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Mississippi Nightmare

By Timothy B. Smith
3/14/2018 • Civil War Times Magazine

William Loring’s desperate slog to avoid capture changed the course of the Vicksburg Campaign.

Where was Major General William Loring? The Battle of Champion Hill on May 16, 1863, had not gone well for the Confederate army. By dusk, the Rebels were in full retreat before Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s victorious force. Major General Carter Stevenson’s division had already retreated westward and crossed the Big Black River. Brigadier General John Bowen’s division was desperately trying to hold the Raymond Road open so that Loring’s men, acting as the army’s rear guard, could make good their escape. But Bowen was hard pressed, and several Federal units were within minutes of cutting his force off from Vicksburg. The Missourian had no choice but to retreat toward the Big Black. The one-armed Loring was on his own.

Lieutenant General John Pemberton, commander of the Confederate force, and his officers could only wonder at the fate of Loring’s division: Had it been destroyed or captured? Had he marched to join General Joe Johnston at Jackson? Or even worse, had Loring purposely remained behind so he’d no longer have to serve under Pemberton?

That last myth, unfortunately, has stuck around for years. One staff officer in Loring’s division remarked that “there is quite a feud existing between Loring and Pemberton—so far as Loring is concerned,” and he and another staff officer agreed “Loring would be willing for Pemberton to lose a battle provided that he would be displaced.” But the idea that Loring abandoned Pemberton on the battlefield seems to be a postwar construct, popularized in reminiscences. One veteran even claimed that Loring had said, “you can tell General Pemberton to go to hell and that I am going through to General Johnston.” Even some modern historians, most notably James R. Arnold in Grant Wins the War, have ascribed to this theory. Wartime sources, however, tell a different story.

Loring had not fallen captive, nor was he lost. His troops were still operating east of Baker’s Creek and still retained a good degree of organization despite the death of a brigade commander. But Loring’s men were stranded on the same side of the creek with thousands of Federals.

Loring had put up a stiff rear guard defense, and one of his detached regiments, the 12th Louisiana, had actually already crossed to the west side of Baker’s Creek to join Bowen on the orders of Stevenson, who had notified Loring of his action. Loring, however, ordered the “Pelicans” to rejoin the division, and they countermarched to the east bank of Baker’s Creek. When Bowen witnessed the countermarch, he believed that Loring had no intention of crossing at the Raymond Road bridge, and ordered his men to retreat.

But Loring did plan to cross at the bridge. After receiving a note from Bowen informing him of the dire situation in the area around the bridge, Loring immediately ordered his division westward. Brigade commanders Abraham Buford and Winfield Featherston withdrew close to the bridge, and the brigade of the deceased Lloyd Tilghman, under Colonel Arthur Reynolds, broke off contact and headed for the crossing. The Federals were right behind them. One Alabamian remembered that the enemy encircled the division in the “shape of a horseshoe.”

Arriving at the creek, Loring received several reports that Yankee artillery fire was raking the Raymond Road. Loring realized the enemy had boxed him in on three sides. Still intent on rejoining Pemberton, Loring began to search for other possibilities to escape. Unfortunately, the only open route was south, away from Vicksburg. But Loring had to move quickly. The general needed the services of a local guide, but Pemberton had taken Loring’s only guide. Loring sent for another local who agreed to lead the march, Dr. W.B. Williamson, a native of Edwards Station.

Williamson claimed he could direct the division to another unguarded ford a few miles south of the Raymond Road. Loring accepted the proposal. Williamson led Loring southward along the east bank of Baker’s Creek, slogging across plantations, swamps and marshes. But Williamson could not locate the ford, and Loring’s division had to countermarch back nearly to the field of battle to find a substantial road. Marching near the Coker House, many soldiers reported seeing enemy campfires on both sides of the column. One soldier remembered “passing by and even through some Union bivouacs without molestation.” Some Federals, probably half asleep, frequently asked their identity, whereupon the wily Confederates would answer with “ours,” or “99th Rhode Island.” The division made its way out of the greatest danger, using what one participant described as “neighborhood roads and paths long unused.”

But the going remained difficult. The division had no supplies, and each soldier carried just a few rounds of ammunition. The rough roads, ravines and gullies were playing havoc with wheeled vehicles, and Loring had his artillerymen cut their horses loose and left 12 guns spiked in a swamp.

The situation became even more desperate when the column neared a large creek. Loring’s officers spread word for the infantrymen to throw their arms, ammunition and anything that would prove a hindrance into the water. Most of the guns and ammunition, one Confederate remembered, were “safely deposited in the bed of the river.” The division was essentially unarmed.

Loring’s men made better progress unencumbered by heavy guns and small arms. Williamson, however, still could not find the ford, and the division had to march 10 miles before it came across a sufficient crossing. One disgruntled Confederate remembered, “we marched twelve miles to reach that four mile ford.” By that time, Loring realized he could not rejoin the army.

He could plainly see a tremendous fire in the direction of Edwards Station, indicating either that Pemberton had destroyed everything of value or the Federals had sacked the place. Either scenario meant that the Confederates no longer held Edwards Station and the Federals now lay between Loring and Pemberton. Loring would have to cross the Big Black somewhere to the south.

Williamson recommended that Loring see another local man, Andrew J. Vaughan, who was brought to the generals. Vaughan explained that high water would make the crossings difficult, and there was a massive swamp east of the river. There seemed no way the division could succeed in such a march, especially at night. To make matters worse, it seemed likely Grant’s men would have the Big Black crossings well covered.

After hearing Vaughan’s opinions, Loring met with his officers and determined that marching to Vicksburg would be suicidal. Loring reluctantly ordered his exhausted men southeast toward the New Orleans, Jackson & Great Northern Railroad. Perhaps he could escape toward Jackson and link with Johnston.

By 3 a.m. on May 17, the troops reached Dillon, their intended destination on May 15 before the battle at Champion Hill changed the course of the campaign. Loring pushed his men onward, and learned from a local citizen that the column was near the town of Utica, but about 500 Federals held the place. Loring had more than 5,000 men, but his troops were too exhausted and poorly armed for combat. From Utica, the division marched for Crystal Springs, entering the town on the night of May 17. After 24 hours of marching, the division had made 40 miles. The division marched on, crossed the Pearl River and arrived near Jackson on May 19, where Loring reported to Johnston. The forced march had played havoc with Loring’s division. Straggling became the norm, and many men fell captive to roving bands of enemy soldiers. Loring lost some 3,000 troops on his march.

William Loring had his faults, to be sure. He had frequently quarreled with superiors before this, including Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson in Virginia earlier in the war. Yet only after all chance of rejoining the army had passed did Loring march away from Pemberton.

This turn of events, however, altered the campaign. Had Pemberton not waited on Loring, he likely would not have had to fight the battle at the Big Black River bridge the next day, where he took another thumping. Conversely, had Loring been trapped in Vicksburg with the rest of Pemberton’s army, his men would not have materially strengthened the defenses but would have meant 7,000 more mouths to feed. Loring’s march away from Pemberton provided Johnston with more men to nip at Grant’s rear and, months later, to defend the interior of Mississippi. But when Loring marched away from Champion Hill, it was out of necessity, not by choice.

 

Timothy B. Smith teaches at the University of Tennessee-Martin.

Originally published in the August 2009 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here

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