The Battle of Champion Hill was a critical victory for Maj.Gen. Grant during the Vicksburg Campaign of the American Civil War. It happened on May 16, 1863.
BATTLE OF CHAMPION HILL AND THE BIG BLACK RIVER
At five in the morning on May 16, Grant learned from two railroad workers that Pemberton was moving toward him with about twenty-five thousand troops. The actual number was twenty-three thousand. Grant immediately sent Sherman orders to cease his destructive work at Jackson and move hastily west to join him, McClernand, and McPherson. Pemberton, meanwhile, having wasted his time on the southward movement to cut off Grant from his Grand Gulf base, had finally decided to obey his orders from Johnston and move east toward Jackson to confront Grant. Pemberton occupied a strong defensive position at the Battle of Champion Hill, astride the Vicksburg and Jackson Railroad, the main road between the two towns, and two parallel roads. Pemberton’s men, however, were exhausted from their confused handling on the 15th, while Grant’s troops had been efficiently moved into a threatening position.
At the May 16 Battle of Champion Hill, the thirty-two thousand troops in McPherson’s and McClernand’s corps moved against twenty-three thousand Confederate defenders. Pushing his Thirteenth Corps ahead on the Raymond Road and the Middle Road, a parallel road to the north, McClernand encountered Confederate troops who were linked by a connecting road. Uncertainty dogged the Confederate troops as word spread of General Pemberton’s belated decision, made that morning, to attempt to disengage from the enemy and move northeast to join Johnston. This decision (his third different strategic decision in three days as he tried to figure out what Grant was doing) came too late, and the armies were soon locked in battle.
After the initial blocking action on the Raymond and Middle Roads, Pemberton gave orders for some infantry to follow his wagon train back toward Vicksburg, away from the conflict, and eventually to turn northeast and link up with Johnston. He soon discovered a new Federal threat, however, which caused him to cancel that order. Coming in from the east farther north on the Jackson Road and angling toward the Champion Hill and a crucial crossroads intersection with the Middle Road was McPherson’s Seventeenth Corps. Pemberton had no choice but to attempt to block their march as well as McClernand’s.
Under Grant’s oversight and McPherson’s control, Union soldiers launched a late morning assault on the north side of the battlefield. By early afternoon, they had taken Champion Hill and gained control of Jackson Road west of the crossroads, cutting off one of Pemberton’s two escape routes back toward Vicksburg. They had shattered one Confederate division and captured sixteen precious guns. Seeing the north end of his line collapsing, Pemberton ordered reinforcements from his right. Despite their reluctance, Generals Bowen and William Wing Loring, who faced McClernand on the south end of the lines, at last, ordered two of their brigades to march north toward the crossroads. At 2:30 that afternoon, those veteran Arkansas and Missouri brigades launched a furious assault on the Union soldiers who only recently had taken control at the crossroads. The two rebel brigades drove the Yankees out of the crossroads and beyond the crest of Champion Hill.
Grant and McPherson organized yet another attack to regain the lost ground. As at Belmont, Donelson, and Shiloh, Grant took charge at a critical moment and turned adversity into victory. He said, “[Brigadier General Alvin P.] Hovey’s division and [Colonel George] Boomer’s brigade are good troops. If the enemy has driven them he is not in good plight himself. If we can go in here and make a little showing, I think he will give way.” Led by a newly arrived division of McPherson’s corps, the Federals made that “little showing” and drove the stubborn rebels off Champion Hill and out of the crossroads. To ensure the success of this counterattack, Grant even recalled the advance troops that blocked the Jackson Road toward Vicksburg. The success of the Union counterattack was aided by Loring’s additional delay in reinforcing Pemberton with troops from the right wing—apparently due to an ongoing dispute between Pemberton and Loring.
With Union forces pressing them all along the front and only one retreat route open (the Raymond Road that McClernand still had not blocked), Bowen’s and Major General Carter L. Stevenson’s divisions fled southwest to the Raymond Road and then westward across the Big Black River. Loring’s division, covering the retreat, was cut off by an Indiana battery (part of McClernand’s corps) that had pursued fleeing rebels west on the Jackson Road and then had cut across the countryside to get to the Raymond Road. Unable to get his seven thousand men across Bakers Creek and back to Pemberton, Loring abandoned his twelve guns (which Union soldiers retrieved the next day) and headed toward Jackson. By the time he joined Johnston at Jackson, Loring’s force had melted to four thousand. The Battle of Champion Hill involved about three hours of skirmishing and four hours of fierce fighting on Grant’s center and right. Aggressive assaults by McPherson’s corps had compelled a Confederate retreat, but McClernand’s failure to advance aggressively on the left first allowed Confederate reinforcements to be sent against McPherson and later permitted many of the hard-pressed rebels to flee back to the Big Black River. Instead of pushing forward on his front, McClernand sought reinforcements from the already engaged Union forces on the center and right of the battlefield—a request Grant vetoed. Although Grant was on the offensive throughout the battle and attained his goal of pushing the enemy back toward Vicksburg, the numbers of his dead and wounded were remarkably similar to his enemy’s: both sides had about four hundred killed and 1,800 wounded, but Grant’s two hundred missing paled alongside the Confederates’ 1,700 missing. In addition, Grant captured thirty pieces of artillery and cut off Loring’s division from the rest of Pemberton’s army.
This battle, which James R. Arnold says was “arguably the decisive encounter of the war,” eliminated the possibility of escape by Pemberton’s army and cleared the way for the siege of Vicksburg. While Pemberton had kept 40 percent of his troops behind the Big Black River, Grant had pressed forward with all available troops, gaining a decisive three-to-two advantage in manpower. Grant later described the military significance of the victory: “We were now assured of our position between Johnston and Pemberton, without a possibility of a junction of their forces.”
The demoralized Confederates having moved back to the Big Black River, Grant sent word to the trailing Sherman to take his Fifteenth Corps northwest and cross that river at Bridgeport, flanking Pemberton’s troops. But before Sherman could arrive on their flank, the Confederates had been beaten again. At the Big Black River in front of Grant, the Confederates again had a respectable defensive position from which to confront Grant’s assault. Inexplicably, however, they built a parapet of cotton bales and dirt on the east side of the river instead of on the higher ground west of the river, failing to take full advantage of the river’s defensive potential during the brief battle that ensued. Pemberton kept his men east of the river, hoping that Loring was going to show up and need protection crossing. In his over-commitment to the east bank, Pemberton withdrew all the artillery horses to the west bank, making a withdrawal of those guns east of the river difficult or impossible.
On the morning of May 17, Grant’s troops arrived near the river and came under fire as the Battle of the Big Black River began. A brigade of Iowa and Wisconsin troops scurried under fire to an old river meander scar near the center of the battlefield, from which they launched a dramatic three-minute charge through a swamp and abatis (an obstacle of cut trees with sharp points aimed at attackers) and broke the Confederate lines—to the shock of everyone on the field. They captured many startled defenders while the rest of the rebels east of the deep river started a major “skedaddle.” A few tried to swim across the river, while most scrambled back across two “bridges” (one being a converted steamboat), which the Confederates then burned behind them as they fled to Vicksburg. Although the bridge-burning prevented Grant’s immediate pursuit across the high river, fast-moving Union troops trapped at least a thousand Confederates on the east side of the river. Grant captured those soldiers, eighteen guns, and the last obstacle between his army and Vicksburg—at the small cost of thirty-nine killed, 237 wounded, and three missing.
Just before the battle began, an officer from General Banks’s staff had arrived with a letter to Grant from General in Chief Halleck, dated May 11, ordering Grant to return to Grand Gulf and cooperate with General Banks in capturing Port Hudson. Grant told the startled officer he was too late and that Halleck would not have given the order if he had known Grant’s current position. The next day, May 18, Grant crossed the Big Black and met Sherman, who had crossed miles above as planned. They rode together hastily toward their long-sought position on the Yazoo River northeast of Vicksburg, where they could establish a base for supplies moved upriver from the Mississippi. In his memoirs, Grant remembered the moment of elation he shared with Sherman:
In a few minutes, Sherman had the pleasure of looking down from the spot coveted so much by him the December before on the ground where his command had lain so helpless for offensive action. He turned to me, saying that up to this minute he had felt no positive assurance of success. This, however, he said was the end of one of the greatest campaigns in history and I ought to make a report of it at once. Vicksburg was not yet captured, and there was no telling what might happen before it was taken; but whether captured or not, this was a complete and successful campaign.
As Grant approached Vicksburg, he could look back on the past eighteen successful days with satisfaction. He had entered enemy territory against a superior force and with no secure supply-line, fought and won five battles, severely damaged the Mississippi capital, driven away Johnston’s relief force, driven Pemberton’s army back into Vicksburg, inflicted over seven thousand casualties (killed, wounded, and missing) on the enemy, separated Loring’s seven thousand troops from the main enemy army, and reduced Pemberton’s army by fourteen thousand troops. Grant’s own casualties were between 3,500 and 4,500. Ed Bearss summarizes the greatness of Grant’s campaign to that point:
During these 17 days of the Battle of Champion Hill, Grant’s army had maneuvered and fought while dependent upon a dangerously exposed and tenuous supply line, and the men lived in part off the country. Union losses during this period had been about 3,500 officers and men. Students of history up to that time had to go back to the campaigns of Napoleon to find equally brilliant results accomplished in the same space of time with such corresponding small losses.