by Andrew Miller
As Memorial Day weekend approaches, I cannot help but reflect about the great sacrifices our men and women have made for our great country. Like many of the followers of Emerging Civil War, the great contest for our nation’s survival is always on my mind. This particular holiday weekend is especially exciting as it is the culmination of my duties on Liberty Island, New York Harbor, where a colossal roman goddess with her tablet in one hand and torch held high in the other stand on a pedestal of Connecticut granite.
A career change and lateral movement to Vicksburg National Military Park now consumes my every thought. And as I begin to pack my uniform items away, clear my locker out of wonderful mementos and folded-up paper schedules from weeks past, and carry numerous bags of items on the subway, I realized it is the 22nd of May.
155 years ago Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee was unleashing an all-out assault along the entire Confederate entrenchments surrounding Vicksburg, Mississippi.
A previous assault by elements of William T. Sherman’s Fifteenth Army Corps had failed in bloody repulse three days prior, and Grant was not going to be so short sighted this next time.
As part of the prepared assault, within Frank P. Blair’s Second Division of Sherman’s Corps, regimental commanders had asked for volunteers to come forward and organize into a vanguard force carrying planks and ladders for scaling the rebel works. One hundred and fifty men stepped forward and were told this mission was an important one, but a “forlorn hope.” The term meant it would be a disaster for them, a sacrifice of their lives for the greater good.
On May 22, 1863, as thousands of federal soldiers physically and mentally prepared for the task at hand, the “Forlorn Hope” grabbed their ladders and planks for their part in this attack. In their book Deeds of Valor, W.F. Beyer and O.F. Keydel described the part of these brave soldiers: “The advance party was to carry . . . logs, two men to each log, make a dash for the enemy’s entrenchments and throw the logs across the ditch to form the ground work of a bridge.”
At 10 a.m., these men raced out from behind their entrenchments where they were almost immediately shrouded in enemy smoke and rifle fire. Logs, ladders, and planks dropped by the wayside as men were killed and wounded. Somehow, Private Howell G. Trogden, carrying a flag of the storming party, planted it on Stockade Redan’s parapet, marking the location for the assault. Yet, all subsequent Union regiments were unsuccessful in storming the works.
Grant’s second assault on the entrenchments surrounding Vicksburg failed, and he settled into besieging the city, which ultimately capitulated on July 4, 1863.
One member of the “Forlorn Hope,” Private William Archinal, carried a log with another federal soldier, and when his comrade was killed, the log dropped, throwing Archinal to the ground and knocking him senseless. When awoken, he was brought into the rebel lines where he was questioned by an officer. The astonished officer asking, “Didn’t you know it was certain death” to attack the works, to which Archinal replied, “Well, I don’t know, I am still living.” The rebel officer responded boldly, “Yes, you are living, but I can assure you that very few of your comrades are!”
Examples like those of the “Forlorn Hope” are why we observe the sacrifices of our American soldiers on Memorial Day. These volunteers who gave “the last full measure of devotion” in charging against the Stockade Redan on that sweltering May 22nd day, with ladders in hand, home in their hearts and with family on their minds, moved up the appropriately named Graveyard Road and into the annals of military history. To their memory, we stand in solemn appreciation, never forgetting their valiant deeds.