Ed Bearss’ “The Vicksburg Campaign” Volume II — Grant Strikes a Fatal Blow

This is the second volume in Ed Bearss’ three volume book on the Vicksburg campaign. It covers the most active part of the operation – where Grant moves down the river to below the city, distracts the Rebels with numerous cavalry raids, and crosses the river. Striking inland, he wins five battles, separating Pemberton from reinforcement and routing his army, finally sending it reeling into the Vicksburg fortifications.

At this point, all signs seem to point to a quick fall of the city…

Champion Hill

The last update had Pemberton marching out under orders from Joe Johnston to strike Grant, unaware that Grant was on the way to attack him.  That is a bit of oversimplification I said before.  The first order from Joe Johnston to attack the troops in the town of Clinton was ignored by Pemberton, and instead he marched South and East, in an attempt to move against Grant’s communications.  But Grant was not relying on holding that area permanently, so this strike was ineffective.  Also, Pemberton’s and his army were unused to coordinated maneuvers, and the move went slowly.  Meanwhile, Grant was turning to face him.

Pemberton and Johnston seemed to think that Grant and his army would just sit there and wait for them to get their act in gear. This flew in the face of all experience in the last few weeks, of course.  Johnston again ordered Pemberton to move on Clinton for a joint attack.

This time, Pemberton decided to obey the order, and turned his army northward. This meant he was now marching across the face of Grant’s advance.  He was assuming that Grant was far off, and that he would have time to make the march.  He sent no scouts out to find out what Grant was doing.

This was a major mistake, as Grant’s seven divisions were advancing on three parallel roads and caught him with his back to a major creek. The Confederates had to hastily take up a position on Champion Hill and block the other two roads. If any of these positions were taken, there was a good chance that much of the army would be captured.

Like the other battles described, the Confederates were aided by the poor communication across the three parts of the Union force.  The standard orders at the start were to advance with caution. The orders to attack aggressively had to travel miles back to a road junction and forward again. But on the Jackson Road, where Grant was, the first attacks crushed the defenders and outflanked the hill, cutting the road to one of the two crossings of the creek.  The hesitancy of the other two forces allowed Pemberton to shift forces north and counterattack, driving the Union back off the hill for a time. But there were too many Union troops, and they were driven back again.

The battle was lost, the only question is if the entire army would be lost. The Union held the route to one bridge, and had crushed half the army. Pemberton used his last force, Loring’s Division, to cover a retreat south to the last crossing. If the other two advances had been pushing forward rapidly, this might have been impossible. But most of the army made it, but Loring’s Division either lost its way or decided not to risk it and marched off to the south.

Big Black River Bridge

Pemberton fell back to a fortified river crossing over the Big Black River. He posted men and guns on the east side of the river facing the Union  advance, to hold long enough for Loring’s division to come in.  He was unaware that Loring was not coming.  He also seemed unaware that his troops were in no mood to defend the position.

The gunners were upset that the horses needed to save their guns in case of a retreat were posted on the far side of the river. Many of the troops were raw, or were upset that the shape of the position meant that they would have great difficulty getting out if the line broke.  This would have a disastrous effect if the line did break.

The Union advance had sky high morale and good officers. One noted that there was a path where a unit could be moved close to the line without being seen, and a brigade was moved into attack position.

Jumping off, the attack was hit with a storm of fire, but there was only time for one volley and the line was cracked. At this, the entire Confederate force broke and ran for the bridges over the river. Thousands did not make it and were captured, the others streamed back toward the city. The remnants of Pemberton’s army followed towards the fortifications of Vicksburg.

Their only hope now was a relief army driving off Grant, which would take some doing.