As the sun rose on May 15, most of Major-General Ulysses S. Grant’s Federal Army of the Tennessee was still in the Mississippi capital of Jackson. Now that Jackson was in Federal hands, Grant’s next move was to turn his army west to capture the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg. Grant knew that the best way to do this was to prevent the two main Confederate forces in Mississippi from uniting.
General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Confederate Western Department, led the force that had evacuated Jackson. At 8:30 a.m., he received a message from Lieutenant-General John C. Pemberton, commanding the other major Confederate force in Mississippi, stating that Pemberton was not moving to join forces but instead moving to attack Grant’s supply line at Grand Gulf. Neither Pemberton nor Johnston knew that Grant was no longer using Grand Gulf as a supply base and was instead living off the land.
Johnston, frustrated that Pemberton was moving farther away from him, 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.”
By this time, Grant’s Thirteenth Corps under Major-General John A. McClernand was in the Clinton vicinity. Grant rode out from Jackson and directed McClernand to move the next morning toward Edwards’s Station, on the railroad linking Jackson to Vicksburg. The Seventeenth Corps, commanded by Major-General James B. McPherson, moved west from Jackson to link with McClernand.
Major-General William T. Sherman’s Fifteenth Corps stayed at Jackson and continued destroying anything of military value, along with most other valuable property. Sherman’s troops tore up railroad track, which included heating and curling the rails until they could no longer be used for transport. These became known as “Sherman’s neckties.” The Federals also destroyed the Pearl River bridge, the state penitentiary (which had been converted to a Confederate munitions plant), and several factories that had been manufacturing war materiel for the Confederacy.
Many troops also got drunk on local whiskey and destroyed property not related to the Confederate war effort. This included hospitals, churches, hotels, and private homes. The Confederate Hotel, formerly known as the United States Hotel, was burned down due to rumors that the hotel proprietor had abused Federal prisoners sent there after the Battle of Shiloh. Arthur Fremantle, a British military observer, wrote in his journal about the scene in Jackson:
“All the numerous factories have been burnt down by the enemy, who were of course justified in doing so; but during the short space of 36 hours, in which (Sherman) occupied the city, his troops had wantonly pillaged nearly all the private houses. They had gutted all the stores and destroyed what they could not carry away. All this must have been done under the very eyes of Grant, whose name was in the book of the Bowman House… I saw the ruins of the Roman Catholic Church, the Priest’s house, and the principal hotel, which were still smoking, together with many other buildings which could in no way be identified with the Confederate Government.”
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. As May 15 ended, Grant’s troops bivouacked near Bolton on the Jackson, Middle, and Raymond roads. The forces of Grant and Pemberton were within four miles of each other.
On the morning of the 16th, Pemberton was in the process of conforming to orders from President Jefferson Davis to ensure the safety of Vicksburg when he received the order from Johnston to join forces with him at Clinton. By this time, Pemberton had been informed that skirmishing had begun on the Raymond road. Having initially disobeyed Johnston’s order, Pemberton 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.”
Grant learned early on the 16th that Pemberton’s army numbered around 25,000 men and was moving east. Grant ordered the corps of McClernand and McPherson to continue moving west toward Edwards Station to confront the enemy’s advance. Grant ordered Sherman’s corps to finish up destroying Jackson and then head west to join the main army.
As Pemberton’s Confederates began countermarching toward Clinton, skirmishing intensified on the Raymond road to the point that Pemberton directed Major-General William W. Loring’s division to form a line of battle. The line was quickly pushed back by Federal artillery to a ridge west of the Ellison house. Major-General John S. Bowen’s division soon took up positions along the Middle road, north of Loring.
Elements of McClernand’s corps faced Loring and Bowen on the Raymond and Middle roads. Meanwhile, McPherson’s Federals advanced to block Pemberton’s advance at a wooded ridge called Champion’s Hill, on the farm of Sid Champion, almost exactly between Jackson and Vicksburg. Pemberton saw that McPherson was poised to either block him from joining Johnston or move past him to capture Vicksburg, and he therefore decided to give battle.
Pemberton deployed Major-General Carter L. Stevenson’s division on the hill to face McPherson while Loring and Bowen took on McClernand to the southeast. Brigadier-General Alvin P. Hovey’s division led McClernand’s advance, which took place on ridges and in ravines so heavily wooded that it was almost impossible to see the enemy. An officer under Hovey called the fight “one of the most obstinate and murderous conflicts of the war.” Another described the struggle as “unequal, terrible and most sanguinary.” Hovey’s Federals wavered until they were reinforced on the right by Major-General John A. Logan’s division of McPherson’s corps.
Logan’s Federals were in a perfect position to cut Pemberton off from Johnston and Vicksburg, but Stevenson’s Confederates came up before the Federals realized this opportunity. 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 Brigadier-General 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. This left Loring isolated. He 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 guns. Grant noted that McClernand did not commit his entire corps to the fight and later wrote, “Had McClernand come up with reasonable promptness, or had I known the ground as I did afterwards, I cannot see how Pemberton could have escaped with any organized force.”
This was the decisive battle of Grant’s campaign. He had now 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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