previous next

Chapter 8:

  • Land defences of Vicksburg
  • -- Johnston orders Pemberton to evacuate -- Pemberton determines to hold out -- position of Grant's army on 19th of May -- partial and unsuccessful assault -- rebels recover their spirit -- national troops rested and supplies brought up -- orders for a general assault on the 22d -- reasons for this assault -- mortar bombardment -- heavy cannonade on land front -- Sherman assaults with Blair and Steele's divisions -- troops reach the parapet, but are repelled -- Ransom's assault -- difficult nature of the ground -- failure of McPherson's attempt -- McClernand's assault determined and gallant, but completely repelled -- distinguished bravery of individuals -- failure of assault all along the line -- McClernand's dispatches -- Grant's replies -- renewal of the assault -- Second failure -- Grant's position during the assault -- renewed dispatches from McClernand -- Reenforcements sent to McClernand -- death of Boomer -- results of the assault -- comparison with assaults in European wars.

The ground on which the city of Vicksburg stands is supposed by some to have been originally a plateau, four or five miles long and about two miles wide, and two or three hundred feet above the Mississippi river.1 This plateau has been gradually washed away by rains and streams, until it is transformed into a labyrinth of sharp ridges and deep irregular ravines. The soil is fine, and when cut vertically [297] by the action of the water, remains in a perpendicular position for years; and the smaller and newer ravines are often so deep that their ascent is difficult to a footman, unless he aids himself with his hands. The sides of the declivities are thickly wooded, and the bottoms of the ravines never level, except when the streams that formed them have been unusually large.

At Vicksburg, the Mississippi runs a little west of south, and all the streams that enter it from the east run southwest. One of these empties into the river five miles below the city, and the dividing ridge that separates two of its branches was that on which the rebel line, east of Vicksburg, was built. On the northern side of the town, the line also ran along a dividing ridge, between two small streams that enter the Mississippi just above Vicksburg: these ridges are generally higher than any ground in their vicinity. Leaving the Mississippi on the northern side of Vicksburg, where the bluffs strike the river, the line stretched back two miles into the interior, crossed the valleys of two small streams, and reached the river again below, at a point where the bluff falls back from the Mississippi nearly a mile. Here, the works followed the bluff up the river for a mile or more, so as to give fire towards the south on any troops that might attempt an attack from that direction, by moving along the bottom-land between the bluff and the Mississippi.

The whole line was between seven and eight miles long, exclusive of the four miles of rifle-trench and heavy batteries on the water-front. It consisted of a series of detached works, on prominent and commanding points, connected by a continuous line of [298] trench or rifle-pit. The works were necessarily irregular, from the shape of the ridges on which they were situated, and, in only one instance, closed at the gorge. They were placed at distances of from seventy-five to five hundred yards from each other. The connecting rifle-pit was simple, and generally about breast-high. The ravines were the only ditches, except in front of the detached works, but no others were needed, trees being felled in front of the whole line, and forming, in many places, entanglements which, under fire, were absolutely impassable. In military parlance, Vicksburg was rather an intrenched camp than a fortified place, owing much of its extraordinary strength to the difficult nature of the ground, which rendered rapidity of movement and unity of effort in an assault, impossible.

North of the Jackson road, the hills are higher, and covered with a denser growth of timber, and here, in consequence, the enemy had been able to make his line exceedingly strong, and difficult of approach. But, from the Jackson road to the river, on the south, the country was cleared and cultivated; the ridges also were lower, and the slopes more gentle, though the ground was still rough and entirely unfitted for any united tactical movement. What the enemy lacked on this side, in natural defences, he had supplied by giving increased strength to his works. The whole aspect of the rugged fastness, bristling with bayonets, and crowned with artillery that swept the narrow defiles in every direction, was calculated to inspire new courage in those who came thronging into its recesses and behind its bulwarks, from their succession of disasters in the open field. [299] Here, too, were at least eight thousand fresh troops, who as yet had suffered none of the demoralization of defeat; and, with his thirty thousand men, and nearly two hundred cannon, the rebel leader thought himself well able to stand a siege. If he had sup. plies enough to feed his army, he could surely hold out till another force, under Johnston, could be collected for his relief.

But, as soon as Johnston learned that Pemberton had been driven into Vicksburg, he dispatched to that commander: ‘If Haine's bluff be untenable, Vicksburg is of no value, and cannot be held. If, therefore, you are invested at Vicksburg, you must ultimately surrender. Under such circumstances, instead of losing both troops and place, you must, if possible, save the troops. If it is not too late, evacuate Vicksburg and its dependencies, and march to the northeast.’ This order reached Pemberton on the 18th of May, while Grant was still advancing on the Jackson road. Pemberton, as usual, called a council of war, to deliberate on the propriety of obedience. The council was composed of all his general officers, and their opinion was unanimous, that ‘to withdraw from Vicksburg, with such morale and materiel, as to be of further service to the Confederacy, would be impossible.’ Before the council broke up, the guns of the advancing army were heard, as they opened on the works of Vicksburg, and reports came in, that Grant's troops were crossing the Yazoo river, above Haine's bluff. Pemberton at once replied to his commander: ‘I have decided to hold Vicksburg as long as possible, with the firm hope that the government may yet be able to assist me in keeping this obstruction to the enemy's [300] free navigation of the Mississippi.’ He was determined to be besieged.

Pemberton was now, according to his own statement, able to bring into the trenches eighteen thousand five hundred muskets; from these, however, his reserves were to be deducted, which, he said, would reduce the force in the trenches to fifteen thousand five hundred men.2 Stevenson was put on the right, his troops reaching from the Warrenton road to the railroad, a distance of nearly five miles; Forney had the line between the railroad and the Graveyard road; and Smith, with his own troops, and some remnants of Loring's fugitive command that had straggled back into Vicksburg, had the extreme left, from the Graveyard road to the river on the north. Bowen was held in reserve, ready to strengthen any portion of the line most threatened. In addition to the guns on the water-front, one hundred and two pieces of artillery of different calibre, principally field, were placed in position on the land side, and details of men were set to work strengthening the fortifications. All cattle, sheep, and hogs belonging to private parties, as far as Bovina, had been driven into the works several days before, and all corn on the road also collected. ‘With proper economy of subsistence and ordnance stores,’ said Pemberton, ‘I knew I could stand a siege.’

The steep hills and deep gullies in the rear of Vicksburg extended beyond the rebel fortifications and into the region occupied by Grant. The stiff [301] hard clay of which the soil is composed was much cut up by the wash of streams, and covered with as dense a forest, here, as inside the works; the valleys were filled with cane and willow, and accessible only by two or three tolerable roads. In the dry season, which was now approaching, water is very scarce, and found only in pools or ponds made by damming up the little gullies. It was through this broken country, and across these wooded cliffs and rugged chasms, that the national line was formed. Sherman's corps was on the right, McPherson had the centre, and McClernand the left of the command. On the northern and eastern sides of the city, the investment was complete, but the line did not reach to the river again on the south, there being more ground along McClernand's front than he had troops to cover it with. The investment was made close on the northern rather than the southern side, in order to prevent any junction between Johnston's army and the garrison, before Grant could make an assault, as well as to cover the new base of supplies at Chickasaw bayou. Grant had, at this time, about thirty thousand men in line.

The troops were buoyant with success and eager for an assault, and their commander believed himself justified in an attempt to carry the works by storm. The conduct of the rebel army at the Big Black bridge, and the precipitate flight into Vicksburg afterwards, had sufficiently proved the demoralization of his antagonists; he also underestimated Pemberton's numbers, supposing them to be about twelve thousand or fifteen thousand effective men. Accordingly, on the first day of the investment, the 19th of May, Grant ordered his corps commanders to [302] ‘push forward carefully, and gain positions as close as possible to the enemy's works, until two o'clock P. M.; at that hour, they will fire three volleys of artillery from all the pieces in position. This will be the signal for a general charge along the whole line.’

There was slight skirmishing on various parts of the line from early morning, and everywhere the troops were deployed and put into position; on the right, important ground was gained, and Sherman moved forward Blair's division on the right and left of the road leading to the enemy's intrenchments, disposing his artillery so as to cover the point where the fortifications were to be entered. At the appointed hour, Blair advanced in line, but the ground on both sides of the road was so impracticable, cut up in deep chasms, and filled with standing and fallen timber, that it was impossible for the assaulting parties to reach the trenches in any thing like an organized condition. The Thirteenth United States infantry was the first to strike the works, and planted its colors on the exterior slope; its commander, Captain Washington, was mortally wounded, and seventy-seven men out of two hundred and fifty, were either killed or wounded. Two volunteer regiments reached the same position nearly as soon, and held their ground, firing upon every head that presented itself above the parapet, but failed to effect a lodgment or even penetrate the line. Other troops also gained positions on the right and left, close to the parapet, but got no further than the counterscarp. The rebel fire was hot, and the national loss severe. Steele's division, on Sherman's extreme right, was not close enough to attack the main line, but carried a number of outworks and captured a few prisoners. [303]

McPherson had arrived in front of Vicksburg after nightfall of the 18th, bivouacking on the road; but, early on the 19th, he moved forward into position, in the ravines and along the ridges; his line was well protected by the nature of the ground, but the roughness of the country prevented any decided advance, except by Ransom's brigade, which made a brief and unsuccessful attempt to carry the works in its front. McClernand, having more ground to march over than either of the other corps, was still, at early dawn, four miles from Vicksburg; but his troops were deployed at once, batteries were put in position, and opened on the rebel line, and, by two o'clock, the whole corps was advanced as close to the enemy's works as the irregular ground allowed. The extreme steepness of the acclivities, the strength of the works, and the vigorous resistance everywhere made, all rendered it necessary to move with circumspection; so that without any fault or hesitation on the part of either troops or commanders, night had overtaken the national forces before they were really in a condition to obey the order of Grant, except at the point where Sherman had reached the works, but failed to make any serious impression. Blair, however, held his advanced position with tenacity until dark; and, as soon as night closed in, Sherman ordered him back a short distance, to a point where the shape of the ground gave partial shelter and the troops could bivouac. The result of the assault was, therefore, unsuccessful. The Fifteenth corps was the only one able to act vigorously; the other two having succeeded no further than to gain advanced positions, covered from the fire of the enemy.3 [304]

The rebels had evidently begun to recover their spirits. Driven to their last stronghold, like wild beasts at bay, they still held off the pursuers who had chased them so far and hard among the hills. It often happens that a panic-stricken army, after long flight and apparently irremediable disaster, suddenly recovers its tone and makes the new mettle more conspicuous by comparison with former recreancy. Something like this occurred at Vicksburg. The rebels had reached the works in a condition which their own records prove to have been as miserable as any in which an army ever fled towards its citadel. Late on a Sunday night, the main body of the vanquished forces began pouring into the town. Neither order nor discipline had been maintained on the march; the men were scattered for miles along the road, declaring their readiness to desert rather than serve again under Pemberton. The planters and population of the country, fleeing from the presence of the victorious enemy, added to the crowd and the confusion; and the inhabitants of the city awoke in terror, to find their streets thronged with fugitives—one vast, uproarious mass, in which, with shrinking citizens and timid women and children, were mingled the remnants of Pemberton's dismayed and disorganized army. And these were the troops that were now the reliance of Vicksburg.4 But, comforted by the sight of the formidable hills, Nature's own fortress, and looking up at the works which had already withstood so many sieges and assaults, [305] the rebels, who were good enough soldiers, as full of courage and endurance as any men that ever fought, grew ashamed of their strange unmanliness; and, when Sherman's troops rushed up, thinking to march easily into Vicksburg, they found not only the ramparts were difficult, but the defenders had got new spirit, and were once more the men who had fought at Donelson, and Shiloh, and at Champion's hill.

But, although unsuccessful, the operations of this day were important to Grant. The nature of the enemy's works and their approaches, the character of the ground, and the unusual obstacles by which it was encumbered, together with the policy of the defence, all became known; while the national lines were advanced, positions for artillery selected, and the relations of the various parts of the army were fully established and understood. It was clearly seen, from the knowledge thus obtained, that to carry the works of Vicksburg by storm was a more serious undertaking than had been at first supposed.

The troops having been constantly on the march from the middle of April, and for the most of the time with short supplies, were now greatly fatigued; the weather was warm and dusty; a change of clothing, as well as a supply of rations, was required. Plenty of meat had at all times been obtained during the march, but bread had been more scarce, and the men began seriously to feel its need. The camp and garrison equipage had been left behind, as well as all extra clothing; and it was imperative to look, in some degree, after the comfort of the army, before any thing further was attempted.

The 20th and 21st of May were devoted to the [306] accomplishment of these objects; communications were opened, from the right and rear of the lines, with the steamboat landing near Chickasaw bayou; new roads were made, so that the trains going and coming might not interfere with each other; bridges of flat-boats were laid across the bayou; steamboats were brought to the landing, loaded with supplies of subsistence, forage, and ordnance stores, and served as store-houses until their cargoes should be needed. In case of disaster, they were thus ready to move off without the sacrifice of their vast quantity of stores. McClernand was directed to open communication with Warrenton, and for a while drew his supplies from that point; trains on the west bank moving from Milliken's bend to a point opposite Warrenton, whence stores were ferried to the eastern shore. The hospitals and supplies at Grand Gulf were also ordered up to Warrenton. Hard bread, coffee, and sugar were hauled out to the front; and the troops rested for two days, clearing the ground on which they were to encamp, and acquiring a more distinct idea of that over which they were to advance. Lauman's division was now arriving at Chickasaw bayou, and the rest of McArthur's command at Warrenton.

Pickets were pushed forward, in the mean time, and positions selected for the artillery. On the 20th, also, Grant sent Admiral Porter word: ‘A gunboat playing on the second water-battery would materially help us;’ and, at noon of that day, the mortar-fleet took position on the west side of the peninsula, and commenced the bombardment of the city. This fire continued without intermission on the 21st, accompanied by occasional musketry and artillery attacks from the land side, to which but slight response was [307] made. Several rebel guns were dismounted, the works were ploughed up in one or two instances, and a number of officers and men killed and wounded.5 Pemberton, however, had determined to be economical in the use of ammunition, and forbade both picket skirmishing and artillery combats. In consequence of this, Grant was able to push forward his own sharp-shooters, and obtain better positions for his guns. The mortar bombardment was so heavy that the citizens began digging caves in the sides of the hills, to which they retreated for shelter. Pemberton had desired them to leave the town, but in vain; they declared themselves willing to risk the horrors of a siege rather than quit their homes. At this time, also, it was found impossible to feed the large numbers of horses and mules in Vicksburg, and they were driven beyond the lines for pasturage. This relieved Pemberton of a serious encumbrance, which would otherwise have made heavy demands upon his limited supplies of forage.

On the 21st, the arrangements for drawing supplies of every description being complete, Grant decided to make another attempt to carry Vicksburg by storm. There were many reasons which determined him to adopt this course. First of all, and most important, he felt that a resolute assault from the advanced positions obtained on the 19th, would succeed, if made with the proper vigor and cooperation. He believed that if he formed his columns of attack on the main roads, he could reach the rebel works in sufficient order and with weight enough to break through, before any serious loss could be inflicted by the enemy. The distance to be passed over in no [308] case exceeded four hundred yards, and in almost every instance partial cover could be obtained, up to within one hundred yards of the rebel line.

In addition to these tactical considerations, it was known that Johnston was at Canton, with the troops that had escaped from Jackson, reenforced by others from the east and south; that accessions were daily reaching him, and that every soldier the rebel government could gather up, in all its territory, would doubtless soon be sent to Johnston's support. In a short time he might be strong enough to attack Grant in the rear, and, possibly, in conjunction with the garrison, be able to raise the siege. Possession of Vicksburg, on the contrary, would enable Grant to turn upon Johnston and drive him from the state; to seize all the railroads and practical military highways, and effectually secure all the territory west of the Tombigbee river, before the season for active campaigning in this latitude should be past; the government would thus be saved all necessity of sending him reenforcements, now so much needed elsewhere.

Finally, the troops themselves were impatient to possess Vicksburg, the prize of all their battles, and bivouacs, and marches. The weather was growing extremely hot, the water among the hills was getting scarce, and likely to fail entirely during the summer. The temper of the army, after its triumphant march, was such that neither officers nor men would have worked in the trenches with any zeal, until they became certain that all other means had failed. The capture of the works on the Big Black river was too recent in their memories for them yet to tolerate the tedious processes of a siege. ‘They felt,’ said one [309] who was with them, ‘as if they could march straight through Vicksburg, and up to their waists in the Mississippi, without resistance.’ So, although Grant certainly expected to succeed, he felt now, as he did at Belmont, that there was a moral as well as a military necessity for the assault. The spirit of the men demanded it, and to this spirit every real commander will defer; or rather, with this spirit his own is sure to be in unison. Either he feels the same causes, and recognizes the same effects as they; or he infuses into his men the passion, or temper, or idea with which he himself is animated. It takes both troops and commander to make an army; consciously or not, they sympathize, like the soul and body of a living man.

On the 21st of May, accordingly, Grant issued his orders for a general assault along the whole line, to commence at ten A. M. on the morrow. Corps commanders were directed to examine thoroughly all the ground over which troops could possibly pass, to put in position all the artillery that could be used, and to advance their skirmishers as close as possible to the enemy's works. The artillery was to make a vigorous attack at an early hour; while the infantry, with the exception of reserves and skirmishers, was to form in columns of platoons, or by a flank, if the ground would not admit of a wider front. The columns of attack were to move at quick time, with fixed bayonets, carrying only canteens, ammunition, and one day's rations, and not to fire a gun till the outer works were stormed; the skirmishers to advance as soon as possible after the heads of columns, and scale the walls of any works that might confront them. ‘If prosecuted with vigor, it was confidently [310] believed that this course would carry Vicksburg in a short space of time, and with very much less loss of life than would result from a protracted siege.’ ‘Every day's delay,’ said Grant, ‘enables the enemy to strengthen his defences and increase his chances for receiving aid from outsiders.’ Grant also wrote to Admiral Porter, on the 21st: ‘I expect to assault the city at ten A. M. to-morrow. I would request and urgently request that you send up the gunboats below the city, and shell the rebel intrenchments until that hour, and for thirty minutes after. If the mortars could all be sent down to near the point on the Louisiana shore, and throw in shells during the night, it would materially aid me.’ McArthur's division, not having yet arrived in line, was to act independently, moving up from Warrenton by the direct road, and striking Vicksburg on the left of McClernand, beyond the line of investment. ‘Move cautiously,’ said Grant, ‘and be prepared to receive an attack at any moment. Penetrate as far into the city as you can. Should you find the city still in possession of the enemy, hold as advanced a position as you can secure yourself upon.’

The mortars were mounted on large rafts and lashed to the further side of the peninsula. Porter kept six of them playing rapidly all night on the town and works, and sent three gunboats to shell the water-batteries and any places where rebel troops could be rested during the night; and, at three o'clock on the morning of the 22d, the cannonade began from the land side. Every available gun was brought to bear on the works;, sharpshooters at the same time began their part of the action; and nothing could be heard but the continued shrieking of shells, [311] the heavy booming of cannon, and the sharp whiz of the Minie balls as they sped with fatal accuracy towards the devoted town. Vicksburg was encircled by a girdle of fire; on river and shore, a line of mighty cannon poured destruction from their fiery throats, while the mortars played incessantly, and made the heavens themselves seem to drop down malignant meteors on the rebellious stronghold. The bombardment was the most terrible during the siege, and continued without intermission until nearly eleven o'clock, while the sharpshooters kept up such a rapid and galling fire that the rebel cannoneers could seldom rise to load their pieces; the enemy was thus able to make only ineffectual replies, and the formation of the columns of attack was undisturbed.

All the corps commanders had set their time by Grant's, so that there might be no difference between them in the movement of the assault. Grant himself took a commanding position near McPherson's front, from which he could see all the advancing columns of the Seventeenth, and a part of those of the Thirteenth and Fifteenth corps. Promptly at the appointed hour the three corps moved to the assault. No men could be seen on the enemy's works, except that occasionally a sharpshooter would show his head and quickly discharge his piece. A line of select skirmishers was placed to keep these down.

As on the 19th, Sherman's main attack was along the Graveyard road. Blair was placed at the head of this road, with Tuttle in support, while Steele was left to make his attack at a point in his own front, about half a mile further to the right. The troops were grouped so that, as far as the ground would allow, the movement might be connected and rapid. [312] The Graveyard road runs along the crown of an inferior ridge, over comparatively smooth ground. Its general direction was perpendicular to the rebel line; but, as it approached the works, it bent to the left, passing along the edge of the ditch of the enemy's bastion, and entering at the shoulder of the bastion. The timber, on the sides of the ridge and in the ravine, had been felled, so that an assault at any other point in front of the Fifteenth corps was almost impossible. The rebel line, rifle-trench as well as small works for artillery, was higher than the ground occupied by the national troops, and nowhere, between the Jackson road and the Mississippi on the north, could it be reached without crossing a ravine a hundred and twenty feet below the general level of the hills, and then scaling an acclivity, whose natural slope was everywhere made more difficult by fallen trees and entanglements of stakes and vines.

A forlorn hope was formed of a hundred and fifty men, who carried poles and boards to cross the ditch. This party was followed closely by Ewing's brigade; Giles Smith and Kilby Smith's brigades bringing up the rear of Blair's division. All marched by the flank, following a road selected the night before, on which the men were partially sheltered, until it became necessary to take the crown of the ridge, and expose themselves to the full view of the enemy, known to be lying concealed behind his well-planned parapet.

At the very moment named in Grant's orders, the storming party dashed up the road, at the double quick, followed by Ewing's brigade, the Thirtieth Ohio leading. Five batteries, of six pieces each, stationed on the ridge, kept up a concentric fire on the [313] bastion, which was doubtless constructed to command the very approach on which Sherman was moving. The storming party reached the salient of the bastion, and passed towards the sally-port, when rose from every part along the line commanding it, a double rank of the enemy, and poured on the head of the column a terrific fire. The men halted—wavered—sought cover. But the column behind pressed on; it crossed the ditch on the left face of the bastion, clambered up the exterior slope, and planted its colors on the outside of the parapet; the fire, however, was too hot to bear them further. The brigade broke, and the men burrowed in the earth to shield themselves from a flanking fire.

Ewing being thus unable to carry this point, the next brigade, Giles Smith's, was turned down a ravine, and, making a circuit to the left, found cover, formed line, and threatened the parapet at a point three hundred yards to the left of the bastion; while the brigade of Kilby Smith was deployed on the offslope of one of the spurs, where, with Ewing's brigade, it kept up a constant fire against any object that presented itself above the parapet. At about two o'clock, Blair reported that none of his brigades could pass the point of the road swept by the terrific fire which Ewing had encountered, but that Giles Smith had got a position more to the left, where, in connection with Ransom, of McPherson's corps, he was ready to assault. Sherman thereupon ordered a constant fire of artillery and infantry to be maintained, in order to occupy the attention of the enemy in front, while Ransom and Giles Smith charged up against the parapet.

The ground over which they passed is the most [314] difficult about Vicksburg. Three ravines cover the entire distance between the Graveyard and the Jackson roads, and, opening into one still larger, rendered this portion of the line almost unapproachable, except for individuals. Nowhere between these points could a company march by the flank in any thing like order, so broken is the ground, and so much was it obstructed by the slashing which had been made by felling forest-timber and the luxurious vines along the sides of the ravines. But, although these obstructions were thus almost insurmountable, they yet afforded effectual cover to the assailants till they got within eighty yards of the enemy; and, even then, they rendered the rebel fire much less destructive than it would have been on the open ground. The troops pushed on, and struggled in the blazing sun to reach the enemy's stronghold; but, like the column of Ewing, they became hopelessly broken up into small parties, and only a few, more daring than the rest, succeeded in getting close enough to give the rebels any serious cause for alarm. But these were met by a staggering fire, and recoiled under cover of the hillside. Many a brave man fell after he had passed through the difficulties of the approach and reached the rebel line. The foremost were soon compelled to crawl behind the logs and under the brow of the hills, where they waited for single opportunities to bring down the enemy, as he showed himself along the parapet or in the rifle-trench.

Steele's artillery had been placed in position on the abandoned outworks of the enemy, along a ridge on the north side of a creek which separated the belligerents at this point. His infantry was on the road, under the bluffs and behind the hills. The valley [315] between had been cleared and cultivated; it was wider near Ewing's right, and exposed, for threequarters of a mile, to a plunging fire from every point of the adjacent rebel line. The distance to pass under fire was not less than four hundred yards; and, though the obstacles to overcome were less, the exposure to fire being greater, made the result here the same as in the assault on Sherman's left. The main effort of Steele's right was directed against a water-battery, at the mouth of a creek which empties into the Mississippi, above Vicksburg. But, by two o'clock, it was evident that the national forces could not reach the rebel fortifications at any point in Sherman's front in numbers or order sufficient to carry the line, and all further operations were suspended.6

In the mean time, the troops of McPherson and McClernand's corps had advanced promptly at ten o'clock. McPherson's line extended from Sherman's left to within half a mile of the railroad, Ransom on the right and in the ravines, Logan on the main Jackson road, and Quimby in the valleys towards the south. The rebel works here followed the line of the ridge, running nearly north and south; they were about two miles from the river, and three hundred and twenty-nine feet above low-water mark. They were strongly constructed, and well arranged to sweep the approaches in every direction. The road follows the tortuous and uneven ridge separating two deep ravines, [316] and was completely swept at many points by direct and cross fires from the enemy's line. In Logan's division, John E. Smith's brigade, supporting Leggett's, was on the road, and Stevenson in the ravines and on the slopes to the south; all moved forward under cover of a heavy artillery fire.

Their order of battle, however, was weak, from the nature of the ground—columns of regiments not greater than platoon front, battalions by the flank, in columns of fours, or regiments in single line of battle, supported by troops in position, and covered by skirmishers. Notwithstanding the bravery of the troops, they became broken and disorganized by the difficult ground and the fire of the enemy from trench and parapet; and they, too, were compelled to seek cover under the brows of the hills along which they had advanced. John E. Smith was thus checked by the cross-fire of artillery commanding the road, and it soon became apparent that nothing favorable could be expected from efforts in this quarter. Stevenson, however, was somewhat protected by the uneven ground, and, although compelled to advance into a reentrant of the enemy's line, he had a better opportunity to assault. His advance was bold, and nearly reached the top of the slope in his front, but being only in line, and therefore without any great weight, unsupported by columns or heavy bodies of troops to give it confidence or momentum, it also failed. Quimby's troops moved out, but the enemy's line in their front being a strong reentrant, no great effort was made by them. At this time, they were simply useful from the menacing attitude they held.

McClernand's corps occupied the extreme left of the line; A. J. Smith on the right of the railroad, [317] in and across the ravines, on Quimby's left. The gully nearest the railroad afforded excellent cover, and led to within twenty yards of the enemy's line. Carr's division joined Smith's left, on the railroad, and extended south, along and behind a narrow ridge. Osterhaus was still further to the south, with an interval of about two hundred yards between his right and Carr's left, in a ravine, the general direction of which was towards the point where the railroad enters the rebel line. This ravine was well swept by musketry, as well as by the guns of the rebel batteries. The side ravines were extremely difficult and intricate, though not encumbered, as in Sherman's and part of McPherson's front, by fallen timber. Hovey's division was still further to the left, and somewhat more distant from the enemy's line; the ground in his front was more difficult, being still more uneven, and covered with a heavier growth of timber.

The only heavy artillery with the army, consisting of six thirty-pound Parrott rifles, had been placed in battery, just to the left of the railroad, on a prominent point close in rear of Carr's right. The field-batteries of the Thirteenth corps, numbering thirty-three guns, were also posted advantageously along the ridges and prominences in the rear. These opened early, and McClernand succeeded in breaching several points of the enemy's works, temporarily silencing one or two guns, and exploding four rebel caissons.7 At the precise time appointed, the bugles sounded the charge, and, with all the alacrity of Port Gibson and the Big Black bridge, McClernand's columns moved to the assault; but, as in the case of McPherson and Sherman, by brigade, regiment, or [318] battalion front, in weak order, and without cooperation or unity. The right, under Smith, succeeded in pushing close to the enemy's works, but was met by the destructive fire of musketry, and unable to get further. Lawler's brigade, in Carr's division, which had carried the tete-de-pont on the Big Black river, dashed forward with its old impetuosity, supported by Landrum's brigade of Smith's division; and, in less than fifteen minutes, a part of one regiment, the Twenty-second Iowa, succeeded in crossing the ditch and parapet of a rebel outwork; but, not receiving the support of the rest of the column, could not push further, nor drive the enemy from the main work immediately in rear. A hand-to-hand fight here ensued, lasting several minutes; hand-grenades also were thrown by the rebels in rear, while the national troops still commanded the outer parapet. Every man in the party, but one was shot down. Sergeant Joseph Griffith, of the Twenty-second Iowa, fell at the same time with his comrades, stunned, but not seriously hurt. On his recovery, he found a rebel lieutenant and sixteen men lying in the outwork, still unwounded, though exposed to the fire of both friend and foe. He rose, and bade them follow him out of the place, too hot for any man to stay and live. The rebels obeyed, and, calling to the troops outside to cease their firing, Griffith brought his prisoners over the parapet, under a storm of rebel shot that killed four of those so willing to surrender.8 [319]

The colors of the One Hundred and Thirtieth Illinois were now planted on the counterscarp, and those of two other regiments were also raised on the exterior slope of the parapet. The work, however, was completely commanded by others in rear, and no real possession of it was obtained by the national soldiers. But the troops remained in the ditch for hours, although hand-grenades and loaded shells were rolled over on them, from the parapet. The colors were not removed; as often as a rebel attempted to grasp the staff, he was shot down by soldiers in the ditch; and the national flags waved all day on the rebel work, neither party able to secure them, but each preventing their seizure by the other. After dark, a national soldier climbed up stealthily and snatched one of the flags away; the other was captured by a rebel, in the same manner, leaning over suddenly from above.

Fired by the example of Lawler and Landrum's commands, Benton and Burbridge's brigades, the former in Carr's, the latter in Smith's division, now rushed forward, and reached the ditch and slope of another little earthwork, planting their colors also on the outer slope. Captain White, of the Chicago Mercantile battery, rivalling Griffith's gallantry, dragged forward one of his pieces, by hand, quite to the ditch, and, double-shotting it, fired into an embrasure, disabling a gun just ready to be discharged, and scattering death among the rebel cannoneers.9 [320] A detachment here got into the work, but the rebels rallied and captured every man. These were the only troops that actually carried or gained possession, even for a moment, of any portion of the enemy's line.

Hovey and Osterhaus had also pushed forward on the left, under a withering fire, till they could hear the rebel words of command. They reached the top of the hill, and advanced along the naked brow, through a storm of grape, canister, and musketry, under which they also broke, seeking cover behind the irregularities of the ground, but not retiring. Indeed, they had gone on so far, that retreating was as dangerous as to advance. But, from eleven till two, a desultory and aimless skirmish was maintained.

In the mean time, McArthur's division, of the Seventeenth corps, had crossed the Mississippi, at Warrenton. It went into position, on the extreme left, on the 21st, extending from the Hall's ferry road to the crest of the hill immediately on the river. The naval forces had moved at seven o'clock, and four gunboats engaged the water-batteries; they advanced in some instances within four hundred and fifty yards of the enemy, inflicting severe damage, dismounting several guns, and bursting one; but received in return the hottest fire they ever yet had [321] known; one vessel was severely damaged, but not a man was killed. Doubtless, the share in the bombardment, taken by the fleet, served materially to distract and annoy the garrison, but the distance of the lower works from the river, and their elevation, were too great for any permanent effect to be accomplished by the gunboat fire. McArthur, however, was preparing to take advantage of the temporary silence of the rebel works in this quarter, when he received other orders.

Thus, all along the line, the assault, though made by heroes, had completely failed. Each corps had advanced, had met the shock, and then recoiled. The rebel position was too strong, both naturally and artificially, to be taken by storm. At every point assaulted, and at all of them at the same time, the enemy was able to show all the force his works could cover; while, the difficulties of the ground rendered an attack in column, or indeed almost any tactical movement by the national troops, utterly impossible. Each corps had many more men than could possibly be used, on such ground as intervened between it and the enemy. Grant's loss had been great, both in killed and wounded. The hillsides were covered with the slain, and with unfortunates who lay panting in the hot sun, crying for water which none could bring them, and writhing in pain that might not be relieved; while the rebels, ensconced behind their lofty parapets, had suffered but little in comparison. The national troops had everywhere shown the greatest individual bravery. Regiments, in all three corps, had planted their flags on the enemy's works, where they still waved, the rebels unable or afraid to remove them; national detachments, after ineffectual [322] efforts to penetrate further, had sheltered themselves on the outer slopes of the parapets, and behind the brows of the ridges, watching for opportunities to injure the enemy; while the main body of the troops, at a greater distance and along the hills in rear, kept the rebels down by an incessant fire of musketry, whenever an object exposed itself for a moment on the works.10 The brunt of the battle incident to the first assault was over in less than an hour, and no substantial result had been obtained. It was plain that Grant could not hope to succeed by assault.

At about twelve o'clock, while near McPherson's headquarters, Grant had received a dispatch from Mc-Clernand, that he was hard pressed at several points: ‘I am hotly engaged with the enemy. He is massing on me from the right and left. A vigorous blow by McPherson would make a diversion in my favor.’ Grant replied: ‘If your advance is weak, strengthen it by drawing from your reserves or other parts of the line.’ He then rode around to Sherman's front, and had just reached that point, when he received a second dispatch from McClernand: ‘We are hotly engaged with the enemy. We have part possession of two forts, and the stars and stripes are floating over them. A vigorous push ought to be made all along the line.’ This note reached Grant, after the repulse of both Sherman and McPherson. He showed it to Sherman and to his own staff. He and his staff had witnessed, from a high and commanding point, the assault of McClernand's corps; had seen a few [323] men enter the works, and the colors planted on the exterior slopes; but had also seen the whole column repelled. Grant was disinclined to renew the assault which had been so unsuccessful; yet he could not disregard these positive assertions. Sherman was, therefore, immediately ordered to repeat the attack in his front, and McClernand was directed to order up McArthur to his assistance. ‘McArthur is on your left; concentrate with him and use his forces to the best advantage.’

Grant himself started at once for McPherson's front, to convey to him the information contained in this last dispatch, so that he, too, might make the diversion required. But, before he reached McPherson, he met a messenger with a third dispatch from Mc-Clernand: ‘We have gained the enemy's intrenchments at several points, but are brought to a stand. I have sent word to McArthur to reenforce me if he can. Would it not be best to concentrate the whole or a part of his command on this point? P. S.—I have received your dispatch; my troops are all engaged, and I cannot withdraw any to reenforce others.’

The position occupied by Grant, during most of the assault, gave him a better opportunity of seeing what was going on, in front of the Thirteenth corps, than it was possible for its commander to enjoy. He had not perceived any possession of forts, nor any necessity for reenforcements, up to the time when he left this place, between twelve and one o'clock. He again expressed doubts of the accuracy of the reports; but these reiterated statements could not be unheeded, for they might possibly be correct: and that no opportunity of carrying the enemy's stronghold should be allowed to escape, through fault of his, [324] Grant now sent his chief of staff, with McClernand's note, to McPherson, indorsing on it an order for Quimby's division (all of McPherson's corps then available, except one brigade), to report to McClernand. The dispatch was sent to McPherson, to satisfy him of the necessity of an active diversion on his part, so that as great a force as possible might be held in his and Sherman's fronts. McPherson sent the dispatch and order to Quimby, who forwarded it at once to Colonel Boomer, commanding his left brigade, with orders to move promptly to McClernand's support. Grant notified McClernand of these arrangements; that Quimby was to join him, and that McPherson and Sherman would renew their assaults by way of a diversion in his favor.

Sherman and McPherson, accordingly, made their advance, which was prompt and vigorous. Sherman now put into battle Mower's brigade, of Tuttle's division, which had as yet been in reserve, while Steele was hotly engaged on the right, and heavy firing was going on, all down the line on Sherman's left. Mower's charge was covered by Blair's division, deployed on the hillside, and the artillery posted behind parapets, within point-blank range. Mower carried his brigade up, bravely and well, but again arose a fire, if possible, more severe than that of the first assault, with an exactly similar result. The colors of the leading regiment were planted by the side of those of Blair's storming party, and remained, but the column was shattered and repelled. Steele, too, passed through a scathing fire—clouds of musket-balls descending on the uncovered ground over which he had to cross, and beating down his men as a rain-storm does the grass; still, he reached the parapet, [325] but could not carry it; he held possession of the hillside, however, till nightfall, when, by Sherman's order, he was withdrawn.

McPherson's advance, likewise, had no result except to double the number of killed and wounded. His position was not advanced, nor any other advantage gained. His efforts continued until dark, though in a desultory manner, but clearly revealing his presence and power to the enemy.

At half-past 3 o'clock, Grant received a fourth dispatch from McClernand: ‘I have received your dispatch in regard to General Quimby's division and General McArthur's division. As soon as they arrive, I will press the enemy with all possible speed. and doubt not I will force my way through. I have lost no ground: my men are in two of the enemy's forts, but they are commanded by rifle-pits in the rear. Several prisoners have been taken, who intimate that the rear is strong. At this moment, I am hard pressed.’

McArthur did not arrive till the next morning, and it was nearly sundown, before Quimby's division reached McClernand; it had been on the field all day, marching or fighting, but was immediately moved to the front, where it was required to relieve a part of A. J. Smith's division from an exposed position in line of battle. The enemy now made a show of advancing, and the lines being so close, the action, which had for some time been lulled, was renewed with the greatest fury. For a few minutes, the fire of musketry was murderous. The third brigade, of Quimby's division, lost many men and some of its most valuable officers, including its commander, the gallant Boomer. He bore on his person the dispatch [326] from McClernand, which had occasioned all this added loss, and which proved as fatal to Boomer as the wound of which he died. No other attack was made by McClernand.

The battle was thus prolonged, many lives were sacrificed, and no advantage was gained, all owing to the incorrect accounts forwarded by McClernand. No part of any fort had been carried or held by him; his men had displayed extraordinary gallantry, his corps had accomplished quite as much as either Sherman or McPherson's, but, like all the troops along the line, it was repelled disastrously. The fact that a dozen men, at one place, got inside the rebel lines and were killed, and that elsewhere, others reached the ditch and were captured, was magnified by him into the capture of a fort. His repeated calls for assistance cost the army hundreds of lives.11

Three thousand national soldiers were killed or wounded in this disastrous fight; and the army was now made sadly sure that over ground so rough, and so much obstructed, with formations necessarily so weak, it could not hope to carry Vicksburg by storm. But the quality of the troops was proven. There was no murmuring, no falling back, no symptom of demoralization. Detachments remained, till nightfall, close up to the advanced positions reached during the day, and then dug their way back out of the ditches. Save in one or two instances, they bore off the national flags that had waved over the works of Vicksburg, prematurely but prophetically. One, that could not be carried away, was buried in the earth of the ditch, with the soldier who bore it thither; [327] their most glorious resting-place was the spot where they fell together.

This assault was, in some respects, unparalleled in the wars of modern times. No attack on fortifications of such strength had ever been undertaken by the great European captains, unless the assaulting party outnumbered the defenders by at least three to one. In the great sieges of the Peninsular war, the disproportion was even greater still. At Badajos, Wellington had fifty-one thousand men, eighteen thousand of whom were in the final assault, while the entire French garrison numbered only five thousand; the British loss, in the assault alone, was thirty-five hundred. At Ciudad Rodrigo, Wellington had thirty-five thousand men, and the French, less than two thousand, not seventeen hundred being able to bear arms; the British loss was twelve hundred and ninety, seven hundred and ten of these at the breaches; while only three hundred Frenchmen fell. But Badajos and Rodrigo were carried.

In the second assault on Vicksburg, Grant had, in his various columns, about thirty thousand men engaged; of these, he lost probably three thousand, in killed and wounded. He, however, was met by an army, instead of a garrison. Pemberton, according to his own statement, put eighteen thousand five hundred men in the trenches.12 It was, therefore, no reproach to the gallantry or soldiership of the Army of the Tennessee that it was unable to carry works of the strength of those which repelled it, manned by [328] troops of the same race as themselves, and in numbers so nearly equal to their own. Neither can the generalship which directed this assault be fairly censured. The only possible chance of breaking through such defences and defenders was in massing the troops, so that the weight of the columns should be absolutely irresistible. But, the broken, tangled ground, where often a company could not advance by flank, made massing impossible; and this could not be known in advance. The rebels, too, had not shown, in the week preceding the assault, any of the determination which they displayed behind their earthen walls at Vicksburg; the works at the Big Black river also were impregnable, if they had been well defended; and Grant could not know, beforehand, that Pemberton's men had recovered their former mettle, any more than he could ascertain, without a trial, how inaccessible were the acclivities, and how prodigious the difficulties which protected these reinvigorated soldiers. But, Badajos was thrice besieged, and oftener assaulted, ere it fell; and the stories of Saguntum and Saragossa prove, that Vicksburg was not the only citadel which long resisted gallant and determined armies.

On the night of the 22d, the troops were withdrawn from the most advanced positions reached during the assault, still retaining, however, ground that was of importance during the siege. They took back many of their wounded with them, but the dead remained unburied. There was not time enough to remove the bodies before daybreak, when the rebel fire commanded all the ground where they lay. For two days, the unburied corpses were left festering between the two armies, when the stench became so intolerable [329] to the garrison, that Pemberton was afraid it might breed a pestilence. He, therefore, proposed an armistice for two and a half hours, to enable Grant to remove his dead and the few wounded who had not yet been cared for.13 The offer was promptly accepted, and the rebels also availed themselves of the opportunity to carry off the dead horses and mules that lay in their front, and were becoming very offensive to the besieged. These were the animals that Pemberton had turned loose from the city and driven over the lines, from want of forage. They were shot wherever they were seen, by the sharpshooters of the besieging army, that the stench arising from their putrefaction might annoy the enemy.

The suspension of hostilities lasted several hours, during which time, many exchanges of civilities took place between the officers and men of the two armies. There was an utter absence of insulting language, as well as of any manifestations of malice or animosity. The belligerents had too much reason to respect each other's prowess to indulge in petty exhibitions of spite or spleen. Soldiers, indeed, are apt to get rid of their bad blood in battle, and leave wrangling and revenge to those who stay a good way off in time of danger.14 [330]

On the 22d, Grant reported to Halleck his arrival at the Mississippi, and the investment of Vicksburg. In narrating the events of the assault, he said: ‘General McClernand's dispatches misled me as to the facts, and caused much of this loss. He is entirely unfit for the position of corps commander, both on the march and on the battle-field. Looking after his corps gives me more labor and infinitely more uneasiness than all the remainder of my department.’ On the 24th, also, Grant made his first report of the battle of Champion's hill, which had been fought eight days before. After leaving Jackson, he had no opportunity of communicating with the government until he arrived before Vicksburg; and, since then, he had been too busy to write reports.

1 The official report of engineer operations at the siege of Vicksburg, by Captains Prime and Comstock, U. S. Engineers, and the manuscript memoir, already referred to, of Lieutenant (now Brevet Major-General) Wilson, have furnished most of the details of engineer operations for this and the following chapter.

2 Although Pemberton said that he had only eighteen thousand five hundred men at this time, he surrendered thirty-one thousand nearly seven weeks later, and received no reenforcements in the mean while.

3 No report was made to Grant of the losses in this assault. They were estimated by him at fewer than five hundred; of these about one hundred were killed or severely wounded.

4 See a rebel narrative of the siege of Vicksburg, by H. S. Abrams, published in 1863, at Atlanta, Georgia.

5 See rebel reports.

6 General Sherman's report of this assault is very full and vivid. I have not hesitated to avail myself of his language whenever it suited my purpose. General Sherman, indeed, has offered me unrestricted access to all his papers, and in conversation often thrown light on points that could not otherwise have been made clear.

7 See rebel reports.

8 For this act of gallantry, Griffith was next day promoted by Grant to a first lieutenancy, thus literally, like a knight of the middle ages, winning his spurs on the field. He was not twenty years old, and shortly afterwards received an appointment to the Military Academy at West Point, where he was known as ‘Grant's cadet,’ and graduated in 1867, fifth in his class.

9 General A. J. Smith had been ordered by McClernand to get two guns up to this position, and called upon five or six batteries successively; but the captains all protested that it was impossible to drag guns, by hand, down one slope and up another, under fire. Smith, however, exclaimed: ‘I know a battery that will go to——if you order it there.’ So he sent for Captain White, of the Chicago Mercantile battery, and told him what he wanted. White replied: ‘Yes, sir, I will take my guns there.’ And his men actually dragged the pieces over the rough ground, by hand, carrying the ammunition in their haversacks. One gun was stuck on the way, but the other they hauled up so near the rebel works, that it was difficult to elevate it sufficiently to be of use; finally, however, White succeeded in firing into the embrasure. The gun was then dragged off down the ravine, and, after nightfall, hauled away; but the ammunition being heavy, was left on the field.

10 In many instances, the riflemen who had got too near to withdraw with safety, stood up, exposed from head to foot, facing the rebel parapet, and held their pieces at a ready, to fire on any head that showed itself. The fire of the works was invariably kept down where the national soldiers had nerve enough for this desperate defence.

11 See Appendix, for official letters of Generals Sherman and Mc Pherson, concerning this assault.

12 The rebel pamphlet, to which I have before alluded, gives the rebel loss as eight hundred. Pemberton said, on the 29th of May: ‘Since investment we have lost about one thousand men, many officers.’ I can find no other official statement of his losses on this occasion.

13 Pemberton accused Grant of inhumanity, in not sooner burying his dead and caring for his wounded. But, as stated in the text, most of the wounded had already been removed, and the impossibility of relieving the others was occasioned by Pemberton's own troops, of which, however, Grant had no right to complain. The wounded suffer frightfully after every battle, and the party which is repelled is always unable to bestow attention on those whom it leaves on the field.

14 During the war of the rebellion, the women and clergymen, at the South, were everywhere more offensive in their behavior and language to national soldiers, than those who bore arms, relying on their sex or their cloth to shelter them from punishment. Next to them, the politicians, who brought on the war which the people did not desire, were universally inclined to fight with tongue or pen, rather than with more warlike weapons.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide People (automatically extracted)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
21st (4)
22nd (3)
19th (3)
May 21st (2)
May 19th (2)
1867 AD (1)
1863 AD (1)
May 29th (1)
May 20th (1)
May 18th (1)
April (1)
24th (1)
20th (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: