Capt. Samuel Jones Ridley at the Battle of Champion Hill
Just after noon on May 16, 1863, Federals of John Logan’s and Alvin Hovey’s divisions smashed into the left flank of John Pemberton’s Army of Vicksburg on the Champion Hill battlefield. Pemberton’s left threatened to buckle under the pressure. If the field was lost there, Ulysses S. Grant could cut Pemberton off from Vicksburg, making the capture of that city easy.
Maj. Gen. Carter Stevenson, Pemberton’s division commander holding the left of the Confederate line at Champion Hill, immediately rushed reinforcements from the right end of his line to the threatened left. There, Federal troops of John Stevenson’s brigade threatened to overlap the Army of Vicksburg’s left flank. Seth Barton’s Georgians moved quickly to that exposed sector and pitched into the Union soldiers opposing them. But still, the enemy outflanked the Confederate position. Barton pushed the four guns of the Cherokee Georgia Artillery to hold his left against the onslaught. Those four guns faced four regiments of Union infantry.
Soon, more help arrived for the Georgia artillerists. Admittedly, it was not much, just two guns under the command of Capt. Samuel Ridley. The captain’s gunners rushed into the fray, posting their two guns to the left of the four already there. Carter Stevenson’s artillery chief, Maj. Joseph W. Anderson, spurred towards the left to personally oversee the artillery’s critical stand against the oncoming Yankees.
Samuel Ridley’s gunners traveled from near Pemberton’s headquarters to reach their new position. Ridley himself journeyed much further to reach this moment. He was 41 years old in May 1863, many of his years spent as a planter in Mississippi. The captain was tall and carried himself well in life, receiving the unanimous vote of his battery to be its leader in March 1862. Ridley stood six feet, three inches tall. “He was a splendid specimen of manhood,” wrote his orderly sergeant, who continued, saying Ridley was “a typical Southern planter and gentleman.”
Ridley shouted orders to his section of guns, ordering them to deploy in the face of the advancing enemy. While the cannoneers moved into position, Col. Charles D. Phillips’ 52nd Georgia Infantry arrived to support the six guns holding Pemberton’s extreme left.
Suddenly, John Stevenson’s Illinoisans and Ohioans burst from a strip of timber and came in full view of the Confederate gunners posted on a hill above them. The six guns unleashed shot and shell into the exposed Federals. However, they could only do so much. Stevenson’s Federals overlapped the pieced together line and scattered the supporting Georgia infantry. With their infantry support gone, the gunners never stood a chance.
Samuel Ridley continued to exhort his men to load and fire the pieces. Despite the heroic efforts of Ridley’s Mississippians, the Federals continued to gain ground. They leveled their rifles and poured destructive volleys into the two batteries, killing men and horses alike. In one volley, Maj. Joseph Anderson went down. Above the volume of fire, Ridley shouted for his men to “take care of yourselves.” He instructed his orderly sergeant “to get the men away if possible.” Ridley, incredibly still mounted, jerked at his horse’s reins to turn the horse away from the blue tide engulfing his guns when he was struck and fell to the ground dead, pierced with six bullets.
Inspired by their captain’s deeds, Ridley’s gunners fought until the very end. Some continued to fight even as Stevenson’s men closed in on their position. “It was the most deadly fight I ever saw,” recalled one survivor. He was a lucky one. Ridley’s section of guns entered the action with 82 men and left with eight.
Overall, the heroics of the men who stood beside Capt. Ridley on that hillside did not halt the Federal assault. But it did not diminish his performance in the eyes of those who witnessed it. Indeed, even some Union soldiers admired the captain’s bravery until the very end. Despite his battery’s horses falling all around him, Ridley remained mounted on his to inspire his men on the ground. He paid for it with his life. “His name and his memory will be cherished by every member of the old battery until they shall be ordered to meet him on the camping grounds of life eternal,” eulogized one of his men.