The Battle of Champion's Hill, A Detailed Description
Federal forces won spectacular triumphs in early 1862. In rapid succession they secured a hold on Kentucky and Missouri, opened the lower and middle Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, wrested west Tennessee from the Confederates and severed the important Memphis & Charleston Railroad running across north Mississippi.
Confederates reeled from these blows. Then the Union advance halted. Some Federal authorities feared the summer climate along the lower Mississippi with its attendant diseases would wipe out invading Union troops. This fear, combined with the inept strategic thinking of other Federal officials, served to scatter the successful Northern army across the map and give time to battered Confederate troops in Mississippi. It was time the Southerners would use to pull themselves together and organize a defense for that part of the state still in their hands.
In late 1862, Union Major General Ulysses S. Grant, commanding the Federal Department and Army of the Tennessee, made his headquarters in Memphis in the farthest southwest corner of the "Volunteer State," just above the Mississippi state line. He had already gained important victories for the national government - it was his army that secured west Tennessee and forced open the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. And he was to become the North's great military hero. But at that time, few people understood the significance of Grant's early victories. The events themselves were starting to fade from public memory. Most Americans accorded him no particular distinction and simply lumped him together with several other generals who also commanded independent field armies.
Then 41 years old, Grant was not an impressive man. Those who knew him in the 1860s described him as "cool," "reticent...... short" and "round-shouldered." Caring little for the trappings of military office, he blended inconspicuously into almost any crowd. A native of Illinois and an 1843 graduate of the U.S. Army's Military Academy at West Point, he performed bravely in the Mexican War of the 1840s and served competently as a junior officer until the mid 1850s. But by then rumor had it that he drank excessively. These reports circulated widely in the army, damaged his reputation and for this and other reasons, he felt the need to resign his officer's commission. He then spent seven years unsuccessfully trying to provide for his family.
The 1861 outbreak of the Civil War found Grant working for his father in Galena, Illinois. At the time, competent, experienced military officers were hard to find. Almost anyone with a soldier's education and training received a ready welcome into the armies being quickly raised by both the North and South. So Grant's background secured a new Federal commission for him and a fortunate political friendship rapidly led to his appointment as a brigadier general. Soon, wearing a lone star on his shoulder straps, he was assigned duty in the Mississippi Valley and there his initiative produced the North's first important successes.
As the year 1863 approached, Grant surveyed the Mississippi Valley from his headquarters perch in Memphis and found his attention naturally drawn downriver toward the Gulf of Mexico. Under other commanders, Union forces advancing up the Mississippi River early in 1862 had occupied New Orleans, Louisiana and that state's capital, Baton Rouge.
What would it mean, Grant speculated, if his army was able to march south and reach those other Union forces? It would mean Federal control would be reestablished along the length of the great river, from Minnesota to the Gulf. It would mean the Confederacy, with states sitting west of this mighty body of water, would be torn in half.
After 16 months of civil war, the most important Confederate-held point left in Mississippi was Vicksburg, halfway between Yankee-occupied Memphis and the Gulf of Mexico; it was, in the words of one Federal officer, "the stronghold of rebeldom on the Mississippi River."
Vicksburg was a "stronghold of rebeldom." And to the people of the upper Mississippi Valley, to the people living along the Ohio and Missouri rivers, it was also a mighty symbol of resistance to Federal President Abraham Lincoln's national government. The city connected eastern secessionists with the Trans-Mississippi, that vast Rebel territory to the west made up of the states of Texas,Louisiana and Arkansas. Bristling with heavy cannon, Vicksburg controlled the "Great River," threatened any Union vessel that ventured past it and like a button, held together the two halves of the breakaway Southern republic. It was also the only remaining point near which Confederate railroads from east and west converged.
For all these reasons, if Vicksburg fell the North's prospects of concluding the war brightened considerably. And for those same reasons, if Vicksburg fell any hope of Southern victory could suffer a severe, perhaps fatal blow.
Rebel forces defending Vicksburg served under Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton. Like Grant, Pemberton was a Northerner and a West Point graduate. Born in Pennsylvania in 1814, he finished at the military academy in 1837. His pre-Civil War career was spent as an artillery officer, fighting in both the Seminole and Mexican wars. Marriage to a Virginia girl and a belief the South was in the right led him to abandon his long Federal career in 1861 and join the Confederate army.
In Confederate service, Pemberton pulled duty on the South Atlantic coast until he was sent west in 1862. His mission there was help bring some order to the chaotic Rebel command structure in Mississippi. Because of his Northern birth, however, his loyalty to the South was doubted by many there.
Commissioned a lieutenant general on October 10, 1862, Pemberton was appointed commander of the Confederate Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana and made subordinate to General Joseph E. Johnston, the officer in charge of all Confederate military forces in the West. They were not a fine pair. Johnston, a Virginian, was by nature pessimistic and overly cautious, a general reluctant to exercise any initiative lest he fail and be blamed for a defeat.
At the end of this episode in American history, there would be no one left who would doubt Northernborn Pemberton's loyalty to the Southern cause. But no one would praise his military talents either. Unlike opposing commander U.S. Grant, a general demonstrating speed and persistence in pursuit of his objective, Pemberton often conceived of warfare in static terms, such as defending fixed positions. Also, when trouble arose, he showed he did not think well in a crisis.
In the Confederate west, personal interests and animosities combined to paint a bleak picture of Pemberton's military future in Mississippi. Confederate President Jefferson Davis, whose home was on the Mississippi River near Vicksburg, constantly intervened to give instructions directly to Pemberton. And often, he did not notify Johnston of the orders he had sent down to the Pennsylvanian.
Complicating this arrangement was the fact that neither Davis nor Johnston liked one another. Both proud, vain, petty men, they had carried on a public feud since an argument arose over Johnston's rank and seniority in 1861. The crux of the argument was that Johnston believed he was the highest ranked, most senior officer in the Confederate army and President Davis contended Johnston was outranked by three other Southern generals. Both men were personally offended by the dispute. Their mutual bitterness was intensified by disagreements over how the Southerners should organize their army and conduct the war, as well as by Johnston's frequent flirtations with Davis' political enemies. This one acrimonious relationship seemed to guarantee that any Rebel war effort in Mississippi would be a halting, confused affair.
All through the winter of 1862-1863, Grant tried first one stratagem and then another to get at Vicksburg, that "stronghold of rebeldom," and wrest away Confederate control of the Mississippi. But Confederate cavalry wrecked railroads in north Mississippi and compelled Grant's army to abandon an overland campaign against Pemberton. Then the Rebels repulsed a Federal assault at Chickasaw Bluffs near Vicksburg. Trying the unusual, Federals attempted to divert the Mississippi River away from Vicksburg, then were thwarted by changing water levels in the stream. Finally, Union efforts to open an allwater route through the bayous north of the town were blocked by hastily built Confederate fortifications.
Through the first half of the Civil War, the Union public had seen their military leaders come and go, their soldiers in the field suffer a succession of defeats. To many in the North, this string of failures seemed to indicate Grant was but one more in a long line of incompetent generals. But then, in mid April 1863, Grant managed to establish a land and water route along the west bank of the Mississippi and swing his army around to the river 30 miles below Vicksburg. Crossing the river, Grant marched northeast toward Jackson. His objective was to cut Vicksburg's ties with the rest of the Confederacy and isolate the fortress city on the river.
Hampered by instructions from Davis to hold Vicksburg at all hazards, confusing "holding" the city with physically occupying it, ordered by Johnston to move out of Vicksburg and unite his' army with other Southern forces, and thoroughly bamboozled by several Yankee forays north and east of the city, a confused and flustered Pemberton concluded Grant's advance was just a feint to draw defenders away from the city. Consequently, the Confederate commander sent only small forces to oppose the Federals to the south and east.
On May 1 at Port Gibson, Mississippi, and on May 12 at Raymond, Grant knocked aside weak Rebel units. On the 14th, the Yankees reached Jackson, brushed off a band of Confederates Johnston had assembled there, then occupied the town. Leaving behind most of Union Major General William T. Sherman's XV Corps to wreck Jackson, its industries and railroads, Grant turned west and headed for Vicksburg. He took along the XIII Corps under Major General John A. McClernand, the XVII Corps commanded by Major General James B. McPherson and one division of Sherman's XV Corps.
By nightfall May 15, Grant's force of some 30,000 men was about 20 miles west of Jackson. McClernand's corps, Grant's advance, was spread out along a front running from Bolton on the Jackson-Vicksburg Railroad south to Raymond. McPherson was in column along the railroad behind McClernand's right. Then, that night Grant received information that a Rebel force, estimated to number 25,000 men, was near Edwards Station (modern day Edwards, Mississippi) about 10 miles to the west. To the Federals on the march it seemed likely this was Pemberton's army.
When Grant's movements got underway, Pemberton began to dimly perceive the seriousness of the threat he presented. After some prodding by Johnston, on May 1 2 the Pennsylvanian ventured out of Vicksburg's fortifications with three divisions - approximately 23,000 men. He left some 7,500 other Confederate soldiers in and around the city, and as he moved toward his opponent he dropped off additional troops east of Edwards Station to guard the line of the Big Black River.
Even this early in the maneuvering game, Pemberton's judgment was open to three hard criticisms. First, with Federals operating in the Vicksburg area, his decision to leave a garrison there was prudent. But Pemberton could have left behind far fewer men without jeopardizing the city's safety.
Second, his decision to leave troops along the Big Black and not to throw every man he possibly could into the effort against Grant was foolish. It clearly showed that even when it loomed before him, Pemberton did not fully realize the magnitude of the danger approaching from the east and he did not comprehend how much his adopted country had wagered on him - if he did not beat Grant, the South would lose Vicksburg, the Mississippi River and probably much more.
Third, Johnston wanted Pemberton to move northeast so his column could join troops under his personal command. Together, he reasoned, the combined force could face down the Federals. But, for his part, Pemberton decided to ignore Johnston's wishes and march southeast from Edwards Station in an effort to cut Grant's supply line.
This last decision by Pemberton ranks among the most foolish of the war. He disobeyed orders, ignored his own judgment - which was to fall back to a defensive position west of the Big Black, and overruled a majority of the generals under him who wanted to join Johnston. Instead, he accepted a proposal from a few subordinates to strike at Grant's supply line, then made only a hesitant, indecisive, uncoordinated effort to carry out the move.
It was a poor, futile performance from the start. If Pemberton had succeeded and gotten behind Grant's force - the place where most supply lines are expected to be found - it would not have mattered. Grant had no supply line, in the conventional sense. He was engaged in a campaign of movement and was quite prepared to continue for several days without communication with the Mississippi. Further, if Pemberton had been successful and gotten behind Grant's army, there would have been few Rebel troops in front of the Federals. They could have marched into Vicksburg virtually unopposed.
On May 15 Pemberton's three divisions headed southeast from Edwards Station toward Auburn where the Rebel commander expected to find Grant's wagon trains. Confederate Major General William W. Loring's division led the column, followed by the divisions of Brigadier General John S. Bowen and Major General Carter L. Stevenson. Muddy roads, a stream swollen by recent rains, and a halt called to wait on the arrival of rations and additional ammunition, all combined to delay the Confederate march, stretch out the column and fatigue the men. That night some of Loring's scouts brought in reports of a large Union force on the Raymond Road a few miles to the east. A short distance to the north of Loring's position, Bowen's men could look off to their left and see "a number of lights." Yankee campfires, they concluded.
On the morning of the 16th Pemberton received another dispatch from Johnston reiterating the earlier instructions to move to the north so that their forces could unite. This time, Pemberton decided to obey orders. He reversed the direction of his march. But by that hour, skirmishing had already broken out on Loring's front. Pemberton soon realized he would have to fight before he could march on to join Johnston.
By sheer luck the Rebel column was then near a ridge running from southwest to northeast, west of the valley of Jackson Creek. The men were strung out in front of the three roads that ran west from the Bolton-Raymond area to Edwards Station. Pemberton's soldiers had merely to occupy the ridge and face east to form a line of battle.
Stevenson formed on the left, or north end, of the ridge, with his left anchored on Champion Hill; Bowen occupied the center; and Loring was on the right, blocking the direct road from Raymond. Loring soon shifted his division a short distance west to a better position on the Coker House ridge. The Confederate line was about three miles long. Several local thoroughfares, the most important of which was the Ratliff Plantation Road, ran behind and parallel to the position and gave the Rebels good lateral communication all along their line. Off the roads the terrain was scarred by ravines. There were some clearings and fields here and there, but the woods were thick over much of the area. The position was admirably suited to oppose an enemy advancing westward on the Raymond and Middle roads the two southernmost of the three routes leading from the BoltonRaymond area.
While Pemberton stumbled about, Grant issued his orders for the 16th. The Federal commander was in the happy situation of being between his enemies and in possession of a copy of Johnston's orders to Pemberton.
How Grant acquired Johnston's communication makes up one of the more routine espionage tales to come out of the Civil War. One of Johnston's couriers was a Yankee spy. He stopped by on his way south and allowed Federal generals to read Johnston's message, then he pressed on to deliver it to the proper Rebel addressee.
Armed with knowledge, Grant intended to keep Pemberton and Johnston apart by using all three roads leading west from his position on the Bolton-Raymond line. Supported by a XV Corps division, McClernand was to send one of his divisions forward on the Raymond-Edwards Station road. Two of McClernand's other divisions would push west on the Middle Road.
The remaining division of McClernand's corps, that of Brigadier General Alvin P. Hovey, would advance along the Jackson Road (sometimes called the Clinton Road) - the northernmost of the three routes which merged with the Middle Road just south of Champion Hill. Hovey would be supported by McPherson's XVII Corps. Grant himself would accompany the column on the Jackson Road. McClernand, after an early morning meeting with McPherson, posted himself with the troops on the Middle Road.
Grant's plan sent three columns west against what was to become Pemberton's line. Owing to the need to prevent Pemberton from swinging north to unite with Johnston, the right Yankee column was the strongest.
Fortunately for Grant, the most important part of the battle would be fought on the northern end of the field where his strength was greatest. The weakness of Grant's arrangement, however, was that McClemand's corps was spread across the entire battlefield where the rough terrain made communication difficult, delayed the transmission of orders, and hampered the coordination of the three columns. Because of these factors the central and southern Federal columns were to play but minor parts in the ensuing battle and Grant was to miss a golden opportunity to strike an even more damaging blow against Pemberton's force.
At about 7:30 A.M., just as Pemberton was reversing the march of his column, the opposing forces collided on the Raymond-Edwards Station road. Soon afterward the Union advance on the Middle Road ran into more of Pemberton's Rebels. Skirmishing broke out in both areas, but the Yankees, under order not to bring on general engagement, did not make a strong push in either. These early contacts, however, drew Pemberton's attention to the right and center of his line to the neglect of his left. The presence of Federal columns in front of the Confederate right and center also led Pemberton to commit much of his force to defend those segments of his position. Meanwhile, the crucial part of the battle unrolled on the northern end of the field.
Some two hours after Skirmishing began to the south, Hovey, leading the northernmost Federal column with his XIII Corps division, reached the Sidney S. Champion House where the Jackson Road turned to the southwest and passed across Champion Hill to intersect the Middle Road before turning back to the west. As the Yankees approached, Matilda Champion threw a few belongings into a wagon and fled with her four children to her father's place a few mile to the north. It was her youngest child's birthday; her husband was with Pemberton's army.
Hovey learned from members of the I St Indiana Cavalry that Rebel infantry and artillery were on Champion Hill - the highest point in the area. He deployed his two brigades quickly, forming them astride the road and facing them south toward the hill. Brigadier General George F. McGinnis' brigade of troops from Indiana and Wisconsin made up the right of Hovey's line; Colonel James R. Slack's regiments of Indiana, Iowa and Ohio men made up the left. Major General John A. Logan's division of McPherson's corps, following Hovey, moved off to the right and deployed northwest of Champion Hill. Skirmishing broke out along the northern part of the battle line. By about 10:30 A.M. Hovey and Logan were ready to go forward.
The brigade holding the northern end of the Rebel line was commanded by Brigadier General Stephen D. Lee. Learning from observers atop Champion Hill that the Federals were extending their line west from the Jackson Road to overlap his left and threaten his rear, Lee shifted his five Alabama regiments a short distance to the west. There they formed a line of battle north of the Jackson Road on a ridge facing to the northeast and fronting the advancing Yankees. Brigadier General Alfred Cumming's Georgia brigade was in line on Lee's right. Soon seeing the right of the Yankee line still stretched to the west far beyond his own left, Lee called for additional help. Brigadier General Seth M. Barton's Georgia brigade, which had been on the right of Stevenson's line, rushed cross-country at the double-quick to bolster the extreme left of the Rebel position(Stevenson's fourth brigade would play no part in the battle. It had been sent off to escort the army's wagons which were then hastening west for Edwards Station along the Jackson Road.).
Although Barton's men did not reach their new position until after the Union attack had gotten underway, these movements resulted in Stevenson's division being deployed on a line running southeast along a ridge from the northwest down to Champion Hill where the line bent back to the southwest. Barton held Stevenson's left, Lee his center, and Cumming his right on the hill itself where the line made its sharp turn to the southwest. Gaps - some of several hundred yards - existed between the regiments of the division. Stevenson later described his line as "necessarily single, irregular, divided and without reserves."
The Confederate position had a shape that has been compared to a numeral seven. The area held by Bowen and Loring was the vertical part of the number; Stevenson's position the horizontal segment. Logan's Federals on the right of the Yankee line faced south against Stevenson's left and center; Hovey's unionists menaced his center and right.
When the Federals moved forward, McGinnis' regiments advanced against Cumming's Georgians at the angle in the Confederate line. As Rebel cannoneers, supporting Cumming, aimed their guns, McGinnis had his men fling themselves down. The artillery fire flew harmlessly overhead, and the Yankees then rose to rush on before the cannon could be loaded and fired again.
McGinnis' men smashed into Cumming's troops at the angle, Within an hour the Rebel position on Champion Hill broke. Robert M. Magill of the 39th Georgia, Cumming's brigade, wrote that the 34th Georgia was the first Rebel unit to give way, breaking and fleeing in "wild confusion" after firing only a volley or two. Within a short time, Magill remembered, the remainder of the brigade "became panic stricken" and followed his 39th Georgia to the rear. An Iowa soldier in the attacking ranks remembered: "The Rebs ran like sheep." McGinnis' men seized the crossroads, captured two artillery batteries, and advanced several hundred yards beyond the hill.
On the far northwestern end of the field, Union Brigadier General John D. Stevenson's brigade of Logan's division Illinois, Missouri and Ohio troops lurched forward. The battle lines swung back and forth for awhile, but eventually Stevenson's Yankees routed Barton's Georgia regiments on the extreme Confederate left.
Captain Samuel Ridley's 1st Mississippi Artillery was posted near the point where Barton's line joined Lee's. When Barton's regiments broke, only Ridley's battery stood between the enemy and Lee's left flank.
Ridley held his ground, firing his guns as rapidly as possible at the oncoming Yankees. One by one his men dropped among the guns until the captain was left almost alone. Still he continued to fight, loading and firing until he went down with six wounds. Out of this incident arose the story that Union Major General McPherson observed this scene and was so impressed by Ridley's bravery, he tried unsuccessfully to reach his lead units, stop their firing and save the captain's life.
The rout of Barton and Cumming and the loss of the artillery on the Rebel left meant only Lee's Alabama regiments stood in the path of the triumphant Northerners. Lee's men were pushed back to the next ridge a halfmile or so to the south. By 1:00 or 1:30 P.M. the first phase of the battle was over and a great Yankee victory seemed in the offing.
The early disaster on the northern end of his line awakened Pemberton to the danger threatening him there. The Yankees had crumpled his left and gained a position from which they could sweep south to strike Bowen and Loring in the left flank or rear, or move southwest to block the Rebels' route of escape across Bakers Creek. At 1:00 P.M. Pemberton sent orders for Bowen and Loring to move to the left to help Carter Stevenson. Bowen and Loring, however, believed their positions threatened by Federals advancing in front of them. Both were reluctant to obey the order. Finally, Bowen started his small division two brigades made up of 5,300 men - for the left of the Confederate line.
Bowen's men went at a run under what one soldier remembered as a "burning sun." Another called it 11 scorching." As they passed Pemberton's headquarters, the general himself cheered them on. Farther along, at a house much closer to the fighting, some "lovely Southern ladies" stood in the front yard and sang "Dixie" to encourage their men. Bowen's Rebels raised a cheer for these "fair creatures" and kept going.
Under a "murderous" fire from the Federals, Confederate Colonel Francis M. Cockrell's Missouri brigade, leading Bowen's column, quickly formed to the left of the Ratliff Plantation Road and started forward. Cockrell led his men into the attack holding a magnolia blossom and the reins of his horse in one hand and his sword in the other. Confederate Brigadier General Martin E. Green's Arkansas brigade hastened into position on Cockrell's right.
Bowen's division was among the best combat units in the Confederacy - good men to have at one of the war's most crucial points. Bowen sent these cheering men forward and launched one of the most savage counterattacks of the war. They came on "like ten thousand starving and howling wolves" one shaken Yankee later recalled.
McGinnis wrote that the ensuing clash was "one of the most obstinate and murderous conflicts of the war." A Missourian remembered, "one unbroken deafening roar of musketry" as Bowen's brigades collided with the Yankees.
Within an hour Bowen's screaming Rebels stopped Hovey's advance, pushed him back perhaps three-fourths of a mile, regained Champion Hill, retook many of the guns their comrades lost earlier, freed some Confederates captured in Hovey's attack and overran and captured two guns belonging to the 16th Ohio Light Artillery. Meanwhile, Lee, bolstered by Bowen's presence to his right, launched his own counterattack and shoved back the left of Logan's division.
By about 3:00 P.M., Bowen and Lee had reversed the situation on the northern end of the field. It looked as if the northernmost Federal column might be put to rout.
Matters were especially serious for the Yankees because Grant's ordnance wagons were gathered around the Champion House a short distance to the northeast. If Bowen's onrushing Rebels could capture or destroy those wagons, Grant would find himself in a most serious predicament. He could procure food from the countryside for his men and animals, but without the fresh ammunition the ordnance train carried, he and his men were liable to use up the last of their cartridges then be destroyed far behind enemy lines. And if such a disaster occurred, it was also possible Grant himself, along with McPherson and William T. Sherman - rushing west from Jackson with his XV Corps - could be killed or captured.
Beyond these immediate physical dangers, there were others, national in scope. Should Grant lose his ammunition and, despite the handicap, still extricate himself and his army from danger, Vicksburg would not be taken. Grant's own reputation would suffer a hard, perhaps fatal blow. And if he survived even that embarrassment, Northern public morale, shaky after a humiliating Union defeat at Chancellorsville, Virginia early that month, might plummet to new lows. Consequently, if they faced a dispirited Union army and a sad Northern population, the Confederates would be "given aid and comfort." They would not be forced, as they actually were in history, to confront a morale crisis of their own in late spring 1863 - a crisis that compelled Southern authorities to give their consent to launching that summer's ill-fated Gettysburg Campaign.
As happened so often during the war, however, the Confederates did not have enough strength at the crucial point to follow up on a temporary triumph. The attacking Southerners themselves began to run short of ammunition before Bowen and Lee were able to exploit their hard-won success. Union reinforcements from Brigadier General Marcellus M. Crocker's division of McPherson's corps threw aside their blankets an knapsacks and hasten forward. These men - moving at "double time" by order of Grant himself - reached the field in time to thwart Bowen's furious charge. Northern generals labored mightily to rally their men. Logan did so, wrote one Yankee, with language that was "forcible, inspiring, and savored a little of brimstone."
With the help of Hovey and Logan and enfilading fire from well-placed supporting artillery, Crocker was able first to stop the Confederate advance a few hundred yards south of the Champion House and then, after furious fighting, to force the Rebels back across the rugged terrain. "We killed each other as fast as we could," remembered one of Crocker's Iowa soldiers. By about 3:30 or 4:00 P.M. the Yankees had regained Champion Hill.
While the fight went on on the northern end of the line, McClemand, in response to orders from Grant, pushed his other columns forward. The division of Union Brigadier General Peter J. Osterhaus overpowered a Confederate roadblock on the Middle Road and inched cautiously toward Champion Hill. Soon after 4:OOP.M., Osterhaus' advance brought him into position to threaten the right and rear of Bowen's exhausted Rebels as they were being assailed in their front by Crocker, Hovey and Logan.
Fortunately for the Confederates, Loring had finally decided to comply with Pemberton's order to move to the support of Bowen and Stevenson. Leaving one brigade under Confederate Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman and two artillery batteries numbering 10 guns to cover the Raymond Road, Loring sidled to the northeast. He approached the Middle Road just in time to blunt Osterhaus' threat to Bowen's position. The second phase of the battle was over.
Despite Loring's tardy arrival, it was soon clear the Confederates were not strong enough to win the battle and if they stayed on the field they were likely to be cut off from their escape route and destroyed. Seeing the battle was lost, Pemberton called for retreat.
Many troops from Barton's brigade had already fled west on the Jackson Road toward Edwards Station. But it was not possible to use the same route to get the rest of the Rebel army to safety. The extreme right of the Federal line - John Stevenson's brigade of Logan's division - had seized the Jackson Road far to the west of Champion Hill. In that position Stevenson blocked the northern crossing of Bakers Creek and denied the Rebels the direct line of escape to Vicksburg (The Union's Stevenson did reach the Jackson Road during the first phase of the battle, but at that time he was pulled back to help stem the Confederate counterattack.).
Owing to Union Brigadier General Stevenson's success Pemberton had to use the Raymond Road crossing to get his men across Bakers Creek. He was compelled draw off his force to the southwest. While Loring covered the withdrawal, the bloodied divisions of Stevenson and Bowen, the former leading, moved southwest on the retreat. The withdrawal became increasingly confused as it went on and some units began to disintegrate. The Confederates were still in danger, moreover, because the left Yankee column on the Raymond Road could push forward, overwhelm Tilghman;s tiny force, seize the crossing and block the Rebels' only remaining avenue of escape.
Pemberton was lucky. Union Brigadier General Andrew Jackson Smith, leading the Yankee column on the Raymond Road, was hesitant to push forward vigorously. While he dawdled and exchanged artillery fire with Tilghman, Carter Stevenson's and Bowen's men reached the Raymond Road and scurried across Bakers Creek to safety. As they did so, Tilghman, doing his part to make it a fighting retreat, was cut nearly in half by a shot from the Chicago Mercantile Battery.
Before Loring's troops could join Bowen's and Stevenson's, another XIII Corps division - Union Brigadier General Eugene A. Carr's - sprinted past Champion Hill and moved over Bakers Creek at the Jackson Road crossing. Through a misunderstanding, Rebel guards withdrew from the Jackson Road crossing without destroying the bridge there.
Turning to the south, Carr quickly found a position where he got the guns of the 1st Indiana Artillery into place to shell the Raymond Road. The fire from Carr's guns convinced Loring not to try to withdraw his division via that route. He decided instead to march it down the left side of Bakers Creek.
Soon finding himself out of touch with Pemberton, Loring drifted away to the south and east. He and his division wandered for awhile in what seemed an aimless fashion then turned north. Eventually, the major general came across Johnston's Rebel forces, joining them northeast of the Vicksburg area. Neither he nor they played any significant part in the remainder of the struggle for Vicksburg.
To modem historians, it seems clear Loring could have rejoined Pemberton had he really wanted to. The major general's contemporary, Carter Stevenson reported Yankee guns were too far away for their fire to have prevented Loring's troops from using the Raymond Road. But Loring was a cantankerous man.
Early in the war, Loring served in Virginia and was known to his troops as "Old Blizzards." There, he clashed with his superior officer Major General T.J. "Stonewall" Jackson. Then, transferred west, he brought his cranky attitude with him to Mississippi and made no secret of the fact he did not relish being under Pemberton's command. Apparently, the bad feeling was mutual. Relations between the two were unpleasant for some time before the Champion Hill fight.
Because of the reported tension, and because Loring is believed to have said he would "be willing for Pemberton to lose a battle provided that he would be displaced," it appears likely "Old Blizzards" seized the opportunity of maneuvering down the left side of the creek to escape an unhappy command situation. The unfordable stream provided him with a convenient excuse to just go his own way. (It is also worth noting that the Loring quote raises another interesting question. If Pemberton had been displaced, Loring, as the ranking major general, would have assumed command. Perhaps, when he first made that remark, Loring was not a disinterested commentator.)
That night Pemberton, with Stevenson and Bowen, moved west to the Big Black River. There, on the 17th, the Rebels attempted to hold open an escape route for Loring who, they discovered, had not bothered to inform anyone of his decision to march south rather than west. Overrun at the Big Black by Grant's exultant Yankees, Pemberton's Confederates fled west into the formidable works at Vicksburg. Then the long, slow process of of starving the city and its garrison into submission began. On July 4, Pemberton surrendered Vicksburg and his army to Grant.
The fighting at Champion Hill is sometimes called the Battle of Bakers Creek or Baker's Creek. It cost Grant 396 men killed, 1,838 wounded and 187 missing, for a total casualty count of 2,421. Not surprisingly, almost half of these losses (1,189) were absorbed by Hovey's units. In writing of Champion Hill a week or so later, Hovey called the place "literally a hill of death." "I never saw fighting like this," he added, noting that he had lost almost one third of his division. For its part, Crocker's division, which played a key role in stopping Bowen's counterattack, lost 510 men. Logan's command, the other Union division most heavily engaged, lost 406.
As is often the case with the records of Civil War battles, there is no satisfactory datum on Confederate casualties in the struggle for Champion Hill.
Edwin C. Bearss, chief historian of the National Park Service and author of the most detailed study of the Vicksburg Campaign, puts reported Rebel loses at Champion Hill at 381 killed, 1,018 wounded and 2,441 missing, for a total casualty count of 3,840. Stevenson's division alone reported 2,854 casualties of all types, while Bowen's division lost 868. But because some Confederate units made no casualty reports, these aggregate figures are known to be incomplete. Some of the units for which no casualty reports exist took very heavy losses. For example, a member of Captain Ridley's 1st Mississippi Artillery wrote that his unit carried 82 men into the fight and brought out only 8. So, it seems possible to extrapolate Pemberton's total lost may have numbered somewhere between 4,000 and 4,300. It's also worth noting the Southerners lost twenty-seven artillery pieces in the battle and on the retreat.
Except for the brigades of Barton and Cumming - and even some of their men behaved heroically - the rank and file of the Rebel army fought well at Champion Hill. But sadly, for those Southerners this fight was just another sorry example of how incompetent leadership and bitter personality clashes among high-ranking Rebels could squander away a chance for victory. It demonstrated how the Confederacy's confused, divided and rotten western command structure could render the sacrifices of common Southern soldiers pointless. And it showed how all these things had combined to make it impossible for the Rebels to wage war effectively in the area between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. President Davis in the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia and General Pemberton in west Mississippi were both completely misled by Grant's activities. It seems unlikely they ever understood either the situation in Mississippi or the maneuvers by which their army was forced to fight at Champion Hill. Johnston in central Mississippi was only slightly better informed and displayed little energy and no force in his efforts.
Pemberton's decision to leave so many troops in and around Vicksburg and along the Big Black deprived him of much-needed strength at Champion Hill. His failure to provide adequate and timely supplies to his field force delayed his efforts and exacerbated the confusion of his march. His indecisiveness about whether to obey Johnston's orders cost valuable time, confused his movements, tired his men and contributed much to his defeat. His failure to reconnoiter adequately denied him knowledge of both Grant's strategic movements and of the Federal dispositions on the battlefield itself. This lack of knowledge, in turn, led Pemberton to his fateful decision to focus early attention on the right and center of his line at Champion Hill.
The Rebels, Stephen D. Lee later noted, had gone into the fight "with scarcely any definite knowledge of the enemy." The feud between Pemberton and Loring hampered the movement of troops during the battle and probably played a role in Loring's decision to abandon Pemberton's army. (Pemberton later claimed Loring had not obeyed orders. Johnston made the same charge against Pemberton. Davis lodged a similar complaint against Johnston whom he had directed to drive Grant away from Vicksburg.)
The fight at Champion Hill lasted for only about six hours. But, it would be difficult to overstate the importance of the battle for the Federal cause in general and for the career of Ulysses S. Grant in particular. Though Grant's brilliant ' daring and unorthodox march into the heart of Mississippi confused and divided the Rebels, it did not guarantee the success of his campaign against Vicksburg. It placed Grant and his army at great risk - it has been called "the supreme gamble of the war" - and it brought him and Pemberton to Champion Hill. The victor in that battle would triumph in the campaign. The Yankee success on May 16 sealed the fate of Vicksburg and probably of the Confederacy. It also placed Grant in the forefront of Northern generals.
Five months to the day from the time Pemberton's beaten army fled Champion Hill, Ulysses S. Grant was named commander of all Federal troops in the western theater. Five months after that promotion he was named lieutenant general - only the the third United States officer to hold the grade - and assigned to the command of all Northern armies.
As historian Edwin Bearss once observed, the road that ran from Champion Hill took Grant on to Vicksburg, to his great November 1863 victory at Chattanooga, Tennessee and to Appomattox Court House, Virginia, where on April 9, 1865, he received the surrender of General Robert E. Lee and the most prominent Confederate army. Elected President of the United States in 1868, Grant served two terms that are best remembered for the way that some of his cronies plundered the government. (Grant was not personally involved.) After leaving the White House, he lost most of his money through the machinations of a friend. Reduced to poverty and dying of throat cancer, he devoted his last months to a desperate and successful effort to complete his memoirs so that his family would have an income after his death. The end came for him in 1885.
Although John C. Pemberton also rode west to Vicksburg, the road from Champion Hill took him in the opposite direction from Grant. Thirty years before the battle - to the day - he had received his appointment to West Point. Later, the commander of a defeated army, he becariie the highestranking Confederate officer to surrender prior to the last few weeks of the Civil War. Denounced by rabid supporters of the Confederacy for surrendering Vicksburg, the unfortunate Pemberton soon found himself caught up in the unseemly squabble between Jefferson Davis and Joseph E. Johnston over who was responsible for the loss of Vicksburg and the Mississippi. Then efforts to find another command for Pemberton came to naught as troops refused to serve under the disgraced general. Released into Confederate hands in an 1864 prisoner exchange, Pemberton resigned his lieutenant general's commission. Appointed a lieutenant colonel of artillery, he toiled faithfully if obscurely in the Confederate cause until the end of the war, then tried to support himself by farming in Virginia. In 1881 he died in his native Pennsylvania.
Like the histories of many battles of the 1860s, the story of the fight at Champion Hill contains its share of ironies. They illustrate the peculiar nature of the American Civil War and the sometimes puzzling, if fascinating, conduct of the men who fought it. For instance, Bill Aspinwall, a private in the 47th Indiana, Slack's brigade, Hovey's division, was wounded in the head and shoulder during the battle. He spent the night of May 16-17 lying on a blanket in a fence corner with a mortally wounded Confederate. As the two men talked, the Southerner, shot in the stomach, asked Aspinwall to write to his wife in Savannah, Georgia, and tell her how he had died. After his wounds were dressed the next morning, Aspinwall wrote a letter to the Confederate widow. He then walked to a field hospital where Rebel wounded were being treated, explained to a Confederate officer what had happened and asked him to see to it that the letter was sent to Savannah. The Southerner thanked Aspinwall for his kindness and offered to help him if he was ever in a position to do so.
Lieutenant Colonel John A. Rawlins, one of Grant's close friends and a member of his staff, had a similar experience. Riding across the battlefield, Rawlins heard a wounded Confederate calling out to ask if any of the nearby Federals was a Mason. Rawlins, a member of that fraternal order, dismounted to ask what he could do for the wounded man. The Southerner handed some personal objects to his enemy but fellow Mason with the request that they be sent to his wife in Alabama. Rawlins took the objects and eventually fulfilled his responsibility by getting them through the lines to the Rebel's widow.
After the armies were gone, the dead buried, and the wounded taken off to hospitals or for treatment in private homes, Champion Hill pretty much returned to it pre-battle appearance. Once or twice over the next two years armies on their way east or west marched across the battlefield, and on one occasion troops camped there near the place where hastily-buried corpses from the battle had been exposed by the rain. Battle scars remained visible on the trees for several decades, but the trampled bushes either recovered or were replaced by new growth. To the present day, a few wartime buildings survive on the privately-owned battlefield, but the Champion House itself is gone - burned in the summer of 1863. (A small church now occupies the site.) The Champion family came back to the land and built another house on a different part of the property.
Source: Part of an article that appeared in the Civil War Times magazine, May/June 1991. The author published under the pseudonym L.B. Northrop.
This page last updated 02/16/02
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