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The Battle of Thompson's Hill
With nimble step and light hearts we moved out o the road that led from the river to the highlands of the State. Over the intervening forest we could see the tops of the hills and a few houses. Marching without half through a strip of heavy timber, where to the right and left swamp oak and cypress Bearded with moss and in garments green Stand like Druids of old.
We soon reached the foot of the bluffs where the road ascends by a steep grade. There was a gratifying sensation in the thought that we were soon to be out of the lowlands where the fortunes of war had kept us for four long disagreeable months. As we marched up higher and higher, and looked beyond the dark forest below, away beyond on the great river where the boats were active in bringing the men and material down that were to follow us, our glad hearts swelled wit that irresistible martial feeling that naturally finds vent in good healthy yells. We were now truly in a hostile country in close proximity to large armies of the foe, but they were of our race and we knew that we were their peers in battle. We ha an alternative to inhale the malaria of the Mississippi bottoms, or beard the lion in his den. We willingly, I might say joyfully, accepted the latter. Yet there were a few--though not with a lack of resolution--who dreaded coming into this State to fight. The preceding events had made the great magnitude of the work at hand apparent. Hitherto every effort to get in the rear of Vicksburg had been promptly and fiercely resisted. Jeff Davis had just made a gushing speech to Pemberton's soldiers, in which he declared that the stronghold of Vicksburg was second in importance to none in the Confederacy, and must be held at all hazards. Richmond and Vicksburg seemed to be the two vital points in the hands of the enemy. When they capitulated, we looked for the grand collapse. The former seemed as safe from Federal occupation as the city of London. The vulnerability of the latter was now to receive a severe test. Let us see with what result.
Before entering fairly into this campaign, the regiment had been stripped of every sick, or convalescent man. Every unnecessary encumbrance had been left behind. Consequently there was little straggling. During all that delightful day the boys marched compact and well. Often passing between long rows of rose hedges that were now in bloom and filled the air with its balmy fragrance.
At almost every plantation the appearance of hasty flight was evident. Everything in chaotic disorder, all the imaginable variety of household goods and fittings littered over the floors; doors standing open and white folks gone. The negroes, with few exceptions, remained. They were happy and jubilant; gladly answered every question that was asked, and volunteered to show us where provisions and other valuable stores were hidden in the woods and the canebrakes.
We met a darkey with a mule team. He had turned out of the road, and was waiting for the column to pass. His intelligent and quick replies were appreciated by all, as they swept by. All that afternoon we hurried along. The sun went down, and the shadows of night thickened around us. Still on the march, but moving slower, sometimes halting and standing in the road a short time, then moving leisurely on. Our commander had wisely taken the precautions to have the roads that branched off from the main one picketed. As we passed these squads of men, scarcely distinguishable from stationary objects in the darkness, questions were asked and answered in muffled tones. About 2 o'clock in the morning the boom of a cannon broke the stillness of the night. The troops stopped to await orders. Presently more shots in quick succession followed the first. The advance of Carr's division had run against the Confederates, posted so as to command the road we were on. Some of Carr's troops quickly deployed and waited for the dawn of day. After tarrying a long time at a plantation, and lighting up the scene with piles of burning rails, where many slaves mingled and chatted with the boys, our brigade, composed of the 22d Kentucky, 114th, 42d and 16th Ohio regiments, and Foster's 1st Wisconsin Battery, closed up onto Carr and lay down. The frequent sharp crack of a musket half a mile to the front told us that the pickets were on the lookout. The accustomed ears of the soldiers could readily detect, by the peculiar report of the gun, which side was shooting. If it was a sharp pop, the firing was toward us. If a loud bang, it was away from us. As the first light of approaching day appeared in the east we moved closer, and when it was light enough to find water, many of the boys commenced making coffee in their tin cups and little cans. But the situation was getting a little too exciting for an elaborate breakfast. A rebel battery a short distance ahead, but out of sight, sent some shells screaming over our heads.
The enemy had taken position on what is called "Thompson's Hill," (although it was sometimes called "Magnolia Hill,") two miles from Port Gibson, the capital of Boone county.
In a narrow, deep ravine traversed by a small creek, the bulk of three divisions were massed, Osterhaus, Carr and Hovey, three good fighting Generals, were present. The ravine and country back a short distance was woodland. In front of us, and ordering the creek, was a steep bluff about one hundred feet high. This was covered with underbrush and small timber to the top, masking our force from the enemy's view. The road led through a deep cut up the face of the hill. Skirmishers had been sent up there early and were now exchanging shots at a lively rate with the rebels. Regiments began to move up the defile and turn to the right or left at the top where the road forked. The troops did not march up in particular order; sometimes the men of different brigades got mixed. In this manner our regiment and the 11th Indiana Infantry ascended the hill. The 11th had sabre bayonets similar to ours, but their rifles were of smaller caliber, and lighter. At the summit of the hill we could see out over a partially cleared country. Here we filed to the left and the Indiana boys to the right. Bullets were zipping pretty close, though we could not see any enemy, and we could only detect their location by the puffs of smoke from behind the distant undulations and bushes. About forty rods from the forks of the road we dressed our line and were ordered to lie down. Troops to the left of us were already in position and had lost some men. A moment after we had reached our place an exploding shell killed and disabled some men in one of the preceding regiments. Near our line and a little to the rear was a large cotton gin building that was frequently struck by the rebel shells. The boys gave the flying clap-boards and splinters a wide berth. Two ten pound Rodman guns, of the 7th Michigan Battery, went into action here and at once found themselves hotly engaged with the enemy's artillery, wit seemed to be of larger caliber. More of our guns came quickly into action and the rapid firing became interesting. Our well disciplined artillerymen worked admirably. Suddenly when the gun was loaded every man was flat on the ground and up again in the smoke of the discharge readjusting and loading. Soon the rebel guns were silent, one of them being dismounted. The various regiments of our division now began to move, seeking positions farther to the front. The face of Osterhaus wore a holiday smile as he moved from point to point directing the movement. He made humorous remarks to the soldiers, who all liked him. To one regiment he says: "Poys, we'll vip the kraut out of tem rebels to-day." After a short tramp we stood in line of battle with a dense forest about ten rods distant in our front. Our skirmishers disappeared beneath the green foliage and halted. Carr and Hovey had struck and developed a strong rebel force on our right. In our elevated position we had an excellent view of some of the troops here. We saw the 18th Indiana regiment come out of a low place, where they had been lying, and make a charge on a rebel regiment that had been annoying them by sharp-shooting. It was a magnificent and thrilling sight to see that dark line of brave men crossing that open field on the double quick in the face of a musketry fire. In the rear of their line there is a thin sprinkling of men left on the ground--some are moving, a few are quite still--dead.
For long years before the war our ears had been harrowed by the humiliating assertion that one southerner could whip three northern men. Here now is a splendid test, the rebels in front of the Indianians about equal them in number. The butternut line with its red battle flag stands well until the hoosiers are close--perhaps thirty yards, then they break into a confused mob and run for their lives--many of them surrendered. It was the 31st Alabama. The 16th had formed a sort of an acquaintance with them at Tazewell, Tenn. The previous summer, and some of the captured Alabama boys had some of the knapsacks we had lost in that encountre [sic]. The 18th was proud of its achievement and well it might be. A wave of cheers that drowned the musketry's rattle rolled along the Federal line. Soldiers broke ranks and threw their caps up in the air. Moving from this position about noon, we marched by the left flank around the head of a ravine filled with a canebrake, and took position behind a slight elevation. To our front in short range, but well concealed, was a strong force of the enemy. Our brigade was ordered forward but met such a furious fire that we were obliged to fall back as we were wholly at their mercy, and could not inflict any chastisement on them in their well chosen and superior position. One of Osterhause's German staff officers rode ahead of us and had his horse killed under him. Several of the 16th men were killed and more wounded. We now went at the enemy in their style of fighting peppering away at them from behind anything that would protect the body. The 23d Indiana Infantry came up from the rear and under took to move to the front, but were driven back, leaving some dead men on the ground. From a log building rebel sharpshooters began to do some serious work. Our artillery having been somewhat inactive since silencing the enemy's guns, was appealed to to shell the house. Being a little tardy about complying Lieut. M.B. DeSilva called for volunteers to charge on the building. A handful of men promptly responded, but as soon as they sprung into view the rebels concentrated their fire onto them. Several were struck. Tom Cole, of Co. B, mortally. The rest instantly sought shelter. Soon our gunners launched some shots into the house and made the sharpshooters "climb." Osterhause's force was too small to carry the rebel position by storm or to flank it, but we held the enemy down to hot work and punished them considerable until a brigade of McPherson's corps came up and moved far around on their flank compelled them to fall back, when there was a grand rush for prisoners, the 16th boys securing some. Gen. Tracy, of Alabama, was killed here. One of his regiments that fought us was the 6th Missouri, the same that guarded some of our boys while prisoners at Jackson bridge. A small lot of Confederate officers were taken. One of them, without good cause, bitterly criticised the manner in which our men treated the captive. He wisely obeyed an order to be quiet. Before the break on their right the enemy brought up a new piece of artillery and opened on a section of Foster's battery. The gun was a brass piece and was skillfully served in getting the range readily and exploding their shell dangerously close to our gunners. One of Foster's gunners, familiarly called "Old Dan," worked one of the twenty pound Parrotts so accurately that at the third shot he dismounted the rebel gun. Many incidents of this fight would be worthy of mention, but space will only permit of a few. Some time in the after part of the day Gen. Grant, accompanied by Gov. Yates, of Illinois, visited our part of the field. They rode close to the rear of the line and in stopping to make observations remained mounted. Their clothes were covered with dust, but the Major General's strap of Grant's shone distinctly, and the face of the General wore that same serious expression that is given so correctly in almost every picture of himself. His mustache and beard was cropped as short as the stub of a cigar that stuck between his lips. To the zipping bullets he payed [sic] no heed. Not so with the stout, pleasant-looking Governor beside him, who kept up a perpetual dodging. At all parts of the line where this distinguished party appeared the soldiers cheered them and the rebels increased their fire proportionately. Among our wounded of to-da was Charles Crotentaler, a German of Co. F. He had been slightly wounded at Chickasaw, and, but recently rejoined his company. When he was struck here in the arm, he exclaimed in surprise: "Tom tam rebbels shoots me agin." Crotentaler was a frank, out-spoken, good-natured fellow, and in his early soldiering had furnished a great deal of fun for his comrades. One dark dismal night as he was pacing a beat on camp guard, he heard footsteps approaching. He uttered a challenge in the regular manner: "Halt, who comes there." The response came: "Sergeant with the grand rounds." Charles never having been instructed in this military ceremony and probably being disappointed that this was not the guard sent to relieve him, shouted back: "Go to h--l mit your grand rounts, I thought it was de relief." Some of the rebel wounded that could walk were assisted back to our field hospital by the boys. There they received the same attention as the Federal wounded. The Confederates captured here were on an average slick and clean looking. They had been doing garrison duty up to the day before, and their clothes had not yet got dingy by the wear and tear and dirty of campaigning. Some of their regiments wore dark brown or butternut colored clothing; others a light gray. The heaviest loss by any regiment in our brigade was in the 42d Ohio, who had about seventy killed and wounded.
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