December 27, 1862 (Saturday)
The Confederate position along Walnut Hill north of Vicksburg, Mississippi was beautifully constructed. Mostly, this was due to Stephen Lee, the man who, nearly two years before, delivered the ultimatum to Major Robert Anderson, demanding the surrender of Fort Sumter. That all seemed eons distant. Lee had been with the Army of Northern Virginia through the Peninsula and Seven Days battles, serving as an artillery commander during Second Bull Run and Antietam.
He was now in charge of a provisional division of troops thrown together to defend Vicksburg from William Tecumseh Sherman’s Federal Corps, which had arrived the previous day.
Lee’s Confederates were arrayed on a hill thrown off from the Yazoo River. This anchored his left flank on said river, while his right was buttressed by a stream and a whole mess of artillery.
The ground to his front had been overgrown and wooded. Prior to Sherman’s landing, Lee had the entire area cleared. This left any assailants without cover, leaving them unforgivingly vulnerable to a wide variety of weaponry.
Not only was the ground open, but it was dotted with swamps and crossed by streams, making any advance a very slow affair.
And on this date, Sherman was quickly figuring that out.
The Federal plan was born out of necessity. The Rebels had left them with scant few choices. Each of his four divisions had a route and objective. Starting from the plantation where they were encamped, the division under George Morgan was to be the Union left. Morgan was to lead his men along the Chickasaw Bayou, somewhat north of the Confederate position and fall upon the Rebel right flank.
Morgan had no real idea where the Confederate line actually was. From his position, he was unable to see it. He cautiously marched his men in an easterly direction until he came under fire around the house of a Mrs. Lake.
The resistance wasn’t much and soon the Rebels were in retreat. But it was enough time to warn Lee that an attack was coming. The retreat wasn’t a full on rout, however. The Rebels took up a new position not too far away.
On Morgan’s right, a Union brigade, Frank Blair was just coming up when Morgan came under fire. To the Rebels defending the Lake property, Morgan came from the north and Blair came from the west. Still another division, this one commanded by Morgan Smith, was following Blair. The advance handful of Rebel regiments wavered, but held three whole Federal divisions in check until nightfall.
They had bought Vicksburg at least a day, making things seem much less grim. Though their defensive position was a fine one, they still had too few soldiers in the ranks. Sherman was attacking with 31,000. The extra day meant that Rebel reinforcements from John Pemberton’s army near Grenada, 130 miles northeast, would make it on time.
Two Confederate brigades did arrive after nightfall. Lee through one into line and kept the other in reserve. This brought his total to nearly 14,000. It was still less than half of what Sherman had, but now he had a chance.
The rest of Sherman’s Corps arrived as well, but due to Confederate sharpshooters, leaving the transports became a very deadly event. Sherman was quickly realizing that taking Vicksburg would be no picnic. By the dawn, he would see only two narrow passages that he could use to attack. Still, he felt confident (or perhaps simply defiant) that he could do it.1
- Sources: Vicksburg by Michael B. Ballard; Vicksburg is the Key by Willaim L. Shea & Terrence J. Winschel; Memoirs by William Tecumseh Sherman. [↩]