The artillery crescendo gave the game away. As the hands on thousands of watches clicked over to 10:00 am on Thursday, 22 May, 1863 - another of those heavy humid Mississippi mornings – dozens of gunners along the 3 mile long battle line waited for that final tick to pull their lanyards one last time. It was natural, to want to deliver one last blow against the enemy before the defenseless infantry came came out into the open. But after hours of shot and shell, the hiccup in the rhythm of the bombardment, followed by the thunder of so many cannon in unison, betrayed the attacker's intent. Without bidding, the men of the 36th Mississippi occupied the firing step of the redoubt and half cocked their muskets. Now it would be their courage and iron and powder against a forlorn hope.
Ulysses Grant (above) had decided even before the second failure of 19 May that he would try again, but a harder blow this time. On Tuesday Grant had been able to bring 15,000 men against the rebel lines. Now he could use the combined strength of 40,000 men, and the entire artillery reserves of the Army of the Tennessee. With an hour long bombardment to prepare the way, Grant meant to capture Vicksburg on 21 May, before the rebels in his rear, under General Joe Johnston, had time to assemble a new army.
That plan changed after Grant was recognized by the reserves and wounded of Sherman's XV Corps. As he rode through their ranks after the failed assault the men chanted, “Hard tack, hard tack, hard tack, hard tack”. The veterans were not showing affection for the ubiquitous barely palatable biscuit, also known as “molar breakers” and “worm castles”.
Instead, the chanting troops were advising their general that after two weeks of more marching and foraging than fighting, they were willing to storm this rebel city, but they would need full bellies and a full ration of ammunition. It was the genius of Grant that he heard his soldiers, took their advice, and delayed his second assault until 22 May.
The wagons which now trundled up the new road from the Johnson Plantation on Chickasaw Bayou, were loaded with food – for every soldier 20 ounces of pork or beef, 16 ounces of hard tack, and 1 ounce of desiccated mixed vegetables or potatoes.
And for every 100 men, 8 quarts of beans or peas, 10 pounds of hominy, 8 pounds of roasted coffee beans, 10 lbs of sugar and 1 quart of vinegar. Not until every regiment had received three day's rations, was the emphases shifted back to ammunition.
Major General Sherman decided to use the extra day to prepare his corps for the renewed assault on the Stockade Redoubt (above). It stood astride the Graveyard Road, the primary northern route into Vicksburg. Now the men knew what they faced – the 8 food deep and 8 feet wide ditch filled with abatis, and then the 17 foot slope before they could even come to gripes with the enemy. And being innovative men, they invented a way of avoiding the ditch.
That Wednesday morning, each of the 15 regiments in General Sherman's Corp was asked to provided 10 volunteers. The response spoke well for the spirit of the Army. Without knowing the risk they were being asked to take, double the number needed stepped forward. It allowed Sherman (above) to eliminate married men from the mission. But Sherman expressed his true feelings when he labeled the storming parties as “The Forlorn Hope”.
Preparations continued during the afternoon of 21 May, drilling nail holes and driving metal handles into the backs of 25 fresh cut 9 to 10 foot logs. After nightfall, the men dragged the logs out into the 500 yards of open ground in front of the rebel redoubt. After covering them with dirt and debris, they were left.
Come 10:00 a.m., 50 men with their rifles slung across their backs, would break out of cover and run like hell to the logs. Two men to each log, the volunteers would grab the handles and carry the burdens forward before throwing them across the trench. They would be followed by another 50 volunteers, who would be carrying boards pierced with nails. That afternoon it had been determined there only one ready source of planks, and that was the house in which General Grant was sleeping. So the general would drink his morning coffee on Thursday, 22 May while watching the house around him being dismantled.
The second wave of volunteers would run to the ditch, and jam the nails of the boards into the pre-drilled holes in the logs, thus forming foot bridges. The final 50 volunteers would be carrying scaling ladders. They would race across the bridges and lay the ladders against the redoubts' slope. The following assault troops would then cross the bridges, climb the ladders and capture the redoubt. Or so went the plan.
A mile to the south, 34 year old Major General James Birdseye McPherson's XVII Corp would be making a similar assault on the Great Redout. And about a mile further south of that the XIII Corps under 51 year old politician Major General John Alexander McClaerend would be attacking the Railroad Redoubt. It was hoped that if the rebel line was pressed in unison, it would break somewhere. Anywhere.
Wednesday evening, Grant informed Admiral Porter of the pending assault, and asked if the ironclads along the river could help by shelling the enemy water batteries from 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. Porter assigned the ships Benton, Tuscumbria, Carondelet and Mound City to pound the river batteries.
Inside the Stockade Redout, the confident veterans of the 36th Mississippi knew something was coming. But the only element of their defense which caused them worry was their commander, 30 year old Colonel William Wallace Witherspoon. There could be no doubt that he was a southern patriot. When the war broke out, William had just begun his career as a lawyer in the little town of Napoleon, where the Arkansas river joined the Mississippi. Still, he immediately enlisted in the 1st Arkansas mounted infantry, as a private.
Less than a month after the battle of Bull Run, in August of 1861, a 12,000 man rebel army was camped along Wilson's Creek, preparing to fall on the 6,000 isolated Union troops in Springfield, Missouri. The Union commander, Brigadier General Nathanial Lyon, decided to strike first, and on 10 August, caught the rebels still in their tents. After a bloody morning, the Yankees were forced to retreat, but the attack, which cost Lyon his life (above), so damaged the rebels there were unable to follow up their victory, which saved Missouri for the Federal Union. One of the 1,300 rebel casualties was private William Witherspoon.
William (above) was wounded so severely, he was discharged. But in March of 1862 he re-enlisted as a Lieutenant in the 36th Mississippi Infantry. Over the next year he earned a reputation as so “harsh, overbearing and tyrannical” that his men stuck him with the vulgar sexual nickname “Pewter Spoon” Then at Iuka, Corinth and Chickasaw Bayou, he showed himself to also be a brave and “brilliant” combat commander. Whether he was drinking for self medication or addiction, did not matter much to his men, or his commanders, and he was twice charged with being drunk on duty.
That Thursday, promptly at 10:00 a.m., Colonel Witherspoon steadied his men as the last of the Yankee shells landed harmlessly on the face of the Redoubt. Then with a cheer, the forlorn hope appeared, running out from the shelter of the trees.
The Mississippi boys did not wait for orders, but opened up at once. Sergeant George Powell Clarke, company “C” of the 36th, said, “A withering fire of musketry, grape, canister and shells greeted them as they came in sight, and men fell like grass before the reaper…Here, now, the eye witness could have seen war in all its awful sublimity and grandeur.”