The Battle of Champion Hill was the decisive land engagement of the Vicksburg Campaign. The fighting on May 16, 1863, took place just twenty miles east of the river city, where the advance of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Federal army attacked Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton’s hastily gathered Confederates.
The bloody fighting seesawed back and forth until superior Union leadership broke apart the Southern line, sending Pemberton’s army into headlong retreat. The victory on Mississippi’s wooded hills sealed the fate of both Vicksburg and her large field army, propelled Grant into the national spotlight, and earned him the command of the entire US armed forces.
Timothy Smith, a historian for the National Park Service, has written the definitive account of this long-overlooked battle. This book, winner of a nonfiction prize from the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters, is grounded upon years of primary research, rich in analysis and strategic and tactical action, and a compelling read.
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Trial and Error
"The great Battle of Vicksburg has commenced."
— Confederate Soldier
VICKSBURG, MISSISSIPPI, IS DEFINED BY ITS PAST. LIKE A QUEEN surveying her realm, she sits atop tall bluffs overlooking a great bend in the Mississippi River. The land beneath and surrounding it was once called Walnut Hills, after the tall trees of the same name and beautiful rolling and lush landscape. High and mighty, the proud river city has served for centuries as a crossroads for trade and political discourse. Its colorful history also includes more than its share of bloodshed.
For all the obvious reasons, Indians utilized the strong defensive position, as did the Europeans who arrived in the area in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. The flags of England, France, and Spain have all flown over Walnut Hills. The Spaniards were the first to seriously fortify the site with the erection of Fort Nogales, a foreshadowing what was to come at Vicksburg.
By the late 18th century a new flag rippled over the bluffs in the stiff river breezes. The Spanish moved out and abandoned Fort Nogales, which fell into decay. The recently established United States now owned Walnut Hills. American explorers and entrepreneurs moved into the area, intent on making homes and fortunes. A large swath of land was carved out of the wilderness, designated Mississippi, and organized as a territory in 1798.
The newcomers to the region included the Rev. Newet Vick and his family, who moved to the northern part of what would become Warren County in 1814. Most of the sprawling settlements had taken hold south and southeast of Walnut Hills. The northern region was as agriculturally desirable as the south, but adjacent to the Choctaw Indians and bounded on the east and north by what was called the great Indian Wilderness. Vick and others cleared land about seven miles from where Vicksburg would eventually take root. Others followed over the ensuing years, and the town of Vicksburg was born. The new town was chartered in 1825, eight years after Mississippi was admitted as the country's 20th state. The development of the steamboat and railroad connected the fledgling river town with other centers of population and trade.
By the late 1830s, Vicksburg was a bustling commercial center boasting banks, newspapers, churches, stores of all kinds, and industry. A steady influx of farmers, laborers, and merchants arrived to help turn the rich Mississippi soil surrounding Vicksburg into land capable of producing cash crops. Everyone in that part of the state, from the smallest of farmers to the largest of plantation owners, sold their crops in Vicksburg. Cotton and grain had become the lifeblood of the city.
Vicksburg's position of prominence as the state's most important logistical hub was inextricably linked with the Mississippi River. Unfortunately, its connection to and dependence upon that waterway gave her a new-found importance when the United States began breaking apart in 1860. Vicksburg's leading citizens knew that if war came, control of the river would be essential to both sides. They also appreciated that Vicksburg was the key to the river's unfettered navigation. A war would be disastrous to the city and the economic prosperity enjoyed by its nearly 5,000 citizens. Pro-Union delegates attended Mississippi's secession convention on the city's behalf. Vicksburg's efforts to sway other delegates notwithstanding, Mississippi left the Union on January 9, 1861. A fifth national flag fluttered over the Walnut Hills area. Vicksburg was now one of the salient points of the new Confederacy.
Other than two small foundries that cast cannon and munitions for the Confederacy, the city held little of military value. Nor was Vicksburg a major rail hub. The only line that served the city was a small though important railroad running east to the state capital at Jackson and points beyond. A ferry was required to haul supplies across the river to a railroad west of the Mississippi. These logistical lines, however, did not make Vicksburg any more of a key connection to the vast Trans-Mississippi Theater than many other points along the wide river, including Columbus, Kentucky, Memphis, Tennessee, and the Louisiana cities of Baton Rouge and New Orleans. What made Vicksburg so important was its defensibility. Sitting as it did high above the great elbow of the river on 200-foot high bluffs, the city was well positioned as a citadel and dominated the control of the Mississippi.
As soon as war began, the Confederacy erected earthen fortifications at several points along the river, including Vicksburg. The Mississippi city was roughly midway between New Orleans and Memphis, which meant the latter cities would almost certainly be targets before any major Federal offensive locked on Vicksburg as an objective.
Vicksburg also boasted a defensible river front. Powerful artillery mounted on the bluffs could shell any Union gunboat or transport on the river below with a plunging fire. Even the vaunted enemy ironclads would be susceptible from above with their wooden decks and grated skylights, unable to elevate their guns high enough to return fire. Other guns were positioned on the river bank itself. The geography of the Mississippi also aided the defenders. After running generally south and southeast for several miles, the river made a sharp turn northeast, followed by a sudden and narrowing twist almost 180 degrees to the southwest past the city. Negotiating the tight loop was tricky enough in peace time; doing so under deadly plunging cannon fire would make it doubly difficult.
The land approaches to the city were also easily defensible. There was no good way to approach Vicksburg. A river assault up the steep bluffs from the west was out of the question. Like a shield, the vast Mississippi Delta, a morass choked with streams, bayous, swamps, snakes, and vermin of all types, covered the city's northern approaches. The Delta would not fully prevent any serious large-scale movements against the city from that direction, but it would hinder them significantly. An approach from the east posed other thorny issues in addition to difficult terrain. In order to get around the Delta, an army would have to move southward from northern Mississippi and capture the state's capital at Jackson. Only then would a movement against the fortified river city be possible. Making a deep and successful penetration to Jackson, however, would be very difficult. As the capital of Mississippi and an important rail center, it was bound to be vigorously defended (though no fortifications of note had been constructed, and no sizeable garrison was posted there). Geography also favored the Southerners on this front. Several broad rivers cut across the northern and central parts of the state. These would provide the Confederates with several good defensive lines — and the invader with vexing obstructions. An invading army could count on meeting stiff resistance during any move south, and would require a long and vulnerable supply line that would siphon off thousands of troops for its defense.
The best avenue to reach Vicksburg (something not readily discernable from a map) was from the south, where rolling hills and several passable roads allowed for an advance. However, the Federals would have to figure out how to bypass the Vicksburg batteries in order to effect a crossing of the wide Mississippi River before moving deep into Confederate territory, where a single battlefield reverse could result in the loss of an entire field army. Every approach posed its own unique problems. Even if the city could be reached — and that was a big if — enormous fortifications had been thrown up around it during the fall of 1862. The Confederates had an ideal defensive position on the most important river in North America, and this was recognized by both Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. Capturing Vicksburg would be a difficult, lengthy, and costly effort under the best of circumstances.
General Winfield Scott, the commander of the Union armies at the outbreak of the war, developed an early strategy for victory that hinged on the opening of the river. His "Anaconda Plan" called for wrapping the North's military coils around the Southern Confederacy and constricting it, squeezing off supplies and choking off everything it needed to wage war. At the heart of the ambitious scheme was control of the Mississippi River, which would cut the Confederacy in half. But this could only come about if Vicksburg and her sister strongholds fell.
Although most politicians and soldiers scoffed at Scott's plan, the war implemented by the Union eventually achieved much of what the hero of the Mexican War proposed. A blockade initiated at the beginning of the war, though at first ineffective, slowly but steadily made it more difficult to shuttle goods in and out of Southern ports. Land and sea operations closed these ports one by one. The initial fighting in Virginia focused on capturing Richmond while a drive down the Mississippi River governed early movements in the Western Theater. Using the Mississippi River valley and its contiguous river systems, the Federals effectively drove the Confederates from one position after another. The twin Union victories at Forts Henry and Donelson (which included the capture of Fort Heiman across the Tennessee River from Henry) flanked the stronghold at Columbus, Kentucky, which fell in early 1862. With it crumbled Gen. Albert S. Johnston's tissue-thin Southern line across the Blue Grass State. The victorious Union army, led by a little-known general named Ulysses S. Grant, moved south intent on capturing Corinth, a vital railroad crossroads in northern Mississippi just below the Tennessee line. A Southern surprise attack at Shiloh against Grant's scattered army on April 6, followed by a second day of fighting on the 7th, killed Johnston, drove away a crippled Confederate army, and sealed the fate of Corinth. The city fell the following month under a Federal force led by Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, who had superceded Grant after the near-disaster at Shiloh.
While these major operations were underway, smaller Federal armies took key positions on the Mississippi River. New Madrid and Island No. 10 fell in March and April, respectively. Horrified Confederate authorities in Richmond read the gloomy reports pouring in from beyond the Appalachian range as Fort Pillow, Memphis, and several smaller fortifications fell in early June, outflanked by the Confederate loss of Corinth and Union naval victories along the sprawling river system.
While Federal armies pushed to open the Mississippi from the north, other forces moved against the opposite end of the river. On April 24, Forts Jackson and St. Philip, two massive bastions protecting the mouths to the river below New Orleans, were unable to stop David Farragut's fleet. The next day the South's largest city and most important seaport was in Union hands. Baton Rouge, Louisiana, another important river town, fell without a fight in early May. By early August 1862, following the Battle of Baton Rouge, the Confederacy's grip on the Mississippi River had been reduced to the narrow stretch of water running from Vicksburg south to Port Hudson, Louisiana. Vicksburg was now the only real impediment to controlling the river.
After taking Corinth in north Mississippi, Halleck's Federals were poised to make a move south against Vicksburg. As early as June 1862, messages concerning operations against the river city ticked off telegraphs. Instead of making a concentrated push against the river citadel, however, Halleck set his sights on lesser objectives and divided the forces under his command hither and yon. His decision killed the momentum for an immediate Union advance.
Ulysses Grant believed Halleck's decision was a mistake. When Halleck was called to Washington in July so President Lincoln could tap his administrative abilities, Grant resumed command of the armies in north Mississippi and prepared to move south. Before he could advance, however, the Confederates struck again. At Iuka in September and Corinth in October, the Southerners sought to regain control of north Mississippi and even carry the war back into Tennessee and Kentucky. A Confederate victory followed by a drive north would quell any threats against Vicksburg or other important points in the Deep South.
Unfortunately for the Southerners, the twin battlefield failures at Iuka and Corinth erased these dreams and the battered forces withdrew to Holly Springs, Mississippi. Unperturbed by the attacks, Grant reorganized and supplied his army and prepared to follow them. By November of 1862, Vicksburg had again become the chief target of Union efforts in the Mississippi valley.
The relentless campaigns Grant and his officers launched against Vicksburg were later described by a Confederate soldier as "the storm ... in the West." It was an apt description. The months-long tempest would eventually draw in tens of thousands of men from all points of the compass and trigger dozens of engagements large and small. The titanic effort was a necessary step in the quest for final victory. Grant realized fully what both Lincoln and Davis had seen from the beginning — that Vicksburg was the key to unlocking the river and splitting the South in two. It was not a closely-held secret. Many, even in the rank and file, grasped for some time that the fighting must inevitably focus on the river city. When Grant's target became clear, one Southern soldier wrote his relative, "the great Battle of Vicksburg has commenced." No one thought the endeavor would be easy. "It is the best fortified place I ever saw," wrote home one Confederate. Six months later Grant believed the same thing. His six different efforts encompassing millions of acres across several states had each ended in failure. The Confederates had a fortress surrounded by near-perfect defensible geography. Little wonder the city became known as the "Gibraltar of the Confederacy."
Grant's first effort, undertaken in the late fall of 1862, consisted of a movement down the Mississippi Central Railroad from La Grange, Tennessee, through Holly Springs and Oxford, toward Grenada, Mississippi. It was an obvious overland approach. Grant believed a movement south to Jackson could isolate Vicksburg from the rest of the South. Between Holly Springs and Jackson, however, lay two hundred miles of country swarming with state troops, unfriendly citizens — and the main Confederate army commanded by Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton. The Mississippi army had taken up a position along the Tallahatchie River in north Mississippi to block Grant's advance. Grant knew dislodging Pemberton and keeping his own army supplied at the same time would be a very difficult proposition.
Grant set out in several columns from La Grange, Germantown, and across The Delta. The advance covered a wide swath of the state, but Grant quickly discovered its downside: every step south required the detachment of troops to guard his ever-lengthening line of supply. Consequently, he decided to simply draw Confederate forces responsible for the defense of the Vicksburg-Jackson enclave into north Mississippi and keep them pinned there. William T. Sherman's men were sent back to Memphis, where his command would board transports and, by taking advantage of Union naval superiority on the inland waters, scoot around Pemberton's left flank, race to Vicksburg, and capture a lightly defended city. Flanking opportunities created by converging columns, coupled with a raid from Arkansas toward Grenada, levered Pemberton from his Tallahatchie River line. The Federals followed and took the university town of Oxford ten miles farther south in early December. Pemberton fell back some 25 miles to a position below the Yalobusha River just north of Grenada, where he awaited Grant's next move.
Federal units cautiously followed the Southern withdrawal, triggering skirmishes at Water Valley and Coffeeville. When they reached the Yalobusha, the Federals discovered a strong line of Confederate fortifications spread out along the river protecting Grenada (where Confederate President Davis happened to be visiting during his trip to Mississippi to confer with Gen. Joseph E. Johnston). Most of Grant's army did not pass below Oxford, however, and those units that did soon withdrew. It was not Pemberton's army that directly forced Grant's evacuation, however, but a pair of brilliantly conceived and executed cavalry raids. The first was carried out by Brig. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, who struck Grant's thin supply lines in western Tennessee during the latter half of December 1862. Major General Earl Van Dorn, who had been transferred to the mounted arm following his defeat at Corinth in October, led the other raid against Grant's advance supply base at Holly Springs. Van Dorn entered the town at the head of 3, 500 cavalry on December 20 and destroyed Grant's advance supply depot. With Forrest tearing up track on the Mobile & Ohio Railroad in Tennessee (which fed supplies to the Federals from Paducah, Kentucky) and his logistics base at Holly Springs smoldering, Grant reported, "Farther advance by this route is perfectly impracticable." His first attempt at Vicksburg had reached an anti-climactic finish.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Champion Hill"
Copyright © 2006 Timothy B. Smith.
Excerpted by permission of Savas Beatie LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Preface / Acknowledgments,
Chapter 1: Trial and Error,
Chapter 2: Port Gibson,
Chapter 3: Raymond,
Chapter 4: Jackson,
Chapter 5: Prelude,
Chapter 6: Commencement,
Chapter 7: Trapped,
Chapter 8: Collapse,
Chapter 9: Counterattack,
Chapter 10: Procrastination,
Chapter 11: Retreat,
Chapter 12: Tally,
Chapter 13: Aftermath,
Appendix: Order of Battle,