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Reminiscences of the siege of Vicksburg.

By Major J. T. Hogane of the Engineer Corps.

Paper no. 1.

Let us revive from the forces of memory the particulars of a scene, remarkable for being an example and expression of weakness.

On the west bank of the Big Black river, in the State of Mississippi, on a day of May, 1863, might have been seen General J. C. Pemberton and a group of disheartened staff and line officers. The surroundings and foil to this weary, discouraged group were the defeated troops just escaped from the field of combat at Champion Hills and Big Black river; the sluggish river; the blazing timber; the smoke of battle.

General Pemberton, with head hung down and despair written over the lineaments of his face, gave utterance to the honest sentiment of his heart when he remarked to Colonel Lockett, the Chief Engineer of the army, that ‘thirty years ago, to-day, I commenced my career as a soldier, and to-day ends it.’

What a confession of failure these pathetic words conveyed to his listeners.

In a house at Oxford, Miss., the night of the retreat from the splendidly fortified position of the Tallahatchie river, near Abbeyville, might have been seen General Pemberton and General ‘Pap’ Price. General Price told the Commander-in-Chief that a Federal force was marching south by way of Hernando, and offered, with a confidence, that his outspoken, brave, cheerful tones showed he believed in, to capture or defeat them if a sufficient force was given him to do so.

General Pemberton refused to detach the troops asked for, though he knew that General Grant could not make any serious demonstration on his front, owing to Grant's communication with his base of supplies being destroyed by the writer of this burning a mile of railroad trestle-work.

General Price respectfully suggested a certain movement, asking only his Missourians to carry it out. The General again refused to strike a blow, preferring the easier generalship of retreating; stating as his reason, however, that ‘he did not know where the enemy was.’

The first time I ever saw Vicksburg was in April before the siege. As the engineer officer in charge of the fortification at Snyder's and [224] Hayne's bluffs, I had been making requisitions on Mobile and other points through Generals Lee and Stevenson, for materials to secure the immense raft constructed across the Yazoo river, opposite the seige guns of Snyder's Bluff. The raft was about to give way from the pressures of at least 6,000 tons of drift wood accumulated on its upper side. In my anxiety to secure the raft I resolved upon a personal interview with General Stevenson, so ordering my horse, a rapid ride brought me to headquarters in the now famous city. The air was full of rumors of the great strength and scientific dispositions of the defenses of Vicksburg, and with faith I accepted the statement that no force could take the city.

About the middle watch of the night the belching of a cannon in one of the water batteries awoke the city from its easy slumbers. Officers and men rushed to the river front to gaze upon the yankee gun boats slowly steaming down the river; nearer they came with almost a death-like motion, slow, and in harmony with the black, lithe, sinuous gliding of the river.

The sparkle of the battle lights betokened the life that lay prone behind their iron-clad covering. Men stood behind that iron coat ready to drive the missiles of death into the Confederate batteries; stood ready as volunteers, and from a sense of honor to dare death in a combat for success.

There was no flickering among the veterans who manned the guns of the fated city. The artillerymen of the South, in the full glare of the red light of bonfires built in their rear, aimed their guns with the precision of parade practice, but it seemed with no effect, for boat after boat kept on with steady thud passing gun after gun that opened singly one after the other upon them

The effect of the firing on moving objects by single guns, proved itself, as it did in other instances, a failure, and confirmed the opinion that I had always held, that concentrated mass-firing is the only effective way to destroy iron-clad vessels of war.

If the engineer officer in charge of construction in Vicksburg had arranged his guns in groups, so that the fire could have been thrown to a common point, with a weight of metal that, united in its impingement, would have been irresistible, it would not have gone into history that men lived to run the batteries of Vicksburg.

After the duel between the portable marine batteries and the fixed shore heavy guns, there was nothing to do but seek consolation on the hard couch of a soldier or bewail the half-way manner of doing things customary in the Western Army of the Confederate States. [225] About the gray of day next morning I received a rude shaking up from Colonel Lockett—my chief in the engineer department-that dispelled the sweet repose induced by a complete non-responsibility. ‘Do you know that the gunboats are attacking Snyder's Bluff!’ ‘No.’ ‘Report at once to your headquarters; your place is there.’ ‘All right, I'll go.’

An hour's hard riding and I was climbing the hill upon which General Hebert and staff were standing or sitting intently observing the movements of thirteen Federal gunboats and the landing of about three thousand troops.

About half way from the bluff to the river, in an open field, a thin line of skirmishers represented the Southern side; on the road in the rear of the General, laid, perdue, the Southern boys, in line of battle.

The yankees landed and took their time to come into action. Squads of officers rode here and there, knotting and unknotting with the grace that staff officers so well know how to display. A puff of white smoke from the gun of a French Captain, of the New Orleans regular heavy artillery, a shell bursting in the midst of it, untied one of the knots double quick, and strange to say consultations were put an end to by spread-eagleism hunting the grass. Then the gunboats opened fire, concentrating on the Frenchman, until 180 shots, by count, had tried to silence the plucky eight-inch shell gun.

At last the barbette carriage of the shell gun was struck, and the gun dismounted, but soon mounted again and made ready for action. In the meantime, a general firing from battery and gunboat made the honors of noise about even, until a ten-inch Columbiad sent her solid shot into the iron-clad Chickasaw, killing and wounding, according to northern account, her captain and sixty of her men. Night, discretion and getting the worst of the fight induced the Commodore and Commander to run back the troops and leave for safe quarters at the mouth of the Yazoo.

I learned two things by this fight—that counter-sunk batteries located below the sky line are safe batteries for gunners, and that guns located on radiating lines from the attack center, fixing the distances according to calibre and kind of gun, do the maximum of efficient service.

This action; the running the batteries at Vicksburg; the attempt to take Vicksburg in the rear by the march of General Grant through Mississippi by the way of Holly Springs, Abbeyville and Grenada; the trying to force the Yazoo river—ought to have opened General [226] Pemberton's eyes to the fact that Grant was trying to kill two birds with one stone, viz., open the Mississippi river and shut up in Vicksburg Pemberton, and, what was of real consequence, the army he commanded.

Sherman had tried the same game when he made the attack on the north side of Vicksburg at Chickasaw bayou, but having more ambition and audacity in planning in the tent, than he had knowledge of the field of operation, he was beat off by a few troops of the line, and citizens armed with their shot-guns. The veriest tyro in war would have reasoned out the problem to this result—that concentration with General Johnston was the proper thing, and that a living and moving army in the field is better than a cramped and half dead army inside of a ring of earthworks. Earthworks are good in modern war only as a shield to active field troops. The bull hide shield of the ancient warriors is the prototype of the use that fortifications and breastworks are to the armies of to-day—of use only on occasions of active fight on an open field.

One quiet afternoon General Hebert informed me that Snyder's and Haynes's Bluffs were to be evacuated, and shortly after left with his command. My instructions were to get off all guns, on wheels, to Vicksburg; prepare powder trains to the service magazines, preparatory to blowing them up at midnight, if no further orders were received, and blow up all guns not moveable. Further orders to sink all steamboats in the Yazoo river completed the programme of destruction.

With the celerity born of necessity the road to Vicksburg was in a few hours jammed with munitions of war and guns—six-pounders, co-fraternals with the stylish twenty-four pound Parrott guns, wagons, mules, troops, camp-followers, with their loads of plunder, the menage of the camps they had lately occupied.

So crowded was the road to Vicksburg that daylight found us under the bluff where General Sherman got his quietus in the January preceding, and so close did the fire of the attack on our left sound that I expected the trains to be captured; but this idea was premature, for the wagons made several trips during the day to Haynes's Bluff to get corn from the piles of it that lay on the bank of the river, measuring thousands of bushels to the heap.

No doubt the collected breadstuff and horse-feed did the Federal quartermaster and commissary officers great service; it would have done us more service in Vicksburg if it had been there. [227]

Vicksburg absorbed the troops from the Yazoo, as it did those from Big Black, Warrenton, and Champion Hills.

The dead body of the brave Tilghman, whose heart was shattered by the fragment of a shell, the troubled rank and file, whose faces showed the shame of defeat, betokened the result of the plans to save Vicksburg, inaugurated by the Commander-in-Chief. There was one man of sense—General Loring. He absolutely refused to go into Vicksburg, and declared to General Pemberton that he would not obey his orders, and he did, with about 10,000 men, cut his way out in spite of General Grant's cordon. That sturdy lion, General Johnston, pertinaciously urged Pemberton to join him, and not allow himself to be shut up in Vicksburg fortifications.

If the evidence of all the events transpiring at this time could be laid before an intelligent jury, the verdict would not be flattering to the General of the Army of the Mississippi. There are very few Vicksburg soldiers who do not believe that General Grant was permitted to cross the river nearly unmolested, while the Southern army was kept blinded by preparing forts at Big Black railroad bridge and other point d'appiu surrounding the city of the hills. It was a regular give away when General Bowen, with a few troops, a mere reconnoissance detail, inadequate to the duty of checking Grant, tried to keep the Federal army back. If common discretion had been exercised, the responsibility and the evils of the catastrophe that fell upon Pemberton afterward would have been averted. The whole series of fights from the time that Grant crossed the river until the surrender of Vicksburg was a fatal blunder, no matter who it was planned by or who sanctioned it.

Concentration at the point of Grant's crossing, and defeat to him there, or, if that was impossible, concentration in the interior, and a fight before he captured the Jackson and Vicksburg railroad, was the thing to have placed him at his worst advantage both with regard to his supplies and reinforcements.

The action of May 1st was only a skirmish instead of being a vital fight, and all subsequent management being based on the protection of Vicksburg partook of the same error of judgment that led to the battles of Edwards Station or Champion Hills, Big Black, and the sufferings of Vicksburg.

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