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Civil War Series

The Campaign for Vicksburg

   

The victorious Union army rested until the early morning hours of May 17. Grant sent McPherson and Sherman, who had finally arrived from Jackson, on routes north of the railroad with the aim of cutting off Pemberton's retreat. McClernand moved his corps forward to hit the Confederates head-on where the railroad crossed the Big Black River.

THE PONTOON BRIDGE CONSTRUCTED FOR SHERMAN'S TROOPS TO CROSS THE BIG BLACK RIVER. (LC)

Pemberton's exhausted army waited for Loring's division the night of May 16 on the east side of the Big Black. The wait proved costly. On May 17 McClernand's corps hit the dejected Rebels. Michael Lawler's brigade of Carr's division played a key role in the battle at Big Black, striking the Confederate left and leading to a panicky retreat across the Big Black. A Missourian noted that many "either swam the river, were captured or killed in trying to get over."


(click on image for a PDF version)
BATTLE OF BIG BLACK, MAY 17
Pemberton delays his retreat into Vicksburg to give Loring time to rejoin the army. The delay is costly, for it gives Grant time to send troops forward to attack the demoralized Confederates of Bowen's division. Pemberton's forward lines east of the river collapse under the pressure of McClernand's division and flee across the stream in a rout. The day's action is highlighted by the hard-hitting attack of Mike Lawler and his brigade on the Confederate left. Pemberton's troops manage to burn bridges, giving them a chance to get into Vicksburg ahead of the pursuing Yankees.

Pemberton's army managed to escape, thanks to infantry and artillery that had been placed on the bluffs along the west bank of the river and thanks to the successful burning of the railroad bridge and a boat that had been used for a bridge. But Pemberton had lost many valuable soldiers from Bowen's division, while McClernand's casualties were negligible.

The Confederates won the race for Vicksburg, although Pemberton went against Johnston's orders to escape to the northeast. Johnston, quite accurately as things turned out, feared that Pemberton would be trapped and lose his army. Pemberton's past experience in South Carolina and Jefferson Davis's order continued to echo in the Pennsylvanian's head. He must fight it out for Vicksburg, no matter the cost.

As Pemberton rode west, he mused over his career, dejectedly noting to an aide that the disasters of the last two days coincided with his entry into West Point, thirty years before. Pemberton soon recovered his fighting spirit and led a spirited defense of the city with which his name would forever be linked.

When he reached Vicksburg, he quickly organized his troops, placing Martin Smith's division on the Confederate left, John Forney's in the center, and Stevenson's on the right. Bowen's division was held in reserve. Smith's and Forney's were the divisions that had been left in Vicksburg and were fresh. Stevenson's decimated division took the right flank because Pemberton expected immediate Yankee attacks on Smith's and Forney's fronts. Stevenson's men should be out of harm's way, at least for a while.

AN UNKNOWN ARTIST'S RENDERING OF GRANT'S ARMY CONVERGING ON VICKSBURG. (M&M KAROLIK COLLECTION, MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, BOSTON)

While the Confederates settled into the considerable confines of their Vicksburg entrenchments, Grant pushed his three corps in pursuit. He wanted to settle the matter as quickly as possible and was disappointed that he could not finish the job before the enemy reached Vicksburg. Undeterred, he ordered two assaults, the first on May 19.

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