“Our Army Was Thoroughly Beaten”: An English Rebel Remembers Champion Hill

At the very top of Champion Hill, a sign marks the peak of the “hill of death.”

ECW is pleased to welcome back Daniel A. Masters    

This extraordinary letter, written by former English army officer Stephen Edward Monaghan Underhill to his mother in Coldstream, Scotland in the waning days of the siege of Vicksburg, gives us an account of Underhill’s experiences during the campaign. At the time, Underhill was serving as an aide-de-camp to Brig. Gen. Stephen D. Lee. The 21-year-old Underhill had resigned his commission in the British army and entered the Confederacy through the blockade at Charleston, South Carolina in January 1863. From there, he journeyed to Mississippi and gained an appointment to Lee’s staff. Underhill gained favorable notice from Lee for his “gallantry and efficient service” during the Vicksburg campaign.

The letter had a rather twisted path to publication in the Guernsey Times of Cambridge, Ohio. Underhill wrote that he had entrusted the letter to a civilian in Vicksburg as he anticipated that the city would soon be captured and that his private communications would be limited. Underhill’s letter was evidently either found or intercepted by Lieut. John C. Douglass of the 78th Ohio Volunteer Infantry who was then serving as assistant adjutant general on Brig. Gen. Elias S. Dennis’s staff (Second Brigade, Third Division, XVII Army Corps). Douglass sent the letter home to Ohio, and the Guernsey Times ran Underhill’s letter in their August 20, 1863 issue.

Headquarters, Second Brigade, Stevenson’s Division, Trenches, Vicksburg, Mississippi

Sunday, June 28, 1863, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., the 42nd day of the siege

Mrs. Underhill, Coldstream, my dear, dear mother,

It is with feelings of great doubt and uncertainty that I sit down to write this. To give you some idea of how matters have turned out as they have, I must go back until, say, the middle of April. General [Stephen D.] Lee and staff and troops had returned from the Deer Creek Expedition. The enemy, as usual, lay in force on the side of the river seven miles away and all was going on quietly and well, when one dark night six iron clad gunboats and as many transports well protected with cotton bales started to run down the river and past our guns. All were at their posts and all men could do was done. One iron gunboat was sunk, two others rendered disabled and helpless and two transports burned. The remainder, through frequently struck, got past. A few days after the enemy landed simultaneously at Snyder’s ten miles above us and at Bruinsburg 40 miles below. General Stephen D. Lee was sent to Snyder’s; he pronounced the landing a mere feint and returned to his own command. Next morning troops were dispatched to meet the enemy: Generals [John S.] Bowen and [Brigadier General Martin E.] Green’s Missouri brigades and General [Edward D.] Tracey’s Alabama brigade, numbering in all 6,000 men.

On the 1st of May our army 6,000 strong encountered that of the enemy which numbered some 30,000. This force had marched across the peninsula, had embarked opposite Warrenton to disembark at Bruinsburg on the opposite side from their point of embarkation and some 30 miles further down the Mississippi. The 1st of May, as I said above, saw a bloody fight at the small town of Port Gibson on a small creek called Bayou Pierre, where notwithstanding the overwhelming superiority of the enemy, they were held in check all that day. Our loss was frightfully heavy and included the death of General [Edward D.]Tracey, a young, brave, and able soldier whose loss is mourned universally. On the night of the 1st of May, our forces retreated meeting  [Brigadier General William E.] Baldwin’s and [Colonel Alexander W.] Reynolds’ brigades, say 3,000 men, coming to reinforce them, burning the bridges, and took up a strong position near Grand Gulf on this side of Bayou Pierre (General Lee was not with this army but I had ridden down to see the fight and General Lee had given me a letter to General Bowen, the senior brigadier in command).

On the evening of the 2nd of May, General [William W.] Loring arrived and took command and so did General [Lloyd] Tilghman with part of his brigade. General Loring, learning that the enemy had by means of a pontoon bridge crossed Bayou Pierre and flanked us, ordered a retreat which commenced at 1 a.m. on Sunday May 3rd. Our heavy batteries at Grand Gulf on the Mississippi River which had several times repulsed the Federal ironclads were blown up and abandoned and with the enemy only a short distance in our rear, we marched toward Big Black, a stream crossed by the railroad at Big Black Bridge, some 12 miles from Vicksburg. We met other reinforcements (Taylor’s and Barton’s brigades) and we then headed for Hankerson’s Ferry over the same stream but lower down and some 20 miles from Vicksburg. General Lee had been ordered out to take command of Tracey’s Alabamians, a fine brigade some 2,500 strong, consisting of five regiments and a battery (20th, 23rd, 30th, 31st, and 46th Alabama Infantry regiments, Waddell’s six-gun Alabama Battery). To our brigade, which I of course rejoined, was entrusted the duty of guarding the rear. We skirmished heavily with the enemy all the way and succeeded in procuring time for the passage of all wagons, stores, etc. when our brigade itself crossed over and destroyed the bridge all under the enemy’s fire.

From this time until the 10th the armies lay on either side of the river, the Federals constantly getting large reinforcements from below, while we, whose disparity of numbers was daily on the increase, were only able to hold the various fords and ferries and were quite unable to redress or avenge upon the enemy the destruction and devastation with which they visited the country they occupied. The enemy remained quietly opposite us recruiting their numbers and the health of the troops until on the 10th they moved off in the direction of Jackson, the capital of this state. We now heard that reinforcements were on their way from Charleston, South Carolina and Port Hudson, Mississippi to our relief and that General Joe Johnston himself was about to command us in person. We at once moved up on this side of the Big Black and crossed at the railroad bridge, following in the enemy’s track. On the 11th, the enemy tapped the railroad and cut the telegraph wires thereby cutting off all our communication.

On the 12th they came across Gregg’s brigade on its way up from Port Hudson at Raymond. It made a gallant resistance but after losing one half of its number, had to retreat to Jackson. The two days we lay in line of battle in strong position near Edward’s Depot awaiting the enemy. On the evening of the 15th we started toward Clinton where we heard the enemy had last been seen. Our division being in advance, General Loring’s division (Buford and Tilghman’s brigades) 5,000 strong came next, and then came Bowen’s and Green’s Missouri brigades. Smith’s division remained behind to guard. Lieutenant General [John C.] Pemberton now took command we brought our forced march of Friday evening May 15th to a close on Saturday about 2 a.m. when we bivouacked in an open field. We had no wagons with us, but the men were so exhausted that they soon forgot their hunger in sleep. By 4:30 next morning, a courier arrived from General [Joseph E.] Johnston directing us at once to make a junction with him and immediately afterward a scout came in to say the enemy was making a forced march to get in our rear and between us and Vicksburg. General Pemberton at once ordered a retreat. Our wagons, ordnance, hospital, trains, etc. were all sent off on the Vicksburg road while the troops after a five-mile march formed line of battle on a strong position near Baker’s Creek and Edward’s Depot on the Raymond and Clinton road, and there awaited the approach of the enemy.

It was now about 7 a.m. The men were completely broken down by hard marching and none had had anything to eat for nearly 36 hours. Under these auspices we awaited battle on a glorious May morning. General Loring’s division was on the right; Stevenson’s on the left extending nearly to Baker’s Creek and our brigade (Lee’s) was on the extreme left of our division (Stevenson’s). General Bowen’s division was in reserve and General Pemberton commanded in person. The battle commenced about 7:30 with heavy skirmishing on the right. It gradually rolled round to the left, however, and came to us, ceasing on the right entirely. By 9 o’clock the enemy had massed large bodies of troops in our front and Cumming’s on our right. General Lee had, six different times, moved his brigade that it might not be outflanked by the overwhelming numbers of the enemy. Five separate times did I gallop at top speed upward of a mile and back bearing the same message from General Lee to General [Carter L.] Stevenson to the effect the enemy were outflanking him. Five times did I bring the reply, “Tell General Lee I know it and am moving my division accordingly.” Five times did we take a new position on our left, but the cry was “still they come.”

At this time the enemy seemed to have completed their arrangements for they made a simultaneous and vigorous attack along our lines. They advanced in three lines and to each of our little brigades they opposed at least a division. We could only bring two brigades into the fight at this time for the others were guarding and holding important positions. At first our men stood up the work gallantly and vigorously returned the deadly fire than thinned their ranks. They went down by dozens before the Yankee artillery and musketry, but many a Yankee bit the dust. There were two distinct lines respectively of blue and brown, marking where the dead of either army lay where they had fallen when the fray began. This unequal contest lasted several hours but though wearied almost to death and though pressed by overwhelming odds, the Second Brigade still held out, patiently awaiting the arrival and aid of our other two brigades or those of Loring or Bowen. It did not come, however, and one of Cumming’s Georgia regiments being hard pushed broke and took shelter in the woods. It was like a bank crumbling away before the action of a torrent to watch our lines at this juncture. The panic seemed contagious and as it ran down the lines, regiment after regiment caught it till both brigades were in full retreat, leaving all their artillery and all dead and wounded in the enemy’s hands.

With some trouble the fugitives were rallied on the crest of a hill and again faced the now victoriously advancing enemy. Once more the men from Alabama and Georgia sent their missiles into the ranks of Indiana, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Ohio, and the death yell of the Western men rang loudly out under the luxuriant magnolia groves in which they fought. Again, the Southern troops showed signs of wavering and General Lee, seizing the banner of the 30th Alabama and followed by his staff, rode down the line and led it to the charge. New life seemed to have been infused into the Southern troops. They rushed on with leveled bayonets, cheering wildly. The Northerners rapidly though steadily retiring and pouring volley after volley into their pursuers. At length a shout announced some triumph for the enemy who in a moment rallied and halted, as did also our men, and sure enough there lay General Lee upon the ground. Before any of us could reach him he had disengaged himself from his dead horse and mounting another once more led the charge. We were now passing over our old position when once more did Lee’s horse fall dead, amidst a triumphant shout from the enemy. This time our troops fairly broke and ran notwithstanding every effort and all example. General Lee stood for a moment in despair. A ball, and then a second, both fortunately spent, struck his left sleeve, penetrating it and bruising his arm but doing no further damage. Captain Elliott of our staff had his horse shot and a ball broke his sword. I escaped.

General Lee now mounted a third horse and followed his brigade which was once more formed in the magnolia wood upon the hill. He sent me to General Barton to ask for reinforcements. I took a short cut and the first thing I knew I was amongst a number of Yankee sharpshooters who demanded my surrender. I declined, and spurring my horse in another direction, some of them fired and killed my horse. I then jumped into a ravine. At the bottom I met a wounded Federal officer who when I wouldn’t yield, fired three shots of his Colt at me but would not face me with his sword. I got into a rye field and ran up it. Some of our men were at the top and fired several shots at me ere they discovered their mistake. When I got up to the road I caught and mounted a loose horse (which by the way died last week of the sixth shot, five balls having failed even to maim him), saw several aides riding about who all told me the day was lost. Barton’s brigade had been demolished and Green’s wild Missourians, after having completely routed one Yankee division, retaken all our artillery and made 560 Yankees prisoners, had been surrounded by two other divisions and had only cut its way out with frightful loss. General Tilghman had been killed by a chance shot and General Pemberton had ordered a retreat to Big Black Bridge. I tried to get back to General Lee but the Yankees intervened. I tried to get around them, lost myself in a wood, got fired at again, and finally escaped by swimming Baker’s Creek.

I was so hot, hungry, and tired to death that life was hardly endurable, but I rode sadly on with the tide of wagons and fugitives that poured along the road. At last, I came up with our headquarters wagon, hauled it on one side, and enjoyed a wash and some flour scorees and a drink of water. I now asked if it was near noon and was thunderstruck to find it was past six. At Big Black Bridge I saw General Pemberton, but he could tell me nothing. I heard General Lee was killed and his brigade taken and was in despair. From a gentle eminence I could see Edwards’ Depot and the fine plantations and country seats in a blaze, showing too plainly the advance of the pursuing foe. I had nothing to do at the bridge, so I rode on to Vicksburg, got there at midnight, and put up at our own headquarters. So ended the battle day.

Our army was thoroughly beaten. Our junction with Johnston was prevented and we lost 18 guns and several thousand stand of small arms and some 5,000 killed, wounded, and prisoners. Our own brigade suffered frightfully. Naturally Vicksburg was in great alarm. I heard that General Lee had been surrounded, lost one regiment, and had cut his way out with the remainder of his brigade; that our whole army, except Loring’s division, had crossed to this side and we held the Yankees at bay at our breastworks on the other side until 8 o’clock, though there was some very severe fighting when Vaughn’s brigade broke and run. Upwards of 2,000 of them were taken as well as a number of Missourians who could not get away. The enemy took 21 more guns, making our two days’ loss in artillery amount to some 39 pieces. We were obliged to burn the bridge, a very fine one, which with its trestlework extended nearly a mile.

I wrote you on Friday by a Federal prisoner going out and I hope you will get it soon. I will write you as soon as I can. I am naturally down spirited, so you must not expect me to say more. Before this reaches you the papers will have told you whether my hopes or fears will have been realized. Give my love to dear father. I was going to write him separately, but feel too sick and tired.

Love to dear Emily, Sarah, and Joe, and believe me my dear, dear mama, ever your affectionate son, S.M. Underhill, Lt. and A.D.C. to Gen. S.D. Lee, Second Brigade, Stevenson’s Div., Dept. Miss. & E. La.[1]

Lieutenant Underhill did get an account of the Vicksburg campaign into the hands of his family. A similar missive to the one captured by Lieutenant Douglass appeared in an August issue of the Edinburgh Scotsman in Scotland, which was later picked up and re-published by the New York Evening Post on September 7, 1863.

Following his parole at Vicksburg, Lieutenant Underhill was commissioned as a first lieutenant of cavalry and eventually became colonel of the 65th Alabama Infantry, serving in the defenses of Mobile until the end of the war. Underhill elected to remain in the United States, becoming a resident of Mobile and serving for a time as the city’s chief of police. He later moved to Austin, Texas where he died on February 6, 1904 at age 62.

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[1] Stephen Edward Monaghan Underhill to Mrs. Underhill, Letter, in Guernsey Times, August 20, 1863.

 

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3 Responses to “Our Army Was Thoroughly Beaten”: An English Rebel Remembers Champion Hill

  1. John Pryor says:

    Great letter! Really captures the chaos of the confused fighting at Champions Hill.

  2. tps says:

    Outstanding letter. For one of the best battle studies written, with 44 maps, see Tim Smith’s Champion Hill (Savas Beatie):

    https://www.savasbeatie.com/champion-hill-decisive-battle-for-vicksburg/

  3. Pingback: Week In Review: May 10-16, 2021 | Emerging Civil War

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