It was boys from Madison who drew the first shots from the rebel cavalry at about 6:45am on that Saturday, 16 May, 1863, about 10 miles northwest of Raymond on the Edward's Depot Road. Under the able direction of 22 year old lawyer, Lieutenant Colonel William Freeman Vilas, Companies “A”, “D” and “I” of the Wisconsin 23rd Infantry (above) were deployed as skirmishers, and they slowly drove the rebel cavalry northward up the road.
The 23rd was the leading regiment of 31 year old Brigadier General Stephen Gano Burbridge's 1st Battalion, within the 10th Division, under the irascible professional, 47 year old Brigadier General Alexander Jackson Smith. Behind Smith's division on this same road was the 2nd Division of 42 year old politically connected Major General Francis Preston Blair, junior. His division, under Sherman's XVIIth Corps, had just escorted 200 wagons of ammunition to Grant's army. But now they were marching under General McClernand's orders, expecting to meet with the Army of Mississippi sometime today.
Confederate Major General William Wing Loring's division was just up that road, alerted now and preparing a reception for the Yankee's. But abruptly shortly after 7:30am, the sound of cannon fire from the north made obvious the central flaw in Loring's plan, which Lieutenant General John Clifford Pemberton (above) had adopted.
The only bridge over Baker's Creek was behind the rebel army's left flank. And with the ford on the Raymond road still flooded, that bridge was Pemberton's only connection to Edward's Depot and his supply line back to Vicksburg. So while trying to cut Grant's supply line, Pemberton had uncovered his own. In a near panic, Pemberton ordered Loring to pull his men back 2 miles to Champion Hill, dig in and hold his ground.
Up north, where the the Ratliff Road met the Clinton road, atop the 75 foot high Champion Hill, the “slender dark-bearded” 29 year old Brigadier General Stephen Dill Lee (above) was methodically getting his Alabama battalion organized for the day's march. He was not expecting trouble, but then, about 7:30am, a company of the 20th Alabama regiment on the Clinton Road began exchanging gunfire with an advancing Yankee regiment. The shooting got hot for a time, and when the Yankees kept showing up in disturbing numbers Lee had to react quickly. He formed his men into an angle, facing Yankees to the north and east.
In one regard the South Carolinian was responsible for this war. As an 1856 graduate of West Point, Captain Stephen Lee had delivered the ultimatum to Fort Sumter in April of 1860. When the fort's commander, Major Anderson, pointed out he had rations for only 3 days, making any shooting or loss of life unnecessary, Lee had rejected the peace offer out of hand. He replied, “(General) Beauregard will open fire on Fort Sumter in one hour from this time." Would the north have reacted with such unity, if the rebellion had begun with a quiet surrender and not a bombardment? Thanks to Stephen Lee, we will never know.
As a cavalryman in 1862 Stephen had fought at Seven Pines, where General Johnston was wounded. As a Colonel of artillery, he had commanded Confederate guns at Antietam Creek that September, and maybe saved the Army of Northern Virginia. At Chickasaw Bluffs, in January of 1863, at the head of a full division, he had repulsed Sherman's corps, maybe saving Vicksburg. And now atop Champion Hill, reduced again to a brigade commander, Lee saw the almost imperceptible narrow crest that formed an angle along the hilltop as the key to the position.
Grant's hammer was about to fall on Pemberton's army at the most crucial spot at the precise moment it could destroy the rebel army. In addition to the 11,000 blue coats approaching on the Raymond Road, 2 more Yankee divisions were heading toward Champion Hill on the Clinton Road – the 9th Division , under 40 year old Prussian born revolutionary Brigadier General Peter J. Osterhaus, followed by the 14th Division of 33 year old New Yorker, Brigadier General Eugene Asa Carr – both members of 51 year old Major General John Alexander McClernand's XIII Corps.
And to the north, on the Bolton road, were 3 divisions - the 12th Division of 42 year old Brigadier General Alvin Peterson Hovey, - XIII Corps - the 3rd Division of 37 year old John Alexander Logan, and the 7th Division of 33 year old Hoosier Marcelles Monroe Crocker, both from the XVII Corps under 34 year old Major General Birdseye McPherson. But McClernand was the senior officer present, and about 9:00am when General Hovey asked for permission to launch an assault, McClernand postponed the decision until General Grant had arrived. Meanwhile he ordered Logan's division to extend Hovey's bent line line toward Baker's Creek.
As Hovey's infantry twisted opposent the ridge atop Champion Hill, the 168 men of the 16th Ohio Volunteer Light Battery pulled off north of the the Champion farm house, From here they had a clear view of the Confederates atop the hill.
These Buckeyes had been organized by 37 year old Springfield, Ohio lawyer, Captain James Anderson Mitchel. Its six 6 pound brass rifled cannon were serviced by, among others, the captain's brothers and cousins– 36 year old Lieutenant Isaac Newton Mitchel, 31 year old Sergeant “Jim” H. Mitchel, 25 year old Sergeant William Mitchel, 22 year old Corporal Isaa Mitchel, 21 year old Corporal Pomeroy Mitchel, and 32 year old Private Milton Mitchel.
Corporal Pomeroy Mitchel (above) would write years later, “A skirmish line was thrown out to feel (the rebel) position. Logan's Division marched past and filed to the right in an open field or valley while the enemy was in the woods facing them....” Hovey's men were facing west and south.
Up on the bare hilltop, division commander, Major General Carter Stevenson (above), edged Lee's Alabama brigade to the left - replacing it on the Clinton/Ratcliff crossroads with the larger 1st Brigade of Brigadier General Seth Barton – the 34th, 31st and 39th Georgia regiments. The defense of this vital position was also supported by the sole 2 remaining cannon of the Botetourt Artillery – the Virginians badly mangled at Port Gibson back on 1 May – and the 8 guns crewed by Alabamians, under 36 year old Captain James Flemming Waddell.
Stevenson's 3rd Brigade, under Brigadier General Alfred Cumming, extended Lee's line west along the crest, facing north. Stevenson held his 4th brigade under Colonel Alexander Reynolds in reserve, and sent the supply wagons scrambling back across the Baker's Creek bridge to safety. All this took time to establish, but luckily the Yankees seemed in no hurry.
It was not until 10:00am that Grant (above) and McPherson finally arrived on the field. Grant took over the Champion house as his headquarters, sending Matilda and her 4 children fleeing for Bolton. Angry at the delay, Grant reluctantly waited until Logan's men were deployed out on his left flank, and then, about 10:30am, ordered the assault against the entire rebel line.
Wrote the witness Corporal Pomeroy Mitchel, “The infantry of our brigade went forward on both sides of the road. At the brow of the hill there was a battery which was to be taken first of all. (37 year old hat maker Brigadier General George Francis) McGinnis ordered one section of our battery (2 guns) to advance and prepare for action. After advancing to the (base) of the Hill we halted, while the 49th Indiana and 29th Wisconsin were creeping up the hill to capture the battery...For the last rush, they waited till all the (enemy) guns had fired.”
The charge, when it came , was short - about 75 yards - and bloody. Recalled 23 year old Lieutenant Thomas Wise Durham, of the 11th Indiana, “We were stabbing with bayonets, clubbing with guns, officers shooting with revolvers and slashing and thrusting with swords.” After several long violent minutes the rebel line broke, and the Confederates fell back, seeking shelter in a ravine on the southern slope, cut by Austin Creek, But other Federal regiments flanked the ravine, and fired volley after volley into the ravine until, said Durham,, “They were really piled on top of each other,” Austin Creek, he said, ran red. By 11:00am, the Yankees had captured half a dozen rebel cannon and controlled the vital road junction. Grant had just cut off two thirds of the Pemberton's small army.