The Battle of Champion Hill


In May, 2008, five years ago, Michele and I didn’t visit Champion Hill. We got close, we got to Vicksburg, but we didn’t get to Champion Hill. Today, one hundred and fifty years ago, on May 16th, 1863,  Ulysses S. Grant did.

He attacked the Confederate Army of General John Pemberton there. That battle, eventually, led to the fall of the Confederate fortress of Vicksburg, the separation of the South into two unconnected halves, the re-connection of the Midwest with the sea, and – I think – the end of the Confederacy. Lincoln said it best, We can take all the northern ports of the Confederacy, and they can defy us from Vicksburg. It means hog and hominy without limit, fresh troops from all the states of the far South, and a cotton country where they can raise the staple without interference.

It was one of, if not the greatest, military campaigns in our history. Grant was behind enemy lines  and outnumbered by almost two to one. All this, in an area that was swampy and mosquito infested. When Michele and I were there  – in 2008 on a pilgrimage – we didn’t even want to leave the paved roads. But Grant had been moving constantly since he and his army had crossed the Mississippi on April 3oth, two weeks before.

To distract and confuse the enemy, Grant had ordered two diversionary actions. One of them, Col. Ben Grierson’s raid, was  featured in the New York Times a couple of days ago.  Grierson made a 16 day, 600 mile, raid behind enemy lines. It was audacious, and typical of Grant, and it succeeded in diverting much of the southern cavalry – the eyes and ears of the army at that time – away from Grant’s Army.

When he crossed the Mississippi, Grant was deep in the delta flatlands – the Plantation South – and, as he captured territory, he freed slaves. Later, many of those slaves became Union soldiers, and some were immediately helpful to the Union. Without their help, Grant would have been blind; he didn’t know the country and he had no maps.  As an aside that amuses me, Grant also purchased, according to his son – freed?  liberated? captured? according to others – a horse from the plantation of Joseph Davis, Jefferson Davis’ brother. Grant renamed the horse Jeff Davis and rode him, along with Cincinnati,  for much of the war. End of asides.

Because he couldn’t attack Vicksburg directly, Grant moved east to cut off the city’s supply line. In doing so, he cut off all connection to his own base. Now he was alone, outnumbered, and surrounded. In his memoirs, Grant says, I therefore determined to move swiftly towards Jackson, destroy or drive any force in that direction and then turn upon Pemberton. But by moving against Jackson, I uncovered my own communication [and supply lines]. So I finally decided to have none–to cut loose altogether from my base and move my whole force eastward. I then had no fears for my communications, and if I moved quickly enough could turn upon Pemberton before he could attack me in the rear.

It was a blitzkrieg if I can use that word with an army mostly walking and using muledrawn wagons, oxcarts, and horses pulling buggies. According to Major-General J F C Fuller, an early theorist of modern armored warfare, Grant’s tremendous energy electrified his men, everywhere was there activity….reconnaissances were sent out daily to examine the roads and country, and foraging parties swarmed over the cultivated areas collecting supplies….Nothing was left undone which would speed up the advance, and assist in maintaining it at maximum pressure once the move forward was ordered.

On May 14th, two weeks after he crossed the Mississippi, in country he did not know and without maps, Grant took Jackson, about 60 miles from where he crossed the river, and as he says in his memoirs, his troops hoisted the National flag over the rebel capital of Mississippi. 

One more aside, in the Not everybody appreciates Grant’s humor department, the night after capturing, Jackson, Mississippi, Grant stayed at the best hotel in town, The Bowman House (in the same room that General Joseph Johnson had stayed in, for free, the night before). When the owner demanded payment, Grant’s aide-de-camp said No, but Grant agreed with the hotel owner and insisted on paying for the room…in Confederate money. End aside.

Grant then turned towards Vicksburg  from the east, and 27 miles west of where he slept two days before, he met Pemberton at Champion Hill. Again, Grant in his memoirs, The battle of Champion’s Hill lasted about four hours, hard fighting, preceded by two or three hours of skirmishing, some of which almost rose to the dignity of battle….We had in this battle about 15,000 men absolutely engaged. Our loss was 410 killed, 1,844 wounded and 187 missing. The south lost 4,082 men and were driven back into Vicksburg never to recover.

On our pilgrimage of only one day, we only had time to drive south to the area where Grant crossed the Mississippi and tour the Vicksburg Battlefield itself. Our guide for the day told us that Champion Hill was too far away (maybe he was influenced by our reluctance to leave the road earlier). He didn’t say Keep moving, there is nothing to see there, keep moving but that was the drift. Now I am sorry that I missed it, even if there was nothing to see, and I want to say that I am sorry that I will not be able to attend the 150th Anniversary, but that is not true, if I did go, all I would do is gloat.

But we did have time to get a Chinese dinner in Vicksburg  as is our ritual when traveling, and we did have time to see the Mighty Mississippi. From the bluff overlooking the River, we confirmed, as Lincoln said, that The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea.

And Thanks to Michele who really helped write this. 


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