The story of the Civil War is one in which brilliant Confederate generals fought a numerically superior but incompetently led Union force to a standstill for almost four years, or so the biased East coast media would have you believe. Robert E. Lee and his immediate subordinates were undoubtedly the smartest people on the field in most of the engagements they fought, but in other theaters the Confederates were mostly led by generals who were ordinary at best, and away from the watchful eyes of northern reporters, the crafty Union generals who would eventually win the war were honing their abilities in mostly-forgotten battles.
Champion Hill is a case in point, because although it is the key battle of one of the most strategically significant campaigns in the war, almost nobody has heard of it.
Situated on a high bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, and bristling with cannon, Vicksburg, MS, was one of the last bastions denying the Union control of the great river. Control of the city was key to control of the Mississippi, and Ulysses S. Grant had spent months trying his hand at a series of schemes to take it or bypass it. Difficult terrain shielded the city from the north, and the river itself made an approach from the west impossible. East lay the heart of the Confederacy, and Grant had no way to attack from the south. Or he didn’t until he managed to use the river itself to send some boats down in a daring nighttime run. Once he had enough vessels downstream to cross, he simply marched south by the west bank, with the aim of marching back north to Vicksburg by the east.
The Rebels in the area were commanded by John Pemberton, a man who was more of a pencil-pusher than a battlefield commander. He knew well enough to concentrate his forces once he recognized Grant’s move, but his instinct was to defend Vicksburg rather than attack Grant, even though the latter was in a perilous position logistically speaking. Isolated brigades fought some delaying actions, but couldn’t truly hope to stop the advance of the three corps under Grant. Pemberton drew his forces back towards Vicksburg.
Grant, meanwhile, decided it would be foolish to leave the town Jackson at his back while attacking Vicksburg. So, he continued east to the state capital, where Joseph E. Johnston was waiting. Johnston, however, was fond of withdrawing in the face of a superior force – the only reason the war had gone on so long was that some damn fool Federal had shot him outside of Richmond the previous year, causing the more aggressive Robert E. Lee to take over command of the Army of Northern Virginia. Even though he had reinforcements coming, Johnston pulled out of Jackson after having urged Pemberton to move forward and unite with him just a few hours earlier.
Grant left the destruction of material and transportation in Jackson in the hands of William T. Sherman, who would in due course become expert at this sort of thing, and turned west with his other two divisions under James McPherson and John McClernand. As his forces fanned out along three roads towards Vicksburg, the Rebels under Pemberton were blundering towards Jackson, badly bungling the advance on the day before the battle. Baker’s Creek was swollen by rain and unfordable, so Pemberton’s men had to countermarch to a bridge further north. On the eve of the battle the men were exhausted, essentially trapped on one side of the creek, and seemingly completely unaware that Union troops were only a few miles down the road.
It ended up that Pemberton’s troops were strung out roughly north to south, with a division under William Loring on the south end along what was called the Raymond Road, and the division of Carter Stevenson and the wagon trains reaching north to what became known as the Middle Road. The last of his divisions was stopped near a crossroads just south of an elevation called Champion Hill, for the family (headed by a Confederate cavalryman) that lived there. In between these two lay John Bowen’s division.
Pemberton learned of the bluecoats soon enough. Skirmishes broke out at dawn, and shortly afterward Pemberton received the news that Johnston had evacuated Jackson on the 13th. Pemberton quickly decided to reverse course. Ordering Loring to block the Raymond road, Pemberton sent his wagons back across the northern crossing of Baker’s Creek (he also wisely sent a team of engineers to build a bridge at the crossing that had been unfordable the previous day). The wagons and their guards made it across, but before the rest of the army could withdraw, McPherson’s troops appeared north of Champion Hill.
Two rebel brigades, under Stephen D. Lee (no relation to Robert) and Alfred Cumming, swung north to try to meet the attack. Lee reached his position in good order, but Cumming’s brigade left several companies behind and got misaligned as it was trying to get in position. The Union line overlapped both ends of the Confederate position, and when they attacked things went wrong very quickly for the Rebels. Outnumbered and ill-prepared, Cummings’ men gave way, fleeing the field and putting Union men in good position to flank Lee’s line, which they promptly did, compelling him to withdraw. Another brigade passed further west and blocked the road leading to Baker’s Creek. The Rebels were now cut off from their wagons and their intended crossing back towards Vicksburg.
Had McClernand’s men on the middle road moved forward at this point it would have all been over for Pemberton, but advances on the Middle and Raymond roads were slow this day, perhaps because McClernand did not understand that a general engagement had already been joined. As it was, McPherson’s soldiers swept south without any reinforcement from McClernand, checked only briefly by Stevenson’s remaining men. Their brief pause, however, gave Bowen’s division time to line up and organize (a step that would have been impossible were they pressed by McClernand). With the Federal brigades far from any support, Bowen launched his men at them.
Now it was the bluecoats’ turn to fall back, with the pressure from Bowen’s men routing the left and pushing the right back up and over the hill. Even as they advanced, however, additional men were arriving down the Jackson road. Grant, who was on the scene, ordered them directly into the battle. Far from support and running out of ammunition, Bowen’s counterattack bogged down, then was driven back by mounting Federal pressure.
Pemberton sent for more support from Loring, but although the troops he was facing seemed content to sit still, Loring refused to obey the order. Doubtless Loring, who had lost an arm in the Mexican-American War and commanded troops in Virginia earlier, had little respect for Pemberton’s leadership or battlefield acumen. He had also once tried to go over Stonewall Jackson’s head as well, however, so his behavior must be blamed at least in part on a personality flaw. Regardless, he did not send any troops in aid until it was far too late to save the day. One of his brigades reached the crossroads and was able to hold part of the westbound road for a while, but before long the Union army cut off the route to the crossing again. With McClernand’s men finally advancing from the middle road, Pemberton was compelled to withdraw southward.
Fortunately for him, the creek had fallen in the night, and the crossing that had been unfordable the previous day could be waded. Thanks to a strong delaying effort on the Raymond road by the brigade of Lloyd Tilghman, most of Pemberton’s remaining troops were able to escape. Tilghman had been compelled to surrender Fort Henry to Grant in 1862 and fought hard to erase the stain of the defeat, but he was killed by shrapnel on the Raymond Road.
Loring never crossed Baker’s Creek. Thanks to confusion at the northern crossing, Union troops had been able to get to the other side of the creek, and from that position they pushed south. Knowing that they were flanked, the Rebels guarding the southern crossing had to withdraw. Loring had Yankees to the east, west, and north. So, he went south, taking a roundabout route back to Jackson, losing all of his guns and most of his supplies.
The rest of Pemberton’s force staggered back towards Vicksburg. An attempt to delay Grant at the Big Black River failed, and by May 18, the Union army had begun their siege of Vicksburg.
Thanks to McClernand’s slow advance, Pemberton might have driven off McPherson and escaped entirely if he’d responded promptly and had Loring’s help. Alternately, a quicker withdrawal towards the south would at least have preserved more of his army. As it was, Pemberton lost the advantage granted him by his superior internal lines of communication, failed to scout his opponent adequately, and under duress he could not produce a battle plan that could ensure his army’s survival, much less its victory. The Confederacy would soon pay the price.
Champion Hill is an almost forgotten battle. It doesn’t have the massive armies or staggering casualties of the great Eastern battles. Perhaps more importantly, it doesn’t have the press. However, it was the battle that made the fall of Vicksburg, and thus the loss of the Mississippi, inevitable. Gettysburg gets all the attention, but Grant’s victory at Champion Hill led directly to the completion of the encirclement that would strangle the South, the anaconda Winfield Scott had envisioned at the beginning of the war.