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Battle of Thompson's Hill (Port Gibson)
May 1, 1863
by Pvt. Frank H. Mason, 42nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry
Web Author's Notes:
The following excerpt is a description of the Battle of Thompson's Hill, also known as the Battle of Port Gibson, as told by Pvt. Frank H. Mason, Company A, of the 42nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry in his post-war book titled The Forty-Second Ohio Infantry - A History of the Organization and Services of That Regiment in the War of the Rebellion, 1876.

Mason's description begins on the morning of April 30, 1863, when Gen. Ulysses Grant was sending his main force, camped along the Louisiana side of the Mississippi river and just below Grand Gulf, Mississippi, south several miles to land at Bruinsburg, Mississippi, with the intention of occuying Port Gibson, twelve miles east. Grant's general strategy was to come at Vicksburg from the south and east, cutting off its supply lines to Jackson.

Early the next morning the movement was resumed. The nearest landing place on the Eastern shore was at a place called Bruinsburgh, six miles below. The Thirteenth Corps was rapidly embarked on the transports, barges and gun-boats, and dropped down the river to that point. By noon two divisions were landed. Barrels of bread, bacon and coffee were rolled on shore and opened, each man having permission to stuff his haversack and pockets with sufficient food to last five days. Very few horses had been brought, Generals being allowed only one, with but two mounted staff officers. Many of the guns had but four horses to each carriage, and even Gen. Grant, when he arrived that night with no baggage but a tooth-brush, was obliged to borrow mule for a charger.

The river bottom at that point was a mile in width, flanked by a high bluff to which the road ascended through a deep artificial cut. A brigade of the enemy at that point would have held McClernand in check all the afternoon. But no brigade was there, and McClernand's Staff with a company of infantry, hurried up through the defile, capturing a Confederate Colonel who had been observing the debarkation from the tower of a stately villa which stood embowered in trees at the crest of the hill. The Corps moved rapidly up, the regiments cheering when they reached the ridge and stood once more upon solid ground. For vie months they had been wading through bayous and the soft alluvial bottom lands of the Mississippi, and the feeling of firm ground beneath their feet gave new life and elasticity to the spirits of officers and men.

Twelve miles inland was the town of Port Gibson on Bayou Pierre, in the midst of a fertile and beautiful country. Toward this point McClernand pushed rapidly, Carr's Division in advance, followed by Osterhaus, Hovey and A. J. Smith, in order. The night was intensely dark, and the road, though reasonably smooth, was so narrow that a regiment marching by the flank filled it completely.

At two o'clock a.m., Gen. Carr's advance regiment came suddenly upon a heavy infantry force, apparently marching toward Bruinsburgh. Both parties opened fire sharply, and, the enemy, proving stubborn, a section of artillery was unlimbered, pushed forward and set to work with canister. The enemy retired doggedly a short distance and then, having reached the fork in the road, refused to move farther. Carr, seeing that he had encountered a serious obstacle, ordered his men to cease firing and the whole column sat down in the road to await daylight.

Gen. McClernand with his Staff had the night before gone forward with his leading Division until it had drawn well out on the main road, and had then returned ot the large house on the hill, two miles from the river landing, so as to be within easy reach of Gen. Grant, who was expected during the night. He had orders to proceed only to Port Gibson, seize the important bridge at that point across Bayou Pierre and await orders. No resistance had been expected in that direction, and Gen. McClernand and his Staff, who had not had their boots off since leaving Perkins' plantation, returned to the great house on the hill, anticipating a comfortable night. Hardly had they been an hour in bed when the guns of Carr's advance were heard through the still night, nine miles to the eastward. Horses were saddled--enough had been captured during the afternoon to mount the Staff and orderlies--and the General set out at breakneck pace for the front. Picking his way through the crowded road, McClernand reached the front just at dawn. Carr held the fork of the road with a regiment thrown out a few rods on either branch. Two hundred yards distant, on an oak ridge which crossed diagonally both branches of the road, the hostile line was plainly visible, and a howitzer battery from the right front sent a few shells crashing harmlessly through the trees which surrounded a house at the junction of the roads. Gen. Carr was found on the porch eating a "hard tack" and the dead and wounded of the night skirmish lay on the grass in the yard. It was evident that the enemy had taken a stand and proposed to give battle. The country was broken by parallel ridges, divided by deep ravines filled with a rank growth of timber, cane and vines. The roads followed the ridges, which were alternately timbered and cleared for cultivation, so that the ground abounded in positions which could only be flanked with extreme labor and difficulty and were in every way admirable for defense.

The Battle of Thompson's Hill

Dispositions were made for immediate attack. Gen. Carr's Division was put into line across the right hand road, Osterhaus moved out on the road to the left, Hovey's Division joined the left of Carr and A. J. Smith was held for a time in reserve. The sun was just rising, upon such a May day as had been dreamed of but never realized in our Northern clime.

The smoke of the preliminary skirmishing hung in long wreaths over the fields and woods, and warmed and reddened in the morning sunlight like a halo. The trees were in full leaf, and the thickets and canebrakes that filled the ravine were dense masses of fresh, green foliage. "A good day for a fight," observed the gallant Carr, as he rode away on his white mule to put his men into action. Osterhaus' Division, the Forty-Second Ohio in front, came gaily up, and took the left hand road. The men were munching their hard break, and taking a few whiffs at their pipes, before the hard work of the day. Capt. Olds, leading Company "A" at the head of the column, blithely greeted the staff officer sent to guide the Division to its position, with the question: "Where are these Johnnies that have been keeping us here in the road all night?" Poor little Captain! He little dreamed that in the garden which he was then passing he would be buried before another sunrise.

The dispositions were quickly made, and the battle opened furiously. Hovey's men, on the left of the right-hand road, dashed forward to a little wooded ravine and held it a few moments, when the enemy in the thicket beyond attempted to charge across the open space, but was met by a withering fire and driven back in confusion. Seeing the foe retreating in disorder, Hovey's men leaped from their cover, rushed across the field, cleared the woods beyond, and captured the four-howitzer battery, the horses of which had been killed. The first position had been carried, and with it the guns which had already dismounted two pieces of a German battery of Carr's Division, near the forks of the road. The enemy fell back half a mile, chose a new position, and made another stand. Hovey pressed forward, with Carr on his right now in line and advancing gallantly. Another desperate collision occurred, the Confederates fighting like tigers. After half an hour of this, Smith's Division, the rear of the Thirteenth Corps, which had come up and been resting in reserve, was sent to the right of Carr's line to wrap round and take the enemy in flank. It had some distance to traverse, but moved rapidly to its position, attacked vigorously, and before ten o'clock, the whole left of the Rebel line had been broken and driven back to a deep ravine, filled with cane and underbrush, and covered by a steep wooded slope beyond. In these woods and this ravine, the enemy found a new and admirable position, in which from behind a complete shelter he could resist attack from the open ground.

Meanwhile, Osterhaus, round on the left-hand road, was hotly engaged. He had found the enemy three-quarters of a mile from the junction of the two roads, strongly posted on a rugged ridge, with his left in a sunken road. Osterhaus' Division had here encountered two full brigades, with a six-gun battery, under command of Gen. Tracy. As the Federal Division moved to the attack, the battery opened upon it, firing rapidly, but generally too high. Foster's Battery went into position near the road, and in less than an hour completely silenced it, dismounting not less than three of its guns. Col. Sheldon's Brigade, including the Forty-Second as its right, held the right of Osterhaus' line. It advanced rapidly across the open ground, charged through a thicket at the foot of the hil, driving out the enemy's skirmishers, and halting in a position which gave some shelter from the enemy's artillery. The Forty-Second, with the Sixty-Ninth Indiana on its left, moved up on the ridge, and found the enemy on a similar ridge, about a hundred yards distant, the two ridges being separated by a deep ravine. The two Regiments were on their mettle, and, as their losses prove, bore the brunt of battle in that part of the field.

Still keeping partly under cover, the men would advance until they got an opportunity for a shot, then lie down or retire and re-load. By this time, the accurate fire of Foster's guns had begun to cut up the Rebel battery. The Forty-Second also opened on it, and the cannoneers were driven into a log hut near by. There they rallied, and making a rush for the guns, tried to get away with the three not yet disabled ones. They first tried to drag the pieces away by hand, but the fire of the Forty-Second and Sixty-Ninth killed the gunners before they could move them an inch. Then, in a desperate effort to save the guns, the horses and limbers came out from behind the log buildings, and made a second dash for the battery, but a volley from the right wing of the Forty-Second brought down every horse, and the guns were lost--it was death to approach them. The Forty-Second and the Fifty-Ninth now made two gallant efforts to charge over the hill, down through the ravine, and up the opposite bank. In both instances the dash was successfully made, but failed of its results through the unaccountable stupidity of our own men. The two Regiments reached the second ravine and began the ascent, when the Rebels, fearing they were to be attacked at close quarters, advanced to the top of the slope, seeing which the One Hundred and Twentieth Ohio, in the rear and left of the Forty-Second, opened a murderous fire, every shot of which that fell too low, struck among the Forty-Second.

Several men, including Lieut. Campbell, of Company "G.," and Ira Osborn, of Company "A,", were severely wounded, and five or six others killed by this reverse fire in a few moments. Finding itself thus between two fires, the Forty-Second gladly obeyed the order to fall back to its former position on the first ridge. The Sixty-Ninth, which had gone forward at the same time, reached a position sheltered from the fire of our own troops, and held its ground manfully, singing "Rally Round the Flag" as it fought.

After an hour of this, the Sixty-Ninth, whose ammunition began to run low, was ordered back, while the Forty-Second moved forward to occupy its place. The Rebels mistook the movement of the Sixty-Ninth for a retreat of our line, and came down in pursuit, firing furiously, but the Forty-Second charged up gallantly and drove them back. A few moments after, we saw two or three companies detached from the Rebel line, and move round another ravine, separated only by a narrow ridge from the one in which the Forty-Second was then fighting. It was impossible to fire upon them without exposing ourselves to a cross fire. So Col. Pardee tried strategy. Moving four companies from the Forty-Second round by the right, he gained the flank and rear of the Rebel force, opened a sharp reverse fire upon it, and then charged down, driving the Rebel companies over the ridge into the hands of the main body of the Forty-Second, by whom they were all captured. Eight of the enemy were killed in this little exploit, and more than a hundred prisoners taken.

It was now about noon. For more than five hours the battle had been raging with desperate fury. We could hear the roar of conflict away to the right, and knew by the gradually receding tumult that Hovey's Carr's and Smith's Divisions were driving the enemy. Report came that Hovey's men had captured a battery--so had we in fact, but we had not yet got our hands upon it. We, in our part of the line, were opposed to a force equal to our own, in a strongly chosen position; and though our whole Division had striven gallantly, the enemy had substantially held his ground.

The roar of our guns that morning had reached the ears of Gen. Grand, on board of a gunboat at Bruinsburgh, and, borrowing a mule, he had started for the scene. On the way he passed Logan's Division of the Seventeenth Corps, which had crossed the river during the night, and was hurrying forward. Grant arrived at half-past ten and assumed chief command. Logan came an hour later, and one of his Brigades (Gen. John E. Smith's was immediately sent to our aid. It was put in on the left of Osterhaus' Division, swung round, and took the enemy in flank. At the same time, our line again charged forward, crossed the second ravine, climbed the hill under a terrible fire, drove the enemy from his position, and rolled his line back in disorder. Gen. Tracy was killed in this final assault, and we found the woods and the open space near the battery and about the log house, strewn with dead. Nearly a mile from his first position the enemy met reinforcements from Vicksburg, and when we again came up, resisted until night, falling back stubbornly before us until within two miles of Port Gibson, the spires of which we could see shining white and peaceful in the setting sun. Our May-day was over. We had gained a victory, of which every man instinctively felt the importance, but it had been won at serious cost. The loss of the Forty-Second had been twelve killed and sixty-one wounded; that of the Sixty-Ninth Indiana, fifteen killed an forty-one wounded. Ten brigades had been engaged on the Union side that day, and these two Regiments had suffered nearly a quarter of the entire loss. Generals Grant and McPherson, who came with Smith's Brigade to the left of the field, and watched the charge that broke that part of the enemy's line, personally complimented the Forty-Second and Sixty-Ninth upon their gallantry.

The two roads upon which this spirited battle was fought fork, as already stated, at a point four miles west of Port Gibson. After diverging until nearly two miles apart, they gradually converge and unite again half a mile from Port Gibson.

McClernand, with his three Divisions on the right, continued to press the enemy vigorously all the afternoon. About three o'clock, there arrived two brigades of Confederates from Vicksburg. They could be seen coming over the hills, swinging their hats and shouting as they hurried into the fight. Their arrival served to cheer the spirits of Bowen's men, and as still further reinforcements were expected from Jackson, under Gen. Loring, the enemy held out stubbornly until dark.

The troops lay down where they stopped fighting, and without fire, awaited the coming of another day. The victory of the Federals had been thus far complete. They had captured two batteries and six hundred and fifty prisoners, and held the whole field of the day's battle. The dead and many wounded of the enemy were in our hands. The Federal loss had been one hundred and thirty killed, and seven hundred and eighteen wounded, of which more than half were in Osterhaus' Division. The casualties in the Forty-Second, at the battle of Thompson's Hill, amounted to fifty-nine, this number not including the usual percentage of wounds so slight as not to disable men for immediate service.


McClernand's orders were to bivouack [sic] on the field, and push the attack at daylight. With the first peep of dawn, the men were in line, and the skirmishers advanced through the woods. It was soon discovered that the enemy was gone. The bugles sounded the advance, and the troops, elated with their victory, pushed eagerly forward over the rugged ridges to Port Gibson. Two or three Divisions met on converging roads, at the margin of the town, where the wife of the Mayor was met coming out, in great distress of mind, to surrender the place. Her husband had been out in the volunteer ambulance corps the day before, and had been shot through both legs. He was then lying in the house, with one leg amputated and suffering great pain. His good lady--a Southern dame of thoroughbred ideas--was under pressure of great responsibility in respect to surrendering the town. She wanted to see the Commanding General. A group of ladies who came as her escort, insisted upon the propriety of her demand. A bluff Iowa Colonel referred her to a Captain of McClernand's staff, who happened to be with the advance, who explained that, as the town was already invaded by three columns of troops hurrying through it to wrest the burning bridge from the retreating enemy, the formalities of surrendering it might be safely dispensed with.

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