The shattering crash of yet another volley of musket fire forced Charley's face into the dirt. A half breath later he heard the cloud of mini'e balls rip the air inches over his head. Only then did he dare to look to the fate of the color-bearer. As the afternoon breeze sluggishly tugged at the acidic smoke, the Captain saw the bloody blue body on the precipitous slope of the rampart. The precious flag lay crumpled in the dirt at his side.Charley could sense that in a moment the men behind him might break and run for their lives. If they did, they would be slaughtered. And the only way 28 year old Captain Charles “Charley” Ewing could save their lives was by risking his own. Charley took a deep breath and pulled himself up, dug his heels into the loam and started up the slope of the Stockade Redan. It was after about 2:15 p.m. on Tuesday, 19 May, 1863.
Lieutenant General Ulysses Simpson Grant explained his thinking in his memoirs. “The enemy had been much demoralized by his defeats at Champion’s Hill and at the Big Black, and I believed would not make much effort to hold Vicksburg. Accordingly at 2 o’clock I ordered an assault.” So it was the vision of the rebel army collapsing, and capturing 1,700 prisoners just 2 days earlier which told Grant he might be able to carry the city in a rush. He was wrong. But he was not wrong for trying.
It was the Prussian General Carl Philipp Gottfried von Clausewitz (above) who noted that all actions in a war are wrapped in a “...fog of greater or lessor uncertainty.” The Napoleonic Wars were the consuming event of this military philosopher's life. In 1792, at 12 years of age, Carl was inducted into the Prussian army as a Lance-Corporal, and fought in war after war for the next 20 years, while achieving the rank of Major-General before his death at 51 years age in the Second Great Cholera Pandemic of 1831. Although never wounded, Clausewitz saw more of war than most people, and understood it better than just about anyone else.
“War”, said Clausewitz in his book was“...a fascinating trinity—composed of primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force; the play of chance and probability, within which the creative spirit is free to roam; and its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to pure reason." Historian Christopher Bassford has shortened Clausewitz's Trinity to "Violent Emotion and Chance and Rational Calculation." Although Grant did his best rationally calculate the impact of “Chance”, he never allowed it to prevent applying his reasoning to war, as he did now.
The nearest troops at hand were also the freshest - Major General William Tecumseh Sherman's XV Corps. They had last seen combat 5 days previously, on Thursday, 14 May, at Jackson. This was no accident. Throughout the campaign, Grant's obsession with never retracing his steps was shared with his staff, ensuring every possible enemy reaction was considered before any marching orders were issued.
Setting out before dawn on Saturday, 16 May, Sherman's XV corps had covered the 60 miles from Jackson to Vicksburg in 3 day's march. The lead element after crossing the Big Black River was the 2nd Division, under 42 year old Missouri lawyer, Major General Francis “Frank” Preston Blair Junior (above) . His father, Francis Blair senior, was a St. Louis newspaper editor. The eldest son, Montgomery, was Lincoln's Post Master General. As Lincoln put it, “Their family is a close corporation. And Frank is their hope and pride.”
The 2nd Division had been the last of Sherman's 3 divisions to land at Grand Gulf, and had escorted the final 200 supply wagons, joining Grant's Army of the Tennessee in the vicinity of Raymond on 13 May. So the 2nd Division's 3 brigades were in the lead as they approached Vicksburg on Monday, 18 May. Grant made the decision not to wait for McClearnand or McPherson's Corps to come up, but to press ahead with just 2 divisions - about 7,000 men against some 20,000 rebels inside Vicksburg. He intended to test the possibility that the rebels were teetering on the edge of despair. And he was right. They were.
The commander of the 2nd division's 1st Brigade was a 33 year old hotel operator named Colonel Giles Alexander Smith. He was a combat veteran, serving in the Army of the Tennessee River since Fort Donaldson, in February of 1862. Eighteen months later, his troops were the 113th and 116th Illinois Volunteer regiments, the 6th and 8th Missouri Volunteers – Smith's old command. But the spearhead of this particular assault would be the 13th United States Regular Infantry regiment, under Captain Edward Crawford Washington, grand nephew of father of the nation, President and General George Washington.
With Brigadier General James Madison Tuttle's 3rd Division held in reserve, direct support for the attack would be the 5 regiments of the Colonel Thomas Kirby's 2nd Brigade and the 4 regiments of the 3rd Brigade under Brigadier General Hugh Boyle Ewing – older brother to Captain Charles Ewing, 2nd in command of the 13th U.S. Regulars. Artillery support would be provided by the XV Corps' 3 batteries of Illinois artillery and one from Ohio. The infantry of Blair's division were fresh troops. They had not seen combat since the Yazoo Pass Expedition in March. But they would see their share today when they attacked straight up the Graveyard Road at the Stockade Redan.
The packed earthen walls of the redan were 17 feet high and 16 feet thick, their exterior face dropping below ground level into a 6 foot deep trench. Any attacker would be forced to clamber up 23 feet before coming to grips with the defenders. Atop the rampart was a single 12 pound howitzer. In addition there was a lunette south of the Graveyard Road, which could lay down flanking fire on any attack on the Redan. Five feet below the lip of the Redan's interior wall was a firing step, defended by some 400 men of the 36th Mississippi regiment, supported by survivors of the 27th Louisiana regiment.
The 36th Mississippi had been formed in March of 1862, after the first patriotic rush, and from companies organized across the state. They were under 43 year old Louisianian Brigadier General Louis Hébert's.
The 36th had been bloodied in the Corinth campaign – 12 dead and 71 wounded – before being transferred to Vicksburg that winter. The 36th had helped defeat Sherman's Corps at Chickasaw Bayou, and spent the next six months guarding the guns at Snyder's Bluff. In fact it was the 36th which had been withdrawn so precipitously on 17 May, just before the arrival of the Iowa cavalrymen. They were a full strength veteran regiment and well rested.
A sergeant in the 36th, George Powell Clarke, remembered that morning, well. "At 10:00 A.M ,” he wrote, “ the firing ceased and the Federals advanced in two lines of battle... We could plainly hear when the order was given to advance....and soon the long, glittering line of bayonets came in sight... they gave a prolonged yell, and broke into a double quick towards our lines…our batteries opened on them with with grape, canister, and shrapnel shells, which told fearfully on their crowded ranks. When they had reached within fifty yards of our lines we opened upon them with musketry...with murderous effect…”
Captain Washington (above), leading the 13th U.S. Infantry, was cut down by the first volley, as he struggled through the obstructions in the ditch at the base of the redoubt. Hit twice, he tumbled into the thick loam.. Later, the rebel Sergeant Clarke gave credit to the men he was killing, writing, “...they were brave men and did not falter, though hundreds were falling all around them, until within a few feet of us. They then wavered, rallied once, but finally gave way and retreated to their own position.” In the confusion, they left the bleeding Captain Washington behind.
Grant decided to bring up more artillery, to soften up the Redan before giving it another try. XV Corp gunners blasted the Redan for four more hours. Rebel gunners returned fire as best they could, but their guns were too spread out to provide effective counter battery fire. And not all Federal the shots were effective, either. One shell from a 20 pound Parrott gun burrowed right through the 16 foot thick loam of the Redan walls, and sailed out the other side, before finally exploding in the air, over the Glass Bayou a quarter mile to the rear.
Suffering in the heat behind the ridge in front of the Redan, a member of an Ohio regiment remembered the men had “perspiration oozing out at every pore.” Then, at 2:00 p.m. The cannon went silent and the Yankee infantry came on again, right up the Graveyard Road. A staff officer in Blair's division watched while, “The very chips and sticks scattered over the ground were jumping under the hot shower of rebel bullets.”
With the absence of Captain Washington, command of the 13th Regular Infantry had now devolved upon Captain Charles Ewing (above). And as he lead his men head on into that maelstrom of fire, it must have crossed his mind that he had the political connections to be anywhere else he wanted. Charley was the son of Lincoln's Secretary of the Interior, Thomas Ewing. His sister, Ellen, was the wife of General William Tecumseh Sherman. And yet at this moment, a few minutes after 2:00 p.m. on Tuesday, 19 May, he was here, once again stumbling into the ditch, and struggling through the abatis obstructions.
shells with lit fuses into the ranks where the shrapnel splintered bodies and separated minds from souls. The regimental color bearer had already been shot down, his body rolling to the bottom of the ditch. A second soldier had taken up the flag, and struggled up the slope with it held to the front as a rallying point. Clumps of men were drawn to follow.
But when the second bearer fell, a shell exploding in his faced, almost decapitating him, the regiment deflated, and fell to the earth and turned their heads from the horrible sight. It seemed to Charley as if the regiment had sighed, their spirit escaping like a lost breath under water.
Charley saw that the moment had come. A small band of men could determine the battle in a few moments. But if no one acted, the attack would die right here on the slopes of the Stockade Redoubt.
So Charley clawed himself to his feet, and pausing to pick up the flag as he climbed, and powered to within 100 yards of the crest of the Redoubt.
It was not as operatic as the artists of a later generation would see it (above). Charley was alone. And he was 100 yards from the nearest rebel soldier. But it as dramatic a moment as any in the four bloody years of war.
Seeing a company of rebels preparing to fire, Charley jammed the staff into the ground, and bending on one knee to hold the flag steady, he turned to call the regiment to rally to him. He could see the men begin to move, a leg lifting, and rifle swinging upward. Then abruptly a volley of muskets snapped above the din of battle. A wave of minie' balls tore at the banner, whipped the cloth las if in a gale, sand slicing the thick wooden staff in two, and tearing off one of Charley's fingers.
The pain was immediate. He grasped his left hand in his right, the sight of his own gushing blood sending him into shock. Charley involuntarily ducked his head and closed his eyes as tight as he could. So he did not see the men who dragged him back down the slope, nor the man who rescued the regimental colors from the dirt. The attack was broken.
The 13th regiment hung on to the Mississippi soil at the bottom of the trench, for the rest of the long afternoon, exchanging snipping with the rebels, dodging the random shells with burning fuses sent rolling down the slope, or sailing into the air over their heads. Said the Regimental history, “The ditch literally filled with the dead bodies of our cherished comrades and the glaciers blue with the victims of war.”
When darkness finally covered the 13th regiment's withdrawal, it had sacrificed 43% of their men in their two assaults on the Stockade Redoubt. That night, rebel soldiers brought Captain Washington into the Redoubt and tried to bind his wounds. He died before morning.
The rescued 13th's regimental flag had been hit 56 times, the nation flag 18. Total losses for the entire 1st Brigade were 157 killed - including 17 color bearers - and 777 wounded. Rebel losses were 8 killed and 62 wounded.
That night Major General William Tecumseh Sherman wrote his wife, telling her that “Charley was very conspicuous in the 1st assault, and brought off the colors of the battalion which are now in front of my tent, the Staff 1/4 cut away by a ball that took with it a part of his finger.” Later, Captain Charles Ewing would be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions in planting that first flag on the battlements of Vicksburg. The 13th Regiment would henceforth be entitled to call itself, "First At Vicksburg."
Sherman continued his letter to Ellen, “We must work smartly as Joe Johnston is collecting the shattered forces...and may get reinforcements from Bragg … Grant’s movement was the most hazardous, but thus far the most successful of the war. He is entitled to all the credit, for I would not have advised it.” As an after thought, Sherman added, “McPherson is a noble fellow, but McClernand a dirty dog.”
And across the way, in Vicksburg, a young woman noted how the repulse of the Yankee attack had lifted the spirits of the defenders. Before they had sounded beaten. But after today they spoke optimistically of holding until relieved by “Old” Joe Johnston.”