“Do We Know the Name…?”: The Battle of Jackson illuminates a research challenge

“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.[1] 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.


[1] McMillen, O.R. XXIV, Pt. 1, 766.

9 Responses to “Do We Know the Name…?”: The Battle of Jackson illuminates a research challenge

  1. Maybe the man’s name was never asked for? Maybe he elected to not give his name if he was asked. It seems to have been a swift decision to act on what the purported man had told the Union personnel. Events that could or were moving fast could result in names not being taken or soon forgotten about. Could someone who was there and knew the name have become a casualty before the name was recorded in a proper record? Could the individual(s) who claimed it was “a black man” be giving cover to someone who was working as a spy for the Union, or someone else whose identity was determined to need protecting? The sky is the limit here. I personally don’t know why anyone would be indignant about the name not being known. It was war.

    1. Excellent points by Mr. Pauly. While it of course would be wonderful to know the identity of the informant for posterity (especially for his descendants), the substance of his information is far more important.

  2. As we know, the late Edwin Bearss wrote the 150-page “The Battle of Jackson, May 1863” which was published 1981. Since Chris Mackowski indicates the man’s name is not recorded there, the next avenue to embark upon is OR 24 part 1 pages 749- 788: Reports of Battle of Jackson, in particular Report No.6 Wm. L. McMillen, Col. 95th OVI (of Tuttle’s First Division, Buckland’s First Brigade). Page 759: Sherman’s report reveals the outcome of the 95th OVI recon without revealing a Black man was involved. Buckland’s report (page 762) mentions Colonel McMillen by name, and the success of the 95th OVI in entering Jackson but has no specific information IRT sources and methods. Page 766 marks the start of Col. McMillen’s report; and on that page McMillen (ordered by Sherman thru Buckland to conduct a recon) records, “Learning from a Negro who came to me that the place had been evacuated, with the exception of a small number left to work a battery which was playing at that time on our main column, and ascertaining from him also its position, I moved my regiment rapidly through a street in the suburbs and gained its rear.” But McMillen includes also: “A List of the Prisoners is herewith forwarded…” [But that List, and any other pertinent notes attached, is not included with McMillen’s Report in OR 24. Perhaps it is still at the National Archives?] Here, the intelligence to be gained from the OR 24 Part 1 comes to an end. Next subject of investigation is “The 95th Ohio Volunteer Infantry.” Perhaps a diary kept by a member of that regiment contains the vital information; maybe it is contained in a letter home; perhaps an article was published by a soldier of the 95th OVI in an Ohio (or Indiana) newspaper during May- November 1863 or after the war in the Civil War Veteran newspaper “National Tribune” (which was published 1877- 1917) and which frequently focused on battles of the war near their anniversary dates. Anyone feeling lucky, with a bit of spare time on their hands: http://www.ohiocivilwar.com/cw95.html

    1. And I hit ’em all!

      One quick note about Ed’s book: Only 48 of the 150 pages are devoted to the battle of Jackson, and that includes the OoB and notes. The bulk of the book is devoted to the July 1863 siege of Jackson and three other post-Vicksburg actions.

    2. Call it serendipity… but while investigating reports of The Battle of Jackson in Midwestern newspapers of the day, ran across an interesting article in the Chicago Daily Tribune of 26 May 1863, page one, column 5. Reporters Junius Browne, Albert Richardson and Richard Colburn, on their way south down the Mississippi River in early May in order to join General Grant and send north details of Grant’s progress against Vicksburg had their steamer blown up by a Confederate 10-inch projectile that penetrated the boiler. Thrown into the river, the three reporters were fished out by Confederate soldiers, proclaimed Prisoners of War, and briefly confined in Confederate Vicksburg with perhaps 200 captured Union soldiers, before being advised that “They would be paroled back to Union lines… but not from Vicksburg.” On May 5th they found themselves in Jackson (but departed before Sherman, Grant and McPherson arrived.) Still in Confederate custody, the three reporters were moved progressively east, mostly by train and riverboat, passing through Meridian, Mobile, Montgomery and Atlanta before arriving at Richmond Virginia on May 16th. Shortly afterwards, Richard Colburn was released on Parole: he was in New York City on May 25th and submitted the article repeated by the Chicago Daily Tribune. But Browne and Richardson remained as Guests of the Confederacy for a while longer…
      My point: Sherman did not like reporters, so it is almost certain that no reporters were in company with him in Mississippi. And the reporters that were SUPPOSED to join General Grant and report on the Vicksburg Campaign (and likely reveal details of the Battle of Jackson) were “otherwise engaged” https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84031490/1863-05-26/ed-1/seq-1/

  3. Righteous indignation from southern ladies is a thing to behold. Being a Hattiesburg boy, I have seen it since birth, and I ain’t a spring chicken any more. Hattiesburg Mississippi, Methodist Hospital, Class of 1943.

  4. Having conducted a thorough search via the internet, mostly of period newspapers, the ORs and other reports, I have encountered only one other person with proclaimed knowledge of “the Black informer of Jackson who revealed crucial intelligence to Colonel McMillen.” That man was a nineteen year old Color-Sergeant in the 95th OVI, one of a handful of armed men tasked with protecting the colors (and color-bearer) of the regiment; and he was also an acknowledged “soldier-correspondent,” who provided regular written reports to the Ohio newspaper, Urbanna Union, using the callsign “C.B.S.” The man’s name is Clinton B. Sears. In the Urbana Union of 24 June 1863 page 3 col.5 under title “From the Vicksburg Trenches” is to be found the following: “After entering the breastworks, we were informed [by a Black man], who came from the city, that it was evacuated with the exception of one company, left to work a battery…” Unfortunately, the identity of “the Black man” is not provided. But, if the man revealed his identity, both Colonel McMillen and Color-Sergeant Sears would know. As yet, the relevant personal papers of McMillen and Sears have not been tracked down (although Sears was subsequently appointed to West Point, Class of 1867, so it is possible that his papers are held by that institution.) https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85026309/1863-06-24/ed-1/seq-3/

  5. So do we know the name of the indignant female? If so, it need not be published here, but possibly in a future dedication. If not, the fog of war strikes again.

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