Confederate Lieut. Gen. John Clifford Pemberton, commander of the Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana has fathomed, more or less, Union Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s intent, so he is pivoting his army to face the threat. Pemberton now has his men positioned with his right guarding the raft bridge at Baldwin’s Ferry, and his left watching the railroad bridge over Big Black River. He orders Gen. John Bowen to construct a tête de pont east of the Big Black Bridge. Tête de pont is French for “bridgehead,” a work thrown up at the end of a bridge, nearest the enemy, so that this work will cover the bridge. The Confederates use cotton bales to build the works. They are thrifty with these cotton bales—the Yankees aren’t going to get them all. Pemberton’s people use 1,800 bales of cotton throwing up this line of breastworks, and his plan is to hold this position to wait for Grant to attack it.
Pemberton has five divisions, but he leaves two of them—12,000 men—in the Vicksburg area to guard the approaches from Hankinson’s Ferry to the south and from the Yazoo River to the north. To protect the city from Porter’s fleet, he has Col. Edward Higgins’s river defenses. On May 12, Pemberton moves his headquarters from Vicksburg to Bovina to be with his other three divisions.
The two divisions in the Vicksburg area are commanded by Gen. John H. Forney and Gen. Martin L. Smith. General Forney is from Lincolnton, North Carolina, and he is a harsh disciplinarian—not well liked by his troops. General Smith, like Pemberton, is a Northerner. He is a New Yorker and a West Point–trained engineer, but his connections, through his life, marriage, and military stations, have been in the South.
On May 12 Pemberton telegraphs Johnston, who receives the message at Lake Station, Mississippi, while en route to Jackson: “The enemy is apparently moving his heavy force toward Edwards Depot, on Southern Railroad; with my limited force I will do all I can to meet him. That will be the battlefield if I can carry forward sufficient force, leaving troops enough to secure the safety of this place [Vicksburg].”
That same morning, at Raymond, General Gregg sends his makeshift cavalry force of five of Wirt Adams’s cavalrymen and all of Captain Hall’s state troopers down the Utica Road to see what they can find. Hall soon runs into veteran Federal troopers—that is, a 160-man provisional cavalry battalion with Captain Foster in command. McPherson had organized this battalion that day, and it includes Foster and his Fourth Independent Company of Ohio Cavalry, as well as two companies of Illinois cavalry and one of Missouri horse soldiers. Of course, Hall’s men are not able to penetrate Foster’s screen, so all they can do is fall back with the news that the enemy is coming. They did see the head of the Union column enshrouded in dust, so they report 2,500 to 3,000 Yankees coming down the road. This information seems to confirm what Gregg believes. He knows that scouts usually pad the numbers a bit, so his mind is made up that he’s facing a lone Union brigade with a heavy cavalry screen to cover the feint. Ever combative, he says to his commanders, “We’re going to wreck ‘em, boys.”
Gregg sets a trap. He sends out Colonel Granbury’s Seventh Texas to a position on the Utica Road covering the Fourteenmile Creek bridge, and he places Maj. Stephen H. Colms’s First Tennessee Battalion near a piece of high ground where the Port Gibson Road meets the Utica Road, so that the Tennesseans can support Capt. Hiram W. Bledsoe’s three Missouri guns unlimbered on that elevated position. “Old Hi” Bledsoe is a longtime soldier who served in the Mexican War. He has two 12-pounder smoothbores and a 12-pounder Whitworth rifled gun, and his guns are posted to cover the bridge over Fourteenmile Creek.
Gregg tells Col. Calvin H. Walker, “I want you to post your Third Tennessee on the left of the Texans, and I want you to conceal your men behind the ridge, just north of Fourteenmile Creek.” He then goes to Lt. Col. Thomas W. Beaumont and says, “I want you to take the 50th Tennessee, and I want you to move down the Gallatin Road, about one and one-half miles south of town, and deploy on high enough ground that you can guard the road.” Gregg adds, “When the time comes, I want you to swing to the west and hit that Yankee brigade in the flank and rear while the Texans and the Tennesseans hit it in front.”
To Col. Randall MacGavock, who commands the 10/30th Tennessee Consolidated Regiment, Gregg says, “Post your men about one-half mile behind the 50th Tennessee, and when they swing west and attack, you follow.”
Gregg has one more regiment, the 41st Tennessee, led by Col. Robert Farquharson, and he leaves that regiment in town as a reserve, or to cover his flank and rear in case he is unexpectedly attacked from another direction. His plan is to draw the enemy into position with the Seventh Texas and then trap the bluecoats in the pocket formed by a U-shaped bend in Fourteenmile Creek. The Seventh Texas is the bait for the trap. After the Yanks have taken the bait, Gregg will then send in the 50th and 10th and 30th Tennessee regiments, swinging like a gate, onto the flank and rear of the enemy. Since Gregg has a large, 3,000-man brigade, this is a very good trap if he is attacking a 1,500-man Federal brigade. It’s grabbing a tiger by the tail if he is assailing a 12,000-man corps.
Gregg starts getting his men into position at 9 a.m., and an hour later the Federal advance moves into the shade of the trees along Fourteenmile Creek. Col. Hiram Bronson Granbury, commander of the Seventh Texas, was captured in February 1862, as a major of the Seventh at Fort Donelson, and he was exchanged for two Union lieutenants. Granbury orders up Capt. T. B. Camp with some volunteers to go in the brush near the bridge over Fourteenmile Creek, and there they wait. As the Yanks are looking forward to taking a break, they move up to the shade trees, and Captain Camp’s Texans open fire at a hundred yards.
At the same time Captain Bledsoe’s three guns roar out from 800 yards behind the Texans—boom, boom, boom! The rounds scream over the Texans’ heads and burst in the hot air over the cornfields 400 yards to the south. Col. Manning F. Force of the 20th Ohio happens to be on the high ridge, now known as McPherson’s Ridge, overlooking the scene three-quarters of a mile south of the bridge over Fourteenmile Creek, and he glances at his watch. The time is ten o’clock.
Logan, commanding the lead division, is up near the front of the blue column, and he rides up to the crest of McPherson’s Ridge to confer with one of his brigade commanders, General Dennis. McPherson is in the middle of the column, down the Utica Road with J. E. Smith’s brigade, and he spurs his horse and gallops to the crest of the ridge. He finds Logan and Dennis ordering the deployment of Dennis’s four regiments, with the 30th Illinois and the 78th Ohio moving to the west of the road, and the Illinoisans deploying to the left of the Ohioans. The 68th Ohio and the 20th Ohio are sent to the east of the road with the 78th forming on the right of the 20th. As McPherson looks to the north, he sees the smoke from three Confederate cannon more than 2,000 yards away, and he turns to Logan for a report.
While McPherson looks the situation over from the ridgetop, De Golyer’s Eighth Michigan Light Artillery races up the road in a cloud of dust and goes into battery on a slight rise of ground 150 yards south of Fourteenmile Creek, close enough for the Wolverine guns to blast canister into the Texans. That’s why the Yankee infantry loves De Golyer—he’s always up front, he’s up quick, and he’s where the action is. De Golyer only has a little more than two weeks to live, because he will be mortally wounded by a sniper in front of Vicksburg on May 28.
The young De Golyer places his two 12-pounder howitzers to the left of the road and his four rifled bronze Model 1841 6-pounders to the right. De Golyer’s sweating redlegs then fire across the creek at the Texans, and the muzzle blasts and the iron balls ricochet off the ground and raise huge clouds of dust. In the still, hot air, the powder smokes hangs over the low ground of the creek and covers the grass like a gray shroud, so visibility soon becomes almost nonexistent.
After Dennis’s regiments go into line, Logan tells J. E. Smith, “I want you to move your five regiments up to the crest of this ridge; move to the right of the road, face left, and deploy on Dennis’s right.” Smith’s real name is Schmidt; he was born in Switzerland and has Anglicized his name.
Stevenson’s brigade—Logan’s third brigade—isn’t up yet, and Marcellus Crocker’s division is strung out for miles because the dust is suffocating. Since Crocker is a “lunger,” the dust plagues him.
Dennis’s four Union regiments reach the skirt of woods at the creek and take a break in the shade of the tall trees while their skirmish line pops away at the bothersome Texans on the other side. It is now high noon, and Gregg decides to spring his trap on what he thinks is a four-regiment brigade with a battery of artillery. He orders the Texans forward, across the creek, straight at the Yankees. The Union skirmishers see the solid line of butternut and gray advancing, and they skedaddle like rabbits south through Dennis’s resting troops. The Buckeyes of the 20th Ohio on the east side of the road quickly grab their stacked rifle-muskets and dash forward to take cover in the creek bed. But the 68th Ohio, to their right, runs the other way, south across the open fields toward the ridge. The right flank of the 20th is in the air, but because of a meander in the creek, the men there are facing east, not north.
Smith’s brigade has come up to the east of Dennis’s men, crossed the open fields, and entered the woods bordering the creek, which turns southeast to form the eastern arm of the cul-de-sac. Then the five regiments move forward to the creek, but the banks are steep—about 10 to 15 feet vertical—and covered with thick brush and vines.
Smith’s right flank regiment, the 31st Illinois, swings farther to the right, facing east, to guard the flank. The 31st then strikes the deep creek bed as it runs southeast. The men become confused, turn back, and halt in the woods without crossing the creek.
Smith’s left flank regiments—the 45th, 124th, and 20th Illinois—become separated and confused in the woods, and they don’t cross the creek. Only the 23rd Indiana, after a tough time, finds itself on the north side of the creek, separated from the rest of their brigade. One wouldn’t want to have been with those Hoosier lads. When they come out on the other side of the creek, they are confused.
To make matters worse for the Indianians, Gregg now springs his trap. Over on the other side of the commanding ridge that runs north of the creek is Colonel Walker’s numerically strong Third Tennessee, composed of 548 men, and these soldiers burst over the top of the ridge. Seemingly out of nowhere they charge down the south face of the ridge into the Hoosiers’ faces, crashing into the Yankees like a tidal wave. The Indiana boys break. They panic. They flee back across this creek, pursued by Walker’s people, and this is what the boys on the right flank of the 20th Ohio see as they look to the east from their creek meander. The 20th Ohio sees their right flank uncovered, with the Rebs coming through the gap, and the Ohioans begin to think that discretion is the better part of valor. They think about retreating.
A sergeant in the 20th Ohio, Osborn H. Oldroyd, recalled that “The regiment to the right of us was giving way, but just as the line was wavering and about to be hopelessly broken, Logan dashed up, and with the shriek of an eagle turned them back to their places, which they regained and held. Had it not been for Logan’s timely intervention, who was continually riding up and down the line, firing the men with his own enthusiasm, our line would undoubtedly have been broken at some point…. The creek was running red with precious blood spilt for our country.”
The Confederates—Walker’s men—have crossed the creek. Who has the initiative now? The Rebels so far have committed two regiments, stymied nine, and badly chopped up the 23rd Indiana. Now Gregg plans to slam into the Union flank and rear with his Gallatin Road regiments—the 50th Tennessee and the 10th and 30th Tennessee. The first priority of these two Confederate regiments is to capture De Golyer’s guns, which have now fallen back about 240 yards to slightly higher ground in an open field just to the west of the Utica Road.
The 10th and 30th Tennessee moves up from its supporting position and forms on the left of Colonel Beaumont’s 50th Tennessee, and Beaumont’s men advance into the woods and cross Fourteenmile Creek, but they drift to the left in the woods and form on the south side of the creek, wandering almost in front of Colonel MacGavock’s 10th and 30th Tennessee. Beaumont hears the firing to his right as Granbury’s Texans and Walker’s Tennesseans smash into the Union lines, and he knows that it is his turn to take up the en echelon attack. This is a word based on the French word for ladder and is used to describe an attack with one unit attacking immediately after another, like a wave rolling up a beach.
But Beaumont is south of the fighting, with all its dust and smoke, and he is looking west across the open fields south of Fourteenmile Creek. He comes out of the trees onto a small hill, and he has a view of the action. What does he see? He sees lots of Yankees. The Utica Road is lined with bluecoats for miles. He says to himself, “Hell, that’s no brigade. There’s at least a division out there.” He sends a message to tell Gregg that they have big problems, and he doesn’t attack.
But the messenger, Maj. Christopher Robertson, can’t find Gregg in all the confusion. So Beaumont performs what was called in Korea a bugout. He withdraws without orders. And MacGavock with his consolidated 10th and 30th Tennessee has been ordered to await his turn in the en echelon attack, so he can’t attack until Beaumont does. This means that the Seventh Texas and Third Tennessee are now in a real pinch as regiment after regiment of Union soldiers double-time north, up the Utica Road, across the fields, and jump into the fight.
To add to the problems of the Confederates, Gen. John Stevenson’s brigade marches up the dust-choked Utica Road and arrives on the field. If some historian wants to pick a Union brigade that wrecks the Confederates during the Vicksburg Campaign, that brigade is Stevenson’s. He receives orders from Logan to send the 81st Illinois to support the left of Smith’s line, in order to stop Walker’s Tennesseans. Stevenson is then ordered to rush a regiment to the right flank of Dennis’s brigade to help fight the Texans, so the Eighth Illinois is sent. Logan then places the 81st Illinois on the right of the beaten-up 23rd Indiana, and the 81st closes the gap between the 23rd Indiana and the 31st Illinois. Stevenson sends his last two regiments, the Seventh Missouri and 32nd Ohio, to the right of the 31st Illinois, making these two regiments the far right of the Union line. McPherson now has almost the entire oxbow bend of the creek covered.
Along with Stevenson comes a battery of 24-pounder howitzers, which is Company D, First Illinois Light Artillery, and these four guns take De Golyer’s position on the rise just to the left of the Utica Road. De Golyer shifts his six guns almost 200 yards to the left to cover the left flank of Dennis. The ten guns of the two batteries continue to raise huge clouds of dust and smoke, and the artillerymen are firing blindly with only occasional glimpses of targets on the ridge and in the fields to the north of the creek.
The right flank companies of the Seventh Texas hold back at the creek—they have two Federal regiments firing at them and ten Federal guns blasting canister at them from their front. But the left flank companies cross Fourteenmile Creek, make their way through the timber, and enter the open field south of the creek. Here they are hit by a counterattack from the 20th Illinois, which had reformed in the field after failing to support the left flank of the 23rd Indiana. Lt. Col. Evan Richards, commanding the 20th Illinois, is killed during the counterattack, but the Texans fall back and take cover in the creek bed. Suddenly, Texans and Ohioans are mingled in the meandering creek bed, firing at each other over the bank tops.
On the Texans’ left, Walker’s Tennesseans charge across the creek into the woods, and Colonel Walker listens in vain for the sound of Beaumont’s guns to his left, because the 50th Tennessee is supposed to pick up its assignment in the en echelon attack. Instead of Beaumont’s firing, however, what Walker receives is a point-blank volley into his left flank from Col. Edwin Stanton McCook’s 31st Illinois on the Union right. McCook is a member of the famous “fighting McCook” family, and he attended the U.S. Naval Academy for two years. This will be his last battle, because he will be shot in the foot and hobble off the field using two rifles as crutches. Foot wounds are slow to heal, largely because of poor blood circulation and the number of bones in the foot, so this wound ends his military career.
McCook’s men have recovered from their escapade in the thick woods when they were trying to cover Smith’s right flank on the eastern edge of the cul-de-sac. His Illinoisans have reformed in the edge of the woods by the field, and when the Tennesseans exit the woods in the U of the cul-de-sac, the Illinois soldiers simply about-face, and Walker’s men are like tin ducks passing down a shooting line in a county fair.
The regimental history of the 31st Illinois states, “The companies fired in a manner resembling the firing by file, for as they [Walker’s Tennesseans] came first within range of the right of the line they encountered a continuous fire until they reached the left…. It seemed an ambuscade, but it is probable that neither part knew the position of the other, till the enemy made his wild dash across the field.”
Gregg, when he doesn’t hear the sound of firing way off on his left flank, knows something is wrong. The Seventh Texas and the Third Tennessee are taking a beating in their frontal assault, so where is the flanking attack of the 50th Tennessee and the 10th and 30th Tennessee? Gregg orders up his reserve regiment, the 41st Tennessee, but these men are in the Raymond Cemetery, almost a mile and a half away.
If things aren’t bad enough for the Third Tennessee, Smith’s Federal brigade has been bolstered by Stevenson’s newly arrived 81st Illinois, commanded by Col. James J. Dollins, a sociable man, but with a terrible temper. Dollins will die at the head of his regiment, in front of the Great Redoubt, during the second assault on Vicksburg on May 22.
Walker’s Tennesseans, after being savaged by the flanking fire of the 31st Illinois, are also hit head-on by the 45th Illinois and the 23rd Indiana of Smith’s brigade, and the 81st Illinois of Stevenson’s brigade. The Tennessee boys are in a terrible position, and they fall back across the creek in disorder. They run up and over the ridge to the point where they began their attack.