The Stalemate-Turned-Enslaught of Chickasaw Bayou

December 29, 1862 (Monday)

William Tecumseh Sherman

In a word, it had been frustrating. William Tecumseh Sherman’s Corps had landed at Chicasaw Bayou, just north of Confederate-held Vicksburg. For two days they had fought a smattering of Rebel delaying actions that worked all too well.

The force that had been at Vicksburg when Sherman’s 31,000 arrived had been but a pittance. Over the night of the 27th and during the 28th, more Rebels had come in from General John Pemberton’s Army of Mississippi, which had been facing off against General Grant’s Army 100 or so miles north.

But it wasn’t the Rebels so much as the debris the Rebels had thrown in their way. Sherman was trying to carry a well fortified position, Walnut Hill. The Confederates under Stephen Lee had cleared the field of fire before their artillery, which played hell with Sherman’s attempts to remove fallen trees and other miscellany from everywhere else. The Louisiana sharpshooters picking off Yankees at a steady and confident pace didn’t help much either.

David Dixon Porter’s Union flotilla controlling the nearby Yazoo River shelled the Confederate positions throughout the day. And though the Rebels found it more than a bit annoying, it had little effect one way or the other. This was, it seemed, a great stalemate.

But Sherman realized that this stalemate could not go on forever. More Rebels would soon come, and here he could not stay. And so he came up with a simple plan. He knew that he had more men than did the Confederates, and so decided to overwhelm them with numbers.

The division under George Morgan, who had been wounded the previous day, at dawn on this date, was to storm across the bayou separating the Union and Confederate positions and race up the hills. He would be supported by Frederick Steel’s Division. Sherman would provide a diversion with Andrew Smiths’ Division towards Vicksburg itself. Morgan promised to have his men upon the Rebel heights ten minutes after Sherman gave the signal to advance.

Before dawn, Morgan had readied his men, but his engineers had bridged the wrong stream. It was light before they finished correcting their work. And it was already too late. Confederate artillery, too high to hit the soldiers themselves, opened up a deafening fire upon the trees above, sending limbs and branches crashing down upon the Federals. The infantry on both sides remained where they were, and opened a tremendous fire upon each other.

Morgan had convinced himself that the Rebels were about to attack him. To counter this, he sent one of Steel’s brigades, under Francis Blair, to support his own advance brigade, under John DeCourcy. But then Morgan changed his mind and sent Blair around to his left to attack the Confederate right flank.

Soon after, Morgan’s mind changed again and he called off any attack. When he informed General Sherman of this, Sherman rode to the front and pointed out exactly where Morgan was to launch his assault.

Two brigades, those of Blair and DeCourcy, were told to prepare for the attack. They would be supported by the rest of Morgan and Steel’s Divisions. Everyone knew the losses would be heavy. Even Sherman admitted that “we will lose 5,000 men before we take Vicksburg, and may as well lose them here as anywhere else.”

It was noon when Sherman gave the signal to attack. With the artillery booming behind and overhead, Blair and DeCourcy raced across the Bayou, pushing back advanced Rebel lines as they went. The progress was surprisingly swift as they began to ascend the hill holding the Confederate works.

And here is where war became hell. They Union men, too busy climbing, were easy marks for the Rebels. Blair and DeCourcy’s troops fell in ghastly numbers. It was quickly apparent that the attack was doomed. Any further attempt would be murder. The Federals remaining slid back down the slope and across the Bayou.

The Rebels put up a small counter attack with two Louisiana regiments, but mostly this was to pick up prisoners and gather battle flags. They also assisted the Federal wounded.

Blair’s attack upon the Rebel works

Morgan saw what he was up against and told Sherman that the attack had failed. He would not be launching another. The diversions sent by Sherman along the Confederate left had met with similar, though less dramatic, ends.

Hesitantly, Sherman requested from Confederate General Pemberton, who had arrived on the scene, a mutual truce to allow for the burial of the dead. But this did not mean that Sherman was admitting defeat. The day had gone against him. He could pull his men back out of Rebel artillery range, but he was not leaving. He sent a ship back to Memphis in order to get more ammunition. When it returned, he would renew the attack.

The next day, Sherman would realize the the Rebel works could not be taken. He would come up with another plan to attack up the Yazoo bluffs, taking the enemy position on its left flank. But with more and more Rebel reinforcements flooding in, he would think better.

But on the night of the 29th, this was all in the future. The Union soldiers could hear trains full of Confederate troops arriving in Vicksburg. They could see slaves atop and in the Rebel works improving and strengthening their masters’ positions. It had been a miserable day.

Union losses were heavy (though not Sherman’s bloody 5,000) for the short fight: 205 killed, 1,005 wounded, and 563 missing. The Confederates, behind their entrenchments, suffered relatively less with 57 killed, 120 wounded and 10 missing.

((Sources: Vicksburg by Michael B. Ballard; Memoirs by William Tecumseh Sherman; Vicksburg is the Key by William L. Shea & Terrence J. Winschel; Nothing But Victory by Steven E. Woodworth.))

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