Major General William T. 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 Major Generals Carter L. Stevenson and Martin L. Smith, and Brigadier General Stephen D. Lee defended the bluffs. They were aided by high ground, a clear view of any attackers, and heavy artillery guarding all viable approaches.
Sherman decided to use his superior numbers to overwhelm the Confederates, break their line, and open the road to Vicksburg. He knew that reinforcements were pouring into the Confederate lines, so would have to attack before his manpower advantage was lost.
Major General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal department commander, was to lead an overland advance to keep 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. And Sherman had no way of knowing this because Confederates had cut the telegraph lines.
Sherman planned to feint an attack across the entire front while actually assaulting the center of the Confederate defenses. Brigadier General George W. Morgan’s division was to march across the swampland and make the assault, with support from Brigadier General Frederick Steele’s division and the gunboats of Rear Admiral David D. Porter’s Mississippi River Squadron. Brigadier General A.J. Smith’s division would lead the feint as a diversion.
Action began with a four-hour artillery duel that caused little damage on either side. During that time, Morgan’s assault was delayed by engineers who had problems bridging a stream. This delay prompted Morgan to suspend the attack.
Sherman rode out to the newly completed bridge, pointed to the Confederates visible on the bluffs in the distance, and said, “That is the route to take!” He directed Morgan to deploy two brigades in front with the rest of his division and Steele’s in support. Morgan replied, “General, in 10 minutes after you give the signal I’ll be on those hills.” Sherman returned to headquarters and sent a message at 12 p.m.: “Tell Morgan to give the signal for assault; that we will lose 5,000 men before we take Vicksburg, and may as well lose them here as anywhere else.” Federal guns boomed to signal the attack.
The men of the two Federal brigades raced 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’s hesitation for the failure. But even if he had broken the Confederate line, his men would have been decimated by Pemberton’s army coming in from Grenada. Unaware of this, Sherman planned another assault for the next day. Steele’s division was to advance up the Yazoo to Haynes’s Bluff and assault the Confederate flank while the rest of the force renewed the attack on the Confederate center. Sherman hoped that this would spread the enemy line thin enough to allow for a breakthrough somewhere. Steele’s Federals boarded the transports on the night of the 30th, but it was determined to be too foggy to proceed, and Sherman called it off.
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 and collect his wounded. Federal burial parties reported that some of the bodies had been stripped, and they appeared as though they had been shot in the head after sustaining other non-lethal wounds.
When northerners learned of the defeat, they likened it to Fredericksburg and were outraged by more meaningless deaths. 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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