Saturday, April 07, 2018

VICKSBURG Chapter Fifty-Nine

Captain John Henry Peters was 34 that Monday afternoon, of 18 May, 1863. And as he boldly galloped northward across the rolling hills of central Mississippi, he knew he was doing the greatest thing he would ever do. He was leading 27 other bold men, volunteers all from company B of the 4th Iowa cavalry – 24 enlisted men and 3 officers – on a great adventure. Death might be waiting over the next rise. But until then, they were masters of their own fate, and possibly the fate of every soldier in this war.
The only delay in their progress were the occasional stragglers in butternut brown or tattered gray they paused to disarm. They took the soldier's weapons and told the wounded and weary to go home. And then the blue clad knights galloped off, leaving a psychic havoc on their wake. Those they had randomly touched were offered the choice between devotion to duty or to their family, between a form of volunteer slavery and freedom. The individual consequences were of no concern to the troopers, until they fell upon a single sad rebel soldier seeking to escape on a sad horse. With a half dozen Navy Colts pointed at him the man quickly surrendered his weapon. Then, when he realized they were soldiers from Iowa, joy flashed across his face.
He was from the village of Green Isle, Iowa, the prisoner proudly explained. Sheltered in the deep shadows of high bluffs along the Mississippi River – the village only received an hour of winter's sunlight - Green Isle had been one of the first Irish Catholic footholds in the Hawkeye state. The romance of the riverboats which paused there to pickup fire wood had enticed the young rebel to sail down the river, where he had been caught when the war broke out.  Drafted into Confederate service, this was his first chance to escape.  Or so he said.  And, if the captain would write him a pass through the Union lines, so he could get to St. Louis, he promised to show the Yankees a back road into the fortifications atop Snyder's bluff. As that was exactly where they were heading, Captain Peters accepted the offer.
Born in Pennsylvania, John Peters was a life long Democrat.  In his early twenties he spent 2 years in the Yellow Fever and malaria incubator of Cuba, “for his health”. During those years he had studied law, and returned to “the states” in 1852 to pass the bar under a lawyer in Freeport, Illinois. He married a local girl, Helen Kneeland, and the next year the new lawyer and wife moved to the tiny Delaware County seat of Delhi, Iowa. Three sons later, in September of 1861, at Camp Harlan near Mount Pleasant, Iowa, John signed a three year enlistment as an officer in the 4th Iowa volunteer cavalry regiment, and promptly rode off to war.
Snyder's bluff (above) was a 900 foot tall spike in the Walnut hills, towering above the head of Chickasaw Bayou, on the Yazoo River. The previous December this had been the edifice which blocked Sherman's attempt to sneak in the back door of Vicksburg. But everything Grant's army had done over the next 5 months, the tons of mud moved in the Lake Providence canal, the sweat and exhaustion in the Yazoo and Steeles Bayou expeditions, the horror of running the Vicksburg batteries, the risks endured by Grierson's troopers, the landing at Bruinisburg, the battles of Port Gibson, of Raymond, of Jackson, of Champion Hill and the Big Black River Bridge, had all been endured just to clamber those last 100 yards to the top of crest of the Walnut Hills, to break through the back gate of Vicksburg.
Both Sherman and Grant assumed they were going to have to fight the 3,500 man garrison at Snyder's Bluff (above, left) , as well as the 4,000 men which spies reported were encamped along the Brownsville Road.   So when Sherman dispatched the 4th Iowa that morning from the Marshal Plantation, their orders were to merely report rebel activity on the Brownsville road heading north out of Vicksburg. Talking this road would give Sherman, “ command of the peninsula between the Yazoo River and Big Black.”
They set off just after dawn up the Bridgeport Road to the village of Tucker (above, center left), where they turned north toward the Oak Ridge Road. About noon they reached the Oak Ridge Post Office, and here they halted. An officers conference was almost unanimous in deciding not to alert the rebels to their presence. The column set on a reverse march. But Captain Peters was the sole vote for continuing. He so pestered his commander, Colonel Simon Swan, that Peters was reluctantly allowed proceed with a squadron to Snyder's Bluff and report what he found.
What Captain Peters found was stunning. He wrote later, “At about three fourths of the way to the summit we came out into a broad military road that wound around into and above the works. I shall never forget the sight. Before us lay the broad Yazoo and from the landing up to our very feet lay...the most complete and strongest fortification of the whole Mississippi valley.” At a walk they entered the fortifications, unchallenged by a single sentry. In a ring around the steep slopes of the bluff were the 11 ugly black cannon in their emplacements - two 8 inch Columbiads, three 24 pounders, two 32 pounders and two heavy 12 pounders, all connected by trenches and fire pits for infantry. But the gunners were nowhere to be seen, nor were the infantry.
Continued the captain, “We rode forward expecting every minute a demonstration that would send us back at a livelier pace than we had come in. All at once there poured out a squad of armed soldiers from a large commissary building of the left of the road, 25 or 30 in number, and undertook to form a line in our front. In a moment the order came “Left front into line. Draw sabres! Charge!” and in a moment we were down upon them. Not a gun was fired nor a serious saber stroke given. They simply threw down there arms and surrendered. From the Sargent in command I learned that the fortifications had been evacuated the night before.”
In fact the garrison of the 3rd Louisiana Infantry regiment had marched for Vicksburg,  carrying all the food and supplies they could. A remaining pile of corn was left on the landing in front of the bluff, supporting the new prisoners contention that 43 year old Brigadier General Louis Hebert and his men would be returning in the morning. This was given added weight when Peters noted that barbed steel spikes had been driven into the touch or vent holes of many of the heavy cannon left behind, which prevented them from being fired until the spikes were removed. Those which had not been “spiked” were triple loaded with shot and shell, ensuring they would explode if the Yankees tried to fire them. Peters knew he could not hold the position with 2 dozen troopers. And it would be a race to return to Union lines and get back with enough infantry to hold the position. Luckily for Captain Peters there were Union soldiers much closer. .
Using his glasses, Captain Peters could see Federal Navy gunboats and ironclads anchored in the mouth of the Yazoo, less than 2 miles away.   So after sending his prisoners to the landing under guard, Peters,  sent a man to the top of the bluff with a fairly clean towel that I happened to find in my saddle pocket to try and signal a gunboat...I could plainly see a squad of officers on the deck with their glasses pointed in our direction but making no effort to communicate with us. I then directed Lieutenant Clark to take a couple of men and follow down the river bank until he could communicate with the boat.”
A few hours later Peters was, “...taken from the saddle and carried to the officer's mess room (on the Baron De Kalbe)  (above).  The prospects of a good supper after a fast of 12 or 14 hours and a ride of over 20 miles to say nothing of the intense excitement...settled the question and I became the guest of the Captain, and did ample justice to a splendid supper with all the et cetera....after signaling an orderly boat and preparing a message to our fleet of transports....notifying them... that the Yazoo was open up to Chickasaw Bayou, we climbed upon the backs of our hungry and tired horses and rode rapidly back toward the place we had left..”.
While the 4th Iowa was returning, infantry and Marines were landed at the foot of Snyder's Bluff,
and the gun boats dropped anchor, to defend them. The troopers from Iowa reached their own lines after midnight, “to the utter surprise and great joy of our whole command”, said Peters.   And by 2:00am, on Tuesday, 19, May, 1863, Grant and Sherman were informed they had reestablished communications with the Navy, and their supply line.  The back door to Vicksburg (below), had been kicked down, and stood wide open.
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Friday, April 06, 2018

VICKSBURG Chapter Fifty-Eight

Dora Miller, diarist and resident of Vicksburg, saw the remnants of the disaster on the afternoon of Sunday, 17 May, 1863. “About three o'clock the rush began, “ she wrote. “I shall never forget that woeful sight of a beaten, demoralized army that came rushing back...” Another woman described that army as, “Wan, hollow-eyed, ragged, footsore, bloody—the men limped along, unarmed but followed by siege guns, ambulances, gun-carriages, and wagons in aimless confusion. At twilight two or three bands on the courthouse hill and other points began playing “Dixie,” “Bonnie Blue Flag,” and so on; and drums began to beat all about; I suppose they were rallying the scattered army.”
Several of the weary soldiers confided to civilians they would desert before fighting another battle under Pemberton. “The stillness of the Sabbath night was broken...the blasphemous oaths of the soldier and the cry of the child, mingled...There were many gentlewomen and tender children torn from their homes by the advance of a ruthless foe, and compelled to fly to our lines for protection; and mixed up with them in one vast crowd were the gallant men who had left Vicksburg three short weeks before, in all the pride and confidence of a just cause, and returning to it a demoralized mob.”
Dora Miller was northern born and pro-union. But even Emma Balfour, matron of a wealthy and powerful pro slavery family, could not not ignore reality. She told her diary, “ My pen almost refuses to tell of our terrible defeat…What is to become of all the living things in this place when the boats begin shelling – God only knows. Shut up as in a trap, no ingress or egress – and thousands of women and children who have fled here for safety…” And about 18,000 soldiers.
Pemberton had finally ordered the army to begin seizing food stuffs in an around the city. The work did not began in earnest until 15, May. Over the next 48 hours the two division commanders in Vicksburg, Major Generals John Horace Forney and Martin Luther Smith, brought in half a million pounds of smoked pork and salted beef. In addition, every plantation within a day's ride was stripped of chickens, turkeys, beef and dairy cattle, sheep, hogs, mules and horses, all driven within the fortifications which now defined the eastern boundary of the last major Confederate hold on Mississippi River.
The ever judgmental Emma Balfour was not impressed. “From 12 o’clock until late in the night”, she noted, “the streets and roads were jammed with wagons, cannons, horses, men, mules, stock, sheep, everything you can imagine that appertains to an army...” But she also added, “Nothing like order prevailed.” The ever inefficient 40 year old John Clifford Pemberton was certain he had stockpiled more than enough food for the citizens and garrison to hold out until they were relieved by General Joe Johnston and his army, assembling in Jackson. Pemberton estimated he could hold out for about  six weeks.
Grant had a lot less time. Recalled one of his officers, “The gloomy report was circulated to the effect that our bread ration was exhausted or so nearly so that (after 20 May) the commissary could not furnish one hardtack apiece for all the men.” Forage, which had been abundant for the army on the march but was suddenly scarce when shared with an opposing army. Not only did the enemy presence restrict forage – the verb - it also forced men and horses to use their forage – the noun - faster. Early on in the war, Washington experts had calculated an army of 45,000 men on the march seeking forage in the Confederacy, would require 6 square miles of land for subsistence. But the closer Grant got to Vicksburg, the smaller was the square he had access to. With starvation now in the near future, Grant had to re-establish his supply line back to Memphis as soon as possible.
Eleven miles east of Vicksburg, Grant was delayed by the destroyed bridges over the Big Black river (above). But while the flames were still licking at the turpentine soaked beams, a 25 year old Buckeye genius, and a hero of the battle of Shiloh, Captain Andrew Hickenlooper, was building a replacement bridge. And he reused the improvisations of his confederate counterpart, Major Lockett. Felling trees from the dense wood which had so hindered the Yankee assault, Hickenlooper built a frame, which he then filled with 47 buoyant cotton bales from Lockett's defensive line. To convert the floating frame into a effective bridge, Hickenlooper dismantled a shoreline cotton gin to provide planks for the road bed and approaches. When finished not long after dawn on Monday, 18 May, the crossing was 110 feet long and 10 feet wide.
The new bridge was promptly put to use by the XIII corps – as soon as the bands could be assembled to play McClernand (above) and his men across. 
It was a typically dramatic flourish by the politician McClernand  but at least this time did not delay the advance past 8:00 a.m. Despite the Yankees would reach Vicksburg before noon. McClernand's orders were to close up to the rebel defenses and keep the enemy pinned in them.
General McPherson's Corps would not be following XIII corps, but had been redirected by Grant 2 miles to the north, where they were to cross the Big Black at the nearly abandoned village of Amsterdam. The little town had been almost wiped out in the 1830's by cholera and the nearby presence of Edward's Depot.  McPerson's (above) orders were to advance while guarding the right flank of General Sherman's Corps. It was Sherman's Corps which had the primary objective on this important day.
Major General Blair beat the XV corps to Bridgeport by a an hour or so, and were unloading the pontoons sections when Sherman marched in about noon on Sunday, 17 May. The few rebel militia were easily chased off the west bank, and the bridge (above) was assembled and in use by night fall. Blair's division crossed that evening, with Frederick Steele's 1st division and James Tuttle's 3rd division crossing on Monday morning, 18 May, 1863. Once on dry ground on the same side of the Big Black River as Vicksburg, Sherman released the 4th Iowa cavalry regiment, with orders to capture the now vital crossroads of the Benton and Oak Ridge Road.
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Thursday, April 05, 2018

VICKSBURG Chapter Fifty-Seven

The Confederate guns fired first, barking out just after 8:30 a.m. that Sunday morning, 17 May, 1863. They could see the Yankee infantry impudently marching toward the right flank of their cotton fortifications. The gunfire drove the blue bellies to ground in the plowed fields. In response, more Yankees from Carr's division approached, and began to unlimber four big cannon, The battle was shaping up just as John Bowen anticipated it would.
In command of the rebel bridgehead, Brigadier General John Stevens Bowen, (above) the 32 year old profession soldier from Georgia, was not happy. His 5,000 men were low on ammunition and bone tired when they stumbled into their positions after midnight, Once again, as the day before at Champion Hill, he was being forced to fight with a river at his back. He would have preferred to defend the west bank of the Big Black River, but his commander, Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton, held out hope that General Loring's 6,000 man division would reach their lines before the Yankee army.
So Bowen did the best he could. He sited 2 big cannon throwing 24 pound shells next to the makeshift boat/bridge over the river, to protect his men's line of retreat. And he stacked 18 more cannon on his left flank, south of the Edward's Depot road, to support Colonel Francis Cockrell's brigade, where the Yankees were most likely to attack. Major General Martin Green's brigade was defending the other end of the river bend, a mile to the north.
Holding the center were 3 regiments, the 60th, 61st and 62nd Tennessee, under 39 year old Brigadier General John Crawford Vaughn (above). Vaughn was far more ardent than able. He was an enthusiastic and brutal supporter of slavery and the Confederacy. Well know in his home state, his reputation helped recruit these volunteers from the “hollers” of east Tennessee - a region riddled by divided loyalties.
The volunteers were told they were signing up to protect their homes. But the Confederacy could not afford to keep that promise. And while Vaughn's Tennessee brigade helped repulse Sherman's assault on the Walnut Hills in January, letters from home chronicled Jay Hawker guerrilla barn burnings and vendetta murders their families were through suffering. The betrayal of that promise weakened Tennesseans resolve and made them suspect in the eyes of Confederate officers. Which is why Bowen had placed them in the center, opposite a second growth wood, deemed too dense to allow an organized attack to be launch through the trees.
But the weariness of the men and officers lead to mistakes, such as sending the horse teams, responsible for moving those valuable cannon, over the railroad bridge to the west bank of the Big Black River for safety. Some how General Bowen never understood that had been done. And that was not the only mistake.
At some point in the night the regiment assigned to the very northern end Green's line, The First Missouri Cavalry (dismounted), under Colonel Elijah Gates, was ordered to pull back. So in the dark, the regiment was awakened and stumbled across the bridge. No one noticed it's absence until first light, at which point Bowen exploded in anger. Gate's weary men were shaken awake again, marched back across the bridge to return to their original position.
That belated movement drew the attention of Yankee Major General John Alexander McClernand (above).  He had already sent Peter Osterhaus's 9th division into line between the Edward's Depot road and the dense wood. Brigadier General Theophilus Toulmin Garrard, a wealthy, half blind 50 year old Kentucky slave owner, commanded the 1st brigade. To their right was the 17th brigade under Colonel Daniel W. Lindsey.  But seeing the movement close to the northern end of the rebel line, McClernand suspected the rebels might be preparing to launch an attack from there. So he dispatched his reserve, Brigadier General Eugene Asa Carr's 14th division, to anchor his left flank, north of the woods.
What changed the battle to come, was the commander of Carr's 2nd brigade, the big Illinois Irishman, General Micheal Kelly Lawler (above). He stood over 6 feet tall and weighed over 250 pounds. One of his soldiers observed that the farmer, merchant and lawyer, “Could only mount his horse with great difficulty, and when he was mounted it was difficult for the horse”  Union Secretary of War Charles Dana would later describe Lawler as “…brave as a lion,…and has as much brains”,   But Lawler was smart and an experienced soldier. He summed up his favorite strategy as, “If you see a head, hit it.” And he noticed an opportunity to play wack-a-mole on of this seemingly featureless terrain.
The Big Black River had once followed a straighter path, before some long forgotten floods had carved out the present westward bend. The new bend abandoned the old flood levees marking the old stream bed, which angled to within a hundred yards of the rebel cotton bale defenses. That old levee now offered chest high cover for attacking Yankees, starting on the north and ending opposite the center of the rebel line, held by the Tennessee Brigade. And because everybody on the southern side was so tired, nobody on the Confederate side of the line, had noticed that old levee.
To be fair, the rebels were distracted. Not long after 8:00 a.m. General Osterhaus appeared, leading four 20 pound Parrott guns, which unlimbered at the south western edge of the wood and just 400 yards from the cotton bale fortifications. At what was point blank range for the big guns, they began to methodically dismantle the cotton bale fortifications. Colonel Cockrell's artillery tried to suppress the Wisconsin guns, and managed to hit one of the Union ammunition limbers, exploding it. The blast wounded an officer and 3 gunners, and it a chunk of shrapnel clipped Peter Osterhaus' thigh, forcing him to withdraw for a short time. All that fire and fury drew attention away from what was about to happen in the center.
As a test, Lawler sent the 11th Wisconsin regiment charging up the old river bed, 200 yards to the relative safety of the levee. The sudden movement, almost perpendicular to their lines, caught General Green's rebels off guard. That success encouraged Lawler to send the 21st and 23rd Iowa after. They took a few causalities but arrived essentially intact. 
At about the same time, Lawler was informed of the discovery of a hidden farmer's lane cleared through the woods to the center opposite the rebel lines. Lawler sent to six guns, from the 2nd Illinois Light and 22nd Iowa artillery, down that path. The charge of the Iowans drew rebel eyes away from sudden appearance of the guns. Within fifteen minutes Lawler could lay down direct fire on the Confederate center.
Lawler then galloped on horseback across the open space under heavy fire.  Somehow he arrived uninjured. And while he stripped off his heavy jacket, and strapped his sword around his substantial chest,  he ordered Iowa sharpshooters to lay down a musket fire on the unfortunate Tennesseans that was so heavy that one shot snapped the reigns of General Vaugnn's horse.
Crouching behind the cotton bales, the East Tennessee boys could sense if they could not see  the vice closing in on them. A few began to drift away from the front line. And they were joined by some from Colonel Cockrell's brigade. These men had fought hard the day before. They were the troops farthest from the boat/bridge over the river. It was as if it slowly began to dawn on the entire Confederate line that they were about to suffer a repeat of yesterday's debacle. And atop the west bank of the Big Black, the engineer Major Lockett saw that realization begin to set in. He sent a messenger galloping the mile and a half back to Bovina, to urge General Pemberton to authorize the destruction of the bridges over the river.
The only thing holding Lawler back was that he had no support should the attack fail. After 2 years of war even the amateur McClernand knew the foolishness of such an oversight. Since he had already committed his reserve, McClernand reached out to first available troops, which turned out to be a brigade from General A.J. Smith's division, part of Sherman's Corps. These men, marching from Jackson, had not turned right at Bolton. Rather they continued west to the ammunition wagons parked around the Champion House. They were now escorting the wagons carrying the shot and shell for Sherman's entire Corps, intending on turning north at the Big Black. But McClernand diverted them. When they arrived the final regiment in Lawler's brigade, the 22nd Iowa, moved forward.
It turned out to be only a 20 minute delay -about the same time it took the messenger to gallop the 3 miles round trip between Bovina and the bridges. Receiving permission to fire the crossings, Major Lockett ordered both bridges soaked with turpentine. Soldiers with burning torches were ordered to fire the bridges before the first Yankee soldier began to cross. The hand full of deserters filtering toward the rear continued to slowly grow. And then, just past 9:00 a.m. Lawler launched his assault.
A newspaper reporter called it “the most perilous and ludicrous charge”, but the battle that followed took no more than three minutes. The 23rd Iowa went over the levee first, 30 year old Colonel William Henry Kinsman (above), leading the way. He was a Canadian lawyer who had moved to Council Bluffs, Iowa 9 year earlier. His regiment was mustered in at Des Moines in September of 1862. Less than a year later, this charge was his idea. Before he had gone very far a rebel Minnie ball fired from a Missouri rife on the regiment's exposed left flank, knocked him down. He staggered back to his feet. He resumed the charge, urging his men forward. Then a shot thudded into his lung. And hour later William died, right where he had fallen. Just another of the 6 officers and 69 enlisted men killed, maimed and wounded as the 23rd Iowa crossed that 100 yards, a small part part of an army which came from all over the world to fight for the idea of a government of, by and for the people.
The 21st Iowa were right beside their fellow buckeyes. One participant wrote later, “To stop one instant was to die, and so onward they rushed, yelling, screaming madmen, wild with excitement, and shaking the gleaming bayonet.” The 21st regiment's Colonel, 40 year old Protestant tea-teetotaler and abolitionist Samuel Merrill, whom Grant called "eminently brilliant and daring”, also went down, shot through both hips. He survived but his military service was over.
The 290 men of the 23rd lost 13 killed in that charge, and 70 wounded. Clambering through the abatis, the 23rd's color bearer, Corporal John Boone was shot dead. The regimental flag was quickly recovered by Corporal John Shipman, who continued to lead the attack. As Colonel Lawler, mounted atop his horse, passed over the rebel line he saw the Tennessee regiments scattering before his men, and the panic infecting the entire Confederate line. Lawler turned and called for the 49th and 69th Indiana regiments to come up in support. In fact the entire Federal line began swelling forward, drawn by the scent of victory.
The Illinois 33rd, AKA, “the brain's” regiment was surged forward with everybody else. These were the men who had swept up the exhausted rebels from the road before dawn. And now, just after 9:00 a.m., Private James “Jimmy” Adkins jumped astride the barrel of one of the 14 cannon the 33rd captured that morning. It was a fine party until the exuberant private, “looking like a little bedraggled rooster” pulled the lanyard and the gun expectantly went off, throwing Adkins to the ground, and sending a shell out over the heads of his regiment. Said the regimental historian, “It was the first time that Jimmy was known to be frightened.” That day the 33rd suffered 1 officer and 12 men wounded.
Some rebels escaped over the burning bridges. Some survived by swimming across the rain swollen river, while an unknown number drowned in the Big Black. In all another 18 cannon were captured by the Yankees, along with 1,400 rifled muskets, as well as 1,750 men killed, wounded and taken prisoner. In two short horrible days, out of a 17,000 man army, Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton had lost 5, 000 men killed and captured, 39 cannon lost, and had another 6,000 man division that wander off in search of a better field commander.
Grant's reaction to the victory was to order McPherson's Corps to cross the Big Black upstream, at the tiny community of Amsterdam, midway to Sherman's crossing at Bridgeport. Ulysses had his eyes fixed firmly on the Yazooo Heights. And by 10:00 a.m. that Sunday, 17, May, 1863, it was almost in his hands.
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