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
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.