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Chapter 5:

  • Chickasaw Bayou
  • -- plunging an Army through deep swamps against impregnable bluffs.

The attack upon Vicksburg from the Yazoo River and Chickasaw Bayou in December, 1862, was under the sole direction of General Sherman.

The movement had been proposed by General Grant on the 4th of December, and the approval of the plan telegraphed by Halleck on the 5th. On the 8th Grant telegraphed that Sherman would be in command of the river expedition. To this Halleck replied:

War Department, Washington, December 9, 1862.
Major-General Grant, Oxford, Miss.
* * * * The President may insist upon designating a separate commander, if not, assign such officers as you may deem best. Sherman would be my choice as the chief, under you.

H. W. Halleck, General-in-Chief.

After General Sherman left Memphis and before his expedition failed, the President had acted as General Halleck surmised. The following telegram upon that point will also show from its date, that the subsequent removal of General Sherman had no connection with his failure:

War Department, Washington, December 18, 1862.
Major-General Grant, Oxford, Miss.
* * * * It is the wish of the President that General McClernand's corps shall constitute a part of the river expedition, and that he shall have the immediate command, under your direction.

H. W. Halleck, General-in-Chief.

This campaign was the first after Shiloh, where General Sherman was entrusted with great responsibilities. General [55] Grant's order assigning him to the command, left both the details of the preparations and the plans of the movement entirely in his hands, as will appear from the first paragraph of that order:

headquarters Thirteenth Army Corps, Department of the Tennessee, Oxford, Miss., December 8, 1862.
Major-Gen. W. T. Sherman, commanding Right Wing Army in the Field, present.
General: You will proceed with as little delay as practicable to Memphis, Tennessee, taking with you one division of your present command. On your arrival at Memphis you will assume command of all the troops there, and that portion of General Curtis' forces at present east of the Mississippi River, and organize them into brigades and divisions in your own way.

As soon as possible move with them down the river to the vicinity of Vicksburg, and with the cooperation of the gun-boat fleet under command of Flag-Officer Porter, proceed to the reduction of that place in such manner as circumstances and your own judgment may dictate. * * * *

U. S. Grant, Major-General.

On the same day Grant telegraphed to Halleck: ‘General Sherman will command the expedition down the Mississippi. He will have a force of about forty thousand men.’

On the 22d of December this army rendezvoused at Friar's Point, ready to move up the Yazoo River to the rear of Vicksburg., On the 27th, the four divisions, Steele's, M. L. Smith's, Morgan's, and A. J. Smith's, aggregating over forty-two thousand men, were landed in front of the bluffs over-looking the swamps through which ran Chickasaw Bayou. To flounder through this boggy low land, cross the bayou, and storm the heights beyond, was the task Sherman laid out for his army. It was his first attempt to command more than a division in action, and he had not before directed a battle. Though the rebels had been reenforced in consequence of the failure of Grant's cooperative movement from Holly Springs, they were still far inferior in numbers to Sherman's army. Their position, however, was impregnable. The high bluffs were strengthened from base to summit with rifle-pits and heavier parapets, and to assault seemed madness then to many of the officers, and appears so still when all the facts can be [56] coolly considered. But Sherman decided upon this manner of attack, and forty thousand men were moved through bogs and bayous to assault a position of which he now says in his Memoirs:

‘The men of the Sixth Missouri actually scooped out with their hands caves in the bank, which sheltered them against the fire of the enemy, who, right over their heads, held their muskets outside the parapet vertically and fired down.’

Extracts from General Sherman's own account show the nature and difficulties of the ground, and the character of the whole attack:

The place of our disembarkation was, in fact, an island, separated from the high bluff known as Walnut Hills, on which the town of Vicksburg stands, by a broad and shallow bayou—evidently an old channel of the Yazoo. On our right was another wide bayou known as Old River, and on the left still another, much narrower, but too deep to be forded, known as Chickasaw Bayou. All the island was densely wooded, except Johnson's plantation, immediately on the bank of the Yazoo, and a series of old cotton-fields along Chickasaw Bayou. There was a road from Johnson's plantation directly to Vicksburg, but it crossed numerous bayous and deep swamps by bridges, which had been destroyed; and this road debouched on level ground at the foot of the Vicksburg bluff, opposite strong forts well prepared and defended by heavy artillery. On this road I directed General A. J. Smith's division, not so much by way of a direct attack as a diversion and threat.

Morgan was to move to his left to reach Chickasaw Bayou, and to follow it toward the bluff; about four miles above A. J. Smith. Steele was on Morgan's left across Chickasaw Bayou, and M. L. Smith on Morgan's right. We met light resistance at all points, but skirmished on the 27th up to the main bayou that separated our position from the bluffs of Vicksburg, which were found to be strong by nature and by art, and seemingly well defended. On reconnoitering the front in person, during the 27th and 28th, 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, and that the main bayou was impassable, except at two points—one near the head of Chickasaw Bayou, in front of Morgan, and the other about a mile lower down, in front of M. L. Smith's division.

During the general reconnoissance of the 28th, General Morgan L. Smith received a severe and dangerous wound in his hip, which completely disabled him and compelled him to go to his steamboat, leaving the command of his division to Brigadier-General D. Stuart; but I drew a part of General A. J. [57] Smith's division, and that General himself, to the point selected for passing the bayou, and committed that special task to his management.

General Steele reported that it was physically impossible to reach the bluffs from his position, so I ordered him to leave but a show of force there, and to return to the west side of Chickasaw Bayou in support of General Morgan's left. He had to countermarch and use the steamboats in the Yazoo to get on the firm ground on our side of the Chickasaw.

On the morning of December 29th all the troops were ready and in position. The first step was to make a lodgment on the foot-hills and bluffs abreast of our position, while diversions were made by the navy toward Haines' Bluff, and by the first division directly toward Vicksburg. I estimated the enemy's forces, then strung from Vickburg to Haines' Bluff, at fifteen thousand men, commanded by the rebel Generals Martin Luther Smith and Stephen D. Lee. Aiming to reach firm ground beyond this bayou, and to leave as little time for our enemy to reenforce as possible, I determined to make a show of attack along the whole front, but to break across the bayou at the two points named, and gave general orders accordingly. I pointed out to General Morgan the place where he could pass the bayou; and he answered, “General, in ten minutes after you give the signal I'll be on those hills.” He was to lead his division in person, and was to be supported by Steele's division. The front was very narrow, and immediately opposite, at the base of the hills, about three hundred yards from the bayou, was a rebel battery, supported by an infantry force posted on the spurs of the hill behind. To draw attention from this, the real point of attack, I gave instructions to commence the attack at the flanks.

I went in person about a mile to the right-rear of Morgan's position, at a place convenient to receive reports from all other parts of the line, and about noon of December 29th gave the orders and signal for the main attack. A heavy artillery fire opened along our whole line, and was replied to by the rebel batteries, and soon the infantry fire opened heavily, especially on A. J. Smith's front and in front of General George W. Morgan. One brigade (DeCourcey's) of Morgan's troops crossed the bayou safely, but took to cover behind the bank, and could not be moved forward. Frank Blair's brigade, of Steele's division, in support, also crossed the bayou, passed over the space of level ground to the foot of the hills; but, being unsupported by Morgan, and meeting a very severe cross-fire of artillery, was staggered, and gradually fell back, leaving about five hundred men behind wounded and prisoners, among them Colonel Thomas Fletcher, afterward Governor of Missouri. Thayer's brigade, of Steele's division, took a wrong direction, and did not cross the bayou at all, nor did General Morgan cross in person. This attack failed, and I have always felt that it was due to the failure of General G. W. Morgan to obey his orders, or to fulfill his promise made in person. Had he used with skill and boldness one of his brigades, in addition to that of Blair's, he could have made a lodgment on the bluff, which would have opened the door for our whole force to follow. Meantime the Sixth Missouri Infantry, [58] at heavy loss, had also crossed the bayou at the narrow passage lower down, but could not ascend the steep bank; right over their heads was a rebel battery, whose fire was in a measure kept down by our sharp-shooters (Thirteenth United States Infantry), posted behind logs, stumps, and trees, on our side of the bayou.

‘The men of the Sixth Missouri actually scooped out with their hands caves in the bank, which sheltered them against the fire of the enemy, who, right over their heads, held their muskets outside the parapet vertically and fired down. So critical was the position that we could not recall the men till after dark, and then one at a time. Our loss had been pretty heavy, and we had accomplished nothing, and had inflicted little loss on our enemy. 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 for a point below Haines' Bluff, or Blake's plantation.’ * * * *

Two succeeding efforts to secure a new position from which to attack failed, and two days afterward, as Pemberton was moving reenforcements into Vicksburg and out to Sherman's front, the expedition was abandoned, with a total loss of about two thousand men in killed and wounded. On returning to the mouth of the Yazoo, Sherman found McClernand there with orders to relieve him.

He thus concludes his account:

‘Still my relief, on the heels of a failure, raised the usual cry at the North of “repulse, failure, and bungling.” There was no bungling on my part, for I never worked harder, or with more intensity of purpose in my life; and General Grant, long after, in his report of the operations of the siege of Vicksburg, gave us all full credit for the skill of the movement, and described the almost impregnable nature of the ground; and although in all my official reports I assumed the whole responsibility, I have ever felt that, had General Morgan promptly and skillfully sustained the lead of Frank Blair's brigade on that day, we should have broken the rebel line, and effected a lodgment on the hills behind Vicksburg. General Frank Blair was outspoken and indignant against Generals Morgan and DeCourcey at the time, and always abused me for assuming the whole blame. But had we succeeded, we might have found ourselves in a worse trap, when General Pemberton was at full liberty to turn his whole force against us.’

And so, according to General Sherman himself, bad as the assault at Chickasaw Bayou turned out to be, success [59] might have proved still worse. But had an army of forty-two thousand men gained a position in rear of Vicksburg, it might, with the cooperation of the gun-boats, have held its own against Pemberton and all the forces he then could bring.

No amount of blame distributed among division commanders can conceal the recklessness with which an army was pushed through swamps and bayous against inaccessible bluffs, and the best answers to all Sherman's unjust attacks upon officers who fought with him there, are found in his own report of the action:

headquarters right wing Thirteenth Army Corps, camp, Milliken's Bend, La., January 3, 1863.
Colonel J. H. Rawlins, Assistant Adjutant-General to Major-General Grant, Oxford, Miss., at last reliable accounts.
Sir: * * * * As soon as we reached the point of debarkation DeCourcey's, Stuart's, and Blair's brigades were sent forward in the direction of Vicksburg about three miles, and on the 27th the whole army was disembarked and moved out in four columns: Steele's above the mouth of Chickasaw Bayou; Morgan, with Blair's brigade of Steele's division, below the same bayou; Morgan L. Smith on the main road from Johnson's plantation to Vicksburg, with orders to bear to his left, so as to strike the bayou about a mile south of where Morgan was ordered to cross it; and A. J. Smith's division keeping on the main road. All the heads of columns met the enemy's pickets and drove them toward Vicksburg. During the night of the 27th the ground was reconnoitered as well as possible, and it was found as difficult as it could possibly be from nature and art. Immediately in our front was a bayou, passable only at two points, on a narrow levee, or a sand bar, which was perfectly commanded by the enemy's sharp-shooters that lined the levee, or parapet, on its opposite bank.

Behind this was an irregular strip of bench, or table-land, on which were constructed a series of rifle pits and batteries, and behind that a high, abrupt range of hills, whose scarred sides were marked all the way up with rifle trenches, and the crowns of the principal hills presented heavy batteries.

The county road, leading from Vicksburg to Yazoo City, runs along the foot of these hills, and answered an admirable purpose to the enemy as a covered way, along which he moved his artillery and infantry promptly to meet us at any point at which we attempted to pass this difficult bayou. Nevertheless that bayou, with its levee parapets, backed by the lines of rifle pits, batteries, and frowning hills, had to be passed before we could reach terra firma, and meet our enemy on any thing like fair terms.

Steele, in his progress, followed substantially an old levee back from the Yazoo to the foot of the hills north of Thompson's Lake, but found that, in [60] order to reach the hard land, he would have to cross a long corduroy cause-way, with a battery enfilading it, others cross-firing it, with a similar line of rifle pits and trenches before decribed. He skirmished with the enemy on the morning of the 28th, whilst the other columns were similarly engaged, but on close and critical examination of the swamp and causeway in front, with the batteries and rifle pits well manned, he came to the conclusion that it was impossible for him to reach the county road without a fearful sacrifice. As soon as he reported this to me officially, and that he could not cross over from his position to the one occupied by our center, I ordered him to retrace his steps and cross back in steamboats to the south-west side of Chickasaw Bayou, and to support General Morgan, which he accomplished during the night of the 28th, arriving in time to support him and take part in the assault of the 29th.

General Morgan's division was evidently on the best of all existing roads from Yazoo River to the firm land. He had attached to his train the pontoons with which to make a bridge, in addition to the ford, or crossing, which I knew was in his front, the same by which the enemy's pickets had retreated. This pontoon bridge was, during the night, placed across a bayou supposed to be the main bayou, but which turned out to be an inferior one, and it was, therefore, useless; but the natural crossing remained, and I ordered him to cross over with his division, and carry the line of works to the summit of the hill by a determined assault. On the 28th a heavy fog, during the early part of the day, enveloped the whole country, but General Morgan advanced DeCourcey's brigade and engaged the enemy. Heavy firing of artillery and infantry were sustained, and his column moved on until he encountered the real bayou. This again checked his progress, and was not passed until the next day.

At the point where Morgan L. Smith's division reached the bayou was a narrow sand spit, with abattis thrown down by the enemy on our side, with the same deep and boggy bayou, with its levee parapet, and system of cross batteries and rifle pits on the other side, To pass it by the flank would have been utter destruction, for the head of column would have been swept away as fast as it presented itself above the steep bank. General M. L. Smith, whilst reconnoitering it early on the morning of the 28th, was, during the heavy fog, shot in the hip by a chance rifle bullet, which disabled him, and lost to me one of my best and most daring leaders, and to the Unites States the services of a practical soldier and enthusiastic patriot. I can not exaggerate the loss to me personally and officially of General Morgan L. Smith at that critical moment. His wound in the hip disabled him, and he was sent to the boat. General D. Stuart succeeded to his place and to the execution of his orders. General Stuart studied the nature of the ground in his front and saw all its difficulties, but made the best possible disposition to pass over his division, the Second, whenever he heard General Morgan engaged.

To his right, General A. J. Smith had placed Burbridge's brigade of his division next to Stuart, with orders to make rafts and cross over a portion of [61] his men; to dispose his artillery so as to fire at the enemy across the bayou, and produce the effect of a diversion. His other brigade, Landrum's, occupied a key position on the main road, with pickets and supports pushed well forward into the tangled abattis, within three-fourths of a mile of the enemy's forts, and in plain view of the city of Vicksburg.

Our boats still lay at our place of debarkation, covered by the gun-boats and by four regiments of infantry, one of each division. Such was the disposition of our forces during the night of the 28th.

The enemy's right was a series of batteries or forts, seven miles above us on the Yazoo, at the first bluff, near Snyder's house, called Drumgould's Bluff; his left, the fortified city of Vicksburg; and his line connecting these was near fourteen miles in extent, and was a natural fortification, strengthened by a year's labor of thousands of negroes, directed by educated and skilled officers.

My plan was by a prompt and concentrated movement to break the center, near Chickasaw Creek, at the head of a bayou of the same name; and once in position to turn to the right (Vicksburg), or left (Drumgould's Bluff), according to information then obtained. I supposed their organized forces to amount to about fifteen thousand, which could be reenforced at the rate of about four thousand a day, provided General Grant did not occupy all the attention of Pemberton's forces at Grenada, or Rosecrans those of Bragg in Tennessee. Not one word could I hear from General Grant, who was supposed to be pushing south, or of General Banks, supposed to be ascending the Mississippi.

Time being every thing to us, I determined to assault the hills in front of Morgan on the morning of the 29th; Morgan's division to carry the position of the hills, Steele's division to support him and hold the county road. I had placed General A. J. Smith in command of his own division (First) and that of M. L. Smith (Second), with orders to cross on the sand spit, undermine the steep bank of the bayou on the further side, and carry at all events the levee parapets and first line of rifle pits to prevent a concentration on Morgan.

It was near twelve o'clock (noon) when Morgan was ready, by which time Blair's and Thayer's brigades of Steele's division were up with him and took part in the assault, and Hovey's brigade was close at hand. All the troops were massed as close as possible, and all our supports were well in hand.

The assault was made and a lodgment effected on the hard table-land near the county road, and the heads of the assaulting columns reached different points of the enemy's works, but then met so withering a fire from the rifle pits and cross-fire of grape and canister from the batteries, that the columns faltered and finally fell back to the point of starting, leading many dead, wounded, and prisoners in the hands of enemy.

For a more perfect understanding of this short and desperate struggle I refer to the reports of Generals Morgan, Blair, Steele, and others inclosed.

General Morgan's first report to me was that the troops were not discouraged at all, though the losses in Blair's and DeCourcey's brigades were heavy, [62] and he would renew the assault in half an hour; but the assault was not again attempted.

I urged General A. J. Smith to push his attack, though it had to be made across a narrow sand bar, and up a narrow path in the nature of a ‘breach,’ as a diversion in favor of Morgan, or real attack, according to its success.

During Morgan's progress he passed over the Sixth Missouri under circumstances that called for all the individual courage for which that admirable regiment is justly famous. Its crossing was covered by the United States regulars deployed as skirmishers up to the near bank of the bayou, covered as well as possible by fallen trees, and firing at any of the enemy's sharp-shooters that showed a mark above the levee.

Before this crossing all the ground opposite was completely swept by our artillery, under the immediate supervision of Major Taylor, Chief of Artillery.

The Sixth Missouri crossed over rapidly by companies, and lay under the bank of the bayou, with the enemy's sharp-shooters over their heads within a few feet, so near that these sharp-shooters held out their muskets and fired down vertically upon our men.

The orders were to undermine this bank and make a road up it, but it was impossible; and after the repulse of Morgan's assault I ordered General A. J. Smith to retire this regiment under cover of darkness, which was successfully done. Their loss was heavy, but I leave to the brigade and division commanders to give names and exact figures.

Whilst this was going on Burbridge was skirmishing across the bayou at his front, and Landrum pushed his advance through the close abattis or entanglement of fallen timber close up to Vicksburg.

When the night of the 29th closed in we stood upon our original ground, and had suffered a repulse. The effort was necessary to a successful accomplishment of my orders, and the combinations were the best possible under the circumstances.

I assume all the responsibility and attach fault to no one, and am generally satisfied with the high spirit manifested by all * * * * *

The naval squadron, Admiral Porter, now holds command of the Mississippi to Vicksburg and the Yazoo up to Drumgould's Bluff, both of which points must in time be reduced to our possession, but it is for other minds than mine to devise the way.

The officers and men comprising my command are in good spirits, disappointed of course at our want of success, but by no means discouraged. We reembarked our whole command in the sight of the enemy's batteries and army unopposed, remaining in full view a whole day, and then deliberately moved to Milliken's Bend.

I attribute our failure to the strength of the enemy's position, both natural and artificial, and not to his superior fighting; but, as we must all in the future have ample opportunities to test this quality, it is foolish to discuss it.

I will transmit with this detailed reports of division and brigade [63] commanders, with statements of killed, wounded, and prisoners, and names as far as can be obtained.

The only real fighting was during the assault by Morgan's and Steele's divisions, and at the time of crossing the Sixth Missouri, during the afternoon of December 29th, by the Second Division.

Picket skirmishing and rifle practice across Chickasaw Bayou was constant for four days. This cost us the lives of several valuable officers and men, and many wounded. I have the honor to be,

Your obedient servant,

W. T. Sherman, Major-General commanding.

Accompanying this report is a list of casualties, which shows the following losses of each division:

A. J. Smith's11......
M. L. Smith's 261036
George W. Morgan's62447386
F. Steele's102431364
Total 191982756

An aggregate of nineteen hundred and twenty-nine, concerning which General Sherman made the following indorsement:

‘My belief is that, of the missing, four hundred were taken prisoners after reaching the enemy's trenches, and the remainder will turn up on boats not their own.’

From this report of General Sherman's it will be seen that the very divisions to which he now attributes his failure and upon whose commanders he visits severe censure, were the identical troops and officers he reported at the time as having done his hardest fighting, and accomplished every thing it was possible to perform.

The reports of these division commanders, whom he then commended, in turn relieve the brigade officers he now abuses from the blame he attempts to fix upon them, and show that the conduct of Generals Morgan, DeCourcey, and Thayer, and the fighting of their troops were such as should have commanded high praise, even from General Sherman. [64]

Immediately after this action General George Morgan was assigned to an equal command with General Sherman, namely, that of the First Corps, Army of the Mississippi, Sherman taking the Second Corps, while General McClernand succeeded him in command of the army.

It would be difficult to find material for more severe criticisms of the statements made in the Memoirs, concerning the failure at Chickasaw Bayou, than is contained in this report of Sherman's, written when the facts were vividly present to his mind.

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