Today, the Civil War Commemorative Silver Dollar Coin shares the tale of Sherman’s loss at Chickasaw Bayou outside of Vicksburg, MS.
The December 29, 1912 newspaper, The Pittsburgh Gazette Times, wrote an article about Sherman’s advance on Vicksburg in 1862.
Fifty years ago today, Gen. W. T. Sherman’s advance upon the defenses of Vicksburg ended in a repulse in the battle of Chickasaw Bayou. In an assault in which only a portion of his 30,000 men were engaged, and these unsupported by the others, Sherman was driven back from the hills north of Vicksburg in a few minutes, with a loss of more than 1,700 men.
In the light of later knowledge of the character of Vicksburg’s natural defenses, it appears that Sherman was attempting the impossible when he essayed to take the city’s outworks with 30,000 men.
The Federals were obliged to advance from the landing place on the Yazoo River across a swampy island six miles wide, crossed and seamed with waterways; to cross a bayou, our oozy ditch, 100 yards wide in the face of the enemy and advance against a chain of hills bristling with batteries and tiered rifle pits, and held by a large force of veteran Confederate troops confident of their ability to beat back any number of men that Sherman might throw at them.
Sherman’s disposition of his troops necessarily presented a convex line. On the right, where the road to Vicksburg crossed the bayou, was posted A. J. Smith’s division, with one brigade, that commanded by Col. William J. Landram, of the Nineteenth Kentucky Regiment, pushed forward so far that the men could see the steeples of Vicksburg, less than three miles away. This was the nearest any of the men on the expedition were to get to Vicksburg.
This road was barred by a tangle of abattis, the felled timber presenting sharp points by thousands toward the Federals. Three-quarters of a mile away, heavy guns bore on the point from the main fortification of Vicksburg on the north.
The center of the Federal line was held by the division of Gen. George W. Morgan of Ohio, composed of Illinois, Indiana and Ohio troops. On its right was the division of Gen. M. L. Smith—”one of my best and most daring leaders,” Sherman called him—who had been seriously wounded by a sharpshooter the day before. His command devolved on Gen. David Stuart, and was joined to A. J. Smith’s for the day.
Slightly to the left of the center was Steele’s division in its new position.
To Gen. Morgan was assigned the task of leading the assault.
“General, in 10 minutes after you give the signal I’ll be on those hills,” Gen. Sherman quotes Gen. Morgan as saying before the battle.
Steele was to support Morgan and carry the county road, and on the right A. J. Smith was to cross and make a diversion in favor of Morgan, by undermining the bank of the bayou, here about 15 feet high, and carrying the levee beyond and the first line of rifle pits.
It was noon before the troops were ready, and the order was given to Gen. Morgan for the assault. The brigade of Gen. John F. De Courcey, represented by the sixteenth Ohio, Fifty-fourth Indiana and a part of the Twenty-second Kentucky regiment, dashed through a shallow part of the bayou, climbed the far bank by a road and deployed on a stretch of open ground that lay between the bank and the county road.
Their advance was into a semicircle of fire. “An immense and fearfully destructive fire” was poured in on them, reported Gen. Steele, “from front, left, right and even rear.”
The troops nearly reached the main line of the enemy’s works, but so concentrated was the fire that they could not long face it, and before Gen. Steele, who had encountered dense abattis and quicksands in crossing the bayou with the rest of the division, could come up to their support they wavered. Under an increased volume of bullets and grape, they began to give ground.
Seeing that to put in what other troops he had was useless sacrifice of men, Gen. Steele deployed his supports to cover the retreat.
In the advance, the Sixteenth Ohio Regiment had lost 311 men, the Twenty-second Kentucky 107 and the Forty-ninth Indiana 56.
Meanwhile, a little to the left, another of Steele’s brigades, that of Gen. Frank P. Blair, Jr.—a brother of Lincoln’s postmaster general—had been thrown forward into the fight.
Leading four regiments of infantry, the Thirteenth Illinois, Twenty-ninth and Thirty-first Missouri and Fifty-eighth Ohio, Gen. Blair crossed Chickasaw Bayou and leaving his horse floundering in quicksand led his men up the farther bank under sharp fire.
Forming his lines in some woods, he advanced against a double line of rifle pits lying behind a small waterway at right angles with the Chickasaw Bayou. The enemy had here formed obstructions by cutting down a thick growth of young cottonwood trees and lacing the trunks among tall stumps.
Through this, Blair’s men worked their way under a galling fire. Once across the slough they rushed at the enemy’s works and carried two lines of rifle pits amidst a storm of shot and shell.
“At this point,” reported Gen. Blair, “I observed the rapidly thinning ranks of that portion of my brigade which made the assault under my command, and turned and saw the column from the center of Gen. Morgan’s line coming up over the first range of rifle pits.
“Encourage by this support my gallant troops pushed still farther and to within a short distance of the enemy’s last entrenchments. Some reached the foot of those formidable works only to pour their lives out at their base.”
Gen. Blair lost 599 men, one-third of the number he took into the field.
On the right, no progress had been made. The Sixth Missouri Regiment, ordered forward from A. J. Smith’s command to carry the bank of the bayou, had been unable to do so. Crossing on a sandbar, they found the bank too steep to scale.
They were obliged, therefore, to hover close under the bank to escape the fire of the enemy in rifle pits at the top. As further precaution, with their bayonets and hands they scooped out of the firm sand of the bank holes into which they crawled, while the enemy, eager to get at them, held their rifles vertically over the edge of the bank and fired down on them.
With the assault of De Courcey’s and Blair’s brigades, the Federal advance spent itself. The heaviest fighting was over by 2 o’clock, and Gen. Sherman surveying the field, and with the evidence before him of the great strength of the Confederate defenses, did not order its renewal.
If he would break the barrier of batteries around Vicksburg, Sherman must now try another plan. This on the evening of December 29 he was prepared to do, by moving his force farther up the Yazoo. Nature was to conspire to defeat this plan, and baffled by the obstacles before him, Gen. Sherman would be obliged to relinquish his attempt to carry Vicksburg for Grant.
We remember 152 years ago with the Civil War Commemorative Silver Dollar Coin showing against a 19th century drawing of the battle at Chickasaw Bayou.