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Battle of Chickasaw Bayou
December 27 - 29, 1862
The Vicksburg Campaign, Edwin Bearss, 1985
Web Author's Notes:
The 16th Ohio Volunteer Infantry played a key role in the Battle of Chickasaw Bayou on December 29, 1862. The 16th OVI suffered the heaviest casualties of any regiment in the battle, 16 killed, 101 wounded and 194 missing. One of those "missing" was this website's featured soldier, Major Milton Mills, who was taken prisoner during the failed attempt to take the bluffs over the river by Morgan's Third Division.

The following excerpts were taken from The Vicksburg Campaign by Edwin Cole Bearss, Copyright by Edwin Cole Bearss, 1985, Morningside House, Inc.

By the end of the second week of October 1862, the grand Confederate offensive that saw Southern armies surging forward along a 1000-mile front, from the approaches to Washington in the east to the prairies of southwestern Missouri, had ebbed. Never again would the South be this close to victory. The Federals, having everywhere recovered the initiative, prepared to carry the war deep into the South.

Some five weeks earlier, General Halleck had alerted Grant that the Confederates were rumored to be building several ironclad gunboats on the Yazoo River, and recommended that Grant contact the Navy and Maj. Gen. Frederick Steele, then holding the Helena, Arkansas, enclave, as to the prospects of outfitting an amphibious expedition to thwart this undertaking.

In the months since President Lincoln's April 15, 1861, call for 75,000 volunteers, the professional soldiers had failed to cut their way to the Gulf. Maj. Gen. John A. McClernand argued that the Rebel strangle hold on the reaches of the Mississippi between Vicksburg and Port Hudson was sapping the will of the midwesterners to win the war.

McClernand, meeting with Lincoln, carped about the closing of the Mississippi by a "small, indeed comparatively insignificant garrison at Vicksburg." He promised to open the great river with a 60,000-man army, and then either strike eastward for Atlanta or, depending on what the President wished, carry the war into Texas.

On October 9 (1862) President Lincoln informed Secretary Stanton and General Halleck that McClernand would be permitted to raise troops in the midwest and then lead an amphibious expedition against Vicksburg. Then, on the 20th, Stanton handed McClernand secret orders, endorsed by the President, stating that he approved of the expedition and wanted it "pushed forward with all possible dispatch."

[The Federal troops began landing at Milliken's Bend, on the Mississippi River, about 10 miles northwest and up-river from Vicksburg, on Christmas Day, 1862. Below is an excerpt from Bearss' The Vicksburg Campaign, detailing the intense actions that culminated the Battle of Chickasaw Bayou on December 29. The 16th Ohio Volunteer Infantry was a key unit in this engagement and suffered heavy losses on this day.]

General Sherman's plan for the 29th (of December, 1862) called for a powerful thrust to cave in the Confederate center. This accomplished and his men on the bluffs, Sherman would then have two options: he could pivot to the right and move directly against Vicksburg, or swing to the left and carry the Confederate forts centering on Snyder's Bluff.

The information filtering into Sherman's headquarters from his spies and scouts indicated that the Rebel force opposing him mustered about 15,000 officers and men. Sherman calculated that the foe, through the use of their interior rail lines, could increase this force by about 4,000 men daily, provided that Grant did not keep them pinned down along the Yalobusha, or General Rosecrans occupy Bragg's attention in Middle Tennessee.

Since leaving Helena on the 21st, Sherman had heard nothing from Grant. He should have realized that the capture of Holly Springs by Van Dorn - of which he had been advised by M. L. Smith on the 21st - would embarrass Grant's plans. In addition, Sherman had been unable to learn anything concerning General Banks' projected movement up the Mississippi from New Orleans.

Sherman's battle plan called for Morgan's division to advance via the road leading past Mrs. Lake's, cross Chickasaw Bayou, drive the greyclads from their trenches, and occupy the crest of Walnut Hills. Steele's division would support Morgan's and hold the River road. General A. J. Smith, with two divisions , would cross Chickasaw Bayou at the Indian Mound and carry the Confederate rifle-pits covering the River road.

By the evening of the 28th General Morgan had reconnoitered the terrain fronting his division. About midway between the Indian Mound and where Mrs. Lake's road crossed Chickasaw Bayou, which was both wide and deep at this point, was an impassable barrier. Morgan accordingly determined to bridge the bayou under the cover of darkness and surprise the foe. As soon as the watercourse had been bridged, Lindsey's and Sheldon's brigades could cross, sweep beyond the River road, and occupy the bluffs. Simultaneously, the brigades of Blair and DeCourcy would advance in parallel columns on Lindsey's and Sheldon's left.

Morgan had returned to his headquarters from a patrol when Sherman's message arrived directing that the attack be resumed. Morgan apprised Sherman of his scheme for forcing a crossing of Chickasaw Bayou, and Sherman approved. Having secured Sherman's consent, Morgan prepared to implement his plan. The difficult and dangerous task of bridging the bayou would be undertaken by Capt. William F. Patterson's Kentucky Company of Engineers and Mechanics, assisted by fatigue details from Lindsey's and Sheldon's brigades.

Under cover of darkness, eight pontoons were brought forward. The night was inky black. Patterson mistook another stream for Chickasaw Bayou, and daybreak was near before Morgan learned of Patterson's error. Whereupon the general told Patterson to take up the pontoons, and bridge Chickasaw Bayou as designated.

Reconnoitering the area on the 29th, General Morgan and Colonel Lindsey were overjoyed to discover that the butternuts still had not shifted any troops into the sector where they wished Patterson to bridge the bayou. Patterson was troubled when he saw that the stream was 80 feet across. He approached Morgan and stated that, in the haste to get away from Memphis, the stringers used to support the flooring and to connect the pontons had been left. But, he felt that if the eight pontons were lashed, side by side, he could improvise a center span for his bridge. To do this, the engineers would cut down a number of trees to serve as stringers and flooring. Patterson calculated that his men could complete a usable bridge within two hours. Morgan gave Patterson the green light. A fatigue party from the 114th Ohio of Lindsey's brigade was assigned to assist Patterson's people.

The bluecoats had hardly started work on the bridge before they were sighted by Confederates. Four guns (one section of Company D, 1st Mississippi Light Artillery, and one section of Company A, 14th Mississippi Light Artillery Battalion) roared. Several shells exploded in the Yanks; midst, scattering the bridge builders. Colonel Sheldon, taking cognizance of the engineers' difficulty, sent the 69th Indiana led by Col. Thomas W. Bennett to their support. The Hoosiers took cover in the woods bounding the bayou and opened fire on the Confederate cannoneers.

The boom of artillery drew General Lee's attention to the area, where Morgan hoped to catch the Confederates napping. Morgan had succeeded. At the time that the four cannons opened fire on the Union pioneers, no Rebel infantry was stationed in that sector. Lee took prompt steps to correct this situation. Col. Allen Thomas with the 29th Louisiana and the 42d Georgia was sent to plug the gap. While he held the majority of his two regiments in reserve, Colonel Thomas deployed six companies (two of Louisianans and four of Georgians) close to where the Yankee engineers were bridging the bayou. For the next several hours - until about 11a.m. - Thomas' and Bennett's sniped at one another. Having committed part of his reserve and feeling certain that, for the moment, there was no threat to Snyder's Bluff, Lee telegraphed Colonel Higgins to rush him the 4th Mississippi.

After leaving Captain Patterson, Morgan had visited his left flank, where he told General Blair about his plan to force a crossing of Chickasaw Bayou midway between the road to Mrs. Lake's and the Indian Mound. While waiting for the attack to begin, Blair's soldiers were to cross the small watercourse fronting their position and reconnoiter the Confederate rifle-pits. But, before Blair made his reconnaissance, he received a message from Morgan directing him to cross Chickasaw Bayou, and then mass his brigade in DeCourcy's rear. Morgan believed that Colonel Thomas' advance presaged an attack on his right. As Blair prepared to execute this order, fresh instructions reached him. In the meantime, Morgan had received information that convinced him that Lindsey and Sheldon could cope with Thomas' two regiments. Blair would not cross to the west side of Chickasaw Bayou. After suspending the movement, Blair scouted the enemy's works to his front. He found the ground over which his brigade would advance to be exceedingly difficult. It appeared to him that almost every artillery emplacement and rifle-pit either bore upon or enfiladed his intended line of attack. Although the branch that his men would have to cross did not have as much water as Chickasaw Bayou, quicksand and steep banks made it a formidable moat. The bed of the stream was about 100 yards wide and covered with water for a distance of about 15 feet.

On the near side of the stream there had been a grove of young cottonwoods, but they had been felled by the foe and the stumps left standing. Tops of saplings had been thrown helter-skelter among these stumps. After having passed this obstacle, Blair's bluecoats would have to wade the stream and scale the opposite bank, which was about ten feet high. They then would have to work their way through the abatis. All this time, they would be exposed to the fire of Confederate marksmen sheltered in the rifle-pits. Behind these forward earthworks was a second line of trenches and the supporting artillery emplacements. Subsequently, Blair wrote, "These formidable works, defended by a strong force of desperate men such as held them on the 29th, would seem to require almost superhuman effort to effect their capture.

After completing his reconnaissance, Blair deployed as skirmishers and threw forward a battalion of the 13th Illinois. The blueclads moved out and, encountering no resistance, took possession of the rifle-pits that had been held by the 26th Louisiana the previous afternoon. General Lee, in hopes of enticing the Federals into making a rash frontal attack on his strong position, had withdrawn the 26th Louisiana before daybreak. Lee saw that Blair was falling into his trap and ordered his men to hold their fire. He also cautioned them to remain under cover until the Union battle line emerged from the woods.

Early that morning General Steel - accompanied by Thayer's brigade - had left Johnson's plantation. At. Mrs. Lake's, Steele was hailed by General Morgan, who told Steele that Captain Patterson's engineers were bridging Chickasaw Bayou. This bridge, Morgan predicted, would be completed in about two hours, and when it is, Morgan announced, "within thirty minutes thereafter" I will have "possession of the heights, to a moral certainty." While the two generals were conferring, Sherman rode up an directed Steele to halt Thayer's brigade and give General Morgan any assistance he might request.

By 7:30am 18 field pieces manned by cannoneers of the 7th Michigan, the 4th Ohio, and the 1st Wisconsin Batteries had gone into action. These guns were emplaced in the field south of Mrs. Lake's, and two of Blair's regiments, the 30th and 32d Missouri, had been detached and massed in support of the cannon. Confederate artillerists, in returning the Yankees' fire, concentrated on the 1st Wisconsin Battery. Shell after shell burst among Captain Foster's guns. By 10a.m. the Southerners saw that they had failed to silence the guns of the 1st Wisconsin Battery and shifted to other targets.

While the artillery duel raged, General Morgan visited the 1st Wisconsin Battery. He sighted a Confederate caisson, with men seated on the ammunition chests, thundering up the River road. The caisson was a mile away and was preceded by several horsemen. Morgan asked Captain Foster, "Can you blow up that caisson?"

Foster replied, "I can try sir." He waited until the caisson approached to within closer range before ordering his gunners to fire! The report of the 20-pounder Parrotts and the explosion of the caisson seemed to be instantaneous. Caisson and passengers were thrown into the air, and all the men and horses were either killed or wounded. Among those slain in the explosion of the caisson was Capt. Paul Hamilton of Lee's staff. In addition, Foster's sharpshooting gunners knocked the rear chest off another caisson and the wheels off a third.

Morgan was satisfied by what he saw that the strength of the Confederate position made an attack by his left impractical, and he sent Lt. E. D. Saunders of his staff to acquaint Sherman with the situation and request his presence at the front. Sherman soon arrived, and the two generals reconnoitered the area around the corduroy bridge. Morgan cautioned that his front was narrow and marsh within easy range of the Confederates' guns. After several minutes of silence, Sherman pointed toward the bluffs and said "That is the route to take!" Without uttering another word, Sherman returned to his headquarters at Mrs. Lake's. Shortly thereafter, Maj. William A. Hammond of Sherman's staff galloped up to Morgan's command post, and informed the general that Sherman had told him, "Tell Morgan to give the signal for the assault; that we will lose 5,000 men before we take Vicksburg, and may as well lose them here as anywhere else."

Morgan replied sharply "that…(he) would order the assault; that we might lose 5,000 men, but that his entire army could not carry the enemy's position in…(his) front; that the larger the force sent to the assault, the greater would be the number slaughtered."

Without further adieu, Morgan sent instructions to Blair and DeCourcy to form their brigades. They were to hold their men ready to attack when the artillery fired the prescribed signal volley. Hardly had Morgan issued these orders before Colonel DeCourcy confronted him and said, "General, do I understand that you are about to order an assault?" Morgan replied, "Yes, form your brigade!"

With an air of respectful protest, DeCourcy replied, "My poor brigade! Your order will be obeyed General." Blair, upon receipt of Morgan's orders, had massed his brigade. Two of his regiments had been detached to support the artillery, so Blair formed his command in double line of battle. The first wave had the 13th Illinois on the right and the 31st Missouri on the left; the second was composed of the 58th Ohio and the 29th Missouri. A 150-foot interval separated the two lines. The right flank company of the 29th Missouri and the left flank company of the 58th Ohio were alerted to watch the rear as Blair's bluecoats surged toward the Rebel trenches. Having made these dispositions, Blair anxiously awaited the artillery's signal to advance.

It was about 11 a.m. when DeCourcy received his instructions to get ready to carry the Confederate fortifications, and he positioned his brigade: the 22d Kentucky and 54th Indiana were deployed into line of battle, the Kentucky regiment on the right. Massed in double column of attack were the 16th and 42d Ohio. The 16th Ohio was to support the 54th Indiana, while the 42d Ohio followed the Kentuckians. DeCourcy's soldiers were to cross on the corduroy bridge.

Sherman's orders, Morgan told Steele, made it necessary to storm the bluffs without waiting for Patterson's men to complete the bridge. Steele was to support the storming party with all the troops he had on the field - General Thayer's brigade. As Thayer rode up, Morgan bluntly told him "to take his infantry and cross the bayou, enter the enemy's works, and take the hill". Before sending Thayer forward, Morgan cautioned that Thayer and his officers should dismount. If they did not, Morgan feared they would be cut down by Confederate snipers.

Morgan had placed Colonel Lindsey in charge of bridging the bayou. With his own and Sheldon's brigade, Lindsey would protect Captain Patterson's engineers. As soon as the bayou was bridged, the two brigades were to cross, Captain Hoffmann's 4th Ohio Battery and two regiments of Thayer's brigade were to support Lindsey's thrust.

Morgan's battle plan provided for a frontal attack on Lee's line by Blair's, Thayer's and DeCourcy's brigades, while Lindsey's and Sheldon's bluecoats forced a crossing of Chickasaw Bayou. After they had crossed the stream, Lindsey's and Sheldon's troops would drive a wedge between Lee's and Barton's commands.

Before daybreak on the 29th the Confederate leaders, fearful lest Steele resume his attacks along the eastern marge of Thompson Lake, had reinforced Withers' command with three guns manned by cannoneers of Company E, 1st Mississippi Light Artillery. When no attack came, Withers threw forward a patrol. By 9 a.m. Withers knew that he had been thwarted , when the patrol returned, and its leader reported that Steele's division had vanished from Blake's Levee. In the meantime, Withers had seen that a 6-pounder gun from Company I, 1st Mississippi Light Artillery, was emplaced alongside Johnston's two Napoleons. These three guns were positioned to sweep Blake's Levee, as well as cover the ground in front of Lee's command. When it became apparent to General Pemberton that the Union attack would center on the sector held by Lee's troops, the 17th and 26th Louisiana and one of Company B's 6-pounders were detached from Withers' command and rushed to S. D. Lee's support. It was noon before Morgan's brigade commanders had completed their dispositions. When General Morgan gave the word, 18 guns - the 7th Michigan Battery had exhausted its ammunition and had been sent to the rear - fired the designated volley. The Union cannon then fell silent. To Morgan's left, Blair's wildly cheering brigade surged to the attack. Though subjected to a storm of shells and minie balls, Blair's stouthearted troops worked their way through the abatis, waded the stream, and scaled the steep bank. They then routed the butternuts from their advanced rifle-pits and closed on Lee's main line of resistance held by the 3d, 30th, and 62d Tennessee Regiments.

The price in blood paid for these gains was awful. Many of Blair's best officers and men were killed or wounded. Glancing to the right, Blair saw that DeCourcy's soldiers had likewise carried the forward Rebel rifle-pits. Blair shouted words of encouragement to his men, urging them on. But the cost was too great. Only a few soldiers reached the River road, and the ones who did were too few to dislodge Lee's hard-fighting greyclads. Within a matter of minutes, Blair's attack had been repulsed. Recoiling, the troops veered to the right and escaped across Chickasaw Bayou on the corduroy bridge.

When they drove ahead, the 42d Ohio and the right flank companies of the 22d Kentucky of DeCourcy'' brigade came under a scathing fire. After clawing their way through the abatis, the soldiers reached the bayou. They sought to wade the stream, but were dismayed to find that it was too deep to ford. By this time the 54th Indiana and the 16th Ohio and the left flank companies of the 22d Kentucky had crossed Chickasaw Bayou on the corduroy bridge. The troops, reaching the right bank, deployed on the open ground fronting the fortifications. As soon as they had accomplished this maneuver, the Yanks drove forward in "splendid style." Not only did DeCourcy's bluecoats encounter a terrible cross fire, but the two Napoleons and the 6-pounder emplaced near Blake's Levee took them in the rear.

DeCourcy saw that part of his command had been unable to cross the bayou, and he re-crossed the stream. Regaining the north bank, DeCourcy shouted for the troops to move by the left flank and cross at the corduroy bridge. The abatis was again passed, the bayou crossed, and these soldiers entered the open ground in front of the Confederates' woks. They were too late, because the Rebels had already turned back the charge of the 54th Indiana and the 16th Ohio, supported by the left flank companies of the 22d Kentucky. Observing that the attack had ebbed, DeCourcy decided not to expose the 42d near the bridge, where the regiment was positioned to cover the retreat of DeCourcy's shattered brigade.

Almost as soon as the 4th Iowa - Thayer's advance unit - had moved off, Morgan again inquired as to the strength of Steele's command. Steele responded that Thayer's brigade was up. But, he added, one of Thayer's six regiments (the 26th Iowa) was on detached duty, cutting a road. Morgan, recalling his promise to support Lindsey's attack with two of Thayer's regiments, asked Steele "to turn part of the troops a little father to the right." And Steele approached Col. Charles H. Abbott, the commander of the 30th Iowa, whose unit was about to follow the 4th Iowa. Abbott was told to move his regiment into the woods to the right and deploy it as skirmishers. The other regimental commanders, alerted by Thayer to guide their movements on the unit to their front, followed the 30th Iowa when it marched to the right. Led by General Thayer and Col. James A. Williamson, the soldiers of the 4th Iowa moved ahead in column of fours behind DeCourcy's brigade. As soon as the head of the column crossed the corduroy bridge, it encountered a hail of minie balls. Worse, if possible, was the fire of the enemy artillery ripping the Iowans' flanks.

After all his troops were across the bayou, Colonel Williamson deployed them on DeCourcy's right. Before the Iowans had completed their deployment, DeCourcy's troops started to give way. Hoping that the men might breakthrough where DeCourcy's had failed, Thayer ordered Williamson to attack! The sturdy Iowans - veterans of Pea Ridge - surged across a rail fence, swept over the advance rifle-pits, and closed on the trenches held by General Lee's two left flank units, the 42d Georgia and the 29th Louisiana, commanded by Colonel Thomas of the latter regiment.

Thayer glanced to the rear to see what his other regiments were doing. He was unable to spot any other units belonging to his brigade. Thunderstruck, Thayer bellowed for Williamson to have his men hold their ground while he dashed to the rear in search of the errant regiments.

Near the bridge, Thayer found the 42d Ohio, cowering in a ditch, where they were sheltered from the Confederates' fire. Thayer urged the Ohioans to hasten to the support of the 4th Iowa, but the 42d's officers told Thayer that DeCourcy had directed them to cover the retreat, and they would be violating DeCourcy's orders if they moved forward.

Thayer rejoined the 4th Iowa. Looking to his left, he saw that Blair's men had also recoiled. The 4th Iowa was isolated, but Thayer determined to make a final effort to locate his missing regiments. Before leaving, Colonel Williamson, Thayer told him to hold his position until Thayer could get up reinforcements, but if he could not, to retire. Following the general's departure, the Iowans, despite a terrible fire, clung to the ground they had gained. Hampered by being afoot and having a considerable distance to travel, Thayer was unable to bring any reinforcements up in time to help the 4th Iowa. Meanwhile, Colonel Williamson had realized that his regiment was the only organized Union force south of the bayou. To make matters worse, Thayer had seemingly been unable to locate any fresh troops. Williamson now gave the order to retreat. The withdrawal was accomplished in tolerable order but with heavy losses.

General S. D. Lee watched as the Yanks gave way. He saw that large numbers of bluecoats had been pinned down by the Confederates' fire and had remained behind when their comrades retreated. Lee now ordered the 17th and 26th Louisiana to make a sortie into no-man's-land. During this mopping-up operation, the Louisianans captured 21 officers, 311 enlisted men, 4 battle flags, and 500 stands of arms.

Several of the Rebel gun crews had served their pieces so effectively that they had fired most of the ammunition in their caissons and limbers. One section of Company I, 1st Mississippi Light Artillery, was ordered to Lee's support by Withers at the height of the attack. The assault had been short, sharp, and decisive. When the Mississippians came thundering up, the Federals had already retreated across the bayou.

Falling back in confusion, the enemy left their dead and seriously wounded behind. In the wake of the repulse, before the fire of Union sharpshooters became too intense, Confederate hospital corpsmen succeeded in rescuing about 80 bluecoats. These Yankees were rushed to Vicksburg for hospitalization.

Seven hundred yards southwest of the corduroy bridge, Lindsey's and Sheldon's brigades had advanced. Lindsey massed his brigade in the rear of the 69th Indiana. The Indianans, deployed as skirmishers, had been trading shots with Allen Thomas' greyclads on the far side of the bayou since midmorning. The 120th Ohio of Sheldon's brigade was formed as skirmishers in the underbrush on the Indianans' left. Six guns of the 4th Ohio Battery supported Lindsey. Exposed to a galling fire, the cannoneers unlimbered their pieces and manhandled them slowly forward, halting and firing their pieces at frequent intervals until they reached the bank of the bayou.

Covered by the fire of the infantry and artillery, Patterson's engineers, accompanied by a company from the 114th Ohio, dashed forward. Patterson hoped that Lindsey's troops could keep the Confederates pinned down, while the pioneers bridged the bayou. The bluecoats floored one of the pontoons before the Confederates drove them from their work. Two of the pontons were damaged and a number of men killed or wounded by the Rebels' fire.

Lindsey now learned that DeCourcy had been repulsed. Shortly afterwards, he received orders from Morgan to suspend his efforts to bridge the bayou. Lindsey then recalled his and Sheldon's brigades and deployed them so as to shelter the soldiers from the fire of the enemy artillery.

The first reports that reached Sherman's headquarters from Morgan indicated that the troops were not dismayed by their repulse. Morale seemed high, although the losses in Blair's and DeCourcey's brigades had been heavy. Officers were confident that the assault could be resumed within one-half hour. Morgan, upon reflection, deemed that it would not be in the Federals' interest to renew the attack.

Morgan, having made this decision, hastened to Sherman's command post at Mrs. Lake's. He found Sherman alone, pacing backward and forward with restless strides. In terse words, Morgan described the attack and repulse. Next, Morgan inquired into the possibility of sending a staff officer, covered by a flag of truce, to request an armistice to enable the Federals to bring in their wounded and bury their dead. Sherman told Morgan that he did not like to ask for a truce, as it would be regarded as an admission of defeat.

To this Morgan replied, "that we had been terribly cut up, but were not dishonored; that the bearing of our troops was superb, and we held every foot of our own ground; but that our dead and wounded covered the field and could only be reached by a flag."

Sherman retorted that he was "determined not to ask for a truce." Just before dusk, Sherman had a change of heart. He authorized Morgan to request a suspension of hostilities. Morgan addressed a note to General Pemberton requesting a truce. By the time the flag of truce party moved into no-man's-land, it was too dark for the white flag to be distinguished, and the escort was fired upon by the greyclads and compelled to retire.

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