- Jun 11, 2012
The below account describes the fate of two Confederate organizations, the Botetourt (Virginia) Artillery and three regiments of Cumming’s Georgia brigade, atop the crest of Champion Hill on May 16, 1863.
Since little is known about the battle, I will give a brief description. I apologize for the length of this piece beforehand, but I had an abundance of time during this pandemic. For those who want to skip to the main action, just scroll down to Part 2 – W. Alan Polk
On May 15, 1863, three Confederate divisions, under the command of Lieutenant-General John Pemberton, marched out of Edwards Depot with the intent of getting astride Grant’s line of communication. The target was a place called Dillon’s Plantation on the Cayuga-Port Gibson Road, some nine or ten miles to the southeast.
Hardly a regiment in the column looked the same – butternut, yellow, or white uniforms were nearly as common among the units as grey – giving the army a multihued appearance as it clanked along the dirt road. But the men were well armed and marched as one beneath battle flags snapping in the breeze.
Heavy rains the day before, however, had inundated the countryside and flooding caused long delays. As a result, the army did not get far, moving no more than four or five miles as the crow flies. By the time it crossed the only remaining bridge over Bakers Creek, it was nearly dark.
Once across the rain-swollen stream, the army turned south at an intersection where the bulk of the army camped along the Ratliff Road – a country path of over two miles distance running north and south. The head of the column camped at its juncture with the Raymond Road while the rear of the column bivouacked all the way back at the intersection where three roads converged: The Jackson, Middle and Ratliff roads. History would come to call this juncture “the crossroads.”
And, so, this is how it came to be that some 24,000 butternuts found themselves bivouacked in line of march instead of line of battle, with both flanks dangling in the air and a flooded creek to their backs.
Across the way, General Grant was wise to the movement and had been converging on Pemberton’s army all day by three main roads. By nightfall, a large portion of Grant’s army was in position and camped within cannon shot of the Rebels.
Years later, some Confederates would claim to have seen the enemy’s campfires twinkling in the east. If so, not a soul told Pemberton that night.
The wolf was in the henhouse.
2.Dawn next morning sized up to be an easy one for the Confederates. With a cloudless sky and the land beaming under the new-green shine of spring, the day’s march looked to be unhurried, if not leisurely.
But not long after the first blush of daylight, the scattered popping of muskets could be heard in the distance, wafting in the air from the east. Future historians would come to know that it meant certain trouble, or that a spy had betrayed the Confederates. But at the time, Yankee cavalry were known to be hovering around in the distance like wolves sizing up its prey.
To most butternuts that morning, it was an issue for pickets. So, other than a few sidelong glances in that direction, soldiers continued kindling campfires and waiting for the march to be taken up again.
What the men did not know, however, was that earlier that morning Pemberton had received a disturbing message - not about the enemy, of which he had heard nothing, but from General Joseph Johnston.
The dispatch informed Pemberton that Johnston’s army had abandoned Jackson, the state capital, and was withdrawing north toward Canton.
Infuriated that Pemberton was moving south toward Dillon’s Plantation, in completely the opposite direction from his own army, Johnston’s message ordered Pemberton to cease his movement to Dillon’s and to form a junction with his army in Clinton, Mississippi.
Pemberton would obey, but it meant he would have to recross Bakers Creek first.
It is about this time, however, that Pemberton first heard the crackle of enemy gunfire to his east.
(Rough sketch showing Pemberton’s line of march from Edwards Depot to his camps east of Bakers Creek.)
There was a problem though – and not a single thing to do with the enemy. Reversing the line of march was proving more troublesome than expected.
What was once the rear was now the front. This meant the army’s supply train - nearly four hundred wagons loaded with tons of ammunition and provisions – was blocking the withdrawal.
The roadbed leading back to the creek was like a deep gulley, and the supply wagons, parked in the roadbed the night before, were still jammed between its narrow embankments facing east. There was no other bridge available to get west of the creek (the Raymond Road bridge had been washed away days earlier).
To get the lengthy supply train turned around and headed in the right direction, the embankments had to be cut down and widened first. Until then, the army was trapped east of Bakers Creek.
As if matters could not get any worse, the random musket fire in the east had swelled into a roaring clatter, with thumps of artillery mixed in for good measure. Soon, Confederate patrols operating on the Middle and Raymond roads began sending back troubling reports: Sizable enemy infantry and artillery were on the move.
Despite this growing alarm, the order to continue the retrograde movement across the creek stood firm. Panicked soldiers, armed with picks and shovels, hacked away at the road’s embankments while desperate teamsters whipped and cursed mules to get the wagons turned.
No firing had been heard north of the crossroads all morning, but the last thing the Rebels needed was for roving Yankee cavalry to swing around and attack the trapped wagons or burn the bridge in the army’s rear.
To add security to the withdrawal, General Stevenson’s chief of artillery ordered the Botetourt (Virginia) Artillery to move north of the crossroads to a ridge that locals called Champion’s Hill.
The Botetourt Artillery had already experienced its share of fighting during the campaign. At the battle of Port Gibson, the battery had lost some 40 soldiers and four of its cannons. Unfortunately, the Virginians had not been rearmed since then, leaving it with only two guns.
Nevertheless, the men complied with the order and rumbled about a half-mile up the Ratliff Road to Champion Hill.
The battery dropped trail on its crest, just west of the Jackson Road. The hill was a commanding position, but it was heavily timbered in places and scarred with deep ravines. Visibility, especially to the Virginian’s north, was limited.
The men milled about the hill waiting for word that the wagon train had been turned and that the army was about to move across Bakers Creek.
Things began heating up for Pemberton. Strong skirmishing was going on along the Middle Road and the booming of artillery was increasing on the Raymond Road. In fact, four divisions of McClernand’s corps were moving along those roads.
Although Pemberton was unaware of the full extent of the threat bearing down on his army, he began to deploy his divisions to delay the enemy’s advance so the army could continue its retrograde movement.
Accordingly, he formed his divisions in line of battle, facing east along the Ratliff Road: Loring on the right, astride the Raymond Road, Bowen in the center, and Stevenson on the left, astride the Middle Road.
For the Virginians who were relaxing around their guns on Champion Hill, everything was quiet for the moment. No word of enemy activity up the Jackson Road was received.
But all that changed when Confederate cavalry came jingling up the road from their front.
Francis Obenchain, a sergeant in the Botetourt Artillery, recalled that one of the passing troopers calmly “told us the enemy was advancing.” Curiosity, probably more than surprise, caused a few of the men to creep forward through the trees to get a better look north of Champion Hill.
What they saw was spine-chilling. In the open fields to the north, they could see a full Federal division with thousands of bayonets glistening under the flash of hot sun.
They watched as the division uncoiled like a giant serpent, spreading out on each side of the Jackson Road, preparing, evidently, to attack the hill. The force proved to be General Alvin Hovey’s 12th division, from Major-General John McClernand’s 13th Corps.
The Virginians did not wait around to observe the scene for long. They jumped to their guns and prepared for action. If there was any saving grace at all, it was that they were atop a commanding knoll, partially hidden in timber.
Within minutes, officers were calling out distances, gunners punched fuses, and rounds of case-shot were sent screeching toward the blue formations.
At that critical moment in time, the only thing holding Pemberton’s left flank was two worn out smoothbores perched atop a ridge in the Mississippi countryside.
PART IIGeneral S.D. Lee was busy skirmishing on the Middle Road when he got wind of the threat to his north. Realizing his flank was being turned, he acted on his own initiative. He immediately ordered his brigade out of line and had his men double-quick the 400 yards to Champion Hill.
When Lee arrived, the commander of the Botetourt Artillery, Captain J.W. Johnston, was more than thrilled to see the general. The Virginia guns were still booming away to the north.
Lee galloped up to the captain and hollered above the racket: “I am moving my brigade up on this high ground to protect the army’s left flank.” Lee’s brigade was still trekking up the ridge behind him. “They can’t get here fast enough, general.” Johnston replied.
Dismounting from his horse, Lee approached the crest to size up the problem. When he peered through the trees, he quickly saw that the situation was much worse than he thought.
There was not just one Federal division out there but two - some 10,000 bluejackets on the swarm.
This second division belonged to Major-General Logan of McPherson’s 17th Corps – their flags proudly unfurled and popping in the wind.
Narrow-eyed, Lee realized that Logan’s division was moving west, extending Hovey’s right flank, and he knew that if the movement went unchecked, Logan could eventually march unopposed into the army’s rear and capture the only bridge across Bakers Creek.
It became painfully clear to Lee that he would have to move his brigade to the left, farther west along the timber-covered ridge to mirror Logan’s movements. He simply had no choice. Doing so, however, would leave the Botetourt Artillery unsupported against Hovey’s division.
Lee blurted out the obvious: “We are not strong on this flank, and your position is not a good one for artillery, Captain.”
It was an understatement, indeed. Fearing that his only support was about to leave, Captain Johnston reminded Lee that Hovey’s entire division, probably 5,000 men, was at the bottom of the hill, about to attack his position.
“I will see that your guns are supported,” Lee responded above the din of artillery. The general mounted his horse to leave but briefly turned in his saddled to give one last order to the battery commander: “Hold your position.”
With that, Lee tapped his spurs and disappeared with his men into the thick timber on the Virginian’s left.
Back on the Ratliff Road, Major-General Carter Stevenson was in a fit. He was left with only two brigades to manage the disaster that was now developing to his north. With no reserves, he pulled Barton’s brigade off the Ratliff Road (sending it rearward some 1 ½ miles) to extend Lee’s left flank against Logan.
He then ordered General Cumming, whose brigade had just replaced Lee’s on the Middle Road, to scramble a portion of his brigade north to Champion Hill.
This put Cumming in a difficult position. His brigade would have to be in two places at once: The Middle Road, to defend against a Union advance from the east, and Champion Hill, some 400 yards away, to defend against Hovey’s advance from the north – and to do it with five regiments.
And so it was: Cumming left the 56th and 57th Georgia regiments (with six guns of Waddell’s Alabama Battery) to man the crossroads and took the remaining three regiments – the 34th, 36th and 39th Georgians - through the woods and then up the back slope of the long ridge toward Champion Hill. It was a leg-throbbing march through briars and thickets.
When Cumming reached the hill with his lead regiment (39th GA), he went in search of Lee’s right flank on the western end of the ridge.
Seeing this, and in desperate need of help, Captain Johnston pleaded with the men who were following Cumming to lend a few men to support the guns. They shrugged him off and continued west along the ridge, ducking into the scrub brush and thickets to find Lee’s flank.
General Cumming guided the 39th deeper into the woods and got near Lee’s right flank, but not close enough to see it. The terrain atop the ridge was thick and broken: “The line was drawn up on a succession of ridges and knolls heavily timbered,” Cumming would later report, “beyond which, at a distance generally of about 50 yards, the ground fell off abruptly.”
Time was running out for the Confederates. General Hovey had formed and was already advancing by brigades: McGinnis’s brigade was on the west side of the Jackson Road and Slack’s brigade on the east side of it. “As my division ascended the hill,” Hovey recalled, “its line conformed to the shape and became crescent-like, with the concave toward the hill.”
All along the hill, Cumming’s regiments scrambled to form some sort of defense. By manning the crest of the knoll, the line eventually formed two sides of a square with the men facing out: the 39th, and four companies of the 34th, faced north against McGinnis, while the 36th and the other four companies of the 34th faced east against Slack. The line conformed to the knoll and was essentially bent in the shape of a right angle.
(Rough sketch of Cumming’s position atop the crest of Champion Hill.)
The Botetourt Artillery was positioned between the 39th Georgia on its left and the four companies of the 34th Georgia on its right. The battery was completely unsupported, and its own men were without small arms to defend the guns in case of close action. It was a mess.
Frustrated, Sergeant Obenchain tried to do what Captain Johnston had been unable to do earlier. He scurried over to the colonel of the 36th Georgia and made a passionate appeal for support:
“Colonel, I have tried to explain to the others passing by here. The enemy has formed by the thousands down the hill to the north. . . our guns do not have any infantry support, and if they attack we will lose them. We need your help.”
It worked. The colonel agreed to send a company to support the guns while the rest of the Georgia regiments completed their dispositions along the crest.
To the Virginians’ surprise, additional help arrived. Two guns from Waddell’s Alabama Battery suddenly rumbled up from the crossroads and dropped trail some ten feet to the right. There was little time to celebrate. In fact, the two units barely had time to speak to one another before the battle broke open in earnest.
Unfortunately, it would be the first test for the Georgians holding that hill. Before this fateful day, not a single man in Cumming’s regiments had experienced combat beyond the level of skirmishing. Worse still, General Cumming had been commanding the brigade for only three or four days. He barely knew his own field officers.
At this critical moment, no one, not even the men themselves, knew how they would react. It was, indeed, a sad circumstance. Three rookie regiments were about to receive their first baptism by fire facing down an entire enemy division.
And then it came in all its splendid horror. With full-throated roars, 5,000 Yankees surged up the slope. The crest of the hill erupted in a frenzy of smoke and flame.
Atop the beleaguered ridge, Georgians tore and rammed cartridges as fast as they could, firing their muskets down into the hoards ascending the slope.
The Botetourt Artillery and Waddell’s Battery switched to canister and blasted cans of cast-iron balls, shotgun-like, between the trees and toward the rising blue tide.
Unionists from Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Iowa hunched over against the storm, dribbling casualties as they came through the timber. “The thick growth of underbrush and vines, ravines, and hills made it very difficult to advance,” Colonel Slack remembered.
Yet the bluejackets came on, “loading and firing as they advanced.” Trees splintered, men fell, but Hovey’s columns did not waver.
Slack’s brigade slowly moved around the eastern slope, enveloping the hill like an inland tide while McGinnis’s men struck headlong against the north face of the hill.
The incline steepened, the footing hard; the men’s eyes glancing upward toward the enemy one second, then back down to keep their footing the next. Up on the crest, they could catch glimpses of the Georgians between trees, black against the skyline, loading and firing.
Some bluecoats returned the favor: One of the Yankees shuffling up the hill described a particular scene:
“You note [a Rebel] striving to find shelter behind a slender tree - he is reloading, and hastily withdrawing his rammer, uncovers the upper part of his body – instantly you aim and fire, and . . . he falls backward, throwing the useless gun over his head . . ..”
As Slack’s men attacked the eastern slope, General McGinnis’s men had worked their way up the northern face to within 75 yards of the crest.
A sulfuric haze of gun smoke enveloped the hill. But up there, General McGinnis could see the artillerymen, ghost-like in the smoke, loading rounds and about to fire a volley of canister.
He ordered his men to the ground just before the lanyards were pulled. “As soon as the volley of grape and canister had passed over us,” McGinnis wrote, “the order was given to charge.” His men leaped from the ground and mounted the crest, where they reformed and advanced across the wooded hilltop.
Cumming was dumbstruck. “Approaching unseen to within a distance of less than 50 yards,” he recalled, “the enemy poured in a very heavy and destructive volley.” The 39th Georgia, along with the artillery, and the four companies of the 34th Georgia, now faced the brunt of McGinnis’s brigade.
Company commanders did their best to stem the blue tide. With no rhetorical flourish at all, the inexperienced Georgians were fed into the meat grinder. They fell in windrows.
Clots of the enemy, now better oriented and still bloody-minded, caught a break between sheets of smoke and saw the Botetourt and Waddell’s guns to their left. Two Yankee regiments moved on the oblique and rushed the artillery, where it quickly became hand-to-hand.
Federals and Confederates swirled cheek by jowl, slinging musket butts and cracking skulls. Even the bayonet was deployed – one of the few times such weapons were used during the war.
For the Virginians and Alabamians, it was too late to move the guns – not now – all the battery horses were being shot down, still tethered to limbers, wailing, twisting in agony.
The Confederate line facing north broke all to flinders – first at one place then another.
Cumming, whose horse had been shot, rushed on foot to the point of the breach. But the situation was beyond fixing. It was now an individual’s fight where Confederate soldiers fought for their own self-possession. The smoke was heavy, and the men were barely visible in the haze. Musket fire became pink flashes in the thick smoke. All control was lost.
(Harpers Weekly sketch of General McGinnis’s men assaulting the guns of Botetourt Virginia Artillery and Waddell’s Alabama Battery.)
Miraculously, Obenchain found himself standing amidst a clump of mangled bodies with throngs of victorious Yankees surrounding him.
But Yankee adrenaline was still surging; they quickly turned on the wounded battery horses tangled in their harnesses: “Some they shot and some they bayoneted,” the sergeant recalled.
Nearby, wounded Georgians squirmed in pain on the forest floor. The Federals were still brandishing their blood-stained bayonets. Obenchain tried his best to prevent more killing: “I begged them not to murder the men.”
Whether such appeal worked, he does not say. Around this time, however, McGinnis’s men realized the eastern side of Cumming’s square was still fighting – shooting down into Slack’s men as they neared the east crest of Champion Hill.
Distracted by new prey, McGinnis’s men rushed to aid their comrades and left Obenchain standing near the captured guns all alone. Surprised by his luck, he quickly took advantage of the distraction and slid into a nearby ravine and made his escape down the back slope through thick canebrake.
Sergeant Francis Obenchain found his way back to the crossroads just in time to watch the destruction of the 56th and 57th Georgia regiments, along with the four guns of Waddell’s battery, which had been left by Cumming on the Middle Road earlier. In fact, most, if not all, of the company commanders of the 57th Georgia were killed in the fighting.
Both Lee and Barton were driven from the field also.
Reinforcements did arrive, but it was too late to help Pemberton’s army. Bowen’s division tried to save the day – and they almost did. The Missourians and Arkansans – sharply dressed in grey uniforms and armed with Enfield rifles – came on the run, battle flags tilted. They swept through the crossroads and retook Champion Hill.
But without support, Bowen’s men eventually ran out of ammunition and had to withdraw from the field.
By the end of the day, Cumming’s brigade no longer existed as a combat unit and the Botetourt Artillery was a battery in name only, having lost all its guns.
Sergeant Obenchain would eventually make it across the Jackson Road Bridge later in the day, while General Cumming took to the woods and crossed over a snake-infested Bakers Creek. Both would retreat into Vicksburg.
- W. Alan Polk
War of the Rebellion: The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 128 Vols (Washington, D.C., 1890-1901), Series 1, Vol. 24, Parts I and II
Michigan, Hudson Gazette, July 25, 1863
Sandersville, The Central Georgian, June 3, 1863. (Thanks to Laura Elliot for access to this newspaper.)
Due to the pandemic, the archives at VNMP was closed. Consequently, I was unable to retrieve original copies of Francis Obenchain’s letters. All quotes are taken from Timothy Smith’s, Champion Hill (see citation below).
Bearss, Edwin. The Vicksburg Campaign. Vol II. Dayton: Morningside House, Inc., 1985
Grabau, Warren. Ninety-Eight Days: A Geographer’s View of the Vicksburg Campaign. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2000.
Smith, Timothy. Champion Hill: Decisive Battle for Vicksburg. El Dorado Hills: Savas Beatie LLC, 2012