The Mississippi River is one of the most defining features of the North American continent, and during the American Civil War, it proved to be vital in dictating who would win the conflict. Both President Abraham Lincoln and President Jefferson Davis commented that controlling the Mississippi River was critical for the war effort. Not only did the river serve as a route to transport military supplies to different armies during the war, but it also divided the states of Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri from the rest of the south. With the fall of New Orleans and other Confederate strongholds along the Mississippi during 1862, the Federal army had its eyes set on controlling the entire river; by 1863, the Confederacy found itself controlling only a small portion of it, beginning with the fortified position at Port Hudson, Louisiana, and ending with the Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg, Mississippi. This led Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant to launch a campaign to capture Vicksburg and the fortifications at Port Hudson, effectively cutting the Confederacy in two.
The state of Arkansas sent a number of regiments to aid with the defense of Vicksburg and Port Hudson. The regiments sent to Confederate Gen. John Pemberton’s army defending the stronghold at Vicksburg were grouped into a single brigade commanded by Gen. Martin Edwin Green. These Arkansans quickly became known as Pemberton’s shock troops in the Confederate Army of Mississippi, mainly because they were hard-fighting soldiers who bore the brunt of the combat during the Vicksburg Campaign. At Port Hudson, the Arkansan regiments were placed under the command of Confederate Gen. Franklin Gardner, and they would defend the fortifications there until forced to surrender after a 48-day siege.
To the soldiers from Arkansas, keeping the Mississippi River in Confederate hands was very important and personal for them. They did not want their state to be cut off from the rest of the Confederacy. In order to stop the Federal invasions into Arkansas, the state needed the flow of supplies and manpower from the other southern states east of the Mississippi River to thwart the Federal campaigns. However, with the Mississippi River completely in the hands of the Federal army, there would be no help or support from the rest of the Confederacy. Arkansas and the rest of the Trans-Mississippi region would be isolated and forced to deal with the advancing Federal armies on their own.
With these thoughts in mind, the Arkansans embarked upon the Vicksburg Campaign with a steadfast determination to not yield the city of Vicksburg, the stronghold at Port Hudson, and ultimately the Mississippi River to the Federals. By trying to achieve this goal, the soldiers from Arkansas would find themselves in almost every major engagement of the campaign, and as a result, they would suffer horrendous casualties.
The opening battle of the Vicksburg campaign began on May 1, 1863, at a place called Port Gibson, south of Vicksburg. After multiple failed attempts to bypass the strong Confederate river batteries and fortifications at Vicksburg, General Grant decided the best way to attack the city would be by marching his army down the Louisiana side of the Mississippi and crossing the river at a location south of the city. To stop the Federals from achieving a beachhead or foothold on the Mississippi side of the river, Pemberton sent General John Bowen’s Division to prevent the crossing. General Martin Green’s Arkansas Brigade was a part of Bowen’s Division, and thus was ordered to dig in at Magnolia Church, a mile west of Port Gibson, to await the advancing Federal columns.
At midnight on May 1, 1863, the first shots of the Vicksburg campaign were fired from the rifled muskets of the 12th Arkansas Sharpshooter Battalion. Lieutenant John S. Bell of the 1 Battalion wrote about this tense moment before chaos erupted on the battlefield. “We could hear the enemy forming,” he stated, “and it was so still we could hear every command given. Our men had orders not to fire until word was given. Soon we could see their line of skirmishers coming down the road and could hear them say there was no one here. . . . When they were within 50 yards, the word ‘fire’ was given.”
For the next three hours under the cover of darkness, the Arkansans defended their position at Magnolia Church despite multiple Federal attacks on their lines. When the fighting resumed in the morning’s light and more Federal reinforcements arrived on the battlefield to bolster the already engaged Federal regiments, Bowen realized his situation was hopeless and ordered a withdrawal through the town of Port Gibson back to the fortifications around Vicksburg. At the battle of Port Gibson, the Arkansans alone suffered 13 men killed, 51 wounded, and 86 missing.
(To be continued….)
Carson Butler, born and raised in the state of Iowa, is a junior majoring in history, with minors in Civil War Era Studies and Public History, at Gettysburg College. He has worked as a summer intern with the National Park Service at Appomattox Court House NHP and Vicksburg NMP for the past two summers and has hopes to apply for a position in the NPS within the next couple years. He will also be working with the NPS at Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania NMP this upcoming summer. While he enjoys early American military history spanning from the Revolutionary War to the American Civil War, his main area of interest and focus is the Trans-Mississippi Theater of the Civil War.
 Edwin C. Bearss, The Vicksburg Campaign: Grant Strikes a Fatal Blow, vol. 2 (Dayton, Ohio: Morningside Press, 1986), 355.
 Bearss, The Vicksburg Campaign, vol. 2, 402.