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Grant’s Memoirs, the Vicksburg Campaign May 20th-22nd: Assault on Vicksburg



On May 19th, Pemberton, in command of the Confederate forces in Vicksburg, sent this message to Jefferson Davis, explaining his failure to hold positions as Grant advanced on Vicksburg:

Against my own judgment, but by instructions from superior authority, sustained by the unanimous voice of my general officers, I felt myself compelled to advance my position beyond Edwards Depot, and to offer or accept battle according to circumstances. The enemy attacked me in very great force about 7 a. m. on 16th. My position was a good one, but numbers prevailed; at 5 p. m. we were forced to retire. General Loring’s DIVISION, which covered the retreat across Baker’s Creek, failed to rejoin me, but will probably form a junction with General Johnston. We were again driven from and intrenched line at east and south head of Big Black Bridge, on morning of 17th; we lost a large amount of artillery. The army was much demoralized; many regiments behaved badly. We are occupying the trenches around Vicksburg; the enemy is investing it, and will probably attempt an assault. Our men have considerably recovered their morale, but unless a large force is sent at once to relieve it, Vicksburg must before long fall. I have used every effort to prevent all this, but in vain.

Grant, having encircled Vicksburg, convinced that the Confederate forces were demoralized, ordered an assault on the 19th centered around the part of the north part of the line, which was under Sherman’s command.  The assault was successfully repulsed.  I quoted Grant’s description of that assault in my last Vicksburg post:

The enemy had been much demoralized by his defeats at Champion’s Hill and the Big Black, and I believed he would not make much effort to hold Vicksburg. Accordingly, at two o’clock I ordered an assault. It resulted in securing more advanced positions for all our troops where they were fully covered from the fire of the enemy.

Grant was still convinced that Vicksburg was vulnerable to an assault and was worried that Johnston’s forces at his rear could create real trouble if they came toward Vicksburg.  Plans were made to try again on May 22nd. 

To anyone who has seen the topography of the land between the Union and Confederate lines ( pictured above) would, I think, would have found the prospects of a direct assault foreboding.  I have walked those lines, and read accounts of the assaults, and remain amazed that the assault was thought possible.

The assault was planned with artillery beginning at dawn, followed by the assault itself beginning at 10:00 AM.  For the first time in history, the assault was commenced by synchronized watches.

Over the years, I’ve read a number of accounts of the events of that day.  The Union troops made it onto the outer walls of the Confederate forts in a number of places, planting their colors on the outer walls, and, in some places, holding those positions through the day.  In one place, they briefly entered the Confederate position but were shortly repulsed, a matter that caused great controversy among the Union generals.

Federal troops ended up penned in the ravines under the Confederate lines, some unable to even sit up without being exposed to Confederate fire.  The Confederates were setting fuses to artillery shells and then rolling them down toward the Union forces.  Finally, after dark fell, the Union survivors were able to make it back to their lines.

Grant’s account of all this is less than his usual vividness, particularly compared to his other accounts of engagements.  It’s also an instance where he does not report the casualties at the end of an engagement.

The 20th and 21st were spent in strengthening our position and in making roads in rear of the army, from Yazoo River or Chickasaw Bayou. Most of the army had now been for three weeks with only five days’ rations issued by the commissary. They had an abundance of food, however, but began to feel the want of bread. I remember that in passing around to the left of the line on the 21st, a soldier, recognizing me, said in rather a low voice, but yet so that I heard him, “Hard tack.” In a moment the cry was taken up all along the line, “Hard tack! Hard tack!” I told the men nearest to me that we had been engaged ever since the arrival of the troops in building a road over which to supply them with everything they needed. The cry was instantly changed to cheers. By the night of the 21st all the troops had full rations issued to them. The bread and coffee were highly appreciated.

I now determined on a second assault. Johnston was in my rear, only fifty miles away, with an army not much inferior in numbers to the one I had with me, and I knew he was being reinforced. There was danger of his coming to the assistance of Pemberton, and after all he might defeat my anticipations of capturing the garrison if, indeed, he did not prevent the capture of the city. The immediate capture of Vicksburg would save sending me the reinforcements which were so much wanted elsewhere, and would set free the army under me to drive Johnston from the State. But the first consideration of all was—the troops believed they could carry the works in their front, and would not have worked so patiently in the trenches if they had not been allowed to try.

The attack was ordered to commence on all parts of the line at ten o’clock A.M. on the 22d with a furious cannonade from every battery in position. All the corps commanders set their time by mine so that all might open the engagement at the same minute. The attack was gallant, and portions of each of the three corps succeeded in getting up to the very parapets of the enemy and in planting their battle flags upon them; but at no place were we able to enter. General McClernand reported that he had gained the enemy’s intrenchments at several points, and wanted reinforcements. I occupied a position from which I believed I could see as well as he what took place in his front, and I did not see the success he reported. But his request for reinforcements being repeated I could not ignore it, and sent him Quinby’s division of the 17th corps. Sherman and McPherson were both ordered to renew their assaults as a diversion in favor of McClernand. This last attack only served to increase our casualties without giving any benefit whatever. As soon as it was dark our troops that had reached the enemy’s line and been obliged to remain there for security all day, were withdrawn; and thus ended the last assault upon Vicksburg.

Grant wrote:  “The attack was ordered to commence…”  By whom?  More accurate would have been “I ordred the attack to commence….  ”

Sherman referred to the afternoon losses in support of McClernand’s exaggerated report that his forces had seized the Confederate lines and needed support as “murder.”  That is, the call for a forces to advance elsewhere on the lines produced casualties who died with no purpose.

In any event, the advance failed, and Grant realized he was dealing with a siege.

Thereafter, McClernand wrote a multiple page account of the Vicksburg campaign to that date creating the distinct impression that his corps had carried the day throughout with little support.  He had this account published as a congratulatory order to his troops, but did not send a copy to Grant before arranging its publication.   It is this letter that produced the letter from Sherman to Lieutenant Colonel John A. Rawlins, who was essentially Grant’s personal aide.  This letter was mentioned by Anderson in comments, and is one of the greatest angry letters I’ve ever read.  Gen. McClernand’s “order” congratulating his troops violated both Army regulations and standing orders, and resulted in Grant relieving him of his command and ordering him to leave Grant’s department three days after Sherman’s letter to Rawlins.  McClernand’s attempts to claw back into command (beginning here) by going over Grant’s head are at the same time annoying and amusing.

After the jump are some more direct accounts of the fighting from officers on both sides.

Here’s an account from The Confederate Military History, published in 1899 and edited by Gen. Clement Evans (with contributions from a number of Confederate military leaders):

On the forenoon of May 22d a tremendous and incessant fire was opened by the Federal artillery and gunboats, and this was followed by an assault by the whole Federal line, Sherman against Smith, McPherson against Forney and McClernand against Stevenson. The divisions of Smith and Forney repelled these determined assaults from 11 a.m. until evening, though the Federals succeeded in getting a few men into the exterior ditches at various points of attack. Gen. S. D. Lee’s line was assailed with vigor. The enemy was allowed to approach within good musket range, when every available gun was opened upon him with grape and canister, and the men rising from their trenches poured volley after volley into the foe with so deadly an effect that he fell back, leaving the ground covered ‘with dead and dying. In one angle of the works about sixty of the enemy effected a lodgment and planted two colors on the parapet, but were driven out and the flags captured by two companies of Waul’s legion. In this assault the Federals lost the major part of their killed and wounded while before Vicksburg, the grand total of which was 4,233. This assault satisfied the Federal army. Grant blamed the loss of life to McClernand, and soon afterward sent that officer home.

Here is Union Major General Frank Blair’s report to General Sherman of the days events, dispatched on May 24th, of the assault on the Stockade Redan in the Northern part of the siege lines:

        On the 22d, I received an order to renew the assault at 10 o’clock in the morning. I massed my division in the ravine to the left of the Graveyard road, where it debouches upon that road as it passes across the valley immediately in front of the bastion. A volunteer storming party, consisting of 2 officers and 50 men from each brigade of the division, was to lead the assault.. General Ewing’s brigade and the brigades of Cols. Giles A. Smith and Thomas Kilby Smith were to follow in the order in which they are named, and to charge across the road by the flank.

At the signal the volunteer storming party, led by Capt. John H. Groce, of General Ewing’s brigade, dashed forward in gallant style, and planted the flag of the Union, which was borne by Private Howell G. Trogden, of the Eighth Missouri, upon the bastion of the enemy. The leading regiment of General Ewing’s brigade, the Thirtieth Ohio Volunteers, went forward with equal impetuosity and gallantry, but the next regiment, the Thirty-seventh Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry, faltered and gave way under the fire of the enemy, which was far from being severe on this regiment, and was, in fact, directed upon the head of the column. The men lay down in the road and behind every inequality of ground which afforded them shelter, and every effort of General Ewing and Lieut. Col. Louis von Blessingh to rally them and urge them forward proved of no avail. Both of these officers exposed themselves very much in the effort to encourage this regiment, and they were seconded in their efforts by the officers of the regiment.
Lieut. A. C. Fisk, aide-de-camp to General Hugh Ewing, was conspicuous in his efforts to encourage and animate them to go forward to the assistance of their gallant comrades, who could be seen already upon the very intrenchments of the enemy, and Sergt. Maj. Louis Sebastian, Thirty-seventh Ohio Volunteer Infantry, went along the whole line of the regiment, exposing himself to the heaviest fire of the enemy, exhorting and remonstrating with the men and urging them forward; but it was all in vain. They refused to move, and remained in the road, blocking the way to the other regiments behind, and I was finally compelled to order the Forty-seventh Ohio and Fourth West Virginia forward by another route, to the left of the road. These regiments advanced with commendable spirit and alacrity, and reached a position to which most of the Thirtieth Ohio, so long unsupported, had been compelled to recoil and shelter themselves, and which was less than 150 yards from the bastion. I then ordered the brigade of Col. Giles A. Smith forward by the same route, to the left of the road, as that taken by the last two regiments of General Ewing, and as soon as this brigade went forward it was followed up by the brigade of Col. Thomas Kilby Smith; but this route, while it was better covered from the fire of the enemy, led through ravines made almost impassable with abatis of fallen timber, and did not admit of anything like a charge. I therefore directed Col. Giles A. Smith to go forward as rapidly as the nature of the ground would admit, and to assault whenever he found it practicable to do so, and directed Col. Thomas Kilby Smith to follow close up and support any movement Col. Giles A. Smith should make. Col. Giles A. Smith pushed forward, following the ravine to the left of the position of General Ewing, and reached a ridge about 100 yards from the enemy’s intrenchments.
At this point he found General Ransom, commanding a brigade of the division of General McPherson’s corps, who had approached by a ravine from the left of my position, and who, from the nature of the ground, was able to advance his brigade under cover still nearer to the enemy’s works than that of Colonel Smith. General Ransom and Colonel Smith communicated with each other, and determined to make a simultaneous assault. It was late in the afternoon before these brigades were able to reach the positions which I have referred to, so difficult and toilsome was the nature of the ground over which they moved, rendered still more so by the abatis and artificial entanglement thrown across it by the enemy. Both brigades went forward with a cheer when the signal was given to advance, and the sharpshooters from Ewing’s brigade and our artillery opened upon the enemy at the same time with considerable effect; but, after reaching the face of the works of the enemy, they encountered a most fatal and deadly enfilading fire from the enemy’s guns on the left, which came crashing through the ranks, while in front they were met by an obstinate resistance from an intrenched foe, and it was found impossible to advance. Both brigades, however, maintained pertinaciously the ground they had won, and Col. Giles A. Smith’s brigade still retains it, having fortified the position, and, under orders since given by you, the position has been materially strengthened and advanced.
I cannot speak too highly of the courage and conduct of the officers and men of the First Brigade in this desperate assault, which, however, was fully equaled by that of General Ransom’s brigade, of which I think it proper to speak, as the brigade was co-operating with one of my own, and was separated by the character of the ground from the corps to which it belonged. The officers and men of both brigades displayed a courage and coolness which could not have failed to win success in a less unequal struggle.
The active operations of the day were closed by an impetuous assault of the brigade of General Mower, of General Tuttle’s division, in your army corps, which rushed forward by the flank on the same road which had been attempted in the morning by the brigade of General H. Ewing. The attack was made with the greatest bravery and impetuosity, and was covered by a tremendous fire from our batteries, and by the sharpshooters of Ewing’s and Giles A. Smith’s brigades, and its failure only served to prove that it is impossible to carry this position by storm.

Here is Brig. General Hugh Ewing’s account (Ewing was in Blair’s corps and was part of the events described above), dispatched on the 27th.

 At 10.04 a.m. of the 22d, a storming party, composed of 50 volunteers from each brigade of the division, bearing the colors of my headquarters, and followed by my troops in column, charged down a narrow, deep-cut road upon a bastion of the enemy’s works. They were instructed to bear to the left, and cross the curtain if the ditch at the salient could not be bridged. They made a foot-path at the salient, by which Captain [John H.] Groce, commanding, Lieutenant O’Neal, [Private] Trogden, the color-bearer, and others, crossing, climbed half way up the exterior slope, and planted the flag upon it unfurled. The Thirtieth Ohio, next in order, moved close upon the storming party, until their progress was arrested by a front and double flank fire, and the dead and wounded which blocked the defile. The second company forced its way’ over the remains of the first, and a third over those of the preceding, but their perseverance served only further to encumber the impassable way. The Thirty-seventh Ohio came next, its left breaking the column where the road first debouched, upon a deadly fire. After the check, a few passed on, but were mostly shot. They fell back, and, with the remainder of the brigade and division, came over a better route.
I formed my troops as they came up on the brow of the hill running from the road to the left, parallel to and 70 yards from the intrenchments. Here we protected our advanced men and wounded until they were gradually withdrawn, and, with a heavy and well-directed and sustained fire, covered the after attempt to charge over the intrench-merits made down the same road by the brigade of General Mower.
At night the wounded, dead, and colors were brought 70 yards back to the hill, where the brigade remains, intrenching and skirmishing with the enemy.

On July 25th, Confederate Brig. Gen. Stephen D. Lee submitted a report containing this description of the assault on Railroad Redoubt from the corps under Gen. McClernand, in the Southern part of the lines:

        At about 10 a.m. on the 22d, a gallant assault was made upon our works from the right of my position to the extreme left of our line on the river. The assault upon my front was a determined one, but was handsomely repulsed, with a considerable loss to the enemy. They succeeded, however, in carrying an angle of the work immediately to the right of the railroad, and in planting two colors upon the parapet, which remained there for several hours. The angle was finally assaulted and carried by a gallant band of Waul’s Texas Legion, under the command of the intrepid Lieut. Col. E. W. Pettus, Twentieth Alabama Regiment. This brave officer, assisted by Major [O.] Steele and Captain [L. D.] Bradley, of the Legion, and the heroic Texans, captured the colors of the enemy and about 50 prisoners, including a lieutenant-colonel. A more daring feat has not been performed during the war, and too much praise cannot be awarded to every one engaged in it.


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