Interactive: Civil War Infantry Attack, 1863 | HistoryNet MENU

Interactive: Civil War Infantry Attack, 1863

By John Antal
7/20/2017 • HistoryNet

Choose the correct plan for a Union infantry company attacking Confederate defenders.

You are Union Army Captain Samuel Marks, commander of Company C, 18th Illinois Infantry Regiment. Your unit, mainly composed of combat experienced veterans, is part of Brigadier General Michael Lawler’s 2d Brigade, 14th Division, in Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee.

Over two weeks ago, on the night of April 29-30, 1863, Grant launched a daring operation to capture Vicksburg, the strategically important Mississippi River bastion whose seizure would cut the Confederacy in two. After crossing the river, Grant led his army on a sweeping “right hook” march through Mississippi’s interior to isolate Vicksburg from Confederate rescue attempts. So far, the maneuver has been successful. Grant’s men have defeated Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton’s Confederate defenders in battles at Port Gibson (May 1), Raymond (May 12), Jackson (May 14) and Champion Hill (May 16).

Yet Pemberton realized he had one final chance to prevent Grant’s army from besieging Vicksburg, by stopping Union forces five miles east at Big Black River. He ordered Brigadier General John Vaughn to emplace his East Tennessee Brigade infantrymen, supported by artillery, on the river’s east bank behind hastily prepared breastworks made of cotton bales. Although the recent string of Union victories has shaken the defenders’ morale, Vaughn is a skilled, resourceful commander.

This morning Lawler’s brigade reached the approaches to the river, and your company now anchors his unit’s right flank. The Confederate line is a few hundred yards west across a flat, open field bounded on the northern side by a shallow ravine.

Suddenly, Lawler gallops up to you on his horse and announces,“We cannot wait for the army’s main body to catch up – we must attack at once! The brigade will advance en echelon, with your company striking first, followed at two-minute intervals by each of the brigade’s remaining companies in right to left order. Begin your assault in 10 minutes!”

By attacking in this manner, your company will draw the defenders’ full attention and firepower until the remaining companies sweep into line on your left. You therefore must decide on the best plan to move your Soldiers across the deadly ground and close with the enemy.

WHAT IS YOUR DECISION, CAPTAIN MARKS?

ASSESSMENT OF THE TACTICAL SITUATION

 You were not surprised that General Lawler chose your company to lead the brigade attack, since until his recent promotion to brigade commander he was the commander of your regiment. He knows the Soldiers in your company are seasoned combat veterans and that you and your men have often faced an infantry attack’s most daunting tactical challenge: How to successfully traverse the last few hundred yards of open ground swept by enemy rifle and artillery fire.

Two conflicting issues complicate this challenge: An orderly advance conducted by closely aligned ranks allows leaders to maintain control and preserves unit cohesion, but it also presents the defenders with easy targets; however, allowing the attackers to seek cover behind terrain features makes it difficult or impossible for leaders to control a large, unwieldy body of Soldiers, thus putting the attack at risk of disintegrating into chaos and confusion.

Although the Confederate position appears formidable, you note some tactical weaknesses. For instance, Vaughn’s breastworks are hastily prepared from cotton bales instead of the deeply dug trenches that form much of the Confederate line. Moreover, the defenders’ morale has been shaken by two weeks of constant defeats. Finally, the shallow ravine bordering the Confederates’ northern flank and leading to the enemy rear is a possible avenue of attack that could help your men avoid the full brunt of the defenders’ firepower.

POSSIBLE COURSES OF ACTION

In this tactical situation, you have two possible courses of action for leading the attack:

The first option is to conduct a swift but orderly frontal assault across the open field to reach the weaker breastworks and overpower the defenders in a “gallant rush.”With enemy morale faltering, the sight of your determined infantrymen rushing toward the Confederate line with the rest of the brigade sweeping up on your left will unnerve the defenders and cause their line to break. However, a frontal attack in the face of massed rifle and artillery fire carries the risk of significant casualties.

The alternative is to advance your attacking infantrymen in a column along the shallow ravine on the enemy’s northern flank. This terrain feature not only shields your men from much of the incoming fire but also provides them a direct path to the rear of the Confederate position, allowing them to outflank the enemy. Yet if you or a key leader is struck down by the Confederates’ fire, your company could become disorganized and the attack might fail. Moreover, if your men halt amid the chaos and confusion, the ravine could become a deathtrap.

COMPANY COMMANDER’S ORDERS

Quickly summoning your first sergeant, you order, “Form the company in a column, four men abreast. I will lead them through the ravine running along the Confederate position’s northern flank. It provides cover from the worst of the Rebels’ fire and leads directly to the enemy rear. Once we are behind the breastworks, we will strike the Confederate line from the rear while the rest of the brigade sweeps forward all along the front.

“Now, go take your position at the back of the company. Whatever happens, keep the men moving forward – do not let them stop under any circumstances! Our army’s victories over the past two weeks have already knocked most of the fighting spirit out of these Rebels, and when we hit them from behind we’ll send them running for their lives back to Vicksburg! At the double-quick, follow me!”

 

 Colonel (Ret.) John Antal is the author of 10 books, including “Hell’s Highway” (randomhouse.com).

Historical Note: The May 17, 1863, Union attack on Lawler’s brigade at Big Black River, aided by a flanking approach through a ravine to reach the enemy rear, quickly overran the Confederate line and shattered Vaughn’s East Tennessee Brigade. Union forces captured nearly 1,750 defenders, and the routed survivors fled west to seek safety inside Vicksburg’s fortifications. By breaching the Big Black River line – Pemberton’s last defensive line outside Vicksburg – Grant’s army was free to besiege the city. After a six-week siege, Pemberton surrendered Vicksburg to Grant July 4, 1863.

Originally published in the March 2013 issue of Armchair General.

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