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Battle of Chickasaw Bayou
December 27 - 29, 1862
An Account by Cpl. Theodore D. Wolbach
Company E, 16th Ohio Volunteer Infantry
Web Author's Notes:
The web author is in possession of a book, titled Mortality and Statistics of the Census of 1850 in which it is believed Captain Rezin H. Vorhes (spelled Voorhes on official rosters), Company H, pasted over the pages a series of articles published in the Orrville (Wayne County, Ohio) Crescent newspaper. The articles tell the story, in great detail and color, of the 16th OVI, from the inception of the 3-year regiment in October, 1861, through and including its most devastating battle at Chickasaw Bayou, Mississippi, in December, 1862. These stories are precious and beautifully written and allow the reader to experience, almost first hand, the way it really was as a soldier in the Union army in 1862 and, in particular, a soldier in the 16th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. No Hollywood movie or modern-day description could come close to the emotion and poignancy relayed by the writer, listed only as Hatchet [and now identified as Cpl. Theodore D. Wolbach, Company E].

Theodore Wolbach became an important photographer in Ohio after the war. He was active in the 16th Ohio reunions and took photographs of the veterans, one of which is available on this website.

The web author sincerely thanks Jean and Lee Van Brederode for their thoughtful and generous contribution of the 1850 Census Book containing the story of the 16th Ohio. It is a precious relic that will be shared on this website and which will be kept with other such relics and greatly cherished for all time.

The 16th Ohio and Sherman's army had been camping in Memphis, Tennessee, for 23 days, while Sherman prepared his force for an attack on Vicksburg. Cpl. Wolbach resumes his story on the day the troops left Memphis, heading for Vicksburg...

On the 20th of December we marched down through the city and embarked on the steamer Fanny Bullitt, a spacious side-wheeler, and rather a handsome looking boat. We settled down for a trip, the end of which we knew not. Those of the soldiers that were thoughtful and serious guessed at, and argued the future program, while others cared nothing for such pastime, and seemed willing to meet and take things rough or smooth, just as time unravelled them to us. The deck hands of our boat were negroes, I think six in number. They were a garrulous set, and the second mate, a little Italian, aged about forty, was their 'boss', although the first mate, an ugly, profane fellow, often 'lipped in' with his choice river language. When we stopped to wood up, the negroes were hurried and cursed, yet they chatted and seemed to take the abuse lightly. The name of one big black fellow was Jacob Cheeseman. Jacob had large feet and larger shoes. In getting around in the performance of his duties at night, he as well as some of his companions, were apt to tread on the prostrate soldiers. This generally caused only a little grumbling, but one night the resentment was a little worse and Jacob was the victim. A soldier, stung with painful shins, under the heavy tread of the deck hand, seized the rind of a large piece of bacon, (the leaner portion having been cut out but plenty of the soft fatty part remaining,) and threw it with violence at the head of Jacob, whose face was turned toward the angered man, evidently for the purpose of making one of his customary brief apologies. He received the bacon, greasy side foremost, fair in the face. The Italian was hampered in his work by the crowds of men, and there were plenty that were inclined to tease him a little. Sometime when he got worked up it was amusing to hear him say G--d d--n desoliah (?).

We moved in an immense fleet of about sixty boats, all told. It was the largest flotilla that the circumstances of war had yet brought together on this river. It was a novel and rare sight in the day time to see the numerous white boats, freighted with 'the men of the north and the west,' bearing away in a long line southward. The steamer Jewess, had a steam calliope (on board), and often our voyage was enlivened by this instrument. On the water it could be heard a mile. We drift steadily past Helena, Arkansas. The yellow fresh earthworks on the bluffs, surmounted by the United States flag, assured us that things were all right there. A furious attempt was made the following summer by the Confederates, under Price and Holmes, to capture the works, but after a bloody and sanguinary battle they were driven back in disastrous defeat, losing many prisoners and leaving the hill-sides covered with many dead and wounded. A gunboat was stationed at Friar's Point, five miles below Helena. The boys had very little cooked food on the boat. If a fellow could manage to get a cup of hot coffee he was very apt to be satisfied. All of the available places for cooking were occupied through the day. Each on had to look out for himself, or go without a 'warm bite.' From the hurricane deck we could see far out over the country to the right and left, and once in a great while we could see squads of mounted men in the distance. It was easy to guess their character, as they kept out of range.

Floating away to the southward in this magnificent Armada, was a smooth and pleasant beginning to a thrilling epoch in the history of the 16th. The boom of a distant cannon once in a while sent its saucy echoes along the surface of the dark river. This firing was principally done by the gunboats left to watch vulnerable points.

On the 25th of December, the curtain begins to slowly rise on the events of a dark and bloody week's work. On that day we glide into the sluggish waters of the Yazoo. This name, in the language of one of the ancient Indian tribes, means 'River of Death.' How appropriately named for the ghastly program that fate had marked for the future on its miasmatic shores.

The 26th finds the troops landing on the south shore at a place called Johnson's Plantation, near a point where the Chickasaw Bayou connects with the Yazoo. A large field, covered with high burrweed and dead trees, bounded the Bayou on the west. On the opposite side was a dense forest. One of our gunboats, I think it was the Tyler, lay near the mouth of the Bayou. The 16th Ohio was in the extreme advance, and while they were landing, several shots were fired at the gunboats form the woods. A prompt response was sent back in the shape of a shell that exploded. A skirmish line was formed, and sent forward, to reconnoitre. Moving slowly back from the river, we picked our way through the troublesome weeds until we reached a more open region, the gunboat all the while pitching shells over our heads, and keeping it up until orders were sent back to them to cease firing. Some of the missiles, striking the tops of the dry trees, endangered the men below by the flying fragments of wood. Some of the enemy were encountered, and fired a few shots at us at long range near the plantation buildings. Nothing further, of much importance, occurred this day in our front.

The following day, (Saturday),) we moved in larger force farther from the boat landing. Progress was slow and attended with very little firing until about five o'clock in the evening when a furious musketry fire was opened on the 22nd Kentucky Infantry that was operating in the advance. The sudden onslaught confused the men slightly but under the clear, sharp commands of Col. DeCourcey, who was with them, they promptly dressed their line, and at the word of command, returned the fire driving the enemy away. Ten of the Kentuckians were wounded and one killed. After this sharp set it was quiet for a while. The 16th stacked arms in a large turnip field near the edge of the road that (ran) along the (Chickasaw) Bayou. Across from us was the gloomy, vine-tangled forest. From the branches of the trees hung the gray Spanish Moss in abundance.

It had become dark and some of the boys had spread their blankets for a 'snooze' when a strange noise, up in the front, brought us quickly into ranks. A team of horses, attached to a wagon belonging to the pioneer corps, had taken fright and were running away and the handle of a crosscut saw had got into such a position that it played on the spokes of a wheel which had the effect to make the horses perfectly frantic with fright. They shot past our front like a rocket.

After this had subsided, Company C, who were deployed as skirmishers down by the banks of the Bayou, commenced discharging their rifles at the opposite bank, but no responsive shots coming back, they ceased. In a few minutes a large cotton gin building nearby caught fire. The soldiers had been carrying cotton away from it to make beds and someone with a lighted match, probably by accident, ignited the dry fibre. In less time than it takes to tell it the big building was a roaring bonfire. The exciting events of the evening began to look a little portentous to us. The last incident had lighted up the country and revealed every bivouac of our men within a half mile.

The night air was damp and chilly and thick fog hung close to the earth. On the morning of the 28th, when it was sufficiently light to discern objects a few rods distant, the opposing pickets opened fire at each other, and some entrenched artillery of ours in advance of our regiment, put in a shot once in a while. Mounted orderlies and staff officers dashed briskly about carrying orders, and presently the 16th was called to 'attention,' and marched by the flank, four abreast, out past the advance pickets who were lying flat on the ground or crouched behind such obstacles as would protect the body. Strange as it may seem, all firing ceased when we made our appearance on the dangerous ground. The pulse of the timid beat quicker, but the 16th moved solidly and resolutely, and strictly obeyed their commanding officer, Lieut. Col. Phillip Kershner, who was mounted and rode at the head of the column. When we had well cleared our picket's front, we filed to the right, and formed line in gigantic burrweed that was very annoying as the dry, hard burrs came loose from the stalk at the touch and stuck tenaciously to our woolen clothing. Less than a hundred yards from our line, in front, was a forest of heavy timber. The wide-spreading branches were festooned with moss. The foe, in numbers unknown to us, were crouching beneath the canopy. Why they did not fire at us was a mystery, but we were not destined to wait long. Soon the order was given to commence firing from the right of sections. The boys obeyed deliberately and with coolness. As soon as we commenced the rebels replied with vigor. A part of Lamphere's 7th Michigan Battery galloped into position on our left and took a 'hand in the action.' The rapid firing soon produced a thick smoke, that, while it lingered around us, rendered objects indistinct a short distance off. The cannoneers, first distinctly outlined, soon looked like spectres in the sulphurous fog. The thumping sound of the field pieces, as they sent their iron bolts into the forest, with the rattling musketry fire, soon produced that partial deafness that all soldiers experience that pass through the ordeal of noisy battle. Other troops came up and joined in , and as the air became lighter, the smoke ascended revealing the pugnacious 'Yankee invader' at his spiteful, deadly work. A part of the 16th was relieved by another regiment. Retiring a short distance they were ordered to lie down. Several here were struck by the enemy's balls, but none seriously hurt. Lieutenant Boling, of Company B, got a rap on the breast that made him feel sick and might have been worse but for his leather shoulder belt that cushioned the bullet. Beu Pursell, of the same Company, was struck on the arm by a spent ball. In the shifting of the position of the troops, a small part of our regiment was thrown forward as skirmishers, and the balance of the companies, formed in column of divisions, acted as a support.

A very intelligent and well educated Frenchman named Girard, who had recently enlisted in one of the Holmes Co. companies, unexpectedly furnished a little fun for his comrades here in the woods, while we were skirmishing in the advance. Every man applied his own tactics and used his own judgment in the fight after we were halted. Anything that would catch a bullet was sought out for shelter. In some instances a considerable number were grouped behind a common obstacle. In one of these clusters Girard was busily at work. Some fellow near him in jerking the ramrod out of his gun thumped him sharply in the ribs. Girard imagined that he was shot and with a groan rolled over helpless exclaiming seriously, 'My God! I am shot,' but almost in the same instant discovered the reality of his case and took a laugh with the boys.

George Glick, of Co. A, had the upper part of his nose between the eyes carried away by a musket ball; a half inch closer would have taken the eyes.

From the mouldering treasures of memory the survivors of that affray in the Chickasaw forest, can recall many startling experiences and miraculous escapes from death and mutilation.

When night had came and darkness had settled over us, many of those that were not in the extreme front lay down and slept, paying no heed to the frequent shots that were sent from one side or the other. Clusters of the boys, grouped together and in low tones, discussed the probabilities of the morrow.

They were moving back and forth all night. Some fellows that might have slept, if they so desired, made no effort to. The events of the day impressed on the mind and conscious that in the gloomy shadows of those old trees were the blood marks where comrades had fell dead or disabled, kept the nerves of the thoughtful in a poor condition for slumber. Down along the bayou, in the dark forest, far to our right, where other divisions of our corps were deployed, a shot now and then told us that the soldier on the skirmish line was vigilant there too. So the night, damp and chilly, slowly passed, and the foggy dawn made its appearance.

The boys stirred around. Some gathered fuel and made coffee a short distance to the rear; others were contented with bacon and hardtack. There was a good degree of cheerfulness and every shell that went tearing through the woods and every bullet that zipped close brought forth a humorous remark. As the light increased and the fog rose the firing on the skirmish line increased, but there were no other demonstrations until near noon, when the staff officers became unusually active, galloping from one command to another, transmitting the orders of their superiors. Men that had strayed away short distances were called into ranks. The various regiments were formed in column of company or divisions and remained in that position awaiting further orders. In the 16th there were about seven hundred men present for duty, well clothed and equipped and in splendid condition. After this day's work the regiment could never again muster in such force.

The Confederates in their works along the bluffs were noticed to be active. Their position had been strengthened during the night. Fresh earth had been thrown up and room made for more troops and artillery. When we looked across the intervening space at the formidable preparations and understood that we were soon to be sent forth in an attempt to storm and capture the position, it was perfectly easy for the soldiers to feel a little peculiar.

Shortly before the signal for the advance, Gen. Geo. W. Morgan rode up in front of our regiment and briefly addressed us. His voice had the tone of excitement, though he spoke clearly and with great assurance. The writer vividly remembers the substance of that speech. The General exhorted us to move promptly when we received the order, and walk right up and plant our colors on the top of the hill. His remarks had an enervating and peculiar effect on one of our new men, who sunk down groaning and in agony. A few minutes afterward we marched away and left him lying pale and weak, the result perhaps of intense nervous excitement.

Morgan went to each of the regiments of our Brigade and made short speeches. The motive was prompted by patriotism and was correct, but the effort seemed out of place in the face of existing circumstances. When the soldier has a bloody job on hand I think he prefers to be ordered at it without any superfluous talk.

A while before we were called into ranks, some troops without knapsacks and in light marching order, came up to the edge of the woods where we had halted. They were the 13th Illinois Infantry, and belonged to Blair's Brigade. They had been sent here by mistake. About facing, they marched back, crossed the Chickasaw Bayou in the rear of us and took position in the dense wood to our left.

About one o'clock p.m. the order was given and we advanced. Solid and compact we passed through the forest and entered the slashing in the face of hot artillery fire. The regiments preserved tolerable good order, passing over and around the huge fallen trees. The bayou was reached and crossed with some difficulty and confusion. As the men swarmed into the open space beyond, they received a furious musketry fire from the Confederate infantry in the earth-works in the immediate front and in point-blank range. The effect of the fire on the advancing troops was fearful. At every beat of the pulse scores of the exposed Federals sunk to the muddy earth, dead or with weakening wounds, yet there was an effort on the part of the officers to keep up a semblance of order. It was too plainly evident that the blazing rifle-pits, backed by entrenched batteries, were obstacles that could not be carried by broken regiments. To storm these works the troops must reach them in good order and superior numbers. The energetic resistance of the enemy broke the force of the charge so effectually that the men faltered and gave ground. The bulk of the brigade fell back to the bayou and beyond. Many laid down on the field, in little depressions or behind such covering as was handy. Many of these were so completely covered by the rebel infantry fire that they were compelled to lay low and reluctantly surrender to the enemy afterward. Gen. Frank Blair's Brigade went in on the left of us and shared a similar fate.

The thrilling and peculiar incidents of this charge would furnish an exciting chapter in the history of this ill-fated expedition.

The regiments of our brigade that participated in this affair were the 54h Indiana, 22nd Kentucky, and 42nd and 16th Ohio. DeCourcey was opposed to making this charge, and it has been said that when his men passed him on their way to the front he expressed himself in terms of regret. Some of the wounded, that lay helpless between the lines and could not be removed, were shot the second or third time. Some of our men insisted that this was done intentionally by the enemy, but it is hoped that they were not so barbarous. Some poor fellows attempted to get up and walk, but weak from the loss of blood, they would stagger and fall. Others tried to drag their blood-stained bodies or roll themselves toward our lines. Some succeeded in getting back to points of safety in this manner. The majority of these recovered, and a few of them are alive today. The wounded men of our regiment, that fell into the enemy's hands, fared badly. In dressing the wounds or performing operations, the rebel surgeons were careless and rough. Jobe, a young fellow, a recent recruit of Co. I, had a bad wound in the leg. While the rebel surgeons were at work amputating the limb, the supper call beat, and the unfeeling wretches postponed work on the operations until after the meal. The poor fellow's sufferings soon brought death. Shank, of Co. B, who had a bullet lodged in his head was similarly abandoned when the ball was almost extracted. He recovered.

The commanding officers of the 16th Ohio and 22nd Kentucky, Kershner and Monroe, were both wounded, the former in the arm and the later in the head. Kershner was captured. Two captains of the 22d and one of the 16th (G. W. Harn, of Co. I,) were killed. Many of the line officers were wounded.

An exploding shell tore the flag of the 22d Kentucky into shreds. The color-bearer, a noble looking Hungarian commonly known as 'Nick,' frightened and bewildered, threw the staff away and would never afterward carry the colors. They were eagerly snatched up and carried through the fight by a young corporal, who was afterward rewarded for the act by a Lieutenancy.

Two of the 16th boys had their rifles knocked out of their hands and badly bent, one of them nearly double. Another had the butt of his gun struck and shattered to pieces. Lieutenant Ross, of Co. G, was shot in the face, the ball taking a downward course, damaging the palate to such an extent that it became necessary afterward to insert a plate to restore articulation of speech. Jonathan Wright, of Co. E, was struck on the side of the head by the leaden fuse plate of a shell. It broke the jaw-bone badly and embedded itself firmly in the side of the face, but was successfully removed by Surgeon Brashear, the piece weighing four ounces.

It was a mortifying spectacle to us to see the exultant Confederates, marching our comrades as prisoners of war, over the distant hill toward Vicksburg, and as a further aggravation, some of these regiments that were fighting us here were a part of the same force that we had met at Tazewell, Tennessee.

During the night of the 29th, the 'tooting' of the locomotives and the cheering of our enemy, assured us that they were getting reinforcements. Several of their cornet bands, on the bluffs, discoursed music until a late hour. They played the national airs of the Confederacy. 'Bonnie Blue Flag' appeared to be conspicuous and was loudly cheered by their men. 'Home Sweet Home' drew applause from our side. When they struck up 'Get out of the Wilderness,' we felt the humiliating force of the joke, but we responded with vociferous cheers.

The next morning, the 30th, found the 16th lifting their chilled and benumbed bodies from a muddy bivouac in an old cornfield. When we were in ranks, in column of Companies, the havoc of the fight was painfully visible. One Company, (K,) had only fifteen men present all told. Some of the Companies had no officers. While we were standing here in ranks, there approached us from the direction of the river, a mounted officer that we were all familiar with. It was our new Major, R. W. P. Muse, who had been back on the boat sick (?). He was splendidly mounted with all the gay trappings belonging to his rank. He rode to the front of the regiment with the evident intention of taking command. His appearance was splendid and knightly and he possibly would have filled his new office well had not DeCourcey, who was near by, rode up and ordered him in tones severe and sharp, to 'report back to the boat.' Muse obeyed and soon after resigned by reason of ill health.

DeCourcey moved us up to the front again, but we took no active part in the skirmishing that was kept up. Though we were as well protected from the rebel fire as the nature of the locality permitted, some of our men were wounded. An attempt to secure a suspension of hostilities for the purpose of removing the dead, and any of the wounded that might be on the field, was unsuccessful. Some of our boys built fires and done some cooking. It was a little risky particularly when a rebel shell rooted up the soft earth close by. Two Germans, of the 22d Ky., were making coffee in a camp kettle when a shell struck scarcely a rod away and threw a small cart load of dirt over the neighborhood. They lifted themselves and the kettle from there in short order.

It was a very unpleasant sight for us to look over toward the rebel works and see our dead with nothing remaining on them but their underclothing; and it was aggravating to know that the rebel commander would not allow a truce to enable us to remove and bury our comrades.

The next day, the 31st, we had better success. When our flag of truce was exposed they ceased firing and permitted us to come forth and gather the stiffened forms with their horrid, ghostly faces. A tall, light sandy-haired fellow, that was wounded in the leg, was barely alive, the breathing was just perceptible. He seemed to be past suffering and soon died.

One of the 9th Iowa boys, fair and young, who had fallen near the crossing of the bayou, was recognized by his comrades as a fellow that had told before going into the fight that he had over two hundred dollars in greenbacks sewed up inside of his drawers. This was verified on search, though it seemed very singular that the rebels did not find it as they had stripped everything from him except shirt and drawers.

During the truce many men of both armies flocked to the banks of the bayou to have a chat. At one place Col. Henderson, of the 42d Georgia, was in the opposite crowd. He was a large, big-whiskered, boisterous, boastful man, and made himself very obnoxious in our short interview. Some of the Confederates called on him for a speech, to which he readily responded. Mounting a hump of earth he opened out in style and language similar to the following:

'You Yanks have been threatening to do big things. You said you'd take Richmond; you didn't take it. you have come to take Vicksburg, but you haven't took it and never will. You can hang around in the swamps here till the gallinippers (musquitoes) eat you up and it won't do you any good. We have our muskets and bayonets to depend on and our families and our firesides to fight for and we will defend them with our lives.'

Col. Henderson was a poor prophet for the following summer we gobbled him and his regiment and also took Vicksburg and didn't get eat up by the gallinippers.

A long trench was shoveled out in an old cotton field about half a mile in our rear. Here, side by side in a long line, dead men of regiments from six western States were laid and the soft earth heaped over them.

That night we received orders to quietly withdraw from our position and return to our boats. Everything was conducted so nicely that the rebels did not discover that we were gone until the next morning. Two Company E men, Geo. Feister and Phillip Straits, had gone away in the evening to a place of safety to sleep. When they arose in the morning they were no doubt surprised that our forces had disappeared without them hearing the movement. While the two belated fellows were eagerly looking at the vacated position as if to satisfy themselves that the Federals were really gone, a 'gray coat' made his appearance on top of the works that our men had thrown up, then another and another until a strong skirmish line presented itself. Our two fellows needed no more to stimulate them and away they 'struck' for the boat landing, where they arrived panting and exhausted, boarded the last transport that was just ready to haul in her line. The Confederate skirmishers came in force to the river bank soon after. The infantry on the transport and a gunboat opened a hot fire at them and drove them back.

The days that immediately succeeded the Yazoo expedition were dismal ones to the 16th boys, but they soon recovered their buoyant spirits and those that were left were as good as ever. Our boat, the Fanny Bullitt, had a lot of mules on the lower deck and before we debarked many a soldier got lively thumps from their nimble heels.

The navy had rendered active assistance on the Yazoo and had met with some loss of life. While we were preparing for an assault on the 29th, the gunboats were thundering away at Haine's Bluff, several miles up the river, to create a diversion. While we were yet at Memphis the gunboat, Cairo, was sunk in the Yazoo by a torpedo discharged by electricity from the shore. The manipulator being concealed behind a tree.

Our brigade had approached the battlefield of Chickasaw resolutely and performed the work assigned them with patriotic zeal. We had been severely repulsed and lost heavily on the 29th, yet we remained in our position in the edge of the dripping forest until Pemberton's army, now released from watching Grant, by the disaster to the Federal arms in northern Mississippi, had accumulated in our front in overwhelming numbers, though they dared not come out and attack us. We could accomplish no more good at present here so we were quietly and cautiously marched away at night. Sherman soon issued a report of the expedition in which he was candid and manly, and assumed the responsibility of the failure of the expedition to secure the desired results. He addressed himself to the entire corps in tones of decency.

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