Lieutenant-General John C. Pemberton’s Confederate Army of Mississippi had retreated west to the Big Black River following its defeat at Champion’s Hill on May 16. The Big Black was the last waterway separating the Federal Army of the Tennessee from the vital Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg. Major-General Ulysses S. Grant, the Federal commander, was determined to pursue and destroy Pemberton’s army on his way to capturing Vicksburg.
As the 17th began, Pemberton was backed against the Southern Mississippi Railroad crossing on the Big Black. His force now consisted of just two divisions; his third division under Major-General William W. Loring had been cut off in yesterday’s battle and was forced to try to join forces 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 to Vicksburg, 15 miles west. That left Major-General John S. Bowen’s division, whose 5,000 men were entrenched behind cotton bales, logs, lumber, and other makeshift impediments east of the Big Black. Both flanks were on the river. The left was weaker than the right, 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 Seventeenth Corps under Major-General James B. McPherson was still at the Champion’s Hill battlefield tending to the wounded and burying the dead. The Fifteenth Corps under Major-General William T. Sherman was moving out of Jackson toward Bridgeport, five miles upriver, to block any attempt by Pemberton or Johnston to join forces.
This left just the Thirteenth Corps under Major-General John A. McClernand to attack the Confederates on the Big Black. The Federals were in high spirits after their victory at Champion’s Hill, hopeful that just one more victory would get them into Vicksburg. But to earn that victory, they would have to advance over open ground under enemy fire and attack strong defenses.
Grant ordered McClernand to advance and secure a bridgehead on the Big Black, with McPherson following. McClernand’s Federals moved forward to confront Bowen’s Confederates around 7 a.m. As Grant observed the fighting, an officer from Major-General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Federal Army of the Gulf arrived with a message from General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck.
Halleck was unaware of the progress Grant had made so far in Mississippi and wanted him to join forces with Banks in attacking Port Hudson on the Louisiana side of the Mississippi River. Halleck wrote, “It is hoped you will unite with General Grant so as to attack Vicksburg and Port Hudson separately. If within your power to operate between the two places, and with your combined strength to attack a divided enemy, your success will almost be certain.” According to Grant:
“I told the officer that the order came too late, and that Halleck would not give it now if he knew our position. The bearer of the dispatch insisted that I ought to obey the order, and was giving arguments to support his position when I heard great cheering to the right of our line and… I immediately mounted my horse and rode in the direction of the charge, and saw no more of the officer who delivered the dispatch; I think not even to this day.”
One of McClernand’s brigades, eager 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. Confederates began racing for the rear, ignoring pleas from Pemberton himself to turn back and fight. When one of Pemberton’s staffers threatened to shoot a man for running, the man pointed toward the front and said, “Bigger guns than that, back there.”
Soon Pemberton’s entire force started rushing across the river; some drowned while trying to swim across. Two of Stevenson’s brigades tried to cover 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 into 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 and 45 guns 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.
Grant wrote Sherman, “The enemy have been so terribly beaten yesterday and to-day that I cannot believe that a stand still will be made unless the troops are relying on Johnston’s arrival with large re-enforcements, nor that Johnston would attempt to re-enforce with anything at his command if he was at all aware of the present condition of things.”
That night, Johnston received a message that Pemberton had written before the rout on the Big Black. Pemberton explained why he did not think it prudent to leave Vicksburg exposed to the enemy and join forces with Johnston. He told Johnston that he was holding the bridges over the Big Black River and requested orders.
By the time Johnston read this, he had already received word that Pemberton had retreated into Vicksburg. Johnston wrote, “Vicksburg is of no value and cannot be held; if, therefore, you are invested in Vicksburg you must ultimately surrender. Under such circumstances, instead of losing both troops and place, we must, if possible, save the troops. If it is not too late, evacuate Vicksburg and its dependencies, and march to the northeast.”
But it was too late. Confederate troops started straggling into the Vicksburg defenses on the night of the 17th. A resident noted that “for some reason our men would not fight and we were utterly routed.” Rumors quickly spread that Pemberton, a northerner, had betrayed his country. A woman wrote of the incoming troops, “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.”
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