February 4, 1864 (Thursday)
It was dawn and there was the sound of bugles to the east. Col. Edward Winslow peered through the dim, perhaps squinting, to see a thin gray line of enemy cavalry before him. To his left marched the two corps under James McPherson and Stephen Hurlbut, all on parallel roads and under the command of William Tecumseh Sherman. Together, they were finally advancing east from Vicksburg, Mississippi, through Jackson, and ultimately to Meridian.
Winslow, commanding four regiments of cavalry, was near the old battlefield at Champion Hill. The enemy troopers to this front were helmed by Wirt Adams, who had learned that Winslow’s brigade had left the main road to Jackson and sent two regiments to slow down the advance and keep the Federals away from his left. Working themselves between Adams’ main line and the advancing Yankees, the Confederates fired into the Union left flank before launching a charge that was quickly repulsed. Winslow continued, as the Rebels dogged his movements, picking off the Northern horsesoldiers when they could.
As Winslow delt with some of Adams’ men, McPherson handled the rest. Nearing Champion Hill on the road to Bolton, the Federal infantry spied Adams’ brigade accompanied by two pieces of artillery. Immediately, McPherson deployed two regiments in a heavy line of skirmishers, and an entire brigade in line of battle. With the rest of his command behind them, together they advanced.
Lucius W. Barber, who was on the skirmish line that day, remembered: “We advanced one mile uninterrupted and then came upon a brigade of Wirt Adams’ rebel cavalry. It was strongly posted in the woods across the open space in front of us. Without any delay, we opened fire upon them, which they returned. They being concealed in the woods had the advantage, but we had good backing and did not hesitate to attack them.”
McPherson rode to the front and took stock of the situation before him. But then an incredibly strange thing occurred. “Just at this time,” continued Barber, “a rebel officer mounted on a beautiful white charger rode out toward us. We were ordered not to fire, supposing him to be a bearer of dispatches. He rode up to within easy range, coolly drew his revolver and fired several shots at Col. Rogers who was on horseback, when wheeled his horse and fled. A perfect shower of bullets was sent after him, but strange to say, he escaped unhurt. His boldness insured his safety. We were petrified with astonishment.”
The mysterious figure was to have shouted “You may shoot, you damn Yankees, but you can’t hit me anyhow!”
As McPherson’s troops advanced, the enemy retired, but as they did, this Rebel on a white horse returned, waving his sword and apparently trying to rally the men. With a charge, the Confederates were dispersed, but the gallant Rebel regrouped his men and they made their stand against yet another charge, which again broke their lines.
Through this, Barber describes one of the sad happenings of war. “The rebs had taken a position just beyond a dwelling house where lived a widow with three small children. She came to the door to see what was going on when a ball struck her, killing her instantly. When our boys got there, they found her form rigid in death, lying in a pool of her own life’s blood. Her little children were clinging frantically to her, not realizing that she was dead. General Sherman caused a notice to be immediately posted on the house, specifying the manner of her death and ordering the premises to be held as sacred. I do not know from which side the shot was fired that killed her.”
For ten miles, McPherson drove the enemy, as the general recalled, “easily and steadily over a very broken country, with little loss on our side.” As the day wore on, Winslow’s Cavalry nipped at the Rebel flanks, making it nearly impossible for them to remain in line.
Just to the north, the Federals marching along the railroad with Stephen Hurlbut could hear the muffled bursts of cannon on their right. Aside from a few pickets, they had hardly a Rebel before them. But as they neared Bolton Depot, a full battery of enemy artillery, accompanied by a brigade of cavalry defended a position on the plantation belonging to President Jeff Davis’ brother.
Like McPherson, Hurlbut deployed skirmishers and a line of battle. And like McPherson, Hurlbut threw back the Rebels, both sides suffering light casualties as the day drew closer to dark.
All of Sherman’s men bivouacked before the close of day. As McPherson’s troops neared their own, Lucious Barber noted that they had not seen the mysterious Rebel on the white horse in the last charge they had made. However, a little later, they “found the white horse dead by the side of the road and the citizens said it was one that Wirt Adams rode, but whether the rider escaped uninjured, we could not tell.” In his own report, General Adams made no mention of losing a horse.
There was concern that the Confederates would burn the bridge east of Bolton when they finally made their own retreat across the span. If this was allowed to happen, the Federal advance would be slowed. But Winslow’s Cavalry stayed near to the retreating enemy, driving them by dark “across the creek east of Bolton, the bridge saved, and my [McPherson’s] command bivouacked near the junction of the Clinton, Bolton, and Raymond Roads.”
While his and Hurlbut’s Corps prepared for the night, McPherson could see that “they enemy occupied a good position on the hills on the east side of the creek, and everything indicated that they intended to contest the ground stubbornly.” Come first light, he was determined to test this.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 32, Part 1, p209, 239-240, 248-249, 372; Army Memoirs by Lucius W. Barber; Sherman’s Mississippi Campaign by Buck T. Foster. [↩]