Major General Frederick Steele’s Division In the Assault on Vicksburg May 22nd, 1863
As his army began to arrive at Vicksburg, Mississippi on May 18th, 1863, Major General Ulysses S. Grant decided to attack the city’s defenses immediately. Grant believed that the Confederates were demoralized by recent defeats at the Battles of Champion Hill and Big Black River Bridge and believed he could successfully take the city if he attacked before the Rebels could reorganize and set up an effective defense. Grant attacked on May 19th, even before all his own troops had arrived. Most of the attack was undertaken by Major General William T. Sherman’s 15th Corps and ended in failure. The Confederate defenses were well constructed and formidable, and the Rebels themselves had plenty of fight left in them.
Grant decided to attack one more time after all his troops had arrived. This time, the assault would involve three army corps—the 13th, 15th, and 17th—attacking along a three mile front. Sherman’s 15th Corps was on the right flank on the north of the Union line that curved around to the east and then south. The attack was set to begin at 10 a.m. on May 22nd.
Major General Frederick Steele commanded the 1st Division of Sherman’s three division corps. The 1st Brigade of the division was under the command of Colonel Francis H. Manter and consisted of the 13th Illinois and the 27th, 29th, 30th, 31st, and 32nd Missouri Infantry regiments. The 2nd Brigade under Colonel Charles R. Woods, included the 25th and 31st Iowa, the 3rd, 12th, and 17th Missouri, and 76th Ohio Infantry regiments. The 3rd Brigade was an all Iowa outfit, with the 4th, 9th, 26th, and 30th Iowa infantry regiments, under the command of Brigadier General John M. Thayer. Three six gun batteries of artillery completed the roster. Steele’s division was deployed on the right flank of Sherman’s corps, extending to the Mississippi River.
The division had difficulty maneuvering into position due to rough terrain, and it wasn’t ready to attack until four o’clock in the afternoon. Leading the assault were three of Thayer’s
regiments arrayed in a line (the 4th Iowa was deployed in support of an artillery battery) with Wood’s 2nd Brigade (except for the 25th Iowa, deployed as sharpshooters) lined up in a column behind Thayer. Manter’s brigade was held in reserve behind Wood’s column.
Steele gave the order to advance at four o’clock and Thayer’s brigade moved forward, followed by Woods’. Opposing them were Louisiana and Mississippi troops under Brigadier General William E. Baldwin. The Confederates were in a strong position, on a ridge that topped out over a hundred feet high above the Federals, with steep sides that hindered any attempt to storm the works. To get there, the Federals had to advance in the open over difficult ground full of ravines and downed trees, and under heavy fire.
Thayer’s three regiments were slowed trying to climb up the slope, and while some men made it to the ditch at the foot of the Rebel works, that was the extent of the advance. Three of Woods’ regiments were pinned down by heavy fire, unable to advance further, and only four companies of the 12th Missouri were able to make it to the foot of the works. (The 25th Iowa began the advance, but was later deployed to help cover the assault). The Missourians went into position on the right of Thayer’s men.
None of Steele’s troops were able to break through into the Rebel works. Realizing that the assault had been stopped, Steele did not order Manter’s reserve brigade forward and ordered his division to retire. Those who were in the ditch or other locations close to the Rebel works withdrew after dark.
Colonel Woods described his brigade’s fighting in the assault of May 22nd in this excerpt from one of his reports on the Vicksburg Campaign:
Owing to the difficulty of moving my brigade so as to prevent the enemy from seeing our movements; several hours were consumed in reaching our position, and having reached the rear of the position where the charge was to be made, it was necessary to press over several pieces of open ground within close range of the enemy’s rifle-pits, part of the road being swept by artillery. Fifty or sixty men and officers were killed and wounded in gaining our position. The Twenty-fifth Iowa, Colonel Stone commanding, being in the advance, suffered severely, but as soon as it gained the ravine one wing was thrown forward as skirmishers, and succeeded in a great measure in keeping down the fire of the enemy.
In the mean time, however, the Twelfth Missouri crossed into the ravine, and lost heavily in killed and wounded. The other regiments lost but few. So soon as the troops could be got in position, the charge was ordered, the Twelfth Missouri leading, preceded by the Third Brigade in line. The ground being broken and obstructed by ravines, brush, and logs, it was impossible to move forward with any regularity. The Twelfth Missouri, Col. Hugo Wangelin commanding, moved forward over the crest of the hill in gallant style, exposed to a withering fire, but were repulsed before the other regiments of the brigade could reach the top of the hill. The four right companies, having more favorable ground to move upon, reached a covered position near the foot of the enemy’s breastworks, and were obliged to remain until dark before they could be recalled. Company F, on the left wing, had all but 9 men killed and wounded. The regiment went into the charge about 300 strong, and lost 11 officers and 97 men killed and wounded during the day. The Twenty-fifth Iowa, deployed as skirmishers, did good execution and lost severely. Inclosed I send a consolidated list of killed and wounded, taken from the regimental reports up to the 25th instant. It is due to the men of this brigade to say that during all the hardships of the long and tedious march from Grand Gulf to Jackson, and thence to our position in rear of Vicksburg, they were cheerful, and did their duty well, although a great portion of the time they were without rations, and had to live on meat alone, as a considerable portion of the hard bread issued on the road proved to be moldy and unfit to eat. The officers and men, during all the skirmishes on which they have been engaged, have done their duty well and faithfully, and deserve the highest praise.
I have to regret the loss of Major Lightfoot, Twelfth Missouri, killed in the charge of the 22d, whilst gallantly leading his men into action. Major Lightfoot was a gentleman of high attainments, and a brave, gallant, and faithful officer. Captain Denny, Captain Andel, Adjutant Kasten, and Lieutenant Eggart, of the same regiment, all brave and gallant men, fell whilst in the discharge of their duty.
Woods’ brigade’s losses were listed as 37 killed, 145 wounded, and eight missing. Of those, 26 of the killed and 82 of the wounded were from the 12th Missouri. Wood’s brigade had the highest
casualty total of the 15th Corps brigades in the May 22nd assault. Thayer’s brigade had 35 killed, 119 wounded and one missing, which was the next highest number of casualties in the 15th Corps in the assault. The 9th Iowa had the highest number of casualties in Thayer’s command with 18 killed and 60 wounded, including the regiment’s commander, Captain F.S. Washburn. Colonel C. H. Abbott, commanding the 30th Iowa, was one of 13 killed in that regiment.
The assaults of May 22nd ended in failure, and Grant decided to begin siege operations. Vicksburg finally surrendered to U.S. forces on July 4th, 1863.
The Campaign for Vicksburg, Volume III by Edwin C. Bearss
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume XXIV, Part 2.
The Union Assaults at Vicksburg: Grant Attacks Pemberton, May 17–22, 1863 by Timothy B. Smith
The Vicksburg Campaign April 1862-July 1863 by David Martin
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