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First Assault On Vicksburg
May 19, 1863
by Pvt. Frank H. Mason, 42nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry
Web Author's Notes:
The following is a description of the first assault on the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg, Mississippi, written by Pvt. Frank Mason of the 42nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, brigaded with the 16th Ohio.

The First Assault on Vicksburg

Tuesday, the 19th, the first day of the investment, was one of the most interesting in all that Summer. After six weary months of fighting, marching and digging, the men who had dug the canal and been repulsed at Chickasaw Bayou, were now within sight of the fortifications of which they had heard so much. They came not as a forlorn hope, but as conquerors, and every man from Gen. Grant to the humblest teamster, felt a personal interest in the conquest of the citadel which had thus far locked the Mississippi and held the Confederacy together.

At dawn McClernand's Corps, bivouacked in the rugged valley of a creek which flows Southward from the rear of the city, was roused up and started forward. Osterhaus' Division was in advance. As the column climbed up out of the ravine it turned a curve in the road near a large white house, which afterwards became the center of a village of field hospitals. Rounding this curve, the great line of defences was suddenly disclosed. For three miles to the right and left, along with the whole front, the sharp cut crest of the Rebel fortifications formed the horizon line. Instinctively the men wheeling into view of the scene, began to cheer. A moment after there was a puff of white smoke from the distant parapet, and a shell, singing and shrieking through the air, crashed through a locust tree in front of the house and buried itself in the earth. The gun that had fired it was two miles away, but in the clear morning air it seemed less than a mile. The Corps now moved rapidly up, descended into a series of rugged ravines that lay between the white house and the enemy's line, and deployed for the attack. Smith's Division took the extreme right, extending nearly to a junction with Quimby's Division of McPherson's Corps. Next came Carr, then Osterhaus, and Hovey on the extreme left. The general position of the Corps being established, the troops rested in line, while strong skirmish lines were sent up over the hills toward the fortifications to secure positions from which division , brigade and regimental commanders could carefully reconnoiter the ground. The skirmish line met a sharp, irregular fire, but it pushed bravely up to within three or four hundred yards of the enemy's parapet. Gen. Osterhaus and his officers, following behind on foot, made a careful study of the ground. It proved exceedingly rough and difficult. The enemy's works were built along the crest of a ridge from which deep ravines led down on the Eastern side to the valley in which the reserves were resting. The soil, a firm mixture of clay and sand, being cut perpendicularly by the action of the water, maintained a vertical wall or surface for years, so that the sides of the ravines were often so steep that the soldiers could climb them only by using both hands. The hostile line was a series of detached works built upon favorable points and connected with each other by heavy parapets or rifle trenches. The lateral ravines on the Eastern side led up to the slope of this ridge, and in some cases gave a covered approach to within two hundred yards of the line, but in every case it was found that the ravine was swept by the guns of a redoubt or bastion, and the approach finally must be over open space wholly exposed.

By noon the reconnoisance [sic] was finished and the troops were moved as far to the front as they could be sheltered to await the signal of attack. Batteries meanwhile had been put in position on commanding ridges, and at the appointed hour the signal was fired. The troops moved forward promptly, but the roughness of the ground broke up the line and threw it into confusion. Some regiments had comparatively easy footing and got ahead rapidly, others found declivities up or down which they had to climb almost in single file. The enemy's line was crooked and irregular, so that the distances to be traveled by the different regiments and brigades were quite unequal. Above all, the Rebel fire was hot and sharp, large guns raking the ravines with great charges of canister, and the musketry fire being severe on all exposed points. The ground was moreover strange and had to be crossed cautiously, and the result of all was that night came on before the troops had got up to within charging distance of the works. It was seen that an assault, to be successful, must begin about where the advance of that day had ended, and the situation being alike in all the three Corps, Gen. Grant gave the order to hold the ground then occupied and await further orders. Blair, in Sherman's Corps had rushed in rashly, been severely cut up, and though fighting like heroes, his men had only the satisfaction of having planted their colors on the counterscarp of a work which they could not enter. So the attack of the 19th failed of its grand object and served only to get the enemy's line closely invested in readiness for a final assault.

But the army had done all that it could without food and rest. The enemy had shown unexpected tenacity and spirit. The strength of their defences, the eight thousand fresh troops of the garrison, added, no doubt to a fierce vengeance against the assailants who had so overwhelmingly humbled them in the open field, combined to give Pemberton's army of thirty thousand men fresh courage. It was evident that before attacking such a position, thus defended, Grant's army must have sleep and food. Orders were given to this effect.

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