Big Black River Bridge – Pemberton’s Last Stand

May 17, 1863 (Sunday)

Pemberton waits....
Pemberton waits….

General John C. Pemberton waited through the night, as Edward’s Station burned upon the eastern horizon, like some hellish perpetual sunrise. With his back to the Big Black River, fifteen miles from Vicksburg, he waited for General William Loring’s Division, which had been acting as his rear guard following the retreat from the previous day’s battle at Champion Hill.

The absence of Loring’s Division left Pemberton with two divisions in the field – one under Carter Stevenson, the other under John Bowen. Stevenson’s Division had been mauled in the previous day’s battle and was quickly being marched across the railroad bridge to the western bank. The river steamer Dot was also used as a span, her body turned sideways, with bow on one shore and stern on the other.

On the eastern banks, General Bowen was in command of the defenses, manned by about 5,000 Confederates. Situated in a concaved bend in the river, their left was anchored against the river itself, while their right held close to a lake. The defenses were good, but against General Grant’s 35,000-strong Army of the Tennessee, it was only a question of time.

Following the previous day’s battle, Grant’s Army did not really pursue until morning, and after a good night’s rest. Only two of Grant’s three corps had fought at Champion Hill (John McClernand’s and James McPherson’s). The other, under William Tecumseh Sherman, had arrived later in the night following the sacking of Jackson, Mississippi’s state capital.

Today's approximate map might come in handy.
Today’s approximate map might come in handy.

Grant’s only fear was that Pemberton would slip north and unite with the gathering forces under Joe Johnston, now some fifteen miles northwest of Jackson. This had been the Confederate plan all along, he believed, and so sent Sherman’s Corps on a northerly road to Bridgeport, several miles upstream, but nearly due west of Pemberton’s position at the railroad crossing. Sherman was to cross the river and continue west, placing himself upon any road that the Rebels might use to link.

Of the two corps that fought, McPherson’s, was still upon the battlefield, performing the grisly tasks so necessary after such a struggle. By the end of the day, they would be just west of Edward’s Station, a few miles distant. John McClernand’s Corps moved forward in the pre-dawn, determined to smash the Rebel defenses and capture Big Black River Bridge before it was destroyed by the retreating foe.

General Bowen, commanding the Rebel entrenchments, was mostly worried about his flanks. His center was tight and held by artillery, but his flanks were weak. In truth, his whole line was weak. Morale was gone. The center of his line was held mostly by Eastern Tennessee troops who had been conscripted. Their loyalties to the Southern cause weren’t even strong enough for them to voluntarily enlist. The fighting and retreating over the past couple of weeks had done them in. Many of Bowen’s officers, though true to the cause, were furious with Pemberton and his inability to properly command an army in the field. If Bowen was honest with himself, his division was beaten even before McClernand’s Federals arrived.

Union attack at Big Black River Bridge.
Union attack at Big Black River Bridge.

But arrive they did, and immediately attacked the center. Deploying one division, under Eugene Carr, across the rail line. McClernand threw them forward. When the other division, under Peter Osterhaus, came up, they were placed south of the rails, as Carr shifted right to cover his own flank.

As the artillery bellowed, a shell hit General Osterhaus in the leg. Wounded, he was taken to the rear and General Albert Lee, previously a brigade commander, took over. McClernand, and now Grant, who had come up to join him, could see that Bowen’s lines, though manned with few men, were strong, especially the center. They began to focus upon the Confederate left, abutted against the river.

Before this flank was a depression in the ground that could effectively hide an entire brigade. While McClernand added more troops to his line, the brigade under Mike Lawler was sent speeding across the field, under the heavy fire of Rebel artillery, to reach this depression. From there, Lawler and his men from Iowa and Wisconsin, would pour a nasty fire almost perpendicular to the Rebel lines. Soon, artillery was placed and all was ready – with the Rebels being none the wiser.

Without any more notice than the hoarsely yelled order to charge, they came, bayonets fixed and screaming like blue demons, smashing the weak Confederate left and rolling towards the center like an unfaltering wave. The Rebels broke, running for the bridge, while some of their number jumped into the swift current of the Big Black, drowning in their panic. When the rest of the Rebel line saw they were flanked, it was every man for himself. The Confederate trenches emptied, even where Union attacks were weak or nonexistent.

The remains of the Big Black River Bridge.
The remains of the Big Black River Bridge.

On the western side, two of Stevenson’s brigades guarded the crossing, acting as a rear guard, as the chaotic mob that was one Bowen’s Division, frantically clawed its way across the river. Before all of the Confederates were on the western bank, the wooden railroad bridge, which had been soaked in turpentine, was set to the torch. The otherwise innocent Dot met the same fate. Any man abandoned had to swim across. There was defeat and death, but the path Federal path to Vicksburg had been cut off.

In his continuing worry that Pemberton might turn north to link up with Johnston, Grant ordered McPherson’s Corps, still at Edward’s, to cross upriver at Amsterdam, while Sherman crossed farther up at Bridgeport. The next day, Grant would suss out Pemberton’s intentions and do whatever was needed to keep him from reaching Johnston.

John Pemberton gave up waiting for General Loring’s Division, which was, by this time, moving east toward the capital of Jackson to join with Johnston. Rumors incorrectly had it that Loring was crossing somewhere south of the now destroyed bridge.

McClernand’s men lost 39 killed, 237 wounded, and 3 missing. Though the Rebel figures were never reported, Federals tallied 1,751 Confederate prisoners and 18 guns from Bowen’s artillery.1



  1. Pemberton, Defender of Vicksburg by John C. Pemberton (not the same guy); Joseph E. Johnston by Craig L. Symonds; Personal Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant; Vicksburg by Michael Ballard; Nothing But Victory by Steven E. Woodworth. []
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4 thoughts on “Big Black River Bridge – Pemberton’s Last Stand

  1. You know, reading all this makes me think. The confederates had so many opportunities (many courtesy of federal shortcomings such as generals in the east) to gain some lasting succes, but it seems each of those were bungled away by the likes of Pemberton and company. To be fair, the odds were always against them, but if that is so, you must take opportunities whenever they arrive.

    Here, as in the future during Sherman’s campaign towards the sea, the confederates spread out and failed to timely unite their forces allowing them to be driven back and defeated one by one.

    1. Too true. The Confederate “strategy” was to hold as much ground as possible. Davis was big on this, and even when generals like Joe Johnston wanted to concentrate armies and give up territory to focus on something more important, they were thwarted at every step by their President. The more I study this, the more I feel that Davis really stood in the way of Confederate victory. Sure, there were other factors, including bumbling generals, but Davis’ lack of awareness seemed to spell their doom.

  2. Sir:

    Not all East Tennessee Confederates were conscripts! I had five Confederate ancestors there during this campaign. None were conscripts!

    Check it out, I am positive the 43rd Tennessee, in which I had two uncles, burned the bridge at Big Black River.

    Thank you!

    Namuni

    1. True. Not all East Tennessee Confederates were conscripted. I didn’t say they were. What I said was:

      “The center of his line was held mostly by Eastern Tennessee troops who had been conscripted.”

      The Tennessee troops who were holding the line were mostly conscripts.

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