On Saturday, 16 May, 1863, the mountain boys were waiting beyond the crest of the hill. They were a thousand souls from Lumpkin, Habersham, White, Town, Rabun, Union and Faninn counties.
They were the sons of the 29'ers - prospectors who had clawed a million dollars worth of gold dust from the gravels of the Chattahoochee, the Tallulah and Tugaloo rivers and some 500 hard rock mines across the Georgia Appalachians.
That wealth had belonged to the Cherokee nation, but white lawyers and politicians engineered the speedy dispatch of those inconvenient natives down a trail of tears, in exchange for a share of the riches earned on the stolen lands.
And now, atop the hill, their sons, the 52nd Georgia infantry, were waiting to pay not only their own invoice but also the debt of their fathers.
At the bottom of the hill were the Union men of the 31st Illinois regiment, and according to their diary, they had also begun the day, waiting. “About ten o'clock in the morning... the men spread their cartridges to dry in the sun, in an old field about five miles from Champion Hill.” It was not until late morning that musketry and cannon fire was heard, and 45 year old Lieutenant Colonel “Jack” Reese ordered his regiment into formation. “The men hastily gathered up their ammunition and seized their muskets, and the regiment followed the head of the column at double-quick...”
John “Jack” D. Reese was originally from the corn fields around Champlain. But in 1858 he and his wife, Marry, had moved south to Perry County, in little Egypt, where he was elected sheriff. When war broke out Jack was quick to volunteer, and was chosen Colonel of the regiment because of his experience in the Mexican war. He had seen no combat, but he had risen to the exhaulted rank of 2nd Lieutenant.
The 1st Brigade of the 3rd division's, under General John Eugene Smith (above), included the 31st Illinois, as well as the 20th, 45th and 124th Illinois, and the 23rd Indiana. It was placed on the far right of the battle line, opposite the north face of Champion Hill.
As soon as his artillery was ready, Black Jack Logan sent most of his men up the forested slope and ravines. But the men of the 1st brigade, designated the division reserve, lay on their belly's, “...while the hostile shells whistled and shrieked and exploded above them.”
The men of the 52nd Georgia often referred to themselves as The Fifth – so over sized was their regiment. They had been inducted into the Confederate Army in March of 1862. And in the 3rd year of the war, their companies were still the size of regiments and bore romantic titles - The Habersham Guards, the Cleveland Volunteers, the Lumpkin Bodyguards, the Hiawassee Rangers, the Beauregard Braves, the Allegheny Rangers, and the Fannin Rifles. And their Colonel, 34 year old lawyer Charles Duval Phillips, was the second son of one of the wealthiest families in Marietta. In January he had led them in their spirited defense of Chickasaw Bayou. Their causalities that day had been light, and they were proud of their accomplishment, and certain of their ability to face down the Yankees.
It was somewhere between 2:30 and 3:00pm before Hoosier Brigadier General Marcellus Monroe Crocker (above) finally got the order to send his 7th division forward. Remembering Grant's reprimand when McClernand had failed to issue ammunition before his men had crossed the Mississippi River, Major General James Birdseye McPherson, XVII commander, made certain his troops received their cartridges and caps from the wagons parked around the Champion house, before releasing them to the attack.
And then, at last it was the attack Grant had been seeking since 10:00a.m., with every unit pressing the rebel line at the same moment. The XVII corps' 3rd Division under Logan, on the right flank. To their left was Hovey's battered 12th division from McClernand's VIII Corps, advancing again on the Confederate line they had been battling all day. To their right, striking the rebel line in the elbow where it bent to the south, was another XVIII Corps division under Crocker. And striking the eastern slope of Champion Hill was Prussian Brigadier General Peter Joseph Osterhaus' 9th division. By pressing everywhere, Pemberton's line must give somewhere. In fact it gave everywhere.
All day Pemberton had been feeding first General Stevensons battalion's and then General Bowen's men, piecemeal into the battle for the junction of the Ratliff and Clinton roads.
This had been slowly sucking the balance of Pemberton's army north, toward its only safe escape route - the Baker's Creek bridge. Had General Loring thrown his division into the assault, the rebels might have held the Yankees back until nightfall. Or, the sacrifice of another 7,000 men, might have destroyed the only cohesive division the army had left.
Ignoring his commander's orders, and then his demands and then his pleas, “Give 'em Blizzards” Loring (above) refused to release a single regiment to retrieve Pemberton's honor. Instead, by 4:00p.m., two thirds of the army was weary, bloodied and outflanked. The battalions began to lose cohesion. It was a fighting retreat which threatened to become a rout. Only Loring's division held its formations and slowly began to slowly shuffle south, looking for an escape route over the swollen Bakers Creek.
The un-engaged Georgia 52nd regiment stood firm, while a few hundred yards to their front a battery of five cannon appeared on their road. In limber were the four 6-pound bronze still smoking Napoleon cannon and a single iron rifled 6-pound gun of the “Cherokee Artillery”, under 39 year old French-Belgium Captain Maximilian Van Den Corput. Having been engaged moments earlier and been forced to withdraw, Captain Corput was resting his winded horses atop the hill, when a target presented itself to the gunners. And entire Yankee battalion appeared just beyond a ravine to their front. Corput ordered 2 guns to unlimber and open fire.
Clawing their way to the crest of Champion's Hill, the Yankees of John Smith's 1st brigade had paused to reform, and found themselves suddenly under artillery fire from their right. Smith immediately saw the threat and the opportunity. Although his troops were the 3rd Division's reserve, knowing the larger battle was already won, Smith ordered his men to face right and charge the guns.
Immediately their vanished into the ravine. As they reappeared within a few yards of the battery, the 2 guns fired a round of grapeshot. But it was badly times and largely missed the blue coats. The Yankee battalion then fired a volley directly into Corput's battery, killing most of the horses, and almost half the gunners.
Corporal Wesley Connor, of Corput's battery, told his diary, “...many of the cannoneers (sic) had failed to stick to their guns, and the Yanks were close upon us, Captain Corput told his men to take care of themselves, and we were not long in putting the order into execution. I felt so mortified that I stopped once or twice to make sure that I was not the first to leave the guns.” Their division commander was kinder, noting the 42% casualty rate had proven the crew's devotion.
Five hundred yards to the rear, Colonel Charles Philips witnessed the loss of the battery and impulsively decided to take it back. He sent his thousand men charging at the double quick forward, into the 20th, 31st, 45th and 124th Illinois and the 23rd Indiana regiments.
The Yankees had time to prepare for their arrival. Said the diary of the 31st, “...there was crossing of bayonets and fighting hand to hand. Sergeant Wick, of Company B, used his bayonet upon his foe, and Sergeant Hendrickson, of Company C, clubbed his musket in a duel with one of the men in gray.”
A Iowa soldier summed up the situation all along the battle line, when he said, “We killed each other as fast as we could."
Colonel Phillips was leading the charge, but after a few minutes he was shot in the head and hands. He collapsed into the desperate mass, and it was several minutes before his second in command, Major John Jay Moore was even informed. The major then tried to issue an order to retreat, but the melee continued.
The entire fight lasted for less than half an hour, during which time at least 24 mountain men were killed. At least 750 officers and men of the 52nd regiment were killed, wounded or captured. The few survivors would continue to appear on the rolls of the Confederate army as the 52nd Georgia regiment. But during that half hour their bravado ceased to exist.
The Yankees of Smith's brigade also paid a price. The 20th Illinois suffered 22 killed, 107 wounded and 7 missing. The 124th Illinois lost 63 men killed and wounded. The 23rd Indiana had 4 officers and 14 men killed. The 45th Illinois suffered 5 dead – approximately 140 dead.
One unnamed member of the staff of the 52nd survived the disaster, and spurred his horse to escape. “At least a dozen dead battery horses had to be leaped in that lane. Suddenly the lane turned at left-angles, and stretched a half-mile down towards Baker's Creek. Down this lane with race-horse speed the rider flew, while minnie-balls whizzed around too close to the ear to be musical, and raising the dust on the ground before the rider. But thanks to good fortune both rider and horse escaped."
As the army began to collapse around him, Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton turned to those around him and said, ““I call upon you gentlemen to witness that I am not responsible for this battle. I am but obeying the orders of General Johnston.”