May 16, 1863 – Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s Federals headed west from Jackson and took on Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton’s Confederates near the halfway point to Vicksburg.
At 8:30 a.m. on the 15th, General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Confederate Western Department, received Pemberton’s message stating that he was not moving to join forces with Johnston, but instead moving southeast to attack Grant’s supply line at Grand Gulf. Neither Pemberton nor Johnston knew that Grant had cut himself off from Grand Gulf and his army was now living off the land.
Johnston, frustrated that the two main Confederate forces in Mississippi were not reuniting but moving farther apart, responded, “Our being compelled to leave Jackson makes your plans impracticable. The only mode by which we can unite is by your moving directly to Clinton.”
Meanwhile, Grant’s XVII Corps under Major General James B. McPherson moved west from Jackson to link with Major General John A. McClernand’s XIII Corps near Raymond. From there, the two corps would advance in multiple columns to Edwards Station, about 15 miles east of Clinton. Major General William T. Sherman’s XV Corps stayed at Jackson and continued destroying anything of military value, along with most other valuable property.
Grant, who had a spy on Johnston’s staff, expected to confront Pemberton at Clinton because Johnston urged him to go there. Grant was unaware that Pemberton decided to defy Johnston’s order and instead go southeast. Blocked by a flooded waterway, Pemberton’s Confederates countermarched until cavalry reported a large Federal force near Bolton. That night, Grant’s troops bivouacked on the Jackson, Middle, and Raymond roads. The forces of Grant and Pemberton were within four miles of each other.
The next morning, Pemberton received Johnston’s message urging him to go to Clinton so they could join forces. By this time, Colonel Wirt Adams, commanding the Confederate cavalry, had reported skirmishing with Federals on the Raymond road. Pemberton, who had disobeyed Johnston’s initial order to join him, now decided to obey. He replied, “The order of countermarch has been issued. I am thus particular, so that you may be able to make a junction with this army. Heavy skirmishing is now going on in my front.”
As Pemberton’s 22,000 men began countermarching toward Clinton, McPherson advanced from Bolton to block him at a wooded ridge called Champion’s Hill, on the farm of Sid Champion, almost exactly between Jackson and Vicksburg. Federals drove in Pemberton’s pickets and opened with artillery. Pemberton saw that the Federals were to his north, poised to either block him from joining Johnston or hurry west to capture Vicksburg. He therefore decided to give battle.
Pemberton deployed Major General Carter L. Stevenson’s division on the hill to face McPherson while sending the divisions under Major General William W. Loring and Brigadier General John S. Bowen against McClernand to the southeast. McPherson attacked Stevenson around 10:30 a.m., pushing the Confederates back and taking the hill. Bowen joined Stevenson in a counterattack that regained Champion’s Hill and almost pushed its way to Grant’s headquarters.
Just as McPherson’s line began wavering, the rest of his corps came up, led by Major General John A. Logan and Marcellus Crocker’s “Greyhounds.” The Federals launched another attack while Loring failed to support Bowen and Stevenson. This drove the Confederates off what they called “the hill of death” for good. The “up in the air” Confederate left flank disintegrated.
Pemberton ordered a retreat southwest to Edwards Station, with Loring’s division serving as the rear guard. Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman, who had surrendered Fort Henry last year, was killed by a shell fragment while directing artillery to cover the Confederate retreat.
The Confederates fell back on the Raymond road to Baker’s Creek, and then to Edwards. But the Federals pursued, and the disorganized Confederates could not hold Edwards Station. They broke and fled around 5 p.m. toward the bridge over the Big Black River, just 10 miles from Vicksburg, leaving Loring isolated. Loring held a council of war and decided not to try reuniting with the rest of Pemberton’s army. He hurried north to join with Johnston instead.
The Federals sustained 2,441 casualties (410 killed, 1,844 wounded, and 187 missing), and the Confederates lost 3,840 (381 killed, 1,018 wounded, and 2,441 missing or captured). The Federals captured 27 enemy cannon. Grant later claimed that more Confederates could have been captured had McClernand not been so cautious, but the Federals succeeded in cutting off Loring’s entire division.
This was the decisive battle of Grant’s campaign, during which he had defeated two Confederate armies and made it impossible for them to join forces. Meanwhile, Sherman’s corps remained at Jackson, where Sherman reported, “We have made good progress today in the work of destruction. Jackson will no longer be a point of danger. The land is devastated for 30 miles around.”
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