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The assault on Chickasaw bluffs.

by George W. Morgan, Brigadier-General, U. S. V.
President Lincoln early determined to obtain control of the Mississippi, in its entire length. In pursuance of his plan, Island Number10 in the north and Forts Jackson and St. Philip in the south had been captured, and New Orleans occupied by our troops in the spring of 1862; and in the fall of that year General McClernand was assigned to the command of a river expedition against Vicksburg.

The day following the receipt of this order by Grant at Oxford, Mississippi, Sherman, who was then at Memphis, in telegraphic communication with Grant, commenced the embarkation of a column upon three grand flotillas, each bearing a division, to be joined by a fourth (Steele's) at Helena.

In his “Memoirs,” 1 General Sherman says:

The preparations at Memphis were necessarily hasty in the extreme, but it was the essence of the whole plan, viz., to reach Vicksburg, as it were, by surprise, while General Grant held in check Pemberton's army about Grenada, leaving me to contend only with the smaller garrison of Vicksburg and its well-known strong batteries and defenses.

In his written directions to his division commanders, December 23d, 1862, General Sherman said: “Already the gun-boats have secured the Yazoo, for twenty miles, to a fort on the Yazoo, on Haynes's Bluff.”

This movement of the gun-boats not only rendered a surprise impossible, but gave notice to the enemy of the coming attack. On the 24th, General [463] John C. Pemberton, who was in command of the Confederate army at Grenada, received “definite and reliable information” of the operations of the gun-boats, and at noon on the 26th he reached Vicksburg in person, before Sherman had arrived at the mouth of the Yazoo. The strong brigades of Barton, Gregg, and Vaughn were promptly transferred from Grenada to Vicksburg, and formed the enemy's sole defense between Vicksburg and McNutt Lake, a distance of six miles.

General Pemberton describes the battle-ground as follows in his official report:

Swamps, lakes, and bayous, running parallel with the river, intervene between the bank and the hills, and leave but four practicable approaches to the high ground from Snyder's Mills to the Mississippi River, but all outside of the fortifications of Vicksburg.

In its entire length Chickasaw Bayou is tortuous and in its course is known by different names. As we advanced along the road leading from the Yazoo to the bluffs, the bayou was on our left for some distance; on our right was a forest intersected by sloughs, more or less filled with water, and perpendicular to the bayou and parallel to the bluffs. Opposite the point where the bayou turns abruptly to the left, and on the right side of the road, the forest was felled and formed a tangled abatis to the point where the bayou divides into two branches, over one of which was a narrow corduroy bridge.

The ground on which the battle was fought was a triangle, the apex of which was at the point of divergence of the two branches of the bayou, the high and rugged bluff in front being the base. Standing at the apex and facing the base of the triangle, its left side was formed by the left branch of the bayou, which flowed obliquely to (and I believe through) a break in the bluffs; while the right was formed by a broken line of rifle-pits that ran obliquely from the base toward the apex, and by the other branch of the bayou, which first runs obliquely to the right, then parallel to the bluffs, and forms McNutt Lake.

Our troops had not only to advance from the narrow apex of a triangle, whose short base of about four hundred yards and sharp sides bristled with the enemy's artillery and small-arms, but had to wade the bayou and tug through the mucky and tangled swamp, under a withering fire of grape, canister, shells, and minie-balls, before reaching dry ground. Such was the point chosen for the assault by General Sherman. What more could be desired by an enemy about to be assailed in his trenches!

In a letter to the author of this article, in regard to the assault at Chickasaw, General Stephen D. Lee, who commanded the enemy's defenses at that point, says:

Had Sherman moved a little faster after landing, or made his attack at the mound [Sherman's bluff, or sand-bar], or at any point between the bayou and Vicksburg, he could have gone into the city. As it was, he virtually attacked at the apex of a triangle while I held the base and parts of the two sides.

Sherman did make an attack at the mound, or sand-bar, but only sent one regiment, the 6th Missouri, to the assault; and in making it that gallant regiment lost fifty-seven men. [464]

Sherman's army was composed of four splendid divisions, commanded by Brigadier-Generals A. J. Smith, Morgan L. Smith, George W. Morgan, and Frederick Steele. The entire force was about 30,000 strong. [See map, next page.]

On the night of the 28th of December Sherman ordered Steele to abandon his position, leave a small force to observe the road leading to Snyder's Mills, form in rear of Morgan, and give him such support as he might ask for. Blair's brigade had been ordered by General Sherman to report to Morgan, and was sent by him across the bayou and over the road which De Courcy and Thayer afterward advanced to the assault, to occupy the ground between the bayou and Thompson's Lake. This was promptly done.

The city of Vicksburg formed the extreme left of the enemy's position, and its immediate rear was the weakest point in the entire line of defense.

On the 28th and 29th the city was occupied and defended solely by the 27th Louisiana regiment, under Colonel Marks, and by the batteries commanding the Mississippi; and on the 29th there was but a single regiment, under General Vaughn, between the city and “the mound,” “sand-bar,” or “bluff,” as it was differently called, four miles in rear of Vicksburg.

In the immediate rear of the city there were redans and redoubts connected by rifle-pits; but on the 28th and 29th these were empty, every soldier and every gun having been withdrawn and sent to the defense of “the swamp,” or “county road.”

In the original formation, Vaughn's brigade rested on a heavy abatis at the race-course. On his right was the brigade of Barton, and in their rear the brigade of Gregg was held as a reserve. On the right of Barton was S. D. Lee, who had had the command of the entire line from Vicksburg to Snyder's Mills prior to the arrival of the brigades of Vaughn, Barton, and Gregg from Grenada. Early on the 28th one of Vaughn's regiments was sent to reenforce Lee, and another to reenforce Barton; and thus Vaughn was left with only one regiment to protect the immediate rear of the city, with the whole of A. J. Smith's division opposed to him. This division was ordered to make a feint, and, in doing so, lost two men. Had a real attack been ordered by General Sherman, Vicksburg would have fallen, for Morgan L. Smith's division would have occupied Barton and Gregg at the “mound,” “sand-bar,” or “dry lake,” while the divisions of Morgan and Steele would have held Lee at Chickasaw.

In his “Memoirs” (I., 290), General Sherman says:

On reconnoitering the front in person, I became satisfied that General A. J. Smith could not cross the intervening obstacles under the heavy fire of the forts immediately in his front.

That front was the immediate rear of the city. There was skirmishing on the 27th and 28th, and the enemy was driven back to his trenches.

My division consisted of the brigades of Sheldon, Lindsey, and De Courcy.

General Blair's brigade, as already stated, had been detached from Steele's division, and ordered to report to me. December 28th, I directed Blair, then on the north side of the bayou, to reconnoiter his front, and with De Courcy, who was on the opposite side of the bayou from Blair, I reconnoitered [465]

First Vicksburgh campaign or Chickasaw Bayou December 27 1862--January 3, 1863.

the front of his brigade; and then passed to McNutt Lake,--an enlargement of Chickasaw Bayou,--and with Colonel D. W. Lindsey (whose brigade, with that of Colonel L. A. Sheldon, was in the woods bordering on the lake) reconnoitered his front. The enemy had relied on the depth and width of the lake as a sufficient defense, and at that place had neither troops nor works of any kind between the lake and the bluffs. I determined to bridge the lake during the night, and at dawn on the 29th to send Lindsey and Sheldon with their brigades to seize and hold the swamp road and bluff in their front, while the brigades of Blair and De Courcy should advance to the assault in parallel columns from my left. Could this plan have been executed, the day might have been ours. Fate willed it otherwise.

Captain W. F. Patterson, an intelligent and efficient officer, had a small body of engineer-mechanics, and I directed him, with the aid of a detail, to bring the pontoons, eight in number, from the steamers, and bridge the lake before daylight at a point indicated. The night was intensely dark, and Patterson by mistake bridged, instead of the lake, a wide and deep slough, parallel to the bluff and filled with water. It was nearly dawn when I learned of the mistake, whereupon I ordered Patterson to take up the bridge and throw it across the lake at the point selected. [466]

I again reconnoitered the ground beyond the lake. There was no apparent change in the situation, and I still felt strong hopes of success. But in the extreme haste to get away from Memphis, General Sherman had not provided trestles on which to lay the plank between the pontoons, hence the bridge had to be built by laying the pontoons side by side. The bayou was 80 feet wide, and the eight pontoons thus placed would only form a bridge of 48 feet in length; for the rest it was necessary to make trestles or construct a raft.

The withdrawal of Steele from Sherman's left enabled the enemy to concentrate his right on the threatened point at Chickasaw. As soon as he discovered that a bridge was being thrown over McNutt Lake, Barton occupied the woods bordering the lake on the bluff side. Patterson had succeeded in placing and flooring six pontoons when the enemy opened a fire of artillery and small-arms on the pontoniers and drove them from their work. Two of the boats were damaged and a number of the men killed or wounded.

A short time previous to this, while standing near Foster's 1st Wisconsin battery, I saw approaching from the enemy's right, about a mile away, a caisson, with gunners on the ammunition boxes, and a few horsemen in front. I asked Foster if he could blow up that caisson. He replied, “I can try, sir.” He waited until the caisson came within fair range, and fired. The report of the gun and the explosion of the caisson seemed to be instantaneous; caisson and gunners were blown into the air; every man and horse was killed, and a shout went up from around Foster and his battery. On the next day, when our flag of truce to the enemy had returned, I learned that one of the victims of the explosion was Captain Paul Hamilton, assistant adjutant-general on the staff of General S. D. Lee. He was but twenty-one years of age, was distinguished for his gallantry, and had gone through several battles without a scar. As he deserved, his death is mourned over to this day.

The fire of Barton was promptly returned by Lindsey, but it was certain the bridge could not be completed while the enemy covered it with his guns.

I now regarded an attack from my left, by way of the narrow road or causeway leading across the bayou, as impracticable, and reported the fact to General Sherman by my acting assistant adjutant-general, Lieutenant E. D. Saunders, with the request that he would come to my front. Upon his arrival I reported to him the condition of things on my right, and requested him to accompany me down the causeway leading to the corduroy bridge over the bayou. He did so. I called his attention to our very narrow and difficult front; to the bayou in its tortuous course on our left; to the mucky marsh beyond the bayou and bridge, all within easy range of the enemy's guns.

For a time General Sherman made no reply. At length, pointing toward the bluffs, he said: “That is the route to take!” And without another word having been exchanged he rode away to his headquarters behind the forest.2 [467]

I was in the actual command of two divisions, that of Steele and my own.. In his report Steele says:

I received orders from the general commanding to halt the brigade [Thayer's] and sub-sequently to render General Morgan any assistance he might ask for. General Morgan finally told me that he was going to storm the heights without waiting for the completion of the bridge. He requested me to support the storming party with what force I had. . . . I gave no orders on the field that day, except at the suggestion of General Morgan, save, that I followed the movement, encouraging the men while they were advancing, and endeavoring to check them when they fell back.


In addition to the assaulting force of nine regiments, I held two of Blair's regiments in support of my artillery, to be used as circumstances might require; and the brigades of Lindsey and Sheldon, and four regiments of Thayer's brigade of Steele's division were on my right. I was the senior officer in the immediate presence of the enemy, and occupied a position on the causeway, near Foster's battery, ready to take such action as the chances of battle might call for.

Not long after the brief reconnoissance with General Sherman, Major John H. Hammond, his assistant adjutant-general, came to the front, and said that he had just come from General Sherman, and would give me his exact words: “Tell Morgan to give the signal for the assault; that we will lose 5000 men before we take Vicksburg, and may as well lose them here as anywhere

Lieutenant-General S. D. Lee, C. S. A. From a photograph.

else.” I told him to say to General Sherman that I would order the assault; that we might lose 5000 men, but that his entire army could not carry the enemy's position in my front; that the larger the force sent to the assault, the greater would be the number slaughtered.

I sent orders to Blair and De Courcy to form their brigades, and a request to Steele to send me another brigade for the assault. Just then Colonel De Courcy, who was an officer of skill and experience, approached and said: “General, do I understand that you are about to order an assault? .” To which I replied, “Yes; form your brigade!” With an air of respectful protest he said: “My poor brigade! Your order will be obeyed, General.”

Blair was between the bayou and Thompson's Lake. The bayou was on his right; but at a short distance in advance it abruptly turned to the left, in his front. The brigade of De Courcy was massed from the abatis, across the road or causeway, and fronting the corduroy bridge; and I directed Thayer to support De Courcy, and indicated the point to assault. Thayer's brigade [468] was now composed of five regiments--one being absent on detached duty — and a battery of artillery which did good service, though it did not cross the bayou. It was my intention to make the assault with the brigades of Blair, Thayer, and De Courcy, while Lindsey and Sheldon, by threatening to bridge McNutt Lake, would prevent the enemy (under Barton) from reenforcing Lee. By some misunderstanding — a fortunate one, I think, as it turned out--four of Thayer's regiments diverged to the right, leaving only one regiment, the 4th Iowa, with him in the assault.

The signal volley was fired, and with a wild shout the troops of De Courcy, Thayer, and Blair advanced to the assault. As soon as the corduroy bridge was reached by De Courcy and Thayer, and the bayou to the left by Blair, the assaulting forces came under a withering and destructive fire. A passage was forced over the abatis and through the mucky bayou and tangled marsh to dry ground. All formations were broken; the assaulting forces were jammed together, and, with a yell of desperate determination, they rushed to the assault and were mowed down by a storm of shells, grape and canister, and minie-balls which swept our front like a hurricane of fire. Never did troops bear themselves with greater intrepidity. They were terribly repulsed but not beaten. There was neither rout nor panic, but our troops fell back slowly and angrily to our own line, halted, re-formed, and, if ordered, would again have rushed to the assault.

As in all cases of repulse or defeat, contention and crimination have arisen as to the cause of the disaster. Sherman, in his report,4 and Grant, in his “Memoirs,” 5 give a satisfactory cause — the true one in my opinion — the impregnable position of the enemy. Sherman says, in his “Memoirs,” Vol. I., p. 292:

Had he [General Morgan] used with skill and boldness one of his brigades, in addition to that of Blair, he could have made a lodgment on the bluff, which would have opened a door for our whole force to follow.

The fact is that, beside the four regiments of Blair's brigade, the attacking forces included four regiments led by De Courcy and one by Thayer.

General Sherman also says, in his “Memoirs,” that

one brigade (De Courcy's), of Morgan's troops, crossed the bayou, but took to cover behind the bank, and could not be moved forward.

In fact, all the troops behaved gallantly, and the assault was as valiant as it was hopeless. Each of De Courcy's regiments brought back its colors, or what remained of them. The flag of the 16th Ohio was torn into shreds by the explosion of a shell in its very center, but the shreds were brought back adhering to the staff.

The losses speak for themselves. De Courcy had 48 killed, 321 wounded, and 355 missing; Blair, 99 killed, 331 wounded, 173 missing; Thayer (in the 4th Iowa), 7 killed, 105 wounded: total, for the 9 regiments engaged, 154 killed, 757 wounded, 528 missing,--in all, 1439. In Sherman's whole command the loss was 208 killed, 1005 wounded, 563 missing,--aggregate, 1776. [469]

The Confederates report 63 killed, 134 wounded, 10 missing,--aggregate, 207.

Shortly after De Courcy had returned to his command, General Blair came. He said that De Courcy's brigade had behaved badly. At the time I did not know the relative loss of the two brigades, but I did know that each of them, as well as Thayer's, had made a superb assault, and that the enemy's position was impregnable.

Blair did not refer to the matter in his report; but Thayer says in his:

“I found myself within the enemy's works, with one regiment. I then went back to the intrenchments, where I had seen, as we went over, a regiment of our troops lying in the ditch, entirely protected from the rebel fire. I ordered and begged them, but without effect, to come forward and support my regiment, which was now warmly engaged. I do not know what regiment it was.” (The italics are mine.--G. W. M.)

Major-General Dabney H. Maury, C. S. A. From a photograph.

But on August 30th, 1887, twenty-four years and eight months after the date of his report, in a letter to me, Thayer says:

De Courcy and his brigade on that day made no assault whatever, unless against the outside rifle-pits, and were not repulsed. They got into the enemy's rifle-pits, and there remained.

That Thayer and the 4th Iowa behaved gallantly is certain; that had his other regiments been with him they would have borne themselves with equal intrepidity is not less so; but that the statements of himself and Blair do injustice to De Courcy is shown by the fact that the loss of De Courcy's brigade was greater than that sustained by the brigades of Blair and Thayer together.

After it was determined that the assault was not to be renewed, I repaired to General Sherman's headquarters and found him alone, pacing backward and forward with restless strides. In brief terms I described the assault and the repulse, and suggested that a flag be sent to the enemy asking for an armistice of sufficient length to bring in our wounded and bury our dead. This was on the afternoon of the 29th of December.

In reply to my suggestion General Sherman said he did not like to ask for a truce, as it would be regarded as an admission of defeat. To this I replied that we had been terribly cut up, but were not dishonored; that the bearing of our troops was superb, and we held every foot of our own ground; but that our dead and wounded covered the field and could only be reached by a flag. He determined not to ask for a truce. However, at about dusk I was told that General Sherman had said that he had authorized me to send a flag to the enemy, and I immediately addressed a note “to the general [470] commanding the Confederate forces on Chickasaw Bluff,” asking for a truce. In the meantime it had become so dark that the flag could not be seen, and the escort was fired upon and driven back. The next morning, December 30th, I sent another flag, with a note explaining the misadventure of the previous evening, when a truce was promptly granted and all of our wounded that had not been carried into the Confederate lines as prisoners, and our dead, were at once brought within our lines.

It has been charged that the enemy on the field of Chickasaw stripped our dead of their clothing. The charge is unjust and should not go into history. I saw our dead as they were brought in; all were in their uniforms; nor did I ever hear of such a charge till long years after the war.

In his report of the battle General Sherman says:6

General Morgan's first report to me was that the troops were not discouraged at all, though the losses in the brigades of Blair and De Courcy were heavy, and he would renew the assault in half an hour; but the assault was not again attempted.

But in his “Memoirs” General Sherman says:7

At first I intended to renew the assault, but soon became satisfied that the enemy's attention having been drawn to the only two practicable points, it would prove too costly, and accordingly resolved to look elsewhere, below Haynes's Bluff or Blake's Plantation.

While the blood was yet fresh upon the field, McClernand arrived, assumed command, and divided the army into two army corps, one commanded by Major-General W. T. Sherman, and the other by Brigadier-General George W. Morgan.

General Pemberton's report of the defense, on the 29th, is as follows:

On the 29th, about 9 o'clock, the enemy was discovered in his attempt to throw a pontoon-bridge across the lake. In this he was foiled by a few well-directed shots from a section each of Wofford's and Ward's batteries, that of the latter commanded by Lieutenant Tarleton.

About 10 o'clock a furious cannonade was opened on General Lee's lines. This ceased about 11 o'clock, when a whole brigade — about six thousand strong, understood to have been Brigadier-General [F. P.] Blair's, though not led by him in person — emerged from the woods in good order and moved gallantly forward under a heavy fire of our artillery. They advanced to within 150 yards of the pits when they broke and retreated, but soon rallied, and dividing their forces sent a portion to their right, which was gallantly driven back by the 28th Louisiana and 42d Georgia regiments with heavy loss. Their attack in front was repulsed with still greater disasters. By a handsome movement on the enemy's flank the 26th and part of the 17th Louisiana threw the enemy into inextricable confusion, and were so fortunate as to capture 4 stand of regimental colors, 21 commissioned officers, 311 noncommissioned officers and privates, and 500 stand of arms. The 3d, 30th, and 80th Tennessee regiments occupied the rifle-pits in front and behaved with distinguished coolness and courage.

During this assault upon the right the enemy in force was endeavoring to carry our center, commanded by General Barton, by storm. Five resolute efforts were made to carry our breast-works and were as often repulsed with heavy loss. Three times he succeeded in mounting the parapet, and once made a lodgment and attempted to mine. The 52d Georgia, Colonel [C. D.] Phillips, reenforced Colonel Morrison's and Colonel Abda Johnson's regiments early in the day. These troops and the line of skirmishers, formed of companies from the 40th and 42d Georgia, behaved with distinguished courage and steadiness throughout. At this point the enemy did not give up his attack until nightfall.

1 “Memoirs of General William T. Sherman. By himself.” Vol. I., p. 285. (New York: D. Appleton & Co.)

2 As to this interview, General Sherman and myself are at variance. He states that he gave me an order to lead the assault in person, and that I replied I would be on the top of those hills in ten minutes after the signal for the assault was given. I am positive that no such order was given; nor was there such an understanding. A well-mounted horseman, unobstructed by an enemy, could not have reached the top of those hills in double that length of time. The circumstances of the occasion must decide between us.

G. W. M.

3Official Records,” Vol. XVII., Part I., p. 652.

4Official Records,” Vol. XVII., Part I., p. 610.

5 “Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant” (C. L. Webster & Co.), Vol. I., p. 437.

6Official Records,” Vol. XVII., Part I., p. 608.

7 “ Memoirs of W. T. Sherman” (D. Appleton & Co.), Vol. I., p. 292.

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