Grant Attacks Pemberton at Champion Hill and Advances to the Big Black River

By Daniel J. Ursu, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2020-2021, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the February 2021 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.


We left off in January with General Grant’s three corps of about 30,000 soldiers advancing westward toward Vicksburg, Mississippi. Grant had just defeated General Johnston, who was in overall command of rebel troops in the west, at the state capital, Jackson. On May 16, 1863, Grant had McPherson’s corps on or near the railroad line with McClernand’s corps south of McPherson’s. Following close behind was Sherman’s corps after carrying out Grant’s orders to destroy the military and manufacturing value of Jackson – he burned the city so badly to the ground that henceforth it became known as “Chimneyville.”

Having received previous orders from General Johnston to move northward from his position southeast of the Big Black River, Confederate General Pemberton hastily positioned his 22,000 troops in the highly defensible rough and wooded terrain of Champion Hill, which was the most prominent height in the region. General Stevenson’s division was just south of the rail line; to his right was Bowen’s and to Bowen’s right was Loring’s. Even though hastily positioned, Pemberton’s defensive line was well chosen. Champion Hill rose about 140 feet above the surrounding area and afforded good visual observation in nearly all directions. Heavily wooded, it was cut by ravines and gullies. Being high terrain, it was ipso facto good for defense. Conversely, Union forces approaching uphill through heavy woods from the east would have a hard time sighting Confederate infantry and artillery positions, making planned assaults difficult for Union regimental commanders. But superior Union troop numbers could be an important tactical advantage.

Grant astutely recognized this and thereby put his complete army into motion. He comments in his Memoirs upon learning that Pemberton was occupying Champion Hill, “I expected to leave Sherman at Jackson another day in order to complete his work; but…I sent him orders to move with all dispatch to Bolton, and to put one division with an ammunition train on the road at once, with direction to its commander to march with all possible speed until he came up to our rear.”

Brigadier General Hovey’s 12th division of McClernand’s corps would be the first to assault the hill and come under rebel fire. Hovey was well out in front of the corps advancing to Champion Hill on the Clinton Road. An Indiana lawyer before the war, he was now an experienced commander and strung out his regiments southwest of Bolton and proceeded to undertake an uphill assault against Stevenson’s troops. Initially successful in pushing Stevenson’s troops off of the hill, a Confederate counterattack supported by Bowen’s division drove them back downhill. General Grant saw what was happening and commanded Logan’s and Crocker’s divisions of McPherson’s corps to join the assault. Both divisions had performed well just a few days before at the battle of Raymond. Grant wrote in his Memoirs: “I regarded Logan and Crocker as being as competent division commanders as could be found in or out of the army and both equal to a much higher command. Crocker, however, was dying of consumption when he volunteered. His weak condition never put him on the sick report when there was a battle in prospect, as long as he could keep on his feet.”

At about noon, the battle was fully underway with Hovey’s and Crocker’s divisions heavily engaging the rebels south of the railroad. Gradually, Logan’s division, advancing on a more northerly line and encountering negligible opposition, pushed further west and soon began to turn Stevenson’s left flank.

Grant was in the vicinity in the early afternoon, but did not realize how well Logan’s advance had put Union forces in a coveted flanking position that could cut off Pemberton from Vicksburg. In his Memoirs, Grant states regrettably in hindsight of Logan’s advance, “From Logan’s position now a direct forward movement carried him over open fields, in rear of the enemy and in a line parallel with them…about noon I moved with a part of my staff by our right around, until I came up with Logan himself. I found him near the road leading down to Baker’s creek. He was actually in command of the only road over which the enemy could retreat…Neither Logan nor I knew that we had cut off the retreat of the enemy…I then gave an order to move McPherson’s command by the left flank around to Hovey. This uncovered the rebel line of retreat, which was soon taken advantage of by the enemy.”

Hovey’s division kept up the pressure with support from Logan’s and Crocker’s divisions, and also from a particularly well-emplaced pair of artillery batteries to the north. After about only four hours of fighting, this caused the Confederate line to begin to collapse. Grant states in his Memoirs, “During all this time, Hovey, reinforced as he was by a brigade from Logan and another from Crocker, and Crocker gallantly coming up with two other brigades on his right, had made several assaults, that last one at about the time the road was opened to the rear. The enemy fled precipitately.” Confederates began rushing chaotically from the field between three and four o’clock.

The incomparable Ed Bearss
(Buddy Secor)

Tragically for Pemberton, Major General Loring’s division on the south end of the line retreated away from Vicksburg, eliminating it from any further involvement in the campaign. Ed Bearss, former Chief Historian of the National Park Service and renowned expert on the Vicksburg Campaign, states in his book Fields of Honor, “But the Confederates are in deep trouble long before McClernand received his attack order. The Pennsylvania born and reared Pemberton carries lots of baggage. In the ‘Old Army’ he had been a captain and Loring a colonel. Loring is not a happy camper. He doubts Pemberton’s capabilities. Brigade commander Brig. Gen. Lloyd Tilghman supports this view. The two sit around that morning making ‘ill tempered jests’ about Pemberton, recalled Lt. William A. Drennan.”

Tilghman monument at the battlefield: “our fallen hero, the chivalrous and beloved Tilghman”
(Steve Pettyjohn)

Unfortunately for Grant as we have seen, Pemberton’s troops were able to make their way west toward Vicksburg on the road previously blocked by Logan. This quite upset Grant. He was also upset about the behavior of General McClernand; other than Hovey’s division, McClernand had essentially not engaged the enemy with the other divisions of his corps. Recounting the situation in his Memoirs, Grant wrote, “McClernand, with two divisions, was within a few miles of the battlefield long before noon and in easy hearing. I sent him repeated orders by staff officers fully competent to explain to him the situation. These traversed that wood separating us, without escort, and directed him to push forward; but he did not come…Instead of this he sent orders to Hovey, who belonged to his corps, to join on to his right flank…Of course I did not permit Hovey to obey the order of his intermediate superior…Had McClernand come up with reasonable promptness, or had I known the ground as I did afterwards, I cannot see how Pemberton could have escaped with any organized force.”

Before we follow Grant off of the battlefield in pursuit of the retreating rebels, Donald L. Miller, in his recent book Vicksburg, presents an interesting anecdote on the battle’s namesake Champion family. “For some time, Sid Champion had been expecting trouble for his family and his cause. On the evening the Confederate army pitched its tents on his property, he was with his regiment at Edwards, guarding the western approaches to Vicksburg. He knew Grant’s army was somewhere in the vicinity and he worried about his wife, Matilda, and their three young children. Their farm was a wedding gift from her father, a local plantation grandee who disapproved of Sid’s plans to become a professor of literature at a local college.” But as it happened, Miller continues, “farming and soldiering – he served in the Mexican War under Jefferson Davis – filled his years. At age thirty-eight, he was one of the first to join the 28th Mississippi Cavalry, formed in Vicksburg at the start of hostilities. Fiery, self-possessed Matilda Champion stayed behind with their children, and managed the farm and over sixty slaves…historians have long claimed that Matilda Champion, after seeing the Yankees approaching, threw a few belongings into a wagon and escaped with her children to her parent’s plantation…But long after the war, an Illinois veteran of the battle met Mrs. Champion at the dedication of the Illinois monument on the Vicksburg battlefield. She told him she had spent the battle in her cellar with her children.”

The battle was arguably the most decisive of the entire campaign and by far the largest after Grant’s landing near Bruinsburg on the east bank of the mighty Mississippi. A Pemberton offensive movement against Grant – which would eventually be required if Vicksburg were to be saved – would now be a hard proposition. Pemberton’s casualties were about 1.400, but an additional 2,400 were missing, mostly taken prisoner by Union forces. Further, about 30 artillery pieces were abandoned during the retreat. Lastly, Loring’s division was now effectively lost to Pemberton. Grant’s casualties were about 2,400, mostly from Hovey’s division who later termed Champion Hill the “hill of death.”

The summit of Champion Hill, showing the steepness of the hill
The steepness is indicative of the roughness of the terrain in the area.
(Steve Pettyjohn)

Grant sent two divisions of McClernand’s corps that were unengaged in the battle in steadfast pursuit of the retreating rebels. However, most of them by nightfall had successfully retreated across the Big Black River where the rail and two road bridges converged. Pemberton had wisely left a delaying force to defend the east bank under General Bowen along with 18 artillery pieces. These were plenty enough to stop the Union troops at sunset. The terrain in many areas in front of the bridgehead was swampy and would hinder attacking troops. Further, the Confederates had erected cotton bale breastworks.

An impatient Grant put his superior numbers into motion at about 4:00 a.m. the morning of May 17 and was skillful and deliberate in planning the alignment of his troops. Brigadier General Osterhaus and A.J. Smith’s divisions were on the left and Brigadier General Carr’s division on the right. Fortuitously, on the extreme right, hidden in a wooded and overgrown area near a stream, was Brigadier General Michael K. Lawler’s second brigade of Carr’s division. Described by many as unforgettable, he was a very large man, so portly that he could not find a long enough sword belt and instead hung his sword from his shoulder strap. Miller in his book Vicksburg describes him as, “A mountainous man, over six feet tall and weighing nearly three hundred pounds. He ‘could mount a horse only with difficulty,’ said a solder, ‘and when he was mounted it was pretty hard on the horse.’ But the corpulent, Irish-born Illinois farmer was quick on his feet, even at age forty-eight, and a born brawler.”

Pause to recall from a previous history brief that Union General Banks was further south on the Mississippi with orders from Washington to eventually meet up with Grant. In his Memoirs Grant gives us an entertaining recollection into what happened next at the C.S.A. Big Black River defenses. “An officer from Banks’ staff came up and presented me with a letter from General Halleck, dated the 11th of May. It had been sent by the way of New Orleans to Banks to be forwarded to me. It ordered me to return to Grand Gulf and to cooperate from there with Banks against Port Hudson, and then to return with our combined forces to besiege Vicksburg. I told the officer that order came too late, and that Halleck would not give it now if he knew our position. The bearer of the dispatch insisted that I ought to obey the order, and was giving arguments to support his position when I heard great cheering to the right of our line and looking in that direction saw Lawler in his shirt sleeves leading a charge upon the enemy. I immediately mounted my horse and rode in the direction of the charge, and saw no more of the officer.”

A depiction of the battle at the bridge that appeared in the June 25, 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly

One of Lawler’s scouts had discovered a defile sufficient to hide most of his brigade until they were on top of the rebel position. Mr. Bearss in Fields of Honor describes the scene. “Big Mike, screened by trees, moves his men out toward the Big Black, which here flows through a deep trough between river and floodplain. Lawler puts them in that trough. Here they are invisible. He forms them in assault columns. At 11 a.m. he digs his spur into his horse’s flanks and leads his Hawkeyes and Badgers out into the floodplain. The brigade sweeps forward and breaks the Confederate line. (Confederate) Colonel Cockrell looks up and sees what’s happened and yells – Devil take the hindmost. Get out of here.” The Confederates fled across the bridges but importantly succeeded in lighting them afire delaying Grant from crossing until the next day.

The ruins of the bridge after the battle

Next month, we will pick up with General Grant’s troops arriving on the outskirts of Vicksburg with high hopes of quickly overwhelming the fortress!


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