As noon on Saturday, 16 May, 1863 was approaching, the 1st brigade of General Hovey's 12th Division, had captured the low ridge overlooking the key cross roads atop Champion Hill. Immediately Brigadier General George Francis McGinnis ordered artillery up the hill to support the tenacious toe hold. As the path up the slope was narrow, only two guns were sent. It was a moment of high drama, captured by the official history of the 16th Ohio Light Artillery battery.
“...Lieutenant (George) Murdoch was ordered up to the top of the Hill. Captain (James A.) Mitchell asking...to be permitted to go with it to place the guns. We galloped up the Hill. Cannoneers dismounted and all out...Lieutenant Murdoch's horse was wounded, so that during the fight he was dismounted. A little distance beyond the summit of the Hill there was an open held to the left of the road, into which one of the guns, with Corporal Belmer as gunner, was pulled...
...while the other with Corporal (Pomeroy) Mitchell (above) as gunner, went forward about fifty yards and found a good place just to the right of the road, near a log cabin and smoke house. Captain Mitchell and Lieutenant Murdoch were with this gun.... the ground sloping down hill in front of them...by using solid shot (they) could fire over our own men...”
“...The gun by the cabin found our men in front of it in the way. The rebels were advancing, the bullets were coming fast. Then it was that the captain showed his bravery. He dashed down on his horse, right in the face of that leaden storm, and cried to our men: "Out of the way. boys, get out of the way and give the artillery a chancel" Our men rushed back and around the cabins, and as the Johnnies came on they got charge after charge of canister, all the 13 rounds of canister the gun carried.”
This counter attack had been hastily thrown together by Brigadier General Stephen Dill Lee (above), whose 2nd brigade was facing an attack by troops from Logan's division, coming up the wooded and ravine cut northern slope of Champion Hill. But Lee knew the vital point was, in fact behind him.
So around 1:00pm, Lee collected about 400 survivors of the 34th Georgia regiment thrown back by the first Yankee thrust, bolstered them with his own reserve, the 31st Alabama regiment, and launched an immediate assault.
This first counter-attack was quickly cut down by deadly accurate fire of the 45th Illinois and 23rd Indiana regiments, and flanking fire from the 24th Indiana, but mostly because of the two cannon from the 16th Ohio. As his troops fell back. Lee ordered a second assault, this time adding the 23rd Alabama regiment drawn from his own front line, directed specifically to silence those Yankee guns.
The history of the 16th Ohio notes the bravery of the rebel assault. “... though the slaughter was appalling, still on they came.....as fast as one line was shattered another took its place.”
But the account also records the cost. “The brave Captain (James Mitchel) remained on his horse... A whole volley was fired at him by the enemy concealed in the ravine...near the house. As the horse was hit he sprang forward, throwing the Captain off backward...(James) rose from the ground, pressing his hand to his chest, the blood flowing freely from his wound. Lieutenant Murdock sent back for surgical aid, but the Captain insisted on sitting down with his back to a tree at the roadside near the command...” In such a way the second assault was thrown back.
About 1:30pm, Lee's division commander, General Stevenson, sent word to Pemberton, asking for help. Not waiting for a reply, Lee launched troops on yet another attack to retake the vital road junction, adding the 46th Alabama regiment to his punch. Some of these troops were making their third charge against the Yankee line.
Out of canister shot, Corporal Belmer's gun was hitched to its horse team and sent racing back down the hill. The gun manned by Pomeroy Mitchel however, kept firing until Lieutenant Murdoch saw the rebels closing in. He waved his pistol and yelled, “Quick, boys, out of here!”
The 16th not only saved both their own guns, they captured 2 cannon from The Botetourt battery, and spiked several of the guns abandoned by Waddell's battery. Meanwhile, the third rebel counterattack was thrown back, leaving the 46th Alabama regiment embedded in the Yankee line. Exhausted and bloodied, the brave Alabamian fighters suddenly found themselves surrounded. When demanded, the Confederate regiment was forced to surrender.
It was now almost 2:00pm. The isolated battle for the crest of Champion Hill - now called The Hill of Death - had been going on for almost 2 hours. The first brigade of General McGinnis, comprising the 11th, 24th, 34th and 46th Indiana Regiments and the 29th Wisconsin regiment had suffered almost 90 dead – including Captain Mitchel - almost 500 wounded and 23 missing or captured. On the opposing line, Cummings shattered Georgia brigade had suffered 121 dead, 269 wounded and 605 captured, and Lee's Alabama battalion had sacrificed over 40 men killed, 140 wounded and 600 captured. The other causality was Grant's patience
At noon Grant had ordered an assault all along his line, but neither Osterhaus's 9th division, nor Carr's 14th division in the center had yet to move. It would later be determined that the messenger carrying the order to attack had gotten lost, and had just reached General McClernand's headquarters. Grant might have expected McClernand to have launched his assault on his own initiative, upon seeing Hovey's 12th division desperately battling on the crest. But the midst of a battle was not the time to deal with McClernand. Grant was was assured the entire line would be advancing soon, along with more support for Hovey's brave men.
Meanwhile Pemberton was having his own command problems. His first choice to support Steven's hard pressed men was to call for one of Loring's 4 brigades. “Old Bizzards” was still trading long range skirmishing fire with Smith's approaching 12th Division and Blair's 2nd. But in response to Pemberton's orders, Loring pleaded that he was about to be attacked and could not spare even one of his brigades. And no matter how many orders Pemberton issued, Loring simply ignored them.
That left only General John Stevens Bowen's smaller division, stretched out along the north/south Ratcliff Road, in between Steven's and Loring's divisions. They, at least, had the advantage of being closer.
The closest unit was Bowen's 1st brigade under long dour faced 32 year old Brigadier General Seth Maxwell Barton (above). Shortly after 2:00pm he sent 3 regiments against the flank of the weary federal troops, charging with the 40th, 41st and 43rd Georgia Regiments, supported by the 4 guns of the Cherokee Georgia Artillery, under Captain Max van den Corput.
Falling on the Yankee flank, they broke the line and pushed it off the vital crossroads, 300 yards back to the crest. But there the Yankees reformed. So Barton threw in his reserve, the 52nd Georgia regiment against the vulnerable right flank of the new Federal line, crumpling it and sending the blue coats streaming for the rear.
And at that moment, after almost 3 hours of violence and bloodshed, the weary men of Barton's brigade was within 5 or 6 hundred yards of complete and total victory. Because at the bottom of that hill, gathered around the Champion home, were almost 200 Yankee wagons loaded with ammunition. And without those wagons, Grant's campaign would be a disaster.
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