Battle of Champion Hill
Following the Union occupation of Jackson, Mississippi, both Confederate and Federal forces made plans for future operations. Gen. Joseph E. Johnston retreated, with most of his army, up the Canton Road, but he ordered Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton, commanding about 23,000 men, to leave Edwards Station and attack the Federals at Clinton. Pemberton and his generals felt that Johnston’s plan was dangerous and decided instead to attack the Union supply trains moving from Grand Gulf to Raymond. On May 16, though, Pemberton received another order from Johnston repeating his former directions. Pemberton had already started after the supply trains and was on the Raymond-Edwards Road with his rear at the crossroads one-third mile south of the crest of Champion Hill. Thus, when he ordered a countermarch, his rear, including his many supply wagons, became the advance of his force.
On May 16, 1863, about 7:00 am, the Union forces engaged the Confederates and the Battle of Champion Hill began. Pemberton’s force drew up into a defensive line along a crest of a ridge overlooking Jackson Creek. Pemberton was unaware that one Union column was moving along the Jackson Road against his unprotected left flank. For protection, Pemberton posted Brig. Gen. Stephen D. Lee's men atop Champion Hill where they could watch for the reported Union column moving to the crossroads. Lee spotted the Union troops and they soon saw him. If this force was not stopped, it would cut the Rebels off from their Vicksburg base. Pemberton received warning of the Union movement and sent troops to his left flank. Union forces at the Champion House moved into action and emplaced artillery to begin firing. When Grant arrived at Champion Hill, around 10:00 am, he ordered the attack to begin. By 11:30 am, Union forces had reached the Confederate main line and about 1:00 pm, they took the crest while the Rebels retired in disorder. The Federals swept forward, capturing the crossroads and closing the Jackson Road escape route. One of Pemberton's divisions (Bowen’s) then counterattacked, pushing the Federals back beyond the Champion Hill crest before their surge came to a halt. Grant then counterattacked, committing forces that had just arrived from Clinton by way of Bolton. Pemberton’s men could not stand up to this assault, so he ordered his men from the field to the one escape route still open: the Raymond Road crossing of Bakers Creek. Brig. Gen. Lloyd Tilghman’s brigade formed the rearguard, and they held at all costs, including the loss of Tilghman. In the late afternoon, Union troops seized the Bakers Creek Bridge, and by midnight, they occupied Edwards. The Confederates were in full retreat towards Vicksburg. If the Union forces caught these Rebels, they would destroy them. (NPS summary)
Champion Hill – Genesis of Defeat
The evacuation of Jackson and subsequent retreat to Canton and beyond left Pemberton as the only legitimate force standing in the way of the ultimate prize – Vicksburg. Although Johnston had been reduced to a military non-factor his command influence was about to play a huge role in the coming events. His insistence on unifying the two commands would push Pemberton into a battle he did not want and was not prepared to win. Johnston’s 13 May request that Pemberton strike the Federal rear at Clinton peeled the scab off the wound that was Pemberton’s command structure. Pemberton could not justify the action in his own mind given the orders from Davis to defend Vicksburg at all cost. He felt the move would open the way for McClernand’s Corps to assault the city. Despite these misgivings he wired Johnston:
“I move at once with the whole available force from Edward’s Station.”
The movement had not yet begun when he had a change of heart and rescinded the order. He decided to open the matter for discussion and invited his commanders to a council of war on the 14th. The meeting turned rancorous as most of those present favored the planned advance. Pemberton continued to argue against it in the face of this dissent.
Division commanders Loring and Stevenson eventually calmed the dispute by offering an alternative plan. They suggested that a move be made against Grant’s extended supply line to the south. Pemberton mulled the plan over and finally agreed. He notified Johnston of the new arrangement and began planning his move in pain-staking detail.
The proposed move revealed much about Pemberton’s lack of field experience and hidden under currents of discontent amongst his officers. Despite planning the move down to the number of yards between elements Pemberton failed to account for two critical elements of combat operations; logistics and reconnaissance. On the morning of the 15th it was discovered that there was not enough food or ammunition on hand to supply all the troops for the move. A train had to be dispatched to Vicksburg to pick up the necessary supplies to cover the difference. The march, originally slated to begin at 0800 did not set off until after 1300.
The march was destined to be a short one. After only two miles Colonel Wirt Adams, in the van with his cavalry, discovered that the ford over Baker’s Creek had been made unusable by the heavy rains. No effort had been made to recon the site despite the short distance from the start point. Pemberton wasted two additional hours deciding what seemed obvious to his subordinates. They would have to detour to the bridge on the Jackson Road. During the delay the command atmosphere continued to erode. BG Tilghman, leading the main column with his brigade, somehow incurred the wrath of Pemberton and was placed under arrest and command given to Colonel Robert Lowery of the 6th Mississippi. When Loring heard of the affair he rushed to the defense of his subordinate. Although the story is disputed, Tilghman wrote in a letter that day that Loring told Pemberton that if he could do without Tilghman then he could do without him as well. Pemberton, facing an imminent engagement with the enemy, had no recourse but to revoke the order. According to Tilghman’s version of events the order was bitterly scribbled out on the pommel of Pemberton’s saddle.
The march moved on at 1600 when Pemberton finally adopted the move to the nearby bridge. The cumulative delays had restricted the march to just four miles in eight hours. As darkness fell camp was made in the vicinity of the Coker house around 2200 by the lead elements. The trailing units continued to arrive until 0300 on the 16th. Exhausted and disgruntled the Confederates were in for one more alteration in their designed move.
Champion Hill – Opening Moves (Loring’s Division)
While the Confederate column closed up near the intersection of the Raymond Road and the Ratliff Road on the night of the 15th Colonel Edward Goodwin was ordered to report to MG William Loring, the division commander. Loring ordered Goodwin out into the “deep dusk” to picket the Raymond Road about a mile in advance of the head of the column with his 35th Alabama Infantry. Also deployed was the 22nd Mississippi of LTC H. J. Reid. The two regiments straddled the road and Company F of the 35th was sent out “several hundred yards in advance.” In front of them Colonel Wirt Adams’ cavalry rode a distant picket in the vicinity of the Davis House. During the night only an “occasional gun was fired” and that by the cavalry picket.
About 0630 as Pemberton was meeting with Adams the skirmishing of the cavalry pickets became “very brisk”. Adams departed to assess the situation just as a message from Johnston was arriving. Johnston’s instructions were specific;
“Our being compelled to leave Jackson makes your plan impracticable. The only mode by which we can unite is by your moving directly to Clinton…”
Clinton, of course, was in the opposite direction of travel so Pemberton ordered;
“A retrograde movement, by reversing the column as it then stood, for the purpose of returning to Edward’s Depot to take the Brownsville Road…”
As the column was being reversed Colonel Adams’ pickets were driven in and a long range artillery barrage opened by the 17th Ohio Light Artillery. Despite the developments on the Raymond Road Pemberton decided to continue the counter march because he could not determine if “…this was an attack in force or simply an armed reconnaissance.” It did not take long before activity became more serious and he was forced to order his division commanders to form a line of battle.
At the Raymond Road Goodwin rode forward to consult with Adams but before he could find the cavalry leader he saw his pickets being driven in by Federal cavalry with a “long battle line of infantry” behind them. He galloped back to form a line of battle just as the artillery bombardment began. Two Mississippians were severely wounded and the 22nd fell back in disorder.
At 0830 Loring ordered the two regiments to begin falling back to the main line. Taking command, Goodwin ordered one company of the 22nd and Company B of the 35th forward to cover the withdrawal. The remaining portion of the 22nd was sent back about 100 yards to reorganize. After accomplishing this, the whole started a slow retreat. A second order from Loring arrived instructing Goodwin to being the two units back immediately. The units were quickly reunited with BG Abraham Buford’s brigade. The approaching Federal infantry belonged to BG Stephen Burbridge’s brigade from BG A. J. Smith’s division. In front of Burbridge’s brigade were skirmishers from the 23rd Wisconsin. “They did most efficient service” pushing the Confederate skirmish line (35th Alabama and 22nd Mississippi) back onto the main line. As Burbridge’s command approached he recognized the main Confederate line, three brigades of Loring’s division, well established on the Coker House Ridge. The advancing line of blue came under “a most terrific fire of shot, shell, grape, and canister.” Burbridge sent back for help to even the odds. Reinforcements arrived in the form of the 19th Kentucky, 77th Illinois, and some additional artillery assets. The stage was set for a showdown on the Raymond Road when word came from BG Smith to halt.
Champion Hill – Opening Moves (Stevenson’s Division)
The reversal of the column in the fashion dictated by Pemberton left BG Carter Stevenson with a difficult problem. Since the slow moving trains traditionally trailed a march they were now in the front and blocking the advance of the army. Stevenson was ordered to move the wagons about three miles west on the Jackson Road and then park them on the far side of Baker’s Creek in a manner that would not impede the infantry and artillery. One regiment was to lead them while the remainder of the rear brigade secured the important crossroads of Jackson and Middle Road.
As the rear of the previous night’s column the brigade of Colonel Alexander Reynolds exhausted troops drew the task. The wagons were turned around and a line established near the intersection. A thick line of skirmishers was pushed out about 800 yards to the east on the Middle Road where cavalry picket activity indicated the greatest threat. Reynolds all Tennessee brigade held the line against light skirmishing until 0830 when the next brigade, under BG S. D. Lee, moved up to trade places according to the plan. Reynold’s took his troops and the 3rd Maryland Artillery to tend to the removal of the trains. They were successfully moved across the creek and a defensive perimeter established. Lee expecting trouble positioned Waddell’s battery to fire down the Middle Road and sent a company of the 20th Alabama to the area around the Champion farm to watch the Jackson Road.
About four miles north of the uneasy standoff at the Raymond Road the division of BG Peter Osterhaus was advancing westward on Middle Road. In front of the column rode a cavalry screen comprised of three companies (A, E, and K) of the 3rd Illinois cavalry, under the command of CPT John Campbell. These 90 men would make the initial contact with the Confederate forces near the intersection of the Middle Road and the Jackson Road. After locating the Confederate picket line they were dismounted and drove them back about a mile. While waiting for the infantry column to arrive Campbell received an order to conduct a charge. The mounted men passed through the Confederate skirmishers and directly into “three lines of battle on each side of the road” that opened a “galling” fire on the Union troopers. Captain Campbell, later noting that “no cavalry could long live” under such a fire, ordered a retreat which was “promptly executed.” Osterhaus sent Campbell and his men to open communication with BG Smith as the infantry took over the field.
The Union infantry was being led by BG Theophilus Garrard’s brigade. In front were skirmishers from the 7th Kentucky and 49th Indiana. They pushed the Confederate line back just as the Lee and Reynolds were swapping places. Momentarily stalled at the crossroads Garrard strengthened his line with the 69th Indiana and the 118th Illinois. As these units were deploying a messenger arrived at Lee’s headquarters from the detachment of 20th Alabama. BG Alvin Hovey was marching south down the Jackson Road with the lead elements of his division. Lee now faced a difficult decision. How to secure the critical intersection against the growing Union threat? Loss of the position would cut the entire army off from the intended route of march essentially trapping them between Grant’s three way pincers. Lee reacted quickly without consulting Stevenson.
“My brigade was at once marched by the left flank for the purpose of checking the enemy.”
Naturally the movement of Lee’s brigade created a large gap in the Confederate line. Lee sent a message back describing the situation and requesting help to extend his line. The closest available troops belonged to BG Cumming who had replaced him on the Middle Road. Cumming was at that moment meeting with Stevenson and the request was immediately approved. Three of Cumming’s Georgia regiments (34th, 31st, and 39th) sidled northward to fill the gap left by Lee’s departing Alabamans. The 56th and the 57th Georgia were left to secure the crossroads with Waddell’s battery. What had started out as a change of direction for the army’s march was rapidly becoming a gathering of forces for a set piece battle.
Champion Hill – Battle Developed (16 May 1863)
The Federal advance down Jackson road came to a stop when the cavalry advance (Company C 1st Indiana Cavalry) reported an enemy battery only 800 yards to the front. The lead brigade of Hovey’s division, under BG George McGinnis, broke out of column formation and formed a line of battle with three of his five regiments (24th Indiana, 29th Wisconsin, and 11th Indiana) while the brigade of Colonel James Slack formed on his left. After deploying his troops McGinnis became concerned about the veracity of the report;
“After halting for some time and seeing no signs of the enemy…I determined to satisfy myself by personal observation…”
Sergeant Davis Wilsey, of Company C, personally escorted the general to the front and pointed out the enemy battery (most likely the Botentourt Virginia Battery) in question. His curiosity thus satisfied, McGinnis returned to his line and continued preparations for the battle he knew was imminent.
Despite gaining an advantage in the early troop deployments, particularly at the Jackson and Middle Roads, the Union commanders were being cautious. Although Hovey learned of Lee’s new position on the crest of Champion Hill he was not going to face the responsibility of “opening the ball” without proper authority. When his messenger found the Corps commander, MG John McClernand, on the Middle Road he deferred the matter to Grant, who was not yet on the field.
At 1000 Grant arrived on the scene, with son Fred, and established a command post at the Champion farm. Matilda Champion and her four children beat a hasty retreat for Bolton. Hovey, eager for the attack, was soothed by Grant, who told him to wait for Logan’s division of McPherson’s Corps to arrive. A short time later BG Mortimer Leggett, leading McPherson’s Corps, arrived and formed his brigade on the left with BG John Smith’s brigade falling in on their left. The third and final brigade of Logan’s division, under BG John Stevenson, was posted in reserve behind DeGolyer’s Michigan Battery. Another battery, 1st Illinois Light Artillery unlimbered in a tree line on the far right. With two divisions deployed and another on the way (BG Marcellus Crocker) Grant was ready to do battle.
On the Confederate line BG Cumming bent back the right of his line to protect against any move from his right by repositioning the 36th Georgia and a portion of the 34th Georgia. Having barely set his line, the word was passed that Lee was advancing to the attack. To keep pace with the reported movement, which he could no see through the trees and intervening elevation, Cumming ordered his men forward. When he realized that the report had been a mistake he stopped his men and formed a new line. Unbeknownst to him his problems were being compounded when his skirmishers got bogged down in the rutted and wooded terrain and were actually positioned well to his right. He was without an early warning system. The timing could not have been worse for at that very moment Grant gave McClernand the order to attack.
At 1030 Hovey and Logan lurched forward into an attack on Lee’s Champion Hill position. As the Confederate artillery opened McGinnis could not distinguish Lee’s main line through the trees and smoke and ordered his men to lie down. After a short delay while he conducted a leader’s reconnaissance he got his men to their feet and proceeded on with fixed bayonets. On his left two regiments (47th Indiana and 56th Ohio), part of Colonel James Slack’s brigade, struck the bent portion of Cumming’s line were greeted by volleys from the units at “the angle.” Hovey wrote in his official report that “at 11 o’clock the battle opened hotly all along the line.”
“Obstinate and Murderous Conflict” – Battle at Jackson Road
Without a warning from his misplaced skirmishers the Federal attack caught Cumming’s men completely by surprise. Fortunately for the Confederates on this part of the line the terrain and confusion caused by the badly located Confederate skirmishers broke up the two regiment front headed their way. Reacting to the report of enemy on his far left (three companies of Cumming’s skirmishers) the Union commander broke off a piece of his force to deal with the perceived threat. Nevertheless the Union formation was able to move within fifty yards of the Confederate line without being seen. The unexpected onset of battle at such close quarters shocked the men on both lines.
The first to regain their composure was the line of Georgians at the crest of the hill. Approximately 600 men poured out a volley, but having failed to compensate for the downhill nature of the fire many of the rounds passed harmlessly over the heads of the attackers. The Federals returned “a very heavy and destructive volley” that ripped into the Confederate line.
However, before Slack’s line could take full advantage of the situation at “the angle” orders came for the 47th Indiana to move to the right to support the attack on the main Confederate line. The respite was a short one for the Georgians. The 56th Ohio moved up to replace the departed regiment. The numerical superiority of the Union force eventually started to overcome the right side of Cumming’s line. A final charge into the position held by the Confederates changed the combat to a hand to hand struggle. The badly outnumbered Georgians battled the horde of attackers around them for a short time but finally had to give way. The 39th Georgia and the supporting companies of the 34th Georgia broke for the rear in a rout. The Botetourt Artillery and two recently arrived guns of Waddell’s battery were left undefended. The artillery horses became a prime target. With no means to remove the guns they were abandoned to be captured. The remaining troops of Cumming’s brigade were forced to retreat under the threat of envelopment.
The collapse of his right flank left Lee in a very poor position. His line was overlapped on the right by McGinnis and Slack’s temporarily disorganized men and the left was being threatened by the introduction of Stevenson’s reserve brigade. Additionally, on the far Union left three of Slack’s regiments (24th Iowa, 28th Iowa, and 56th Ohio) found themselves with an unimpeded route to the left flank of the 56th and 57th Georgia at the crossroads. Addressing the threat at the last minute, Colonel Elisha Watkins of the 56th, turned the two regiments and the remaining four guns of Waddell’s Battery to face north.
It was no contest. After an initial volley by the Georgians the three Federal regiments swarmed the position. The small Confederate line broke and fled across Middle Road to the south. Once again the artillery was left to their own devices. A frantic attempt to limber the guns proved unsuccessful. Again the horses became the primary targets. As they were shot down the gunners to haul the pieces off by hand. They suffered the same fate as the animals. Finally the survivors fled leaving the four guns in Union hands.
Only Lee’s brigade stood in the way of complete Union victory north of Jackson Road. He faced the three brigades of Logan’s division and the disorganized line of McGinnis’ brigade from Hovey’s division. The Union attack here did not surprise Lee’s Alabamans. The center of Logan’s attack was brought to an abrupt halt under a blistering fire. The Union line was free to operate around both of the flanks however. Division commander Stevenson called on his final brigade (Barton) to bolster Lee’s endangered line. While waiting for reinforcements to arrive Lee went back to the road and helped reorganize about 400 men, mostly of the broken 34th Georgia. These were hustled back to the main line where they were placed in line to support the 31st Alabama. Lee now became determined to silence the Union batteries that were playing havoc on his line. He detailed the 23rd Alabama to attack the guns. It was a brave but foolhardy effort. The Alabamans were mowed down by the 45th Illinois and 23rd Indiana in the front and the 24th Indiana from their right. Another briefly successful counterattack was conducted by the 46th Alabama. Their success proved to be their downfall. One by one Lee’s remaining regiments started to falter until it became obvious that Barton would not arrive on time. In their newly gained advanced position the 46th Alabama could not receive the retreat order. They were surrounded and most of the regiment was forced to surrender. The remainder of the brigade fell back to a new position just north of the east-west portion of the Jackson Road.
In roughly four hours of brutal fighting the Confederates had been pushed out of the most important position on the field and had lost much of their artillery. The situation was indeed looking grim for Pemberton.
Champion Hill – Barton Counter-Attacks (16 May 1863)
Although BG Seth Barton’s brigade arrived too late to save the original Confederate line, his troops were unbloodied and eager to impact the scene. The men were winded by the dash to Lee’s assistance but formed quickly to the right of Lee’s new position. Problems arose almost immediately. The absence of the 42nd Georgia and a section of guns from the 1st Mississippi Light Artillery (sent to cover the bridge early on) left the line woefully short. Instead of being anchored on a fine natural barrier (Baker’s Creek) his left was “in the air” about 600 yards short. The 42nd could not be recalled without leaving the critical bridge undefended. At this point the bridge represented the only escape rout from the rapidly deteriorating Confederate position. Furthermore, the short line was already being over lapped by the 81st Illinois, 32nd Ohio, and the 8th Illinois of Stevenson’s brigade.
Barton adjusted to accommodate the situation as best he could with the available resources. The Parrott rifles (4) of Corput’s Cherokee Artillery were set at the left on the road, supported by the 52nd Georgia. Shortly after dropping trail they were joined by a section of Napoleons from Ridley’s 1st Mississippi Light. Thinking his left now secure (he had badly underestimated the threat) Barton decided to assume the offensive. The 40th, 41st, and 43rd Georgia charged into the strength of BG John E. Smith’s brigade that had just completed the successful flank attack on Lee’s original line. At the focal point of the attack were Colonel Manning Force and his 20th Ohio Infantry. Dedicated journal keeper Sergeant Osborn Oldroyd of that regiment recalled that the attack “succeeded in driving us a short distance” but with the help of the nearby regiments the attack was driven back. While Barton conducted his counter-attack the 52nd Georgia was left with the six guns to stop BG John Stevenson’s flanking movement. Colonel Charles Phillips, regimental commander of the 52nd, also decided to assume the offensive. He attacked the approaching horde of Federals. This attack was absorbed primarily by the 124th Illinois while the 81st Illinois and the 32nd Ohio focused on the guns. The artillery men were no match for the overwhelming numbers that were bearing down on them. There were few survivors amongst the gunners as the batteries fell to the Union charge.
His flank now collapsed, Barton was caught in a trap of his own making. His three advanced regiments were now surrounded. It was fight or flee and most decided on the latter. As Barton stated in his report;
“The brigade had been terribly handled.”
A withdrawal was ordered but Barton admitted that;
“…the movement was necessarily accompanied with some confusion.”
1LT George Durfee of the 8th Illinois was less complimentary, stating in a letter home that the Confederates had been driven “like sheep” from the field. Whatever the case the Confederate loss here was considerable. Barton would later estimate his losses, including the unengaged 42nd Georgia; at 42%.Those lucky enough to avoid the closing Federal pincers retreated in disorder south of the Jackson Road. The road was cut by Stevenson’s victorious troops. The supply wagons that had been sent to the far side of the creek were now isolated from the elements that they were intended to support. A resupply of ammunition would not be forthcoming for the hard pressed Confederates.
Champion Hill – Bowen’s Counterattack
Near the cross roads of Jackson and Middle Road MG John Bowen’s small division, that had remained relatively inactive during the early fighting, was now forming a line south of the intersection. Colonel Cockrell’s Missourians formed on the west side of the Ratliff Road and BG Martin Green’s brigade on the east. The Missouri Battery of LT John Langan, reduced to two guns by losses suffered tin the long range duel earlier, went into action near the crossroads. They were quickly joined by Lowe’s Missouri battery of four guns. Never one to shy away from a fight Cockrell colorfully described what happened next.
“I ordered the brigade to charge the heavy, strong lines of the enemy, rapidly advancing and cheering, flushed with their success, and the capture of our guns, and in the most gallant, dashing, fearless manner, officers and men with loud cheers threw themselves forward at a run against the enemy’s hitherto victorious lines.”
Unfortunately the assault was not well coordinated with Green, who was not yet fully deployed for the attack. Bowen rode to the rear of Green’s line and emphasized the need for concerted action. In a rush to make up the distance lost Green’s men and the remnants of the 56th and 57th Georgia blocked the firing lane for Lowe’s guns. The artillerymen simply faced the guns east and continued to hammer away at Osterhaus’ men still waiting on the Middle Road.
The Confederate wave hit the brigades of McGinnis and Slack as they were attempting to reorganize from their attack on Cumming’s brigade. Because he departed without Green, Cockrell’s far right was enfiladed by the temporarily unoccupied troops of Slack’s brigade. The 1st Missouri withstood the pounding until Green’s attack struck Slack’s men squarely in the front. On the right of Slack’s line the 24th Iowa stood firm for about fifteen minutes before they were forced to fall back. On the left the 28th Iowa had already broken. The 56th Ohio was left by itself and flanked on both sides. The retreat became a rout with the fleeing Federals forced to make their way over several hundred yards of open ground to get to the rear. The 56th suffered badly as they made their way over the killing ground.
On the Confederate left Cockrell was also having his share of success. Although McGinnis men were not routed they were still falling back. During the fighting withdrawal McGinnis sent couriers to the rear with a desperate call for reinforcements. He attempted to hold the gray wave back while help was ordered forward. Inspired by Cockrell’s and Green’s success Barton and Cumming rallied their men and joined in the attack. The lost guns were recovered and reversed again. Waddell and the few remaining artillerymen put them to work against the retreating Union line.
Help began arriving for McGinnis in the form of BG Marcellus Crocker’s division and a rather disorganized passage of lines was conducted with McGinnis’ badly rattled troops by Colonel George Boomer’s brigade. Confusion in the orders left them susceptible to a deadly enfilading fire from Green’s men on their left flank. Colonel John Sanborn’s brigade was thrown in on Boomer’s right when it appeared on the field. Despite the increased manpower the attempted counter attack was stalled by Cockrell’s men. The two sides stopped moving “and killed each other as fast as we could.”
Green and Cockrell were more than holding their own against the rapidly growing federal strength. Green came dangerously close to turning Boomer’s flank until beaten back by heavy concentrations of Union artillery and the arrival of Colonel Samuel Holmes brigade. The Confederate brigades were now seriously short of two vital assets; ammunition and reinforcements. Neither would be forthcoming. Ammunition was desperately needed but as Cockrell put it;
“In the early part of the engagement I sent two of my staff officers for ammunition but the ordinance train could not be found.”
Colonel Thomas Dockery, 19th Arkansas, reporting Green’s brigade reported that Green responded to his request fro ammunition by stating;
“…the ordinance train had been ordered from the field.”
Despite the lack of ammunition Cockrell was determined to keep up the fight. He reported;
“…received a notice…that there was an order to retreat, which I delayed communicating hoping that MG Loring’s division might still arrive.”
Where was Loring’s division? That was the question.
Champion Hill – Command Problems
As the battle developed Grant was having problems with a balky subordinate. Although he had divisions poised on both the Middle Road and Raymond Road MG John McClernand was acting very cautiously thinking that he was in compliance with Grant’s command directive. Grant, however, felt that he was too idle and at 1235 an order was sent urging McClernand “to feel and attack the enemy in force, if opportunity occurred.”
The order did not reach McClernand until 1400. At 1430 Osterhaus’ division was still preparing for battle despite having been on the scene since early morning. When Bowen’s attack set off, Green’s right flank was totally exposed to McClernand’s Federals not 800 yards away yet no movement was initiated. A flank attack at this point might have destroyed Green’s attack before it could gain full momentum. Instead no large scale movement by the troops on either road was begun until the Confederate retreat was started. A huge opportunity had gone unfulfilled.
Across the field Pemberton was also having troubles with one of his corps commanders. When he realized that the main Union effort was at the Jackson Road intersection he knew that reinforcements would be necessary there. As early as 1400 orders had been sent for Bowen and Loring to begin moving north to assist Stevenson’s hard pressed men. An additional request went to Loring instructing him to stay closed up on Bowen’s division as they deployed for their attack on the Ratliff Road.
Confident that there was “no important force” threatening Loring’s position, Pemberton sent several staff officers with orders for him “to move all but one brigade (Tilghman’s to hold the Raymond Road and the lower crossing) to the left as rapidly as possible.”
Replying to Pemberton, Loring stated that such a move would be unsound because he was being pressed “in strong force” in his front and was being flanked. Pemberton became suspicious when he could not hear firing in that direction and sent a repeat order. The time wasted on the courier messages worked in favor of the Federals and they “did not fail to take advantage of” the gift.
At 1600 as Stevenson’s line began falling apart Pemberton decided to take matters into his own hands and rode off in search of Loring personally. He discovered BG Abraham Buford’s brigade finally moving north near the Robert’s House. He ordered Buford to move west along the Jackson Road. As they passed Pemberton also picked out Colonel Thomas Scott’s 12th Louisiana and sent them alone to cover Green’s right flank at the crossroads. Buford’s regiments would be pilfered again without his knowledge when Bowen ordered the 35th Alabama to the crossroads as well. The two regiments would perform yeoman duty during the coming retreat.
When Buford arrived at Stevenson’s position he found little in the situation that could be redeemed with his small force. Bowen’s troops had already begun to fall back and the situation at Stevenson’s position was even more chaotic. Lee and Cumming’s men were fleeing the scene. Try as they might they could not rally the retreating men and “the flight became precipitate.” Pemberton ordered them “to hold the road immediately in rear of General S. D. Lee’s brigade". He decided that attempting to form a line north of the road would be impossible under the existing conditions Buford took a position just south of the road with his abbreviated brigade. Pemberton had no choice but to order a general retreat or take the chance of losing the remnants of his army.
Cockrell’s hope for assistance from Featherston’s brigade proved a false one. Featherston reported that “about 2 or 3 o’clock” he received orders from Loring to move to the Jackson Road. “We had a guide, who carried us the nearest way.” The road selected by the unnamed guide was an obscure country lane that was a considerably longer route than the Ratliff Road. The extended length of the march would not allow them to arrive in time to help Cockrell. Pemberton had no choice but to order a retreat or take the chance of losing the remnants of his army.
Champion Hill – Retreat
Pemberton’s order to retreat was hardly more than a formality. The broken remnants of Stevenson’s and Bowen’s divisions were already streaming to the rear. The tardy but finally arrived brigades of Buford and Featherston were ordered to secure the escape route to the lower crossing of Baker’s Creek. On the Raymond Road Loring’s third brigade, under BG Lloyd Tilghman, was to hold back any Union advance if escape was to be possible.
Loring finally made his presence on the field felt by his skillful handling of his two northern brigades during the chaotic situation near the Jackson Road. Amidst a stampede of wagons, horses, stragglers, and wounded trying to make their way out of the Union vise Loring established Featherston in a blocking position with Buford on his right. Stevenson’s badly used up men led the march southward.
To the east Bowen’s battered division moved back while Buford’s two pilfered units, 12th Louisiana and the 35th Alabama, conducted a heroic delaying action against Osterhaus’ division that had finally been released by for action on the Middle Road. Colonel Thomas Scott and his Louisiana regiment were stationed at the critical crossroads where he found Green’s brigade “retiring from the field in great confusion.” As he formed a line of battle Osterhaus’ lead regiments came to life. The 49th Indiana and the 42nd Ohio were advancing west just north of Middle Road. Although he was greatly outnumbered Scott ordered a bayonet charge into the Union line. The attack so unsettled the 42nd Ohio that they began to fall back. The 49th Indiana bore the brunt of the charge alone. “After passing a few blows with the butts of their pieces” Colonel James Keigwin’s Hoosiers retried to a small elevation and reestablished the firepower advantage and forced Scott to retire. The 12th Louisiana had stopped a brigade sized advance it its tracks with its bold effort. A similar scenario was occurring south of the road. Colonel Edward Goodwin’s 35th Alabama supported by a battery of guns delayed another Union move to seal off the route of retreat. Both Scott and Goodwin rejoined Buford’s brigade after their important contribution and moved southwest to the bridge recently completed by Major Samuel Lockett and a detailed regiment (42nd Georgia of Barton’s brigade) at the lower crossing.
BG Lloyd Tilghman faced a severe challenge holding the Raymond Road when BG A. J. Smith got his division moving forward after a day long bout of skirmishing. After a brief move away from Coker House Ridge based on a missing countermanded order he was returned by Pemberton to a new position several hundred yards behind the previous one. It was essential that any Federal advance west down the Raymond Road be stalled long enough for the retreating army to cross Baker’s Creek behind them. Tilghman’s Mississippians stood up to the challenge holding back two brigades of Union troops. The action cost Tilghman his life but spared thousands of Confederate soldiers who would have otherwise been trapped.
The upper crossing was still held by the remnants of Barton’s brigade but was abandoned when they mistook reinforcements sent by Pemberton as Union forces. Reynolds’ brigade, still with the trains, were attacked by artillery fire from DeGolyer’s Michigan guns but managed to outmaneuver their Union pursuers until darkness provided enough cover to make it across the Big Black River at 0300 on the 17th.
At the lower crossing the situation became tense with the upper crossing now in Federal hands it was only a matter of time before they would be challenged from above. Bowen’s riddled regiments held the bridge as long as they thought reasonable waiting for Loring’s division to pass over. When Loring did not show and the threat from the upper crossing became too much Bowen ordered his men west. Loring’s men were trapped by a box of Union troops on three sides. Their salvation came when a local man, Dr. W. B. Williamson, arrived to guide them to another ford about three miles below. After an all night march through the lowlands Loring found the lower fords unusable with the far side already in Federal hands. Loring made the controversial decision to abandon the effort to rejoin Pemberton and turned his forces east to make a run for Johnston’s command instead. On May 19th he arrived at the capital which had been reoccupied after Sherman’s departure.