The Forlorn Hope at Vicksburg

Graveyard Road heads toward Stockade Redan at Vicksburg (NPS photo)

Google “Forlorn Hope” + “Civil War” and several desperate actions show up. “A forlorn hope,” says the Wikipedia entry, which shows up first, “is a band of soldiers or other combatants chosen to take the vanguard in a military operation, such as a suicidal assault through the kill zone of a defended position, where the risk of casualties is high.”

The additional search results that follow provide several examples that any Civil War buff would find chilling.

Maine Public media features a 26-minute documentary about the charge of the First Maine at Petersburg on June 18, 1864. The Library of Congress offers an image of the 7th Michigan and 19th Massachusetts storming up the bank of the Confederate side of the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg on December 11, 1862.

But the one that seems to have the most notorious claim to the capital letters—“The Forlorn Hope,” as in “The Peach Orchard” or The Cornfield”—occurred in Vicksburg on May 22, 1863.

Grant’s initial attempt to take Vicksburg on May 19 ended in a series of bloody repulses. He knew he could settle into a siege and starve Confederates into submission, but he also faced a possible threat in his rear from Gen. Joseph E. Johnston. Johnston could potentially pin Grant’s army against the exterior of the Vicksburg defenses, where they would be subject to fire from John Pemberton’s forces in the beleaguered city even as Johnston assaulted Federals from the front.

As it happened, the threat from Johnston never materialized, but Grant had no way of knowing that at the time. Instead, he chose to make one more swing at Vicksburg in the hope of smashing through, thus eliminating the anvil for Johnston’s looming hammer.

Grant planned attacks by all three of his corps commanders, John McClernand, James McPherson, and William Sherman. Sherman felt particularly battered after the May 19 assaults. His men had advanced across more than 150 yards of open ground, navigating a troublesome abatis-filled ravine, picking through felled trees, and dealing with several fences—all while heading straight at a massive redan that protected one of the main roads into the city.

On May 19, 1863, Federals attacked across this field, roughly toward the camera from the far treeline, though the ravine. (Kris White photo)

Stockade Redan, as it was called, had a seventeen-foot-tall exterior wall fronted by a six-foot-tall ditch. The crest of the wall was sixteen feet wide, and behind it, on firing platforms, stood Mississippi and Missouri troops from Brig. Gen. Louis Hébert and Brig. Gen. Francis Cockrell’s brigades. The 36th Mississippi manned the wall while elements of three Missouri regiments stood inside the redan as reinforcements and to protect its flanks. Graveyard Road, one of the main avenues in Vicksburg, ran along the ditch on the redan’s front face. The redan had been built specifically to protect the road.[1]

For the May 22 attack, Sherman changed his route of approach. Rather than cross the open ground, he would advance down the Graveyard Road itself—a route that would take him not at the wide open front of the redan but toward a sharp angle in its construction. The redan was shaped like a wide “V,” and Graveyard Road ran straight at the exterior tip of the “V” before veering toward the right and running parallel to the redan’s formidable exterior wall. Because Confederates occupied the interior of this “V,” they would not be able to bring as much firepower to bear on any force advancing directly down the road.

Sherman chose Brig. Gen. Frank Blair’s division to spearhead his assault. He stacked his brigades three deep, which would be followed by the brigades of Brig. Gen. James Tuttle’s division stacked similarly. With Graveyard Road as their axis of advance, the massive column would charge Confederate defenses.

In the vanguard, Blair assembled a squad of 150 volunteers—all single men—who would advance not with rifles but with lumber. The first fifty would carry heavy timbers to be placed across the ditch, while the second fifty would carry planking to lay across timbers. Thus, instant bridges would be made. The third fifty would carry ladders so invaders could more easily scale the redan’s exterior wall. None of the volunteers carried rifles; all expected a high casualty rate.

Preparations went smoothly. “All our field batteries were put in position, and were covered by good epaulements; the troops were brought forward, in easy support, concealed by the shape of the ground,” Sherman wrote.[2] He opened the morning with a bombardment to soften the Confederate line. It was “a most furious fire . . . of shell, grape, and canister,” wrote Cockrell, commanding the defenders. “The air was literally burdened with hissing missiles of death.”[3]

At 10:00, the Federal infantry started forward. Sherman, watching from 200 yards away, noted the group of grim volunteers in the lead. “A small party, that might be called a forlorn hope, provided with plank to cross the ditch, advanced at a run, up to the very ditch,” he wrote; “the lines of infantry sprang from cover, and advanced rapidly in line of battle.”

The volunteers initially benefitted from the cover of the terrain, but at last, Graveyard Road rose from a swale, cut through a low ridge, and arrowed across 150 yards of open ground directly at the “V” of the redan. The road cut through offered protection as the men double-timed through. Beyond, they spilled out into the open and began a mad sprint forward with their bridging materials.

The approach to Stockade Redan (Kris White photo)

At first, “The rebel line, concealed by the parapet, showed no sign of unusual activity,” Sherman recounted, “but as our troops came in fair view, the enemy rose behind their parapet and poured a furious fire upon our lines.” Cockrell called it “a most desperate and protracted effort to carry our lines by assault,” which his men met “with defiant shouts and a deliberately aimed fire.”

Many of the volunteers fell. Others dropped their loads and fled. Some made it all the way to the ditch, where they hunkered against the embankment in an effort to stay beneath the depressed barrels of the Confederate muskets.

Meanwhile, the lead regiment of Blair’s lead brigade, the 30th Ohio, rushed forward on the heels of the storming party. They advanced said Blair, “with equal impetuosity and gallantry,” but then trouble began. Casualties from the storming party littered the road, and as casualties from the 30th Ohio fell alongside them, the road became littered with obstacles. As a result, the next regiment, the 37th Ohio, “faltered and gave way under fire of the enemy.” The column dispersed and took to ground. “The men lay down in the road and behind every inequality of ground which afforded them shelter,” Blair wrote, “and every effort . . . to rally them and urge them forward proved of no avail. . . . They refused to move, and remained in the road, blocking the way.”[4]

The 47th Ohio and 4th West Virginia, finding their advance blocked by the Buckeyes, abandoned the road and ascended a small rise on their left. There, they laid down covering fire so the men trapped in the road could withdraw.

The volunteers from the Forlorn Hope found themselves trapped in the worst position of all, pinned between the redan and the fire coming from Ewings brigade. One Federal even managed to climb to the top of the redan and plant his flag, which Confederates tried—unsuccessfully—to capture several times.

The Ohio marker indicates the farthest point reached by members of the 30th Ohio, at the head of the assault column. (Kris White photo)

Blair tried improvising by moving men around the bottleneck, but the new approach proved just as exposed. Sherman later conceded the futility of the operation. “[F]or about two hours, we had a severe and bloody battle, but at every point we were repulsed,” he wrote. According to historians Leonard Fullenkamp, Stephen Bowman, and Jay Luvaas, “Less than 1,000 of Sherman’s 15,000 men had been committed to the attack, since there was no good avenue to push the remainder into the battle.”[5]

Sherman’s men did take part in another attack late in the day, meant as a diversion while McClernand tried to exploit a supposed opportunity. Even with a brigade of reinforcements from McPherson’s corps to extra weight, Sherman’s men made minimal gains. Survivors had to wait until nightfall before they could withdraw to safety.

Sherman’s account gave the action its name, “a forlorn hope,” although he did not use capital letters in describing it. Those would come later as the bravery of the men became enshrined in Vicksburg’s larger story over time. Of the 150 men who rushed forward as the Forlorn Hope, 19 were killed and 34 were wounded. Of the survivors, 78 later received the Medal Honor for their heroism, cited specifically for “Gallantry in the charge of the ‘volunteer storming party.’”

————

[1] Terrence J. Winschel, Triumph & Defeat: The Vicksburg Campaign (Mason City, IA: Savas, 1999), 121.

[2] William T. Sherman, Personal Memoirs of Gen. W. T. Sherman (New York: Charles L. Webster & Co., 1890), 354.

[3] Francis Cockrell, O.R.

[4] Blair, O.R.

[5] Leonard Fullenkamp, Stephen Bowman, and Jay Luvaas, editors, Guide to the Vicksburg Campaign (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 1998), 430

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4 Responses to The Forlorn Hope at Vicksburg

  1. Mike Maxwell says:

    Excellent summary of the initial actions by Grant at Vicksburg, initiated mere days after Grant’s forces had completed the circuitous approach: Bruinsburg, Raymond, Champion Hill, Big Black River… However, “forlorn hope” is only applicable to the Rebel defenders at The Gibraltar of the Confederacy in retrospect. It was believed that Joseph Johnston (and possibly cavalry units) could be redirected towards Vicksburg; the contribution of Grierson’s Raid and the Tullahoma Campaign in denying Rebel reinforcements (occupying Rebels elsewhere and keeping them off balance) had a lot to say in that denial, resulting in Impregnable Vicksburg becoming a trap… for its defenders.

    • Mike Maxwell says:

      As for the casualties suffered by men of Sherman’s Corps during the 22 May 1863 operation: they deserved recognition, and they received it. But there were many such instances of heroism (performed by soldiers NOT belonging to Sherman) during the Vicksburg operation and just after that never received recognition.

    • Chris Mackowski says:

      I think you’re right: “Forlorn hope” would be a good term to describe the defenders of Vicksburg.

      If there’s any silver lining for them, those who survived got paroled…and then went back into Confederate service.

  2. Katy Berman says:

    The documentary about the First Maine is shocking and powerful. Thank-you for bringing it to our attention. I wonder if every war has a “Charge of the Light Brigade.”

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