A Hoosier at Port Gibson

ECW is pleased to welcome back guest author Daniel A. Masters.

The 8th Indiana Infantry was among the first troops from the Hoosier State to enlist in the Civil War, but it wasn’t until the battle of Port Gibson on May 1, 1863, that the regiment came under serious fire. As related by Capt. Samuel H. Dunbar of Co. B, the regiment was among Grant’s vanguard in the thrust across the Mississippi River that marked the opening land operation of the Vicksburg campaign. The regiment was in the midst of a night march aiming to take the Rebel riverside batteries at Grand Gulf when four Confederate cannons lit the night. Federals formed into line and the battle of Port Gibson began.

Dunbar related the story in this letter published in the May 28, 1863, issue of the Hancock Democrat:

Black River, Mississippi
May 8, 1863

I take pleasure at this, my earliest convenience, informing our friends of the part taken and loss sustained by Co. B in the fight near Port Gibson on the 1st instant. Grand Gulf, a strong Rebel fortification on the left bank of the Mississippi River, was bombarded by the gunboats on the 29th instant. From the opposite side, the army witnessed the whole affair which you may rightly conjecture was quite interesting. The batteries, however, were so well constructed and the guns so well protected that the powerful fleet had but little effect and finally ceased firing and drew off without silencing a gun. The same evening, the army moved on the Louisiana shore to a point below the fortifications. At night the gunboats and transports ran the blockade without injury. The morning following, the divisions of Generals [Eugene A.] Carr and [Peter] Osterhaus embarked and were told that they must run the blockade, land upon the bluff, and storm their works. This looked hazardous and would have resulted in ruin though I did not hear a single murmur or dissent. All seemed resigned to the sacrifice.

But it seemed that General John McClernand had no idea of doing any such thing, for our surprise was great when our boats steamed down the river leaving the frowning Gibraltar in the rear. We landed on the Mississippi side seven miles below at about noon. General William P. Benton commands the First Brigade in General Carr’s division which is the right of General McClernand’s corps. The First Brigade immediately upon disembarking took the road to Port Gibson with orders to gain the hills about four miles from the river and hold them until the balance of the corps could draw rations and moved forward. About 4 or 5 p.m. we halted for rest and to cook our supper. After which and after darkness had set in, we resumed the march. Between midnight and 1 a.m., having marched twelve miles from the river, our skirmishers were fired upon. Advancing a little further we were hailed by a battery of 12-pdr Rebel howitzers planted upon a hill in front of us, raking the road we were pursuing. This was the first positive salute of the kind that Co. B had ever received.

Notwithstanding the obstruction, the column moved steadily on. The 1st Indiana Battery took position and opened upon the enemy to aid us in making the advance. After we got in range, the shot and shell came thick and fast booming and bursting on both sides of us and above our heads. The regiment happened to marching left in front; consequently Cos. A and B were longest exposed to the fire and should have suffered more, but fortunately did not lose a man. Ike McGee of our company had his nose skinned by a piece of shell. When the regiment neared the battery, it filed right and went down into a hollow out of direct range but was still followed by the missiles of the infernal guns. After getting into the ravine, we were drawn up on the brow of the hill under cover of which we remained until morning.

At sunrise, we opened on their pickets and skirmishers and the 8th Indiana was assigned its position on the extreme right of the line of battle. The battlefield, and indeed the country, is but a succession of hills, ridges, and ravines. The enemy was, of course, concealed in the timber. Their position was well chosen and strong. Our regiment began the musket fire. We were upon one ridge and the enemy upon another with a deep ravine dividing us. We fought there for some time when we were ordered to charge down into the ravine and up the hill from which the enemy was firing. The charge was executed in fine style and with alacrity notwithstanding the difficulties; cane and grape vines covered the sides of both ridges. Arriving upon the hostile hill, the Rebels were not there but had gone we knew not whither. At this time, the battle was raging furiously on the left and center.

By noon, the Rebels were driven from the first position which was taken and the Rebel battery which had scared us so badly the night before was charged and taken by the 18th Indiana. In the afternoon, General [George F.] McGinnis’ brigade was holding a hill upon the right and was engaged by a large force of Rebels. His men being handled very roughly, he came to General Benton very excited and said he would be compelled to give up the point unless reinforced. The 8th Indiana, tired and weary from constant exertion from early dawn, was at that moment doing nothing and at the command promptly hastened on the double quick to the relief of the suffering.

The hill occupied by the enemy was covered with heavy timber but the side next to us was clear. At its base lay the 29th Wisconsin fighting with vengeance, but its dead and wounded were piled up everywhere. Above and in the rear of them was another hill upon which was the 11th Indiana and 11th Wisconsin. When we came to the ravine with the 29th, we were greeted by a deadly volley of musketry—a melancholy introduction to the work before us. We had, as understood, been sent to the support of the regiment there, but to our surprise, they considered themselves entirely relieved and left us all alone in our glory. Standing at the base of the hill, we were fast promising to be cut to pieces when Lieutenant Colonel Charles S. Parrish drew his sword, took the advance, and ordered a charge up the hill with a yell that reverberated afar. Up we went and poured such a deluge of bullets into them that they broke and ran in the wildest confusion. This was a whole Rebel brigade driven from an advantageous position by the impetuous 8th. Our company fought gloriously. Five men were wounded in less than five minutes; none of these are at all dangerous and all except McGee and Roney are now with the company. Many narrowly escaped; John Underwood’s cap box was shot through, Eli Stevens’ had an oil cloth wrapped around him which caught a bullet, and Wallace Alexander was shot through the haversack. I am proud, now doubly proud of the boys. There is no discount on any of those actually engaged.

At sunset the battle closed and we sank to sleep on the field. In the morning the bird had flown. We immediately began pursuing them through the town of Port Gibson, but by burning the wire suspension bridges over the bayou the Rebels succeeded in getting away, leaving most of their dead and wounded. We went to Grand Gulf which had been hastily evacuated. We are in nearly three miles of the Black River on the opposite side of which the enemy is strongly posted. I presume we are waiting the auspicious moment to pounce upon them. Everything is cheerful here. The prospect seems bright and we are ready and anxious to make the grand trial.

Yours respectfully,

S.H. Dunbar
8th Indiana Infantry

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