grant, above) but had briefly bonded in 1858 when Lieutenant Bowen and his new wife, Mary Kennerly had been assigned to Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis.
Grant (above) was then working for his Missouri in-laws, having just resigned from the army because it separated him from Julia. The couples' time together was brief, but long enough for John to witness Grant's stubbornness and his pathological inability to retrace his steps. which contributed to his failure in business.
Later, when transferred to Texas, John Bowen also resigned from the Army because he missed his wife. Afterward, he returned to St. Louis, as Grant had done. And in 1861 Bowen had been part of the failed effort to carry Missouri firmly into the Confederacy. But at Shiloh in April of 1862, the Confederate General Bowen had seen how that same streak of stubbornness now contributed to General Grant's (above) growing success.
Bowen had no doubt that the Illinois native would throw every soldier and gun he could lay his hands on at the Confederate line blocking his way to Port Gibson and across the south fork of Bayou Pierre. Port Gibson was the cork in the bottle. If the rebels could hold that cork in place, the Yankees would be trapped against the Mississippi flood plain. But to do that, Bowen needed more men, and he needed them right now.
Almost the instant after Bowen galloped off in search of reinforcements, at about 10:00am, Friday morning, 1 May, 1863, 10,000 men of the 10th Division under 48 year old Brigadier General of Volunteers Andrew Jackson Smith, and the 12th Division, Hovey's Babies, under 41 year old Indiana pro-union democratic lawyer Brigadier General Alvin Peterson Hovey. slammed into General Green's exhausted brigade. The Federal assault (above), with about 7 men per yard, simply swamped the rebel defenders of one man every 2 yards, sending them running for the rear. They Yankees captured 200 prisoners, 2 cannon, 3 caissons and 3 ammunition wagons. It took them less than 30 minutes.
Political glory hound, 50 year old Union Major General John Alexander McClernand (above) called a halt after sweeping the rebels from the Foster House ridge, ostensibly to reorganize. But like a bad actor genuflecting for his audience's approval - and with an impressionable visitor in 48 year old Illinois Governor Richard Yates standing next to him - McClernand could nor resist launching an extended bandiloquent blovoiation. Luckily for the Federal cause Lieutenant General Ulysses Grant, also a Yates favorite, was keeping a close eye and ear on McClernand. After listening to the smug supercilious sycophancy spewing from his subaltern, Grant pointedly suggested the rebels were not beaten but merely retreating to stronger lines. He then pointedly ordered McClernand push his men forward, toward Port Gibson and the vital bridge over the south fork of Bayou Pierre.
But after advancing less then 2 miles, at about noon, the Yankees ran into the 1,000 man brigade of 35 year old Columbus Mississippi bookstore owner, Brigadier General William Edwin Baldwin.
Having learned from the demoralizing Federal cannon fire the mistake of fighting on the ridge tops, Bowen sheltered Baldwin's men in the maze of the 8 foot tall canebrake (above) along the bottoms of Willow Creek. On their right were the 1,500 men of Colonel Francis Marion Cockrell's Missouri brigade, having forced marched from Grand Gulf. Bowen was stronger at this moment than he had been at any time before - with more than 6,500 men and 16 cannon in line of battle. But they were still facing more than 24,000 Federal troops, with more still arriving every hour.
The Yankee's advance would be slowed by the canebrake, but General Bowen had no doubt Grant would keep pushing. He sent a telegraph to General Pemberton, expected to arrive shortly in Vicksburg. It read in part, "We have been engaged in a furious battle ever since daylight; losses very heavy...the odds are overpowering."
And as if to confirm this, at about 2:00pm, on the Brunisburg road, 3 divisions of Grant's XVII corps under the popular 34 year old of Union Major General James Birdseye McPherson begin pounding the Alabama brigade, now commanded after Colonel Edward Tracy's death, by 46 year old Colonel Isham Warren Garott, The new commander asked General Martin Edwin Green for instructions, but received a confusing mish-mash of language in return. Garott had no choice but to begin a grudging slow retreat, forcing Green's entire command to follow his lead. The Rebel left collapsed.
At the same time McClernand was extending his line eastward. Just 1,200 yards through the woods was the rough road of the old Natchez Trace, leading around the rebel left. Colonel Cockrell threw the 3rd and 5th Missouri regiments at the Yankees, trying to force them to consolidate. But there were too many Yankees, and about 5:30pm General Bowen was forced to send a final message from the Port Gibson telegraph office. "I am falling back across Bayou Pierre. I will endeavor to hold that position until reinforcements arrive.…" He then sent the bitter message to the gunners still defending Grand Gulf to prepare to spike their guns and destroy the ammunition magazines before withdrawing to Warrenton.
It was at just this moment that General Bowen was superseded by the arrival of the disruptive argumentative and profane one armed Floridian, the 5 foot 9 inch tall Brigadier General William Wing "Old Blizzards" Loring (above). Dispatched from Edward's Station, the one armed argumentative general arrived as the troops were retreating back across the Bayou, and quickly came to the conclusion that this time he was too late.
Port Gibson could not be defended. Loss of Port Gibson meant the line of the south fork of Bayou Pierre could not be held. Loring knew from personal observation, that the north fork of the stream would be easily breached. After that Grand Gulf would be taken in the rear. The only militarily rational choice was to abandon Grand Gulf and Port Gibson and the entire Bayou Pierre line, and pull back through Willow Springs 30 miles to Harkinson's Ferry over the Big Black River. And that is what Loring ordered the bloodied troops under General Bowen to do, burning the bridge over the south fork of Bayou Pierre behind them. There they would meet his overstrength division, marching south.
The day delaying the Yankees at Port Gibson had cost Bowen's little army about 70 killed, more than 350 wounded and 384 captured - or almost 17% of his original force engaged. Yankee losses were about the same, but suffered by a much larger force. Grant did not press the rebels too hard. He was just pleased to have escaped the malaria and mud of the Mississippi floodplain. As McClernand's men worked overnight, dismantling buildings in Port Gibson, to rebuild the burned bridge, McPherson prepared his men to ford the \south fork of Bayou Pierre upstream of the town.
Come the dawn, Saturday 2 May, 1863, two thirds of Grant's army would be across the south fork of Bayou Pierre, and when Sherman's Corps - the remaining third - arrived, they would be able to transfer directly across the Mississippi to Port Gibson, saving them a 2 day march.
The only positive for the Confederacy on that Friday evening, 1 May, 1863, was that the Commander of the Army of Mississippi, Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton (above), had finally transferred his headquarters to Vicksburg (below). But that change of perspective, which once might have salvaged the campaign for the rebels, had been converted by time and events into a recipe for disaster.
The nature of that disaster threw its first shadow across the strong point of Port Hudson, 200 river miles south of Vicksburg. This narrow choke point in the Mississippi, had been bypassed by Grant's capture of Grand Gulf and Port Hudson. So General Pemberton wired the commander of that post, 41 year old New Yorker, Major General Franklin Kitchell Gardner, to bring his 2,000 man garrison to Vicksburg, as quickly as possible. It was the militarily sensible choice. With Vicksburg directly threatened, every man and gun would be needed to defend that vital point.
But a thousand miles away in Richmond, Virginia, 64 year old Confederate President, Jefferson Finis Davis (above), countermanded that order. He reminded Pemberton, "To hold both Vicksburg and Port Hudson is necessary to a connection with the Trans-Mississippi." Gardner and his 2,000 men would remain right where they were. Davis was right, of course. The South needed both points to stitch the Confederacy together.
But it was also insanity. The 2,000 man garrison was not strong enough to hold Port Hudson. But 2,000 more men might have made the difference at the upcoming battle of Champion's Hill (above). Over the next 2 weeks President Davis would frantically jam another 5,000 men into the trenches around Port Hudson. If those 7,000 men had gone to Vicksburg, they might have held the place, freeing the rest of Pemberton's army to remain mobile, and block a siege. The conundrum has given birth to an endless game of what if's, which would keep armchair generals busy for the next 200 years.
But the core of the issue is that Port Hudson (above) could not stand on its own. If Port Hudson fell, a fortified Vicksburg, with a mobile field army to ward off a siege, might remain standing, even if isolated. But if Vicksburg fell, Port Hudson was doomed. Pemberton knew that. Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston, knew it. But by the time anyone had time to do anything about Port Hudson in May of 1863, it was too damn late.
- 30 -