Matt Atkinson: A Tale from the Siege of Vicksburg

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We’re just about two months away from the Fourth Annual Emerging Civil War Symposium at Stevenson Ridge (Aug. 4-6). We’ve asked each of our speakers to share with us a story related to the topic they’ll be presenting as part of our “Great Defenses of the Civil War” line-up. Today, we feature Matt Atkinson and The Confederate Defense of Vicksburg.

Vicksburg, Mississippi—Giant 13-inch mortar balls, like shooting stars, arch into the nighttime sky, onward, upward until they peak in the heavens and start their descent toward Earth, trailing sparks like comets in their deadly flight. Underneath this canopy of death, blue-clad soldiers toil in the soil, each shovelful bringing them closer to the enemy. The very earth that protects them now in their mission also will provide their final resting place if they fail. Does the earth ever yield her dead?

Lt. Col. William Cam and the 350 veterans of the 14th Illinois found themselves in this smoking cauldron during the siege of Vicksburg. On June 22, Cam received orders to move his command out at dusk and enlarge the third parallel on what would become known as Lauman’s Approach. At about 11:30 that evening, the engineer in charge of excavating the approach, Capt. Henry C. Freeman, came out to see how the work was progressing. He “found no guards in front, in accordance with instructions; the men in the trench; no work going on, and nothing done.”

A furious Freeman went to find Cam and right the situation. Five minutes into their conversation, a volley rang out from the Confederate lines.

Unfortunately for Freeman and Cam, this area of the siege line was one of the more hotly contested. The Confederates opposing them were from Alfred Cumming’s brigade. The Georgians had received a rough drubbing at the battle of Champion Hill five weeks previous and now were on a mission to prove themselves fit to be called Confederate soldiers. In the dead of night, the Georgia rebels mounted a sortie that caught the 14th Illinois off guard.

In the ensuing confusion, Cam and a few others sought cover as the majority of his command retreated. “The troops did not hold the line,” Capt. Freeman recalled, “but retired hastily and in disorder.”

The Georgians instantly started to refill the parallel trench and reversed the escarpment with the loose sod lying nearby.

As the Illinois men regrouped in a nearby ravine, someone noticed that Cam was not with them. The Georgian’s sortie had overrun his position before he could flee, and a mortified Cam was led into Confederate lines as a prisoner of war. He was subsequently court martialed and exonerated on charges of “disobedience of orders” after the siege ended.

Meanwhile, though, the Confederate “grapevine telegraph” was rife with rumors about an amazing event that had occurred during the sortie. According to innuendo, as the Georgians began to throw dirt into the captured trench, a “dead” Union colonel—Cam—suddenly achieved a miraculous resurrection—once and for all proving, the earth does yield her dead.

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One Response to Matt Atkinson: A Tale from the Siege of Vicksburg

  1. John McBryde says:

    I know Matt and saw him mature as he grew in his knowledge of Civil War history. I am proud of him. He was also in my reenactment unit. I sure would like for Matt to contact me.

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