The Battle of Big Black River

May 17, 1863 – Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s Federals routed Confederates under Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton and sent them fleeing into the defenses outside Vicksburg.

After yesterday’s defeat at Champion’s Hill, Pemberton was backed against the Southern Mississippi Railroad crossing on the Big Black River, the last waterway separating Grant from Vicksburg. Pemberton had just two divisions; his third division under Major General William W. Loring had been cut off and forced to try joining with General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederates to the north.

Pemberton sent Major General Carter L. Stevenson’s division, which had taken the brunt of yesterday’s fighting, across the river toward Vicksburg, 15 miles west. That left Brigadier General John S. Bowen’s division, whose 5,000 men were entrenched behind cotton bales east of the Big Black, with both flanks on the river.

The left flank guarding the railroad bridge was weakly held, but Pemberton expected Loring to rejoin him there, unaware that Loring had instead gone north. The troops were demoralized, and disgruntled conscripts held the important center of the line.

Grant’s XV Corps under Major General William T. Sherman had left Jackson last night, and now Grant directed those Federals to take Bridgeport, five miles upriver, and block any attempt by Pemberton or Johnston to join forces. Major General James B. McPherson’s XVII Corps remained on the Champion’s Hill battlefield to tend to the wounded and bury the dead.

Major General John A. McClernand’s XIII Corps moved forward to confront Bowen around 7 a.m. A brigade in McClernand’s corps, hoping to gain the glory that McPherson’s men had won yesterday, charged without orders and routed the vulnerable Confederate left. This broke the entire line.

Fighting at the Big Black | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

The rest of the Confederates rushed across the river; some drowned while trying to swim across. Two of Stevenson’s brigades tried covering the retreat, as Pemberton ordered the railroad bridge burned even before all his men crossed. The steamer Dot, which had been anchored sideways to serve as a second bridge, was also burned.

When Pemberton received word that Sherman was trying to outflank him to the north, he ordered his men to continue retreating all the way to Vicksburg’s defenses. Lieutenant Colonel James H. Wilson, heading the Federal corps of engineers, directed his men to use cotton bales and planks from nearby houses and barns to bridge the river and pursue the Confederates.

The Federals sustained just 279 casualties (39 killed, 237 wounded, and three missing), while Pemberton lost about 1,951 (200 killed or wounded, and 1,751 captured), along with 18 guns. He lost 5,500 men in two days. On the way to Vicksburg, Pemberton told an officer, “Just 30 years ago I began my cadetship at the U.S. Military Academy. Today, the same date, that career is ended in disaster and disgrace.”

In 17 days, Grant’s men had marched 180 miles, won five engagements, captured a Confederate state capital, drove one Confederate force away and demoralized another, and were now poised to seize their ultimate goal of Vicksburg. They had lost no guns or colors in what had become one of the most remarkable Federal campaigns of the war.

Vicksburg residents learned of the defeat on the Big Black late on the 17th, as Confederate soldiers began straggling into the city’s defenses. A woman wrote, “I shall never forget the woeful sight. Wan, hollow-eyed, ragged, footsore, bloody, the men limped along unarmed… humanity in the last throes of endurance.”

—–

References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 367; Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 128; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 317; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 285-86; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 376-77; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 298; Korn, Jerry, War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 122-25; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 354; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 630-32; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 781-84

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