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Battle of Big Black River Bridge
May 17, 1863
by Cpl. Theodore Wolbach, Company E
Web Author's Notes:
The following is a description of the Battle of Big Black River Bridge, written by Cpl Theodore Wolbach of Company E. Wolbach's colorful history of the 16th Ohio can be read (additional chapters being published frequently) here.

The Battle of Big Black River Bridge

So the hours of darkness rolled by and when daylight came we were in the road and on the march again, without taking time to prepare coffee or take a formal breakfast. The sudden resumption of the march reproduced the excitement of the previous evening.

We were now in the level country embraced in the Black River bottom. This land was sandy and the dust deep, but not as disagreeable now as it would be later in the day. The road lay along the course of Baker's Creek for a few miles. Here we found some excellent springs of cool, clear water and almost every one had a chance to fill their canteen as we moved slowly, feeling our way and keeping pace with Carr's men ahead. The roads and adjoining surface was liberally tramped by the brogans of Pemberton's army the day before. Fences were badly demoralized and here and there were still a few evidences of the wreck of battle.

About half a mile to the left of the road some men were seen leaving a cotton gin and making rapidly for the woods some distance beyond. A few cavalry belonging to Osterhaus' escort started across the country in pursuit. The chase was interesting and exciting, and all that saw it enjoyed it. As the cavalry neared the retreating party we saw the glittering sabre blades and then the fugitives give up and surrender. They proved to be rebel infantrymen, and one was a mulatto.

Soon Carr's advance came within range of the guns at Black River Bridge, and a few shells came screeching over toward our troops and exploded in or near the road we were on. The troops advanced steadily by the flank and deployed near a large plantation house about half a mile from the enemy--Carr to the right and Osterhaus to the left of the road. Carr's men were protected by forest, but Osterhaus' division was exposed in open country. Seventeen pieces of field artillery, excellently served, posted behind earthworks, elaborately constructed under the directions of a skillful engineer, belched and bellowed their shotted contents at our brigade as it executed a grand left front into line. In the clear air of that splendid May morning the puffs of cannon smoke looked like great balls of snow white cotton; whirling wreaths ascended from the muzzles of guns and dissipated in the pure atmosphere above. The 1st Indiana battery (German) ran into position and soon found their hands full, but the sturdy boys worked enthusiastically. Foster's 1st Wisconsin, with their deadly twenty-pounders, galloped into the iron storm and adjusted their guns with their characteristic coolness. The part of the line occupied by the 16th advanced through a young orchard planted with corn that was up knee high. Our batteries were posted on ground a little higher than the bottom land ahead. We were on the extreme right of our division and the right flank of our regiment was within ten rods of the railroad. A few rods beyond was the wagon road. The left of Carr's was still farther to our right, so that there was a gap of about thirty rods between the two divisions. Passing on through a patch of swamp grass we reached a fence, tore it down, and a short distance beyond were ordered to lie down. The right of our brigade was in a badly exposed situation, squarely between the artillery of both armies, and right in the middle of the shower of flying and exploding shells; in easy range of the rebel guns but too far away to do execution with muskets. Frequently a ball would strike the ground and bound past us; others threw clouds of dirt over us. One of our shells exploded a caisson in the rebel works, but we only had a few moments to feel good over that when a percussion shell struck one of Foster's limber chests and blew it into splinders, [sic] frightening the four horses attached to it so that they started off at a wild gallop toward the left of our division where they were caught by the infantry. Some of the fragments of the chest struck and unhorsed Gen. Osterhaus and Capt. Foster who was near by. The General's injuries were so painful that his command was temporarily turned over to a General Lee, who was with us so short a time that we knew but little of him--only that he was a brave man, was wounded and left us two days afterward.

Slowly the line crept forward in that atmosphere of death--losing men but gaining ground. Lieut. ----- -----, acting adjutant, was injured while leading his horse across the dismantled fence by a shell striking a rail, knocking it against his knee. Corporal Edward Smith, of Co. E, was struck by a piece of a case shot that went clean through the base of the neck, cutting the jugular vein. Poor Ed. Struggled a few minutes but his large gray eyes were soon fixed in death. In his blouse pocket he had a little book called the Scottish Chiefs, in another pocket was a picture of a lady friend, Miss Manges, of Wooster. Some of his comrades took his accoutrements off and laid him back for other hands to bury. Private John Moret, a Frenchman, tall and fine looking, was the next victim. He was struck in the head and died instantly. Sergeant Daniel G. Spring, faithful, intelligent and educated, sank to the earth with a broken skull. Edward Neville got a severe wound in the leg and died of gangrene in the hospital some time afterward. A man of Co. F got the calf of his left leg badly ripped, but recovered and rejoined his company. Capt. Taneyhill was struck and temporarily benumbed. Though in great pain he stuck to business and stayed with the boys. A number besides these were hit but not enough to discommode them much. Carr's men, by reason of the protection of the forest, were advanced farther than us.

Suddenly there was a wild yell that we knew didn't come from rebel throats. One of Carr's brigades, under Gen. Lawler, had slipped the bridle, and were rushing at the enemy's works. This movement operated like an electric shock. The whole line sprang to their feet and swept forward without any special order, and went over the works, capturing seventeen pieces of artillery that were yet hot from being worked so rapidly. Almost two thousand Confederates surrendered, the balance fled like a mob to a floating bridge across the narrow river. Some swam across and a few were drowned. The rebels on the bluffs beyond the river kept up an annoying fire at us over the heads of their retreating comrades. Some of our boys were busy with the captured cannon, pointing them at the retreating enemy, and loading and firing with indifferent skill. In one of the limber-chests, with a lot of fixed ammunition, was some burning cloth that was removed by D.W. Bell, of Co. C, just in time to prevent an explosion that undoubtedly would have killed several of our men.

From the rifle-pits to the covered bridge over the river ran a long trestle-work, ascending at rather a steep grade. Between the iron rails was a narrow plank foot-way. Over this some of the rebels retreated. Our artillery had set the bridge on fire and ripped the trestle-work badly in places, making this line of flight dangerous. When the bridge was a mass of smoke and flame many men ran through it. The last one to pass this gauntlet of fire was Augustus P. Babb, of the 37th Miss. (rebel) infantry.

Gen. Bowen commanded the Confederate troops here. Three of his brigades were in the earthworks that extended from the river above to a swamp below the railroad; the balance were in reserve on both sides of the river. The majority of Bowen's men had suffered much in battle, but there was one brigade here that had not yet fired a gun in the campaign up to this engagement. It was commanded by Col. Vaughn, a man that the Tazewell prisoners recollected for the inflated language that he paraded in a letter published in the Knoxville Whig, Aug., 1862. His troops were the first to break here. They being in the center, left a gap which necessitated the retreat of the flanks. Greene lost all control of his men, and himself escaped by swimming his horse across the river. He was killed at Vicksburg before he had made a report of his part in the Big Black River fight.

Gen. Francis M. Cockrell, with his brigade of Missourians, was in front of our brigade. His men had a good fighting record but they had to move with the tide. Cockrell is at present (1882) United States Senator from Missouri. He who would have prophesied such a thing eighteen years ago would have been put down as a lunatic.

One of the captured cannon standing at the railroad was disabled by having the iron axle bent by one of our shells. Some of their field pieces had names painted on them. One was the 'Lady Price,' another 'Belle of the Gulf.'

As soon as our infantry were fairly in the works, some of our batteries galloped up into good positions and shelled the rebels that were clambering up the sides of the steep bluff beyond the river. Some of the infantry that were trying to work the captured pieces got a shell about half way down one and abandoned it. Gen. A.J. Smith riding by, noticing the awkward manner in which the boys handled the guns, uttered some humorous criticisms. Several hundred bales of cotton, back some distance from the works, caught fire during the cannonading and was destroyed. The sharp-shooters of both sides kept up a contest across the river until night. In this desultory warfare we lost some men. Notwithstanding the decisive victory we had won here, the vicinity of our army was carefully picketed that night and those who passed the hours of darkness on their lonely posts in the midst of plenty of spiders, bugs and other insects that seemed to be particularly big in this swamp region, had entertainment enough to keep them awake. A species of blackberry, commonly called the dewberry, was ripe here at this time and some of the pickets found plenty of them in the morning.

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