Champion Hill – Surprise, Out Flank and Divide

May 16, 1863 (Saturday)

General Grant was roused from his slumber in Clinton, Mississippi by two men who worked for the Jackson & Vicksburg Railroad. His Army of the Tennessee had torched Jackson, the state capital, the day before and were now heading back east towards Vicksburg, following the line upon which these two gentlemen were employed. They told the Union commander that they had passed by General John Pemberton’s Confederate Army of Mississippi over the night and saw it moving east, toward Grant. They claimed it to be 25,000-strong.

Union artillery at Champion Hill.

Union artillery at Champion Hill.

The intelligence was, more or less, correct. Pemberton, with about 22,000, was heading east. But it wasn’t toward Grant’s Army. The idea had been to go south and get between Grant’s force, disrupting his supply line west to the Mississippi River. Unbeknown to Pemberton, however, Grant had abandoned his lines of communication in favor of living off the bounty of the land. Due to some missteps and a washed out bridge, the route taken by Pemberton’s Rebels forced them to double back upon the road to Jackson – the same road (one of three, actually) that Grant was taking west.

And so, this would be a meeting by chance. Grant believed he was moving towards Pemberton, while Pemberton believed he was moving south of Grant. That is, until the previous night when countless campfire appeared below the horizon like devilish reflected stars across the land.

Before them were three roads. The southernmost was the road to Raymond, named the Raymond Road. The northernmost, the road to Jackson, was the Jackson Road. While the road in the middle was so cleverly entitled the Middle Road. Just north of the Jackson Road was the rail line between Jackson and Vicksburg – the Jackson & Vicksburg Railroad.

The opposing forces were closest on the Raymond Road, which was where the fighting began between Confederate cavalry and troops from John McClernand’s XIII Corps (A.J. Smith’s Division). The battle escalated, drawing in Rebel infantry from William Wing Loring’s Division who had stopped for the night. Sounds of firing wafted upon the morning breezes, reaching Generals Loring and Pemberton around the same time an order from General Joe Johnston reached them.

Map of troops around 6am.

Map of troops around 6am.

Johnston had wished to unite their respective field commands somewhere well to the north. Pemberton had disregarded this idea, choosing instead to move south. Now, with Johnston’s reiteration, and the entire Union Army apparently about to swallow him whole, he decided it wasn’t such a bad idea after all. But because of the way he countermarched the previous day, his wagon train was at the front of the line. Aside from racing the already-engaged Loring to the front of the line to cover the wagons, there was nothing he could do. Though it was looking more and more like he was already in a battle, he wrote back to Johnston telling him that he’d now follow orders.

Meanwhile, the battle wasn’t simply going away, and Loring suggested that maybe, if it wasn’t too much trouble, they should deploy. Pemberton agreed, and Loring pushed a brigade forward, down the Raymond Road, the only road they knew for sure that the Federals were upon. After a bit of prodding from the Union artillery, Loring redeployed a bit to the west, giving ground, but finding a better ridge for defense.

Sketch by Col. Slack, 47th Indiana

Sketch by Col. Slack, 47th Indiana

Slightly to the north, General John Bowen also figured that the battle was upon them and deployed upon the Middle Road to meet it. And even more to the north, Carter Stevenson, farther away from the sounds of battle, followed Pemberton’s orders to send the wagon train west towards Edward’s Station, getting it out of the way in preparation of marching north to link up with Johnston.

This was all accomplished by 9:30am. But by that time, it was too late. Union Generals McClernand and McPherson were marching at east toward the Rebels upon the Jackson and Middle Roads. McClernand’s troops (Osterhaus’ Division) made first contact with some of Stevenson’s Rebels near the Confederate left.

The Rebel line stretched only as far north as the Middle Road, leaving the Jackson Road and the prominent Champion Hill farther north unoccupied. The Federals pushed Stevenson’s skirmishers until reaching the main line, which he attempted to break. Both sides fed reinforcements into the swirling caldera, but the Confederate line held.

Sketch by Lt. Henry Otis Dwight, 20th Ohio

Sketch by Lt. Henry Otis Dwight, 20th Ohio

With the Federal attacks stymied by around 10am, Pemberton thought it a fine time to break north and meet up with Johnston. This was, of course, a ridiculous idea, but mostly because Pemberton had no idea at all that a third Federal column was coming his way via the Jackson Road.

Ridiculous or not, Pemberton tried his best. Though he knew it would leave Vicksburg uncovered – something he was warned by Jefferson Davis himself not to do – General Johnston was his direct superior and finally decided to follow his orders, effectively ignoring Vicksburg to focus upon defeating Grant’s Army.

Carter Stevenson, being the farther north, would lead the way. Prior to setting out, however, he thought that it wasn’t such a crazy notion to toss out a few cavalry detachments to scout Jackson Road and the looming Champion Hill just to the north of it (Jackson Road actually ran west towards the hill before sweeping across its southern base). Stevenson’s cavalry spied a huge column of Union infantry coming fast down the Jackson Road and reported back.

Map of troops around 2pm.

Map of troops around 2pm.

This was no good at all. In their present position, Grant’s Army could basically bypass Pemberton’s force, too far to the south. The Rebels would be cut off not only from Johnston, but from Vicksburg as well. Stevenson’s brigades were quickly redeployed, pushing farther left, until they crested the hill as the Yankees moved ever closer.

Due to General Grant’s absence (he had decided to ride with William Tecumseh Sherman’s Corps, which was just now leaving Jackson), the original Union attack along the Raymond and Middle Roads stalled. Messages took too long to cross from Grant to McClernand, and the last one the latter received told him to use caution. The same was not true with McPherson’s men on Jackson Road – the Union right.

McPherson’s attacks upon the hill were broken up not only by Stevenson’s Confederates, but by the uneven ground, scattered with ravines and thick woodlots. But the Rebel line atop Champion Hill had a flaw. The left flank was anchored to nothing, simply dangling in the open. Stevenson noticed it too and quickly added more troops, just as McPherson’s Federals began their assault.

may16champ

Again stalled, the Federals regrouped and General McPherson ordered an all out assault with his two divisions at hand (Logan and Hovey) upon Champion Hill. They came like scream gales, nearly ignoring the uneven ground, sweeping up the slopes and dashing themselves against the Rebel defenses.

Overwhelmed, Stevenson’s Rebels could not stand. They broke, racing down the slopes of Champion Hill, reforming along the Jackson Road as it wound its way along the southern slope. His left now rested upon the junction of the Jackson and Middle Roads, his line running west to Baker’s Creek. But this was no line of defense. The Federals, with the momentum of rushing downhill, smashed into their lines, crushing them, and with them, the Confederate left.

The rout placed a huge gap between Pemberton’s left and the rest of his line at a time when Grant arrived upon the battlefield and began urging McClernand’s men forward, pinning down both Loring and Bowen’s Rebels. Nevertheless, Pemberton, who was beginning to lose control of not only the battle, but of hid disposition as well, insisted that Bowen throw troops to plug the gap on the left.

Champion Hill

Champion Hill

Surprisingly, this push turned into an all out charge of Bowen’s entire division, which devastated the Federals before them and stormed up Champion Hill. They recaptured the crest and sent the Yankees running for nearly a mile, splitting the Federal lines. The cost was dear in both men and ammunition, and the latter was in short supply. With the wagon train sent far to the rear by Pemberton, Bowen had little hope at all of being resupplied.

As Pemberton, Stevenson and Bowen tried to find addition regiments to bolster their success, the Federals regrouped and counterattacked. With only a few more regiments, thought Pemberton, the line could hold. He raced to find Loring on the far right and force him to help. But Loring had problems of his own. Grant’s renewal of McClernand’s attack was keeping him busy. As Bowen’s troops moved to the left, he had to spread out. Though Pemberton never found him, Loring was able to break off and head even farther north, reforming his line at the base of Champion Hill. He was even able to rally some of Stevenson’s men.

Back atop Champion Hill, the Union counterattack was pushing Bowen’s and whatever was left of Stevenson’s Divisions back down the slopes. Seeing he was beaten, Bowen ordered a retreat, which naturally turned into a stampede. It was then Pemberton issued the order for a general retreat back to Edward’s Station. General Loring would provide cover.

Unable to use the Jackson Road, since the Federals controlled it once again, Pemberton was forced to use the Raymond Road, crossing Baker’s Creek into Edward’s Station. The battle slowed to what amounted to an artillery duel, with Loring’s guns keeping the Federal guns busy. Grant sent some of McClernand’s Corps in pursuit, but most of his men were exhausted.

Approximate Map of positions at the end of the day.

Approximate Map of positions at the end of the day.

By nightfall, the retreating Rebels returned to Edward’s, but were not organized enough to hold it, and fell back to the railroad bridge across the Big Black River. So quick was the retreat that Loring was unable to keep up. And so swift was the Federal pursuit, that he was cut off. Seeing Edward’s Station ablaze, he had no way of reaching Big Black River Bridge. After a council of war, he decided to give up trying to reunite with Pemberton’s other two divisions and make haste for General Johnston’s forces somewhere to the north.

The day’s fighting was over, but from all indications, it would continue the following day. Still, Grant lost 410 killed, 1,844 wounded, and 187 missing. Though the Confederate figures were vague, Pemberton reported his losses at 381 killed, 1,018 wounded, and 2,441 missing.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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