February 5, 1864 (Friday)
William Wirt Adams rose before dawn – if he had slept at all – and peered over the small valley cradling Baker’s Creek. Before the war, he had battled Natives and dabbled in politics, finding his knack in both. As the states were seceding, he became instrumental in wresting Louisiana from the Union. President Davis had offered him a position in his Cabinet, but Adams declined, opting instead to raise a regiment of his own. That was three years ago, and now here they were, a full brigade, but far too small to hold off 25,000 Yankees under William Tecumseh Sherman, slashing and burning their way east from Vicksburg.
Baker’s Creek, a small tributary to the Big Black River, wound its way west, crossing the road to Jackson and the parallel railroad just north several times before passing through the blighted scene of Champion’s Hill. Where it crossed the Jackson Road east of Bolton, there was a bridge. Adams had wanted to destroy the bridge the previous evening, but was driven hard by Northern cavalry and it was impossible. By dark, the Federals held it and all he could do through the night was silently watch as thousands of campfires flickered beyond the flow.
Able to see the bridge in the pre-dawn, Adams ordered an artillery captain to train his rifled pieces on the span. He placed two dismounted regiments on either side to contest the crossing. The remaining two units were held in reserve, one mounted, the other not.
But nothing worked. The two rifled guns fired and hit their marks, but there were simply too many. The Yankees quickly crossed and deployed into a line of battle on the eastern side of Baker’s Creek. Adams kept up as rapid an artillery fire as he could, “offering the most determined and stubborn resistance,” his gunners, “maintaining their position to the last moment.”
He probably never entertained the idea of holding back the entire Federal force for the entire day, but perhaps he could slow them enough to allow General Samuel French’s infantry brigade at the state capital, Jackson, to come up. Maybe even William Loring’s troops could descend from Canton to the north. Maybe they could hold Jackson. Maybe that was all the farther east the Federals would move. All he knew for sure was that he had to retreat to Clinton, and maybe just past it.
But Adams wasn’t the only Confederate cavalry in the area. A brigade under Col. Peter Starke had been skirmishing with lead elements of a second Federal column on the road just north of the railroad. As the sun rose, so too did the fighting. Starke fed in another regiment, and then another, until they were forced back upon his main line, nearer to the town of Clinton. Now, with four regiments ready to receive, the Federals stabbed forward in a general attack.
By this time, a bit before noon, Adams too had taken a position before Clinton, where the two parallel roads met. Here, the two commands must meet as well, and the more they retired toward Clinton, the closer they became until Adams could see Starke and Starke could see Adams.
And as the Rebels drew closer, so too did the columns of Federals until the right column’s artillery aided the left’s, firing into the flank of General Starke’s command. It was then decided that Clinton could not be held, but that both Confederate brigades could not retire at once. Starke moved first, passing his artillery and then his troopers through the streets. He took up a position two miles east of the town and waited for Adams.
General Adams, left to defend himself against both Federal columns, backed himself up to the town and clung for life. Fortunately, a lull fell across the fields as the Federals apparently conducted some sort of reconnaissance. During this time, a column of Union infantry broke off and circled around Adams’ right, reappearing two miles in his rear. Then came the artillery and then infantry, and the lull was broken.
“Advancing a 6-gun battery at the same time with a strong infantry support to a commanding elevation on my front and left, and two 20-pounder Parrotts in my front, he opened a rapid and vigorous fire of artillery, pushing forward at the same time a strong line of skirmishers under cover of a wood from the column moving past my right. As the enemy showed no inclination to advance in my front, and my artillery was seriously endangered by the column turning my position, I ordered the artillery and supports to withdraw, following with the remainder of the command.”
Adams’ rear guard was mauled by the attacking enemy, and nearly surrounded. He tried to send a regiment to reinforce it, but there was little that could be done. They escaped, but only at a price, moving as they could toward the embattlements west of Jackson.
A portion of the infantry division under Samuel French had held Jackson, and was determined to save it. Around 1am the night previous, French sent a message to William Loring in Canton, detailing the situation. All he could muster would be 1,400 men. Any help that Loring could give could not come quickly enough. Loring had immediately replied, promising to move his command at daylight. By 10am, French had not heard more from Loring, but was able to gather 2,200 to his cause, though no artillery could be found.
Commanding Adams and Starke, General S.D. Lee had arrived in the early afternoon, a sort of vanguard to his two other brigade, now hovering northwest of Jackson. He decided to move both back toward the city, while covering Canton, where Loring’s Division had been encamped, with a brigade. He wished for both French and Loring to cross to the eastern bank of the Pearl River, running just east of the city, while he played hell on the Federal rear.
Around noon, as both Starke and Adams were in retreat, General Leonidas Polk wired in from Mobile, Alabama. Polk commanded the entire force as well as the whole department, and was making preparations for a possible defense of the gulf port. He ordered Loring to “detain the enemy as long as possible from getting into Jackson.” He promised to send 6,000 troops to Brandon, a small town a few miles east of Jackson, and to arrive himself before long.
General French received the dispatch. “It is impossible to comply,” he wired in return. The enemy were already in Clinton. “Loring will cross [the Pearl River] above and I am across on this side. Lee will swing to the left and harass the enemy in flank and rear.” It was hardly much of a plan, but against 25,000 Yankees, what more could be done? As the afternoon hours slipped slowly by, French sent message upon message to Loring, stating and restating the plan, updating him on the progress of the Union advance upon Jackson.
As the sun was sinking low, French removed his command across the Pearl, returning himself to the city to note the enemy advance. “I found the Federal troops in possession of the western part of the town,” wrote French in his diary, “so we turned round and had a race with their troops for the bridge (a pontoon bridge) and ordered it taken up. As the end was being cut loose one of Gen. Lee’s staff officers (his doctor) spring his horse on the bridge and cried out that Lee’s force was in the city and would have to cross here.”
French immediately ordered the bridge to be retied to allow the cavalry to cross. But as soon as it was again ready, Union troopers appeared along the western bank and began to fire upon them. “We soon threw some of the plank into the river and knocked the bottoms out of the boats. Lee got out of the city by the Canton road. Under fire of their batteries, in the dark, the infantry marched for Brandon.”
William Wirt Adams and Peter Starke, along with the rest of S.D. Lee’s Cavalry, moved north of Jackson, being blocked from crossing the Pearl by the two Federal corps now about to occupy the city. There they would wait until the Federal columns had passed, electing to fall upon their rear while General Polk gathered strength enough to beat them back.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 32, Part 1, p365, 369, 373-4, 375; Part 2, p674-679; Two Wars by Samuel French; Sherman’s Mississippi Campaign by Buck T. Foster. [↩]