December 29, 1862 – Major General William T. Sherman launched a costly attack on fortified Confederate defenses northeast of Vicksburg.
Sherman’s Federals had advanced downriver from the Mississippi to the Yazoo to threaten Walnut Hills, also known as Chickasaw Bluffs. They numbered 32,000 men in four divisions, and they held positions in the swamps and bayous below the bluffs, most notably Chickasaw Bayou. About 14,000 Confederates under Generals Carter L. Stevenson, Stephen D. Lee, and Martin L. Smith defended the bluffs. They were aided by high ground, a clear view of any attackers, and heavy artillery guarding all viable approaches.
Sherman planned to send Brigadier General George W. Morgan’s division across the swampland to penetrate the Confederate center, with support from Brigadier General Frederick Steele’s division and Admiral David D. Porter’s Mississippi River Squadron. Brigadier General A.J. Smith’s division would launch a separate attack as a diversion.
Sherman expected support from Major General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal department commander who was to lead an overland advance to prevent Confederates at Grenada, Mississippi, from reinforcing the bluffs. However, the Confederate destruction of the Federal supply depot at Holly Springs prevented Grant from supporting Sherman. Grant also could not notify Sherman because Confederates had cut the telegraph lines.
Action began with a four-hour artillery duel that caused little damage on either side. During that time, Morgan’s assault was delayed when engineers had problems bridging a stream. Morgan then repositioned his men in fear of a Confederate attack. Sherman rode to the front and showed Morgan exactly where he was to advance, deploying two brigades in front with the rest of his division and Steele’s in support. Sherman said, “We will lose 5,000 men before we take Vicksburg, and may as well lose them here as anywhere else.”
The two Federal brigades charged at noon, running to the base of the bluffs where they were easily shot down and repulsed by heavy Confederate artillery and rifle fire. The swampy terrain prevented the Federals from answering with artillery of their own. A.J. Smith’s diversion was also beaten back without any gains. Sherman planned to attack again, but heavy fog rolled in, preventing another repulse and more deaths.
The Federals sustained 1,776 casualties (208 killed, 1,005 wounded, and 563 missing), while the Confederates lost just 207 (63 killed, 134 wounded, and 10 missing). Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton, commanding the Confederate Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana, singled out several regiments from Georgia (the 40th, 42nd, and 52nd), Tennessee (3rd, 30th, and 80th), and Louisiana (the 17th, 26th, and 28th) for their valor in this engagement.
Sherman blamed Morgan for the failure. He planned another attack the next day but realized it would be futile and called it off. He then looked to continue moving up the Yazoo to attack the Confederate left, but reinforcements arrived to strengthen the defenses on the bluffs. The Federals remained positioned in front of the bluffs until New Year’s Eve, when Sherman finally conceded defeat and asked for a truce to bury his dead.
When northerners learned of the defeat, they likened it to Fredericksburg and mourned yet more lost men. Both Grant and Sherman endured heavy criticism for the battle and the destruction of the Federal supply base at Holly Springs, which turned Grant’s overland effort to capture Vicksburg into more of a disaster than Admiral David G. Farragut’s attempt to take the city in July.
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