With a flooded creek blocking his retreat, John Pemberton had to beat Ulysses S. Grant’s Federals or lose his army
After three months of frustration, Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in May 1863 succeeded in getting his army onto the east bank of the Mississippi River in the rear of the fortress city of Vicksburg. In a lightning campaign Grant’s army defeated Confederate detachments at Port Gibson on May 1, Raymond on May 12, and Jackson on May 14, neutralizing the Mississippi capital as a Confederate base for the relief of Vicksburg. Then he turned toward Vicksburg itself. In his path was the main field army of Confederate department commander Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton. Pemberton had more men within his command than Grant had in his army, but so thoroughly had Grant outwitted the Confederate that at every clash thus far in the campaign, the Federals had enjoyed the advantage of overwhelming numbers. Now Pemberton, uncertain and confused, halted with 23,000 men at the junction of the Jackson, Middle, and Raymond roads, a few miles east of Edward’s Station, Mississippi, and tried to decide what to do next. Just behind him was Baker’s Creek, flooded from recent rains that had washed out the Raymond Road bridge and left only a single usable bridge on the Jackson Road. Unknown to Pemberton, Grant was marching toward him on all three roads with the 33,000 men of Maj. Gen. James McPherson’s XVII Corps and Maj. Gen. John McClernand’s XIII Corps. Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s XV Corps brought up the rear after completing the destruction of Confederate military and industrial assets in Jackson.
The climactic battle of the Vicksburg campaign began not long after sunrise on the morning of May 16. Moving westward, Union skirmishers engaged Confederates along the Raymond Road, southernmost of the three roads. At about 7:30 a.m. Brig. Gen. Alvin Hovey’s Union division, then operating with McPherson’s corps, made solid contact with the Rebels near where the Jackson Road approached from the northeast. Report of this encounter brought Grant galloping west on the Jackson Road toward the sound of firing. That sound also told Pemberton, who had finally decided to turn back west toward Edward’s Station, that he would have to stay where he was and fight. He deployed his army along a north-south ridge whose north end rose to the bald prominence known as Champion’s Hill. The hill itself became the responsibility of Confederate brigadier general Stephen D. Lee, whose troops took up position there and on a westward sloping spur ridge that trailed away toward Baker’s Creek. Lee deployed some of his troops on that ridge and on the north slopes of Champion’s Hill, facing Hovey’s approaching Federals. Meanwhile, Grant sent orders for McClernand, on the Middle Road, to join the action. Unfortunately, the messenger, a member of McClernand’s own staff, took the long way around instead of riding cross-country. The order would not be delivered to McClernand until midafternoon. With Sherman out of range and McClernand idle, the Army of the Tennessee had lost the advantage of superior numbers. McPherson’s corps, about equal in strength to Pemberton’s forces, would have to bear almost all of the fighting for the Federals.
Grant ordered Maj. Gen. John Logan, commanding the next division in McPherson’s column, to bring up his troops on Hovey’s right flank. While Logan was getting into position, Grant deployed four batteries of artillery, and they began pounding the Rebels along the spur ridge. Soon more Confederates joined Lee’s brigade atop the spur. Confederate major general Carter L. Stevenson sent two more brigades of his division to aid Lee’s sorely threatened Alabamians. These two Georgia brigades moved up, with Brig. Gen. Alfred Cumming’s men on Lee’s right, atop Champion’s Hill, and Brig. Gen. Seth Barton’s troops to Lee’s left, occupying the lower end of the spur.
By this time, some of Logan’s skirmishers had reached the crest of the spur west of Lee’s line. Barton’s Georgians, coming into position on Lee’s left, easily pushed the Federals back, but, overestimating the extent of their success, Barton’s men charged down the north face of the spur in pursuit. When the Rebels got within 40 yards of the Union batteries they were, as one observer noted, “mowed down like grain” by the combined effect of canister and rifle fire. The survivors retreated to the crest of the spur, where they regrouped and assumed their intended position extending the left of Lee’s line. Brigadier General John D. Stevenson’s brigade of Logan’s division quickly advanced and took up a position in a patch of woods on the right of Logan’s line. From that ground, Stevenson’s men could pour an enfilading fire into any Confederates who tried to repeat Barton’s attack and at the same time were poised to launch an attack of their own, with good prospects of flanking the Georgians on the spur.
As unlikely as it might have seemed, minutes later a Confederate force did advance. Lee thought he saw a gap in the Union line and an opportunity to snatch one of the batteries that had been pounding his men, and he dispatched the 23rd Alabama to do so. Troops of Brig. Gen. Andrew J. Smith’s division of McPherson’s corps, facing the Rebels, were ordered to fix bayonets. Smith shouted, “Forward-doublequick-march,” and the brigade surged forward to meet the advancing Confederates of the 23rd Alabama. Beset by flanking fire from some of Hovey’s men on their right, hammered by the massed Union artillery, and suddenly faced with a bayonet charge, the Rebels turned and ran.
The Federal advance quickly became general. Hovey’s skirmishers were already hotly engaged along the upper slopes of Champion’s Hill. Seeing Logan’s division begin its charge, Hovey lost no time in getting his main line of battle started toward the crest. His men were much closer to the enemy than Logan’s and did not have a large ravine to cross, so their attack struck first. On either side of the Jackson Road, officers shouted, “Attention!” and the soldiers scrambled to their feet and dressed ranks. “Forward!” came the next command, and the division strode uphill, colors flying. Pushing upward through the underbrush, the Federals at last came in sight of the Confederate battle line, a row of stabbing flames and a long cloud of white powder smoke. A Confederate battery spewed canister at them. Directly in front of the guns, Lt. Thomas Durham of the 11th Indiana saw three of the four guns discharge a moment too early, hurling their loads of canister just over the heads of Company E. The fourth gun crew delayed firing because they had spotted Durham’s own Company G and were hastily swinging their gun to point directly at Durham and his comrades. In their haste, however, the gunners failed to notice that the muzzle of their piece was also pointed directly at the bole of a huge hickory tree, only a few feet away. The whole load of canister slammed into the trunk and nearly cut the tree in two. “It would have torn my company to pieces had it not been for this tree,” Durham recalled.
The 11th Indiana reached the Rebel battery before the gunners could reload, and a fierce hand-to-hand fight broke out. The Confederate infantry, Cumming’s Georgians, rushed in to support the battery. “We were stabbing with bayonets, clubbing with guns, officers shooting with revolvers and slashing and thrusting with swords,” recalled Durham. A big raw-boned, muscular Hoosier grasped the barrel of his rifle and wielded it like a club, crushing the skull of one Rebel after another. Finally, one of the Georgians ran a bayonet clear through him, and he fell dead atop the bodies of those he had killed.
The contest raged intensely around a log cabin near the Rebel battery. Back and forth, the tide of battle shifted repeatedly. The lines surged past the cabin several times. Finally the Rebel line broke, and the Confederates fled down the back side of the hill. The shape of the ground funneled some of the fugitives into a ravine. Hovey’s advancing troops gained both sides of the ravine and poured their fire on the fleeing Rebels, cutting down many. “They were really piled on top of each other,” wrote Durham, and the small stream at the bottom of the ravine, an upper branch of Austin Creek, ran red with blood.
Just to the right of Hovey’s fight, Brig. Gen. Mortimer Leggett’s brigade of Logan’s division struggled through a deep ravine full of tangled thickets. The going was rough, but the troops covered as much ground as possible at a dead run, with their bayoneted rifles thrust in front of them. The color-bearer of the 20th Illinois ran so fast that the men “had hard work to keep up with him,” Sgt. Ira Blanchard recalled. At the bottom of the ravine they gathered up a number of prisoners, probably part of Cumming’s skirmish line and possibly some of the fugitives of the hapless 23rd Alabama.
They wasted little time with the prisoners and rushed on, working their way up the slope of Champion’s Hill and its western spur. “Here we met some opposition,” Blanchard later explained, but it did not delay them much. After a brief exchange of fire, they carried the Rebel line at the point of the bayonet and were in time to stake a claim, along with nearly every regiment in Hovey’s division, to part of the credit for the capture of the guns at the top of Champion’s Hill.
In the center of Logan’s line, in front of Brig. Gen. John E. Smith’s brigade, a handful of fugitives from the 23rd Alabama still fled through the brush back toward the top of the ridge with Smith’s soldiers in hot pursuit. Like Leggett’s brigade on their left, Smith’s men charged yelling up the hill and tore through the Confederate line with relatively little delay. Some did not perceive any specific Confederate line of resistance but considered the entire operation as a continuation of the chase after the fleeing 23rd Alabama.
On Logan’s right, John Stevenson’s men charged up the ridge and flanked the defending line, even as it was collapsing under the assault of Hovey and the rest of Logan’s division. Then, however, Stevenson’s Illinois and Ohio troops came under fire from artillery posted on the next ridge. Pemberton had long remained uncertain that Hovey’s and Logan’s divisions constituted the main threat to his position, so rather than shift infantry from his other two divisions to support Carter Stevenson’s line on Champion’s Hill and its spur, the Confederate commander sent two batteries of artillery out the Jackson Road to the west to take up a position on the next ridge to the south. This put them beyond and about 500 yards behind the Confederate left flank, where Pemberton hoped their fire would secure that end of his line. Coming under fire from those guns, John Stevenson’s Federals turned directly toward them, struggled through a ravine choked with briars, across Austin Creek, and up the slope beyond.
The artillery had little infantry support. Indeed, the only infantry in the area seemed to be fleeing remnants of Carter Stevenson’s routed division. John Stevenson’s Union troops gave a yell as they emerged from the brushy ravine and rushed toward the guns. The Rebels gave them blasts of double canister, but the Federals closed in relentlessly. The Confederate artillerists proved as brave and determined as those on Champion’s Hill itself. They fired their last shot after the Midwesterners already had their hands on some of the guns. One of the battery commanders remained in the midst of the guns, urging his men on, until an attacking bluecoat shot him from his horse at a range of only a few feet. After a short, sharp fight, John Stevenson’s Illinoisans and Ohioans found themselves in possession not only of seven cannons but also of the Jackson Road, between Pemberton’s army and the bridge over Baker’s Creek.
While Stevenson’s men attacked the Rebel batteries on the extreme Confederate left, the rest of Logan’s division and all of Hovey’s continued to advance. Leggett and Smith moved over the top of Champion’s Hill and into the ravine of Austin Creek. Hovey drove forward toward the crossroads where the Jackson, Middle, and Ratliff roads met, 700 yards south of Champion’s Hill. Two regiments of Cumming’s Georgia Brigade were posted at the crossroads, facing east. On Hovey’s approach, Cumming’s regiments, together with a four-gun battery of artillery, pivoted to face north and took position behind a stout rail fence, with the Middle Road at their backs and a cornfield in front of them, in hopes of fending off the Federal onslaught and saving the Confederate army’s escape route via the crossroads.
John H. Williams of the 56th Ohio was just bringing his rifle up to his shoulder when a Rebel bullet struck him in the heart, killing him instantly. As he fell his rifle pitched forward, its bayonet stuck into the ground, and it remained thus standing. His captain snatched it up and fired it at the enemy. Only two places away in the front rank, Williams’s brother, Lt. T. J. Williams, saw him fall and stooped over him, but the stricken man never moved. As Lieutenant Williams turned back toward the line, an artillery round took off the arm of the man on the other side of him. Others were falling all around, but the Iowans and Ohioans charged forward relentlessly across the cornfield, routing the Georgians and taking all four cannons. “The Rebs ran like sheep,” wrote Pvt. Israel Ritter of the 24th Iowa.
By this time it was 1:30 p.m. Hovey’s and Logan’s divisions, five brigades in all, about 10,000 strong, had fought their way up one side of Champion’s Hill and down the other. Along the way, they had completely thrashed three large Confederate brigades numbering probably 7,500 men and holding strong terrain. Of those three brigades, only Lee’s Alabamians continued as an organized fighting force by this point in the battle, and it was much the worse for wear as Lee tried desperately to hold on to a stretch of the Jackson Road between John Stevenson’s Union brigade on the west and Hovey’s division on the east, while Leggett and Smith pressed against his line in front.
Hovey’s and Logan’s divisions had performed an impressive feat of arms, and they now held the key Jackson Road at two different places between the bulk of Pemberton’s army and the vital Baker’s Creek bridge. They had the Rebel army by the throat, but their formations were partially disorganized because of all the hard fighting and rough terrain they had passed through. The men were hot, tired, and thirsty under the torrid midday sun, and their cartridge boxes were getting disturbingly light.
More disturbing to Grant was that he had still heard nothing at all from McClernand’s four divisions that were supposed to be advancing on the Middle and Raymond roads. No sounds of battle came from either location. Indeed, now that Hovey’s men held the piece of the Middle Road at its junction with the Jackson Road, they should have been able to make contact with Brig. Gen. Peter Osterhaus’s division of McClernand’s corps advancing from the east, but there was no sign of him. McClernand continued to interpret his previous orders from Grant not to initiate a battle as meaning that he should not join in a battle that was obviously raging less than a mile from where his troops sat idle. Unable to account for McClernand’s nonappearance, Grant dispatched message after message urging him to attack at once.
Meanwhile, Pemberton was having his own difficulties with disloyal subordinates. As Logan’s and Hovey’s assault began to buckle the north end of the Confederate line on Champion’s Hill, Pemberton had realized that Grant’s true threat lay there and not to the east on the Middle and Raymond roads. Accordingly, he called on his two divisions fronting those roads to send reinforcements immediately to aid in the desperate struggle at the north end of the battlefield. Both division commanders, Brig. Gen. John S. Bowen and Maj. Gen. W. W. Loring, despised Pemberton and flatly refused his order for reinforcements. He thus had nothing available to stay the disaster to Stevenson’s Division on his left. Only after the catastrophe on Champion’s Hill and at the crossroads did Bowen relent and bring his division north up the Ratliff Road. They arrived minutes after Hovey’s troops, winded and disordered, had taken possession of the crossroads.
Bowen’s Division at this time consisted of only two brigades, but they were among the best in the western Confederate armies. One of them, the Missouri Brigade, may well have been the best in any Confederate army. Together, Bowen’s two brigades probably numbered about 5,000, significantly more than the approximately 4,200 that Hovey had taken into the attack a few hours before. Reduced by the losses of the fight for Champion’s Hill and the crossroads and the inevitable separation of soldiers from their units due to the disorganizing effects of hard fighting in rough terrain, Hovey’s division was now badly outnumbered and in no shape to take on Bowen.
As Bowen’s Division approached the crossroads, confusion continued among the Union troops. By the time Lieutenant Williams returned from visiting his brother’s corpse, he and his comrades could see the Confederates forming up to begin the attack. As soon as the Rebels advanced within range, Williams’s own company opened fire. “Most of the regiment at this time, so far as I could see, were lying down behind the fence,” Williams recalled, “and they called to us from along the line to stop firing; that we were shooting our own men.” Williams and his men knew better; so they kept up their fire. Finally their captain said nervously, “You had better stop, boys; they may be our men.”
“Captain, take a look at them,” replied Cpl. David Evans.
The captain did and needed no more convincing. “Up boys and give them h—,” he shouted.
The Rebels “were coming on fast,” Williams wrote. They plowed into the 24th Iowa and drove it back in ferocious hand-to-hand fighting. Iowans Israel Ritter and Capt. Mills Burnett tried to drag a wounded comrade to the rear with them “but were compelled to leave him to escape.” Another wounded comrade called to Ritter as he fled, “but it was folly to remain,” he later wrote.
The 56th Ohio found itself caught in a withering crossfire from the front and both flanks. The Ohioans had to give up their hold on the rail fence and fall back across the cornfield. When they did, the Rebels came after them with a rush. Men fell by the dozen, but at least a portion of the regiment retreated slowly, loading and firing as they went, halting when they could to fire a few rounds, then falling back again.Williams was sheltering behind a large tree stump along with Pvt. Richard Davis. Davis admonished Williams that he must be more careful or the Rebels would get him. Moments later Davis collapsed across Williams’s feet with a bullet in the chest. A shell cut down Cpl. James H. Evans, who had captured the flag of the 23rd Alabama at Port Gibson just 15 days before. The Confederates made a rush for the colors of the 56th, but a wild countercharge by much of the regiment saved the flag. Ammunition began to be a critical concern, with staff officers bringing and distributing what few rounds could be obtained from the division’s wagons far to the rear. Men rummaged through the cartridge boxes of the dead and wounded. By this time in the fight, some of Hovey’s men had fired as many as 80 rounds, twice an infantryman’s normal ammunition load.
Throughout Hovey’s division, the story was much the same. Like the 56th Ohio, almost every regiment along the line seemed at one time or another to experience the sensation of being attacked in front and on both flanks at once, as the gaps and irregularities in Hovey’s line, caused by the rapid advance over rough ground, became weaknesses that the enemy exploited. As disorganization increased, resisting the Rebel onslaught became even more difficult. Lt. Aurelius Voorhis admitted in his diary that night that the 46th Indiana had fallen back “slowly at first, but we got so mixed up that it was impossible to reform in the face of the enemy.” The pace of the retreat quickened.Hovey and his brigade commanders had sent several messages to the rear calling for reinforcements, but until Brig. Gen. Marcellus Crocker’s division of McPherson’s corps arrived on the field, Grant had none to send them. The first of Crocker’s brigades to appear was parceled out by regiment to several sectors that seemed to need help. By the time the next brigade, that of Col. George B. Boomer, came up, having marched 12 miles already that day, Hovey’s need was acute, and Grant dispatched Boomer’s four regiments to his aid.
Boomer deployed into line of battle and moved over Champion’s Hill and down the other side. By the time Boomer’s men topped the hill, they discovered Hovey’s disorganized division retreating up the other side. Boomer gave the order to fix bayonets, but the noise of battle was so intense that most of his men could not hear him. They did see him wave them forward. “We charged with a yell (but without bayonets),” wrote John Campbell of the 5th Iowa. Boomer’s numbers were too few to hold Bowen for long, but he slowed the Confederate advance, giving Hovey’s men more time to fall back to someplace where they would have a fair chance to re-form their ranks. Systematically the Rebels drove Boomer’s Iowans, Illinoisans, and Missourians back over the crest of Champion’s Hill and down the north side. The fighting was intense, and Boomer’s brigade was well on its way to losing one third of its number killed and wounded.
Grant’s situation was beginning to look critical. McClernand’s four divisions, more than half the force the Army of the Tennessee had available for this battle, might as well have been on the far bank of the Mississippi for all the good they were doing. Wherever they were, they were not fighting, and Grant could get no news of them. Aside from the troops he had already committed to battle, Grant’s only remaining reserve was Crocker’s last brigade, that of Col. Samuel A. Holmes, which was even then double-quicking up the Jackson Road, approaching the Champion house. Holmes’s one regiment of Missourians and one of Iowans, along with Boomer’s desperately fighting brigade and Hovey’s fleeing remnants, were all that stood between the seemingly unstoppable Rebels and the Union artillery and supply wagons. If Bowen got that far, Grant’s army would be split in two and on the brink of destruction.
Grant’s only other available resource was Logan’s division. When he received word of the growing crisis on Champion’s Hill, Grant was visiting Logan on the far right flank. He had spent the battle up to this time behind Hovey’s division but had ridden right to see how things were going there. He found Logan near John Stevenson’s position on the Jackson Road west of the crossroads, where it led down to Baker’s Creek. Neither Grant nor Logan realized that the road constituted Pemberton’s only viable line of retreat at that moment. Learning of the impending disaster north of Champion’s Hill, Grant ordered Logan to pull Stevenson’s brigade back, abandoning the Jackson Road, and send it marching around to the left to reinforce the seriously threatened sector in front of the Champion house.
In the center of Grant’s front, Leggett’s and Smith’s brigades were still fighting. They had been engaging Lee’s Alabamians and what remained of Barton’s Georgians when Bowen’s counterattack had struck Hovey. On Logan’s extreme left, soldiers of the 30th Illinois, noticing the Rebel column charging up the Jackson Road, “remarked that there would soon be a lively racket to our left.” The “lively racket,” of course, was the sound of Bowen’s two brigades attacking on a narrow front on either side of the Jackson Road, driving Hovey and sweeping past the left flank of Logan’s line without paying it much attention.
The extreme right flank regiment of Brig. Gen. George F. McGinnis’s brigade, which joined to the left of Leggett, was the 34th Indiana. Hit hard by the fire of Col. Francis M. Cockrell’s Missourians and nearly out of ammunition themselves, the 34th began to fall back in what looked to their neighbors of the 30th Illinois like a good deal of confusion. One of the Hoosiers had to admit that “as this was our first fall back, many of the boys forgot the numbers and were falling back at will-some, in fact, were on the double-quick for the rear.” Meanwhile, the 30th Illinois was soon taking heavy fire from the flank and had to pull back a short distance too.
Logan had just finished his conference with Grant several hundred yards to the right when he caught sight of these events transpiring on his division’s left flank. He headed in that direction with his horse at a dead run straight into the fleeing mass of Hoosiers. “What regiment is this?” roared Logan.
“The 34th Indiana,” came the reply.
“Men, for God’s sake, don’t disgrace your state,” thundered Logan.
“Of course, we stopped,” recalled one of the Hoosiers, but old “Black Jack” Logan was just getting warmed up: “Not a mother of one of you, but what would rather see her son brought home dead, than to disgrace yourself.” Just then the adjutant of the 34th came riding up. Logan recognized his rank and called out, “Adjutant, get your men together.”
“General, the Rebels are awful thick up there,” replied the adjutant.
“D- it, that’s the place to kill them-where they are thick,” roared Logan. “While they are shooting you, you can be shooting them. You do not belong to my command, but you must fight.” The general launched into quite a harangue, according to Sgt. R. M. Dihel of the 30th Illinois. “His language was forcible, inspiring, and savored a little of brimstone. Every word weighed a pound, and went straight to the mark.” As always when Logan sought to inspire the troops, it worked. The 34th rallied and fought the rest of the battle alongside Leggett’s Brigade.
Briefly isolated in the ravine of Austin Creek, Leggett and Smith nevertheless had serious fighting to do and an important role to play in the battle. First, they repulsed a feeble frontal assault by Lee’s Alabamians. In this they had the aid of very effective artillery fire from the 8th Michigan Battery. Somehow, the redoubtable Capt. Samuel De Golyer had gotten his guns forward to this inaccessible position and now did good service helping to break up the Alabamians’ attack.Next, Leggett turned his brigade to the left and launched an advance up the ravine of Austin Creek toward the Jackson Road north of the crossroads and the left and rear of Bowen’s Division, which was by then fighting on the other side of Champion’s Hill. Opposing Leggett were various fragments of Cumming’s Georgia Brigade, and he steadily drove them back, threatening to cut off Bowen’s troops.
Back on the north side of Champion’s Hill the question was who would or could stop Bowen’s Confederates. Unease about that question had prompted Grant to call in Stevenson’s brigade from its position on the right flank, but before Stevenson could arrive, several elements of the Army of the Tennessee combined to provide a solution. As Bowen’s advancing Rebels emerged from the woods on the lower north slope of Champion’s Hill and onto its open base, the massed Union artillery opened up on them with deadly effect, driving parts of the division back into the shelter of the wooded ravines on the higher slopes.
While the Rebels were stalled by the artillery and by Boomer’s sturdy brigade, Holmes’s men came panting up the road and deployed into line. As they charged forward to take a position on Boomer’s left, their yell was the first news Boomer’s hard-pressed men had that help was on the way. “It was a most glorious shout,” recalled a soldier of Boomer’s brigade. Simultaneously, Hovey’s brigades, albeit somewhat depleted, formed their ranks again and were drawing a fresh supply of ammunition in preparation for rejoining the battle.
Imperceptibly at first, then all at once, the momentum in the battle swung to favor the Federals. Holmes’s two regiments drove deeply into the Rebel position, which began to crumble. Now Bowen’s men started to run low on ammunition and began scavenging the cartridge boxes of their fallen comrades in search of their last few rounds. The Midwesterners left them no time for that. Boomer’s men joined the counterattack, and then other units fell into the assault.
Up the slope the Union line surged, then over the crest of Champion’s Hill once again, while Leggett’s flank attack threatened to trap every grayback north of the crossroads. Bowen’s line faltered and began to lose its grip, then buckled completely. The Rebels were running. Charging after them, the Federals saw nothing but the backs and heels of Cockrell’s Missourians in what was now no longer a fight but a footrace.
Seeing that Stevenson’s brigade was no longer needed on Champion’s Hill, Grant sent it hurrying back to its position on Logan’s right. It arrived in time to join the big push, retaking its former position astride the lower end of the Jackson Road. As Smith’s and Leggett’s brigades advanced alongside, Lee’s Alabama brigade folded up for the last time and headed south. Barton’s and Cumming’s men had already taken leg bail. Grant’s troops took possession of the whole length of the Jackson Road from the crossroads all the way to the Baker’s Creek bridge.
From the top of the ridge, the Federals halted to catch their breath, re-form their lines, and herd hundreds of prisoners to the rear. Across the fields in front of them they could see two-thirds of Pemberton’s army in disorderly flight, while the remaining third, Loring’s Division, fell back slowly in line of battle, covering their comrades’ retreat. No one-not Logan, Hovey, or Crocker-saw fit to press the pursuit farther with his exhausted troops. The time was about 4:30 p.m.
Had the battle ended in this manner several hours earlier, Pemberton’s only remaining course would have been to abandon his wagons and artillery and take his infantry southward across country on the east bank of Baker’s Creek, and such a movement would almost certainly have been the prelude to the disintegration of his army. Now the situation had changed-Confederate engineers had at last succeeded in their daylong efforts at rebuilding the washed-out bridge over Baker’s Creek on the Raymond Road. The elements also rewarded Pemberton for his army’s long hours of fighting. The water level in Baker’s Creek had been dropping steadily until now it had once again reached fording stage near the Raymond Road crossing. Pemberton could thus move his defeated army rapidly across the creek by simultaneously using the bridge and ford.
At this point, the Union column on the Raymond Road, which had first made contact with the Rebels early that morning and had done nothing ever since, suddenly came back to life. Smith’s division pushed west_ward somewhat tentatively and took possession of the intersection of the Raymond and Ratliff roads. A single Confederate brigade under Brig. Gen. Lloyd Tilghman-the same officer who had surrendered Fort Henry to the navy 15 months before-fought a successful delaying action along the Raymond Road, though it cost Tilghman his life. Pemberton’s army was able to use a back road to reach the Raymond Road bridge over Baker’s Creek without passing near the intersection with the Ratliff Road or encountering Smith’s ineffectual attempt to hinder his escape. Loring’s Division, including Tilghman’s Brigade, was covering the withdrawal and became cut off from the crossings of Baker’s Creek. Instead of crossing to the west bank, he traveled south for some miles, then swung to the east, abandoning Pemberton’s army and uniting with Gen. Joe Johnston’s force north of Jackson.
Around 2:30 in the afternoon McClernand had finally received the first of Grant’s unequivocal orders to engage the enemy. Others followed in quick succession. In response, he had Osterhaus’s division advance and drive off a small Confederate detachment that was manning a roadblock on the Middle Road in his front. A few yards farther, he halted his advance and sat out the rest of the battle only 600 yards east of the crossroads. He sent instructions for Smith to put his column in motion, but made no effort to see that his orders were carried out energetically. They were not.
McClernand’s soldiers could not understand why they did not advance. “For four hours we stood there listening, waiting and wondering why we were not put into the fight,” wrote a soldier in Brig. Gen. Eugene Carr’s division on the Middle Road. “Fifteen minutes would have put us into the battle any time that day. It was a matter of speculation in the regiment at the time, and long afterward, why we were not moved forward.” Down on the Raymond Road, a soldier of the 55th Illinois recalled that by 11 a.m. he and his comrades could hear “the continuous roar of battle” from the direction of Champion’s Hill. “We were momentarily expecting orders to advance upon the foe supposed to be in our front, or to move by the right flank to the aid of those there hotly engaged,” he wrote. “No orders came, and for hours we lay idly on our arms, unmolested and unmolesting.”
If McClernand sincerely thought that Grant’s orders not to initiate a battle prohibited him from joining one already in progress less than half a mile away, he would have been unfit to command a regiment, much less a corps. The politician from Shawneetown, Illinois, certainly possessed a distinctly spotty record, but no other incident of his career suggested he was as witless as that. Even when he did receive Grant’s order to advance, McClernand did so in such a way as to give the minimum possible assistance to the Union forces engaged. It seems more likely that he resented Grant’s admonition against overaggressiveness and wanted to pay him back for it. That, coupled with his longstanding jealousy and resentment of Grant, leads to the conclusion that McClernand would not particularly have minded seeing Grant defeated at Champion’s Hill. If Grant suspected this, he kept it to himself.
Grant had fought the battle with about 15,500 men, and Pemberton had committed almost exactly that many of his own troops to battle, plus the additional 7,800 of Loring’s Division who entered the battle only to cover the retreat. McClernand idled the day away with just over 17,500 troops. If he had seen fit instead to join the battle, the Confederate front almost certainly would have collapsed before noon on the Jackson, Middle, and Raymond roads, and it is difficult to imagine how more than a corporal’s guard of Pemberton’s army could have escaped. Several weeks and several thousand lives might have been saved. Brig. Gen. Stephen G. Burbridge, commanding the lead brigade on the Raymond Road, wrote that if his column had made a forceful advance, “we could have captured the whole rebel force opposed to us, and reached Edwards Station before sunset.”
Even with less than half his army, Grant had won an impressive victory. He had captured 27 Rebel cannons and a number of battle flags. For total losses of 2,441 Union soldiers killed, wounded, and missing, Grant’s army had inflicted more than 4,700 Confederate casualties, including more than 2,400 missing-mostly captured. In addition, he had separated Pemberton from Loring’s Division, one-third of his field army. The two forces had little prospect of rejoining, since Grant’s victorious army soon lay squarely between them. What was left of the army with Pemberton in the field was battered, weary, and demoralized, fleeing toward Vicksburg.
Grant dispatched McClernand’s fresh troops in pursuit. The divisions of Carr and Osterhaus marched all the way to Edward’s Station late that night. There, they found a number of flaming railroad cars loaded with supplies and ammunition, torched by the Confederates in their retreat. The bluecoats combined with the citizens of Edward’s Station in putting out the fires. Most of the rest of the army camped between there and the battlefield.
Grant left Hovey’s division, which had taken 30 percent casualties, on the battlefield to care for the wounded, bury the dead, and recover salvageable equipment. The men were exhausted. Lt. Thomas Durham found he had shouted so much during the battle that he had lost his voice. “I could make a noise no louder than a wheeze,” he recalled, “and could not speak above a whisper for several days after.”
Weapons sometimes were salvaged informally. Before they marched away from the battlefield the next day, six companies of the 46th Indiana exchanged their hated Austrian rifles for good Springfields left on the field of battle, much to the long-term confusion of the army ordnance bureau, which for years kept demanding that Col. Thomas H. Bringhurst explain what had happened to the missing Austrian weapons.
The task of caring for the wounded could not be completed before nightfall, and continued in the dark. That night, as Bringhurst observed, “The division divided the ground with the dead and wounded. All night the ambulance corps, with their torches of splinters, came among the sleeping soldiers, hunting and carrying out those to whom surgical attention would be a benefit.” Among those out on the battlefield that night was T. J. Williams. He and another of the 56th Ohio’s lieutenants took a squad of soldiers on a torchlight expedition in search of members of the regiment who had fallen during the battle. The flickering light revealed a succession of grisly scenes. “One always remembered,” Williams wrote, “a very large rebel, sitting with his back against a large stump, with more than a deathly pallor, having bled to death.” They proceeded on, burying their dead comrades.
The field hospitals were harrowing scenes, in some ways worse than the battlefields. Sgt. Maj. George Remley of the 22nd Iowa volunteered to help in one of them and worked there all night and until noon the next day. “I hope that I may never again be called upon to witness such scenes of suffering and horror as I looked upon that night,” Remley wrote in a letter to a friend a few days later. “Were I to live a thousand years their impression could never be effaced from my memory.” Here and there, a man would complain that his leg was cold and beg to have it covered with a blanket, but Remley could do nothing to help him because the limb that “felt cold” had been amputated. Dying men would gasp for water or plead to be allowed to get up and leave the hospital so that they would not have to suffer. “These things and far more than these greeted my senses,” Remley wrote, “as with a candle in one hand and a pail of water and a cup in the other, I picked my way among the wounded and over the amputated limbs that were scattered around the Hospital grounds.”
It was a night for unwounded men to contemplate what they had passed through and why they had remained unscathed while so many around them had fallen. In the camp of the 5th Iowa midway between the battlefield and Edward’s Station, John Campbell sat scratching in his diary. Completing his account of the day’s action, he added a concluding line: “To Him who hath preserved me through so many dangers, I return thanks that I have again passed safely through the perils of the bloody field.”
Steven E. Woodworth is a frequent contributor to MHQ. This article is adapted from Nothing But Victory: The Army of the Tennessee 1861-1865 (Knopf, October 2005).
This article appeared in the Autumn 2005 issue of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History. To purchase this issue please visit MHQ’s page on the History Net shop.