Key Battle in the Vicksburg Campaign
After crossing the Mississippi River at Bruinsburg, Mississippi on April 30th, the Union Army of Major General Ulysses S. Grant marched inland in a northeasterly direction. Grant’s forces engaged the Confederates at Port Gibson on May 1st, at Raymond on May 12th, and at Jackson on May 14th. The Federal 15th and 17th Corps then moved west from Jackson toward Vicksburg; they were joined by the 13th Corps marching northwest from Raymond. About 7 a.m. on the morning of May 16th, Federal cavalry encountered pickets of Lt. General John C. Pemberton’s Confederate army and both sides deployed for battle in the area of Champion Hill (named after the family that lived there), roughly halfway between Jackson and Vicksburg.
After arriving on the scene at about 10 a.m., Grant ordered an attack. The Federals pushed the Rebels off Champion Hill, and were cutting off an escape route before Brigadier General John S. Bowen’s division of Missouri and Arkansas troops counterattacked and drove the Union forces back over Champion Hill. As Union reinforcements came up, Grant ordered his own counterattack that carried the day. Pemberton withdrew his forces from the field and retreated toward Vicksburg.
Brigadier General Alvin P. Hovey’s 12th Division of the 13th Corps was heavily engaged in the battle, attacking, being attacked, and then counterattacking. The 12th Division suffered nearly 1200 total casualties, including 198 killed. Hovey’s division included two infantry brigades. The 1st Brigade, under the command of Brigadier General George F. McGinnis, included the 29th Wisconsin and the 11th, 24th, 34th, and 46th Indiana Infantry regiments. The 2nd Brigade was commanded by Colonel James R. Slack and consisted of the 47th Indiana, 24th and 28th Iowa, and 56th Ohio Infantry regiments. Hovey also had 18 guns in three artillery batteries (2nd and 16th Batteries of Ohio Light Artillery and Company A of the 1st Missouri Light Artillery) plus one company of the 1st Indiana Cavalry.
Bowen’s counterattack drove Hovey back in what was turning into a rout before reinforcements from Brigadier General Marcellus M. Crocker’s 7th Division of the 17th Corps arrived. The reinforcements, plus effective fire from 12th Division’s artillery helped checked the Rebel advance and allowed Hovey’s unit commanders time to reform their men and send them back into action.
Here are some excerpts from Hovey’s official report of the 12th Division’s action at Champion Hill:
On the 16th, my division moved in the direction of Midway, or Champion’s Hill, on the extreme right of the corps, Generals Osterhaus’, Carr’s, and Smith’s divisions moving in the same direction, on other roads still farther to the south and left. My route lay on the Clinton and Vicksburg road, nearest to and on the south of the railroad.
During the morning I had thrown forward a part of my escort, under First Lieut. James L. Carey, First Indiana Cavalry, to make reconnaissances in front of the advance guard and skirmishers of General McGinnis’ brigade.
On arriving near Champion’s Hill, about 10 a.m., he discovered the enemy posted on the crest of the hill, with a battery of four guns in the woods near the road, and on the highest point for many miles around. At the time I was marching between the First and Second Brigades, so as to be ready for an attack on either flank. I immediately rode forward and ordered General McGinnis to form his brigade in two lines, three regiments being in the advance and two in the reserve. Before my arrival, General McGinnis had formed his three advanced regiments in line of battle, and had thrown out skirmishers in the front and flank of his command.
The Second Brigade, Col. James R. Slack commanding, was immediately formed on the left of the First Brigade, two regiments in advance and two in reserve. Skirmishers were at once sent forward, covering my entire front, and had advanced to within sight of the enemy’s battery. They were directed not to bring on the action until we were entirely ready.
At this point I attempted to communicate with Brigadier-General Osterhaus, but my messengers, not knowing the country nor his exact locality, were unable to find his division. In the mean time Major-General Grant had arrived, and with him Major-General McPherson, with his command. Before proceeding further, it is necessary that the topography of the field should be described.
Midway, or Champion’s Hill, is equidistant from Jackson and Vicksburg, and is near the Midway Station, on the Vicksburg and Jackson Railroad. It is a high promontory, some 60 or 70 feet above the common level of the country, and covered with woods, the Vicksburg and Clinton road leading over the crest. To the right and northeast of the hill are undulating fields, and on the left a woody tangled ravine, through which troops might pass with great difficulty. About half a mile from the point of the hill, General McPherson formed his line of battle in the open field, facing toward the side of the hill, a distance from the hill of about 400 yards, his front and the main front of my division being nearly at right angles. As my division ascended the hill, its line conformed to the shape and became crescent-like, with the concave toward the hill. As soon as General McPherson’s line was ready to take part in the contest, about 10.30 a.m., I ordered General McGinnis and Colonel Slack to press their skirmishers forward up the hill, and follow them firmly with their respective brigades. In a few minutes the fire opened briskly along the whole line, from my extreme left to the right of the forces engaged under Major-General McPherson, and at 11 o’clock the battle opened hotly all along the line. The contest here continued for an hour by my forces. For over 600 yards up the hill my division gallantly drove the enemy before them, capturing 11 guns and over 300 prisoners, under fire. The Eleventh Indiana, Colonel Macauley, and Twenty-ninth Wisconsin, Colonel Gill, captured the four guns on the brow of the hill, at the point of the bayonet. Colonel Bringhurst, with the Forty-sixth Indiana, gallantly drove the enemy from two guns on the right of the road, and Colonel Byam, with his brave and eager Twenty-fourth Iowa, charged a battery of five guns on the left of the road, driving the enemy away, killing gunners and horses, and capturing several prisoners.
At this time General McGinnis requested me to permit him to take one section of the Sixteenth Ohio Battery, commanded by Captain Mitchell, up the hill. The section was taken up, and after fighting gallantly and firing 16 rounds was withdrawn, the danger of capture being imminent. Captain Mitchell, who fell during this attempt, will prove a great loss to his friends and country. First Lieutenant Murdock acted very gallantly during this affair, and deserves much praise for his coolness and bravery.
In the mean time the enemy, being rallied under cover of the woods, poured down the road in great numbers upon the position occupied by my forces. Seeing from the character of the ground that my division was likely to be severely pressed, as the enemy would not dare advance on the open ground before General McPherson, who had handled them roughly on the right, I ordered our captured guns to be sent down the hill. A short time afterward I received a request to send support to General McGinnis, on the right. At this time my whole division, including reserves, bad for more than one hour been actively engaged, and my only hope of support was from other commands. Brigadier-General Quinby’s division, commanded by General Crocker, was near at hand, and had not yet been under fire. I sent to them for support, but being unknown to the officers of that command, considerable delay (not less than half an hour) ensued, and I was compelled to resort to Major-General Grant to procure the order for their aid. Colonel Boomer, commanding Third Brigade, of Quinby’s division, on receiving the command from General Grant, came gallantly up the hill; Colonel Holmes, with two small regiments, Tenth Missouri and Seventeenth Iowa, soon followed. The entire force sent amounted to about 2,000 men.
My division in the mean time had been compelled to yield ground before overwhelming numbers. Slowly and stubbornly they fell back, contesting with death every inch of the field they had won. Colonel Boomer and Colonel Holmes gallantly and heroically rushed with their commands into the conflict, but the enemy had massed his forces, and slowly pressed our whole line with re-enforcements backward to a point near the brow of the hill. Here a stubborn stand was made. The irregularity of our line of battle had previously prevented me from using artillery in enfilading the enemy’s line, but as our forces were compelled to fall slowly back, the lines became marked and distinct, and about 2.30 p.m. I could easily perceive, by the sound of fire-arms through the woods, the position of the respective armies. I at once ordered the First Missouri Battery, commanded by Captain Schofield, and the Sixteenth Ohio Battery, under First Lieutenant Murdock, to take position in an open field, beyond a slight mound on my right, in advance of, and with parallel ranges of their guns with, my lines. About the same time Captain Dillon’s Wisconsin battery was put in position; two sections of the Sixteenth Ohio Battery on the left, the Wisconsin battery in the center, and Captain Schofield’s battery on the right. Through the rebel ranks these batteries hurled an incessant shower of shot and shell, entirely enfilading the rebel columns.
The fire was terrific for several minutes, and the cheers from our men on the brow of the hill told of the success. The enemy gave back, and our forces, under General McGinnis, Colonel Slack, Colonel Boomer, and Colonel Holmes, drove them again over the ground which had been hotly contested for the third time during the day, five more of the eleven guns not taken down the hill falling a second time into our possession.
I cannot think of this bloody hill without sadness and pride. Sadness for the great loss of my true and gallant men; pride for the heroic bravery they displayed. No prouder division ever met as vastly superior foe and fought with more unflinching firmness and stubborn valor. It was, after the conflict, literally the hill of death ; men, horses, cannon, and the debris of an army lay scattered in wild confusion. Hundreds of the gallant Twelfth Division were cold in death or writhing in pain, and, with large numbers of Quinby’s gallant boys, lay dead, dying, or wounded, intermixed with our fallen foe. Thus ended the battle of Champion’s Hill at about 3 p.m., and our heroes slept upon the field with the dead and dying around them.
I never saw fighting like this. The loss of my division, on this field alone, was nearly one-third of my forces engaged. Of the Twenty-ninth Wisconsin, Twenty-fourth and Twenty-eighth Iowa, in what words of praise shall I speak? Not more than six months in the service, their record will compare with the oldest and best tried regiments in the field. All honor is due to their gallant officers and men; and Colonels Gill, Byam, and Connell have my thanks for the skill with which they handled their respective commands, and for the fortitude, endurance, and bravery displayed by their gallant men.
It is useless to speak in praise of the Eleventh, Twenty-fourth, Thirty-fourth, Forty-sixth, and Forty-seventh Indiana and Fifty-sixth Ohio. They have won laurels on many fields, and not only their country will praise, but posterity be proud to claim kindred with the privates in their ranks. They have a history that Colonel Macauley, Colonel Spicely, Colonel Cameron, Colonel Bringhurst, Lieutenant-Colonel McLaughlin, and Colonel Raynor, and their children’s children will be proud to read.
My brigades could not have been managed with more consummate skill than they were by Brigadier-General McGinnis and Col. James R. Slack. Their services deserve the highest reward that a soldier can claim.
Report of Brigadier General Alvin P. Hovey, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume XXIV, Part 2
Hovey, an Indiana native and future governor of that state, had begun the war as Colonel of the 24th Indiana. Although all of Hovey’s infantry regiments had suffered high numbers of casualties, the 24th Indiana had the largest number of casualties of any Union regiment at the Battle of Champion Hill, with a total of 201 (27 killed, 166 wounded, 8 missing). When Hovey visited the 24th after the battle, he was visibly moved at the sight of the carnage his old unit had suffered.
Pemberton would fight a delaying action at Big Black River the next day, but Confederate forces were in full retreat to Vicksburg after failing to stop the Union army at Champion Hill. Grant’s army reached Vicksburg on May 18th, and Pemberton’s army was trapped. The city’s defenders held out for six weeks until surrendering on July 4th.
CHAMPION HILL: Decisive Battle for Vicksburg
by Timothy B. Smith
The Campaign for Vicksburg: Grant Strikes the Fatal Blow (volume 2)
by Edwin C. Bearss