Arkansas’s Role in the Vicksburg Campaign (part two)

Col. Thomas Dockery of the 19th Arkansas

ECW is pleased to welcome guest author Carson Butler. Part two of two.

Following victory at Port Gibson, Grant pushed his forces north-eastward, and ultimately marched his army towards Jackson, the capital of Mississippi. After defeating a Confederate force under Gen. John Gregg at Raymond on May 12, 1863, his pathway to Jackson was uncontested. Despite some Confederate resistance, Jackson fell on May 14. Pemberton realized he had to do something about Grant’s army, and decided to sally out from his fortifications at Vicksburg to launch a surprise attack on the Federal forces. The Confederate and Federal forces ran into each other on May 16, 1863 at a place between Vicksburg and Jackson called Champion Hill.

After initial success atop Champion Hill, the Confederates defending the hill were soon forced to retreat after numerous Federal attacks on their position. The retirement of these Confederates put Pemberton in an awkward position, as his army’s escape route back to Vicksburg was cut off by the Federal forces. Pemberton then ordered Bowen’s Division to counter-attack the Federals to reopen his retreat route, and Green’s Arkansas Brigade was ordered to charge. Private A. H. Reynolds of the 19th Arkansas Infantry described the scene:

With a forward march we passed those troops that were falling back, and then we were ordered to charge. We had caught the enemy with empty guns, and they gave way easily. We were charging up the long slope from the negro quarters to the highest peak of Champion Hill and almost parallel with the public road to Bolton. At the top of the hill we met another long line of blues climbing the steep hill. They were within eighty feet of us when we gained the top of the hill, and without orders it seemed as if every man in our ranks fired at once. Never before nor since have I ever witnessed such a sight. The whole line seemed to fall and tumble head-long to the bottom of the hill. In a moment they came again, and we were ready and again repulsed them.[3]

Colonel Thomas P. Dockery, also of the 19th, wrote:

The formation of the country was such that the troops could scarcely advance faster than a walk, and many of the hills were ascended with great difficulty; notwithstanding, the command pushed impetuously forward, driving back in confusion the many fresh lines formed to meet our gallant troops. The enemy had been driven over a mile, all the artillery captured from Major-General Stevenson’s division recaptured, and several pieces taken from the enemy. I notified General Green, commanding brigade, that my ammunition was about exhausted. He replied that the ordnance train had been ordered from the field, and it would be impossible to refill the cartridge-boxes; that the men must use the ammunition of our and the enemy’s killed and wounded; that the enemy must be driven as long as it were possible to advance the lines, [even] if it had to be done with empty guns. . . .[4]

While sustaining heavy losses, the Arkansans held their position for as long as they could. However, after multiple Federal attacks on their position, the Arkansas Brigade was sent fleeing from the battlefield back towards the defenses at Vicksburg.

The battle of Champion’s Hill, or Baker’s Creek, would not be the final engagement the Arkansans participated in during the Vicksburg campaign, as a day later, Green’s Brigade was ordered to man earthworks east of the Big Black River to cover the retreat of the rest of the Army of Mississippi. On the morning of the May 17, the Federals attacked the Confederate positions. After three minutes, the Confederate line was broken. Since the Arkansans’s backs were to the river, there was no opportunity for the entire brigade to make it safely back to the fortifications at Vicksburg. As a result, part of Green’s Brigade was captured at the battle of the Big Black River, while many other Arkansans had to swim across the river to safety, leaving behind those who could not swim to be captured by the enemy or to die drowning in the attempt.

Despite taking heavy casualties at the battles of Port Gibson, Champion’s Hill/Baker’s Creek, and Big Black River, the Arkansans continued to fight on, playing an important role in plugging the holes in the defensive lines that had been broken or damaged by artillery or infantry attacks during the two Federal attempts to take the city of Vicksburg on May 19 and 22, respectively.

With these attacks unsuccessful, Grant ordered his army to besiege the city. Similarly, 150 miles to the south, the Federal army under Gen. Nathaniel Banks began to besiege the Confederates at Port Hudson under Franklin Gardner. For the remainder of both of these sieges, Arkansans stabilized weak sections of the Confederate works, helping to drive off the Federal attempts to take their positions.

However, by July 4, 1863, the starving Confederates at Vicksburg had had enough, and Pemberton surrendered the city to Grant. As a result of the surrender, the Arkansans of Green’s Brigade, as well as the other 30,000 Confederate soldiers at Vicksburg, were paroled and allowed to go home until they were exchanged. A few days later, on July 9, Gardner surrendered Port Hudson to Banks, and the 6,500 men under his command were paroled and allowed to go home, as well.

In December 1863, the Arkansans who served in the Vicksburg campaign either at Vicksburg or Port Hudson were exchanged and reorganized in the following months to serve in the Trans-Mississippi theatre of operations. With the loss of the Mississippi River, Arkansas suffered from being cut off from the rest of the Confederacy. With the defeat of Confederate forces at the battle of Helena, Arkansas, on July 4, 1863, there were no major campaigns to retake the Confederate territory lost to the Federal forces in Arkansas other than Confederate Gen. Sterling Price’s campaign to take back Missouri in 1864. While some Arkansans continued to fight until the end of the war, when the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department surrendered on May 10, 1865, others deserted the Confederate army and traveled back to their homes in Arkansas to try to pick up their civilian lives again.

When thinking about the grandeur of the Vicksburg campaign, the courage and bravery of the Arkansas soldiers should not be forgotten, and by remembering them, we can assure that their personal sacrifices will not be lost to the pages of history.

“Holding the Line at All Hazards” by William Gilbert Gaul, Birmingham Museum of Art (https://www.artsbma.org/collection/holding-the-line-at-all-hazards/)

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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. 

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[3] A. H. Reynolds, “Vivid Experiences at Champion Hill, Miss.,” Confederate Veteran 18 (January 1910), 21.

[4] United States War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 70 vols. in 128 parts (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1880-1901), Series I, volume 24, part 2, p. 116 (hereafter cited as O.R., I, 24, pt. 2, 116).

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