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Battle of Big Black River Bridge
May 17, 1863
by Pvt. Frank H. Mason, 42nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry
Web Author's Notes:
The following excerpt is a description of the Battle of Big Black River Bridge 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, published in 1876.

An hour before daylight, the Divisions of Carr and Osterhaus were astir. Their men had no toilets to make, for there was no water, no breakfast to get, for they were without food. The drums rattled soon after three o'clock, and the troops had simply to stand up and rub their eyes open, sling their knapsacks, and they were ready for another day's work. Osterhaus lay in and about Edwards' Station; Carr's Division was stretched a mile down the road toward Black River Bridge, to which Pemberton had fled with his eighteen thousand fugitives the night before. The bridge was but six miles distant, and the road thither broad and sandy. As soon as it was light enough to see, the two Divisions moved, with a regiment thrown forward as an advance guard, and this preceded by a squad commanded by a sergeant. Skirmishers were thrown out on each side to prevent ambuscade. McPherson, the nearest support, had spent the night four miles in the rear of Edwards' Station, near the battle-field of the 16th; and since McClernand was marching with less than ten thousand men to attack nearly twenty thousand, he felt the importance of proceeding cautiously and avoiding pitfalls.

The column moved rapidly until within a mile of Black River Bridge. Here, soon after sunrise, it struck Pemberton's pickets, which were driven in. The road was flanked on each side by woods, and a regiment was thrown out on either flank to cover the advance. In this order the column proceeded, pushing the enemy along until the advance line came within sight of a long line of entrenchments, bristling with men. On the right of the road in front of the works was an open beech wood; on the left, a large cotton-field, broken by bogs and marshes. Carr wheeled to the right, and put his Division in line in the beech woods . Osterhaus took the left, and stretched his Division across the cotton-field, his right resting on the road. Thus formed, the line moved up, driving the Rebel skirmishers over behind their parapet, and then lay down, as ordered, to avoid the hot artillery fire, which the enemy had promptly opened.

The Big Black river, at this point, while running toward the West, makes a sharp turn to the South, forming a right angle, whose opening is toward the Southwest. Across this angle, and nearly a mile and a quarter in length, ran a parapet four or five feet in height, and protected in front by a bayou which formed a natural fosse, or wet ditch, which had been further strengthened by being filled with brush. Behind this parapet stood eighteen pieces of cannon, and just as many men as the works would cover--perhaps ten thousand. The remainder of Pemberton's army, with three guns, occupied the high bluff bank beyond the river as a reserve. Through the center of the triangle formed by the river and parapet, ran the Jackson railroad, crossing the Big Black on a high wooden trestle-bridge, nearly a thousand feet in length. The works, it need hardly be stated, had been built to enable a small force to defend the bridge.

The sun rose bright and cloudless, and before nine o'clock--by which time the two Divisions were in line and wrapped round the Rebel position in the form of a crescent--the heat was becoming oppressive. Foster's Battery took position to the left of the road, in the rear of Osterhaus' line, and engaged four or five heavy bronze guns of the enemy, which stood just South of the railroad bridge. In a few minutes, Foster got in a center shot and capsized one of them; but a moment later, a shell went through one of his limber-chests, exploding it and frightening the team, which escaped from the drivers, and went scurrying round over the field in which Osterhaus' men were lying baking on the dry ground. Both sides stopped firing a moment to watch and cheer the runaway. The boys were not disposed to lose a little fun simply because a battle was going on. The assailants began to grow nervous, and crept up to where they could get a better shot. McClernand, seeing that he was outnumbered by an enemy within permanent entrenchments, had sent back to tell McPherson that a battle was imminent, and asked him to come up as support. This McPherson did promptly, but he came too late.

The right of Carr's Division was a Brigade of Iowa troops, commanded by Col. Lawlor. The heat was intense, and Lawlor, prancing round without a coat, went down to the river on his right for some water. While there, Col. Kinsman, of the Twenty-Third Iowa Regiment, pointed out to Lawlor a small transverse ravine leading to the Rebel works which they had neglected to fill with brush. Through this a column, four men abreast, might march up, gain the ditch, and climb over the parapet. No sooner said than done. Lawlor put eleven hundred men in column, and marched them round, Col. Kinsman at the head, to where, with a short run across an exposed, open place, they could gain the weak point. The column started, but was met by a murderous fire, which killed Col. Kinsman at the head of his Regiment. Not a man faltered a moment. Lawlor's movement, though made entirely without orders, was in plain view of both McClernand's Divisions, the men of which were tired of lying on the hot sun, and were emulous of the renown gained by Hovey and Logan the day before. When they saw Lawlor's little column making for the ditch, they thought it a good time for a charge. The whole line sprang to its feet, gave a tremendous cheer, and dashed forward. In less than half a minute Lawlor's column, with his supports at its heels, was pouring over the parapet, and the enemy at that end was beginning to break. The two Divisions rushed up to the ditch, meeting a volley but not stopping to fire until within ten yards of the works, when the Rebels gave way and ran like a mob. The Union line poured a broadside into the retreating horde, and climbing across the obstructed ditch, gave chase. The enemy swarmed to a large bridge made of steamboats, moored across the stream just below the railroad bridge. The battery on the hills beyond the river opened fire to cover the retreat; but it could not check the pursuit. McClernand's men were now all over the parapet, taking prisoners and driving the frightened enemy into the river. Before the flying host could get across the bridge, some one fired the cotton with which the steamboats were laden, and in a moment the bridge was in flames and impassable. There was no escape now but by swimming , and hundreds of Confederates, including Gen. Greene, leaped into the river. McClernand's men shot them in the water, or halted them as they crept up the opposite bank, and made them swim back and surrender. Colonels and captains were captured by private soldiers, and a whole brigade, secreted in a cane-brake, was found and led out as prisoners by a lieutenant and a dozen men.

The victory was decisive and overwhelming. Eighteen pieces of cannon, and nearly two thousand stand of small arms were among the trophies. The entire loss of McClernand's two Divisions was twenty men killed, and two hundred and forty-two wounded.

Had not the bridge been destroyed, McPherson and McClernand, with nearly ten hours of daylight before them, might have chased Pemberton into Vicksburg, and captured the citadel before the mob could be rallied. As it was, they had to stop and work all day bridging the deep river with timber from the trestles of the railway bridge. The only pontoon train in the army was with Blair's Division, which had crossed that morning through Edward's Station to Bridgeport, ten miles above, where it was then laying its boats for Sherman's Corps to cross upon. It was not until after dark that McPherson and McClernand could get their bridge finished, but a brigade crossed over in the darkness and occupied the heights. Sherman had reached Bridgeport during the day, found Blair there with the pontoons, and got two of his Divisions across during the afternoon and evening.

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