“History is lunch.” That’s the premise of a lunchtime speaker series hosted by the Two Mississippi Museums in Jackson. On Wednesday, the battle of Jackson, Mississippi, was on the menu and I was serving it up, and for the Q&A, a woman asked a tough question for dessert—a question that illuminated one of the toughest research challenges we have as historians.
I was at the museums to speak about my book The Battle of Jackson, Mississippi, May 14, 1863 (Savas Beatie), recounting the story of the battle and talking a little about my book. Very few physical reminders of the battle still exist, so it’s a story most Jacksonians have forgotten about. It was a privilege to be there and talk with folks about their history. (You can watch the talk here.)
As two of Ulysses S. Grant’s Federal corps approached on the downpour-morning of May 14, Confederate commander Joseph E. Johnston rushed to evacuate his forces and supplies from the capital. He sent sparse defensive forces to block the Federals, which advanced along two fronts. The poor weather, more than anything, bought Johnston the time he needed to escape, but along the southwest edge of the city, the capital city’s fortifications also helped buy time.
William T. Sherman’s XV Corps approached from that direction along the Raymond Road. A rain-swollen Lynch Creek might have blocked his advance, but Confederates failed to torch the one bridge, giving Sherman an essential crossing point. The bottleneck at the bridge slowed him, and a sharp Confederate artillery response slowed him on the far side.
To circumvent the artillery, Sherman sent engineer Capt. Julius Pitzman on a reconnaissance mission to find the left flank of the Confederate defenders. Grant detailed the 95th Ohio to accompany Pitzman.
Following the New Orleans, Jackson, and Great Northern Railroad, Pitzman and Ohioans found an unprotected route through the Confederate works, which were, they found out, sparsely defended—and completely undefended along this stretch of the line. “Here I formed my line and planted my colors in full view of the city,” said Col. William L. McMillen. Pitzman, meanwhile, returned to Sherman to get reinforcements.
Here’s what I wrote in my book about what happened next. I quote it here because this is literally everything I could find out about the moment:
The commotion attracted the attention of one of the black residents of the city. The Confederates had evacuated, he told them, with the exception of a small number of soldiers left to work a battery that was firing on the main Federal position. “I moved my regiment rapidly through a street in the suburbs and gained its rear,” McMillen said.
After my talk at the museum, we had about ten minutes for a Q&A period. The first question came from a woman who asked, “Do we know the name of the black man who showed them the way into the rear?”
“We do not,” I replied.
“Why not?” she asked. She followed her question with a couple brief comments that basically expressed her frustration and, I daresay, indignation that we did not know that person’s name.
My goal, when I wrote The Battle of Jackson, Mississippi was to write the most comprehensive account of the battle yet told. It’s a relatively low bar only because little has been written about it. Ed Bearss did a short book in the early 80s, and he has a chapter in his Vicksburg trilogy that talks about Jackson. Tim Smith also has a chapter about Jackson in his excellent book about Champion Hill. And that’s been about it. Writing after them, I had the benefit of plumbing the sources they used, plus I had the benefit of my own research.
No where, in any of that literature, did I find anything from anyone in the 95th Ohio (or in any other parts of the army) who identified the man who showed the Buckeyes into the Confederate rear. The man whose knowledge of the local streets gave the Federals a decisive advantage in the battle has been lost to history. If someone has written about the identity of that man, I haven’t found the account, I told the woman.
I can understand why the woman who asked the question seemed a little indignant that the man’s identity had been lost. It was a key moment in the battle, and we can’t give credit to the man who made it possible. Meanwhile, Julius Pitzman, for his part, earned a promotion for his role in events.
It’s possible someone did identify that black man. Perhaps a letter or a diary exists somewhere, undiscovered in an attic or a basement, that includes that man’s name. Or maybe it’s in an archive somewhere that I didn’t think to look. Or it’s somewhere I did look, misfiled or misplaced. Or maybe that document once existed but has since been lost to time: lost in a fire, or lost in a flood caused by a broken pipe, or saddest of all, thrown away by a descendent who didn’t care or couldn’t be bothered.
As researchers, we’re always on the lookout for those little tidbits—the smallest single details that nonetheless bring a story to fuller life or round it out in a richer way. My friend Kris White has a Seinfield quote he’s fond of using for such finds: “Gold, Jerry. Gold!”
So, I share the frustrations of the woman who asked the question. We, as researchers, hope for those very same sorts of details. We sometimes go to great lengths to run them down. Sometimes the answer is, sadly, “unknown.”
I can only hope that, someday, the man’s name somehow turns up. And when it does, I hope some writer, trying to surpass the bar I’ve set—just as I tried to surpass the bars set before me—finds that name and publishes it and gives that unknown black man the due he deserves.
 McMillen, O.R. XXIV, Pt. 1, 766.