Brigadier General Michael K. Lawler’s Brigade at the Battle of Big Black River Bridge

Following the Union victory at the Battle of Champion Hill, Mississippi on May 16th, 1863, Confederate forces retreated west towards Vicksburg, reaching the Big Black River that night.

Gen. John S. Bowen, CSA

Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton, commander of the Confederate army defending Vicksburg, ordered Brigadier General John S. Bowen and his two brigade division of Missouri and Arkansas troops to set up a defense of the Big Black River Bridge on the east side of the river. Bowen was to be assisted in the defense of this large railroad bridge by Brigadier General John C. Vaughn’s brigade of three regiments, the 60th, 61st, and 62nd Tennessee Infantries. A river steamboat had been anchored to act as a floating bridge for a road that stopped at a ferry crossing on the river, allowing for more troops and equipment to cross.

Pemberton had no illusions that three brigades totaling about 5000 men could hold off Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s entire army for any length of time. He wanted to ensure that Major General William L. Loring’s Division, which had not yet crossed the river and was presumably on its way and nearby, could safely make it across. The bridge and riverboat bridge would then be burned to give Confederate forces a little more time to set up defenses in Vicksburg itself.

Pemberton, however, was unaware that instead of being on the way to the Big Black River Bridge, Loring was marching in the other direction to join up with another Confederate army under the command of General Joseph E. Johnston near Jackson, Mississippi. Bowen set up his defenses and waited for the never to arrive Loring.

Gen. John A. McClernand

Early in the morning of May 17th, the Union 13th Corps under Major General John McClernand, and with Grant accompanying it, began arriving on the scene. McClernand deployed Brigadier General Peter Osterhaus’ division on the left, opposing a brigade of Missourians under Colonel Francis M. Cockrell, with open ground between the two lines. It seemed to be the best location for an assault; McClernand also sent a brigade commanded by Brigadier General Stephen C. Burbidge to cover Osterhaus’ flank and extend the line. The two brigade division of Brigadier General Eugene Carr was deployed on the right, extending through a wooded area to the Big Black River, which curved and flowed east to west at that location. Confederate defenders opposite Carr included Brigadier General Martin Green’s Arkansas and Missouri infantrymen and cavalry (dismounted) on the Rebel left extending to the river, with Vaughn’s Tennesseans to Green’s right.

Map of Battlefield of Big Black River Bridge

Carr’s 2nd Brigade, under the command of Brigadier General Michael K. Lawler, was on the far right of the Union line, in wooded terrain and closest to the river. Lawler’s brigade consisted of the 21st, 22nd, and 23rd Iowa Infantries, as well as the 11th Wisconsin. Lawler moved to the edge of the woods within 400 yards of the Confederate works. There was a natural trench in the form of an old river channel that ran roughly parallel with the river that was large enough to provide cover for the entire brigade, and after rushing across a small cleared area, Lawler positioned his command in the old channel. The brigade was now even closer to the Confederate works. Colonel William Kinsman, commanding the 23rd Iowa Infantry, asked permission for his regiment to assault the enemy line. Lawler felt the Rebel defenses were too strong for a single regiment to take on by itself, but the idea had merit. On his own initiative, Lawler decided to quickly attack with his entire brigade. Three artillery pieces from the 1st Wisconsin and 2nd Illinois Light Artillery were placed into position, and the 49th and 69th Indiana infantries of Osterhaus’ division were given the task of skirmishing with the Confederates to keep them occupied while the brigade got ready to attack.

Lawler formed his brigade, not in a long line of battle, but compactly in two columns, with the 21st Iowa on the left and 23rd Iowa on the right. The 22nd Iowa backed up the 21st, and the 11th Wisconsin was behind the 23rd. Lawler ordered his men forward. With fixed bayonets, the brigade charged out of its natural trench obliquely across the Rebel front, past Green’s troops and headed for Vaughn’s part of the line. Green’s troops were taken by surprise but managed to fire some shots at the Union flank as the brigade charged past. Lawler’s troops then hit the Rebel works where Vaughn’s brigade was deployed. The Tennesseans, many of whom were conscripts from loyal areas of Eastern Tennessee, immediately abandoned the line and ran for the bridges. The two Indiana regiments joined the assault, while the Federal artillery shelled  Green’s Confederates on the Rebel left. It had taken just three minutes for Lawler’s assault to breach the Confederate line.

Battle of Big Black River from Harper’s Weekly

With the center of the Rebel line gone, Green was in danger of getting cut off from the bridges and trapped with his back to the river; he ordered his men to retreat. South of the railroad tracks, Colonel Cockrell’s Missourians saw the collapse of the Confederate line to the north, and  the Colonel ordered his brigade to retreat to the bridges as well. Osterhaus ordered his men forward and were nearly unopposed in what was to have been the main Federal assault, capturing the Rebel works that had been abandoned by Cockrell.

Many of the Confederates crossed the bridges; others swam across the river to escape. The Union victory had been so sudden and so complete that a pursuit wasn’t immediately organized, giving the Rebels time to set both bridges on fire and destroy them before the Federals could cross the river.

Confederate loss numbers weren’t completely verified, but included only a few killed and wounded. The Rebels did have some 1700 or so captured, as well as 1400 small arms, 1500 rounds of artillery ordnance, and 18 cannon. Federal losses in the 13th Corps were 39 killed, 237 wounded, and three missing or captured. Most of these casualties–27 killed, 194 wounded– were in Lawler’s brigade. This included the 23rd Iowa’s Colonel Kinsman, who had suggested the attack. He was killed while leading his regiment.

Lawler included this account of the Battle of Big Black River Bridge in his official report covering his brigade’s action during May 2nd-22nd in the Vicksburg Campaign:

During the greater part of the forenoon heavy but ineffectual musketry firing was kept up by the enemy upon my men, briskly responded to by our sharpshooters. Late in the forenoon, finding it impossible to press farther forward along the river bank toward the enemy, as I had intended, Colonel Kinsman, Twenty-third Iowa Volunteers, proposed to charge at once the enemy’s works and drive them out at the point of the bayonet, and asked my consent to the same.

Brig. Gen Michael Lawler

Foreseeing that a charge by a single regiment, unsustained by the whole line, against fortifications as formidable as those in his front, could hardly be successful, at the same time I gave my consent to his daring proposition I determined that there should be a simultaneous movement on the part of my whole command. Accordingly, the Twenty-first Iowa Volunteers, Colonel Merrill, was ordered to charge with the Twenty-third, the Eleventh Wisconsin Volunteers following close upon them as a support, and the Twenty-second Iowa, Col. William M. Stone–which had in the mean time crossed the field and taken position on the river bank on the right of the Eleventh Wisconsin–were ordered to move out into the field and act as a reserve force. Two guns of the Peoria Battery and one 20-pounder Parrott, belonging to the First Wisconsin Battery, were in position in the field, actively at work upon the enemy and doing good service. In addition, orders had been sent to the Forty-ninth and Sixty-ninth Indiana Volunteers–two regiments which had been sent from Osterhaus’ division to my support early in the forenoon–to send forward at once two companies as skirmishers to attract the attention of the enemy from the movement on the right, and as soon as the charge should be commenced to move promptly forward to its support. Orders were further given that the men should reserve their fire until upon the rebel works.

Finally the regiments that were to lead the charge were formed, with bayonets fixed, in the edge of the woods on the river bank. All things being in readiness, the command “forward” was given by Colonel Kinsman, and at once his noble regiment sprang forward to the works. The Twenty-first, led on by Colonel Merrill, moved at the same instant, the Eleventh Wisconsin, Colonel Harris, closely following. Through a terrible fire of musketry from the enemy in front and a galling fire from his sharpshooters on the right, these brave men dashed bravely on.

Kinsman fell, dangerously wounded, before half the distance was accomplished. Struggling to his feet, he staggered a few paces to the front, cheered forward his men, and fell again, this time to rise no more, pierced through by a second ball.

Colonel Merrill, the brave commander of the Twenty-first Iowa, fell, wounded early in the charge: while gallantly leading his regiment against the enemy.

Immediately Lieutenant-Colonel Glasgow placed himself at the head of the Twenty-third, and Major Van Anda led on the Twenty-first. Undismayed by the loss of their colonels, and by the perfect hailstorm of bullets poured into them with destructive effect, the men of the Twenty-third and Twenty-first Iowa and the Eleventh Wisconsin Volunteers pressed onward, nearer and nearer, to the rebel works, over the open field, 500 yards, under a wasting fire, and up to the edge of the bayou. Halting here only long enough to pour into the enemy a deadly volley, they dashed forward through the bayou, filled with water, fallen timber, and brush, on to the rebel works with the shout of victors, driving the enemy in with confusion from their breastworks and rifle-pits, and entering in triumph the rebel stronghold.

Hurrying forward the Forty-ninth and Sixty-ninth Indiana and Twenty-second Iowa Volunteers, I sent the two Indiana regiments to the support of my left, and ordered the Iowa

Col William Stone 22nd Iowa Infantry

regiment to move against the extreme left of the enemy’s works, where they, several hundred strong, still held out, while the Eleventh Wisconsin Volunteers was directed to occupy the ground between the enemy and the bridge, and thus cut off their retreat. The movement was successful. The rebels broke and fled before the Twenty-second Iowa, and fell an easy prey into the hands of the Eleventh Wisconsin Volunteers. Those of the rebels who were not captured hastened to make good their retreat over the bridge. As the result of this successful charge, we may with justice claim that it gave our army entire possession of the enemy’s extended lines of works, and with them their field artillery (eighteen pieces in all), a large quantity of ammunition, thousands of small-arms, and 3,000 prisoners.

By our brigade were captured 1,460 small-arms, several hundred accouterments, chiefly collected by the Eleventh Wisconsin Volunteers, 1,120 prisoners, and 4 stand of colors.

 

Big Black River Bridge After it was Burned

The burning of the Big Black River Bridge caused only a momentary pause in the Federal advance on Vicksburg. McClernand built an improvised bridge, while engineers with Major Generals William T. Sherman and James McPherson’s Corps constructed bridges at two other nearby locations on the Big Black. By 8:00 a.m. on the 18th, the bridges were complete and all three corps resumed the advance to Vicksburg, with leading elements of the Federal army arriving later in the day.

Vicksburg Campaign, National Park Service Map

Sources:

The Campaign for Vicksburg Volume II by Edwin Cole Bearss

The Defense of Vicksburg by S. H. Lockett. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume III, edited by Robert U. Johnson and Clarence C. Buel

The Military History of Wisconsin in the War for the Union by E.B. Quiner

Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume XXIV, Part 2

Reminiscences of the Twenty-Second Iowa Volunteer Infantry by S.C. Jones

Staff Ride Handbook for the Vicksburg Campaign, December 1862-July 1863 by Christopher R. Gabel

The Twenty-First Regiment of Iowa Volunteer Infantry: A Narrative of its Experience in Active Service By George Crooke

The Vicksburg Campaign by Ulysses S. Grant. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume III, edited by Robert U. Johnson and Clarence C. Buel


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