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Battle of Champion Hill

May 16, 1863

The Battle of Champion Hill, also known as the Battle of Bakers Creek, was the decisive battle in the Vicksburg Campaign of the American Civil War. Union General Ulysses S. Grant's Army of the Tennessee defeated General John C. Pemberton's Confederate force twenty miles east of Vicksburg, forcing the Rebels to withdraw to defensive positions closer to the city, making them more vulnerable to the forthcoming Siege of Vicksburg.

At the onset of the American Civil War, the State of Tennessee comprised the majority of the northern border of the Confederate States of America in the West. Defending that border was difficult for the Confederacy because three major rivers (the Mississippi, which flows south to the Gulf of Mexico, and the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, which flow north to the Ohio River) provided relatively easy access to the South.

By late 1861, President Abraham Lincoln was pressuring Union commanders in the west to invade the South. In February 1862, Major General Ulysses S. Grant responded by capturing Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River, both in northwestern Tennessee. With two of the three main rivers connecting the North and South under Union control, the Federals turned their attention to the Mississippi River. If the Union could gain control of the Mississippi, the Confederacy would be denied easy access to supplies from the Gulf of Mexico and territories in the American West.

Admiral David Farragut captured the port city of New Orleans, Louisiana on May 18, 1862, closing down Confederate access to the Gulf of Mexico. In June, the Union tightened its grip on the Mississippi when Federal forces captured the river city of Memphis, Tennessee. Nevertheless, the South still controlled traffic on much of the river because of its strong fortifications at Vicksburg, Mississippi.

In July 1862, General Henry Halleck was called to Washington and promoted to chief of all Union armies, leaving Grant in charge of operations in the Western Theater. In December, Grant launched his first of several failed attempts to capture Vicksburg. When spring arrived, he initiated a new, more complicated plan. On March 29, 1863, Grant put part of his army to work constructing bridges, draining bayous, and building a road past Vicksburg on the west side of the Mississippi. By mid-April, his men had carved a path through the Louisiana wilderness that would enable Grant to march the Army of the Tennessee past Vicksburg, cross the Mississippi River, and then attack the city from the south. The plan proved successful, and by May 1, 1863, the Federals had established a base of operations at Port Gibson, Mississippi.

Once back in Mississippi, Grant turned his attention to Jackson, about fifty miles east of Vicksburg, where General Joseph E. Johnston, who commanded all Confederate forces in Mississippi, was assembling an army. On May 14, the Federals arrived at Jackson. With only about 6,000 soldiers available to defend the city, Johnston withdrew, allowing Jackson to fall into Union hands.

With Johnston out of the way, Grant returned his attention to Vicksburg, which was defended by the Confederate Army of Mississippi, commanded by Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton. On May 15, the Union army began leaving Jackson in three columns headed west. The left, southernmost column was Major General John A. McClernand's XIII Corps. The middle column was Major General James B. McPherson's XVII Corps. The right, northernmost column was Major General William T. Sherman's XV Corps, which departed on May 16, after destroying everything of military value in Jackson.

Meanwhile, Johnston ordered Pemberton to leave his defensive positions near Vicksburg on May 15, to move east to stop Grant's advance. Pemberton felt conflicted, because he was also under orders from Confederate President Jefferson Davis to defend Vicksburg at all costs. After calling a council of war, he decided to ignore Johnston's order, believing that a direct confrontation with Grant's army would be overly risky. Instead, Pemberton marched south, on May 15, hoping to isolate Grant's army by severing its supply lines back to the Mississippi River. After starting his march south, Pemberton received another order from Johnston repeating his former directive. This time Pemberton complied and reversed his course back north.

Just after sunrise on the morning of May 16, Pemberton's army, marching north, encountered Grant's army, marching west, near Champion Hill, 20 miles east of Vicksburg. Pemberton quickly drew up into a defensive line along the crest of a ridge overlooking Jackson Creek. He also posted Brigadier General Stephen D. Lee's men atop Champion Hill to watch for Union troop movements. Both armies were soon aware of each other's positions. Grant arrived at Champion Hill at about 10:00 a.m. and ordered an attack. McPherson's corps did most of the fighting, and by 1:00 p.m., the corps captured the hill. A fierce Confederate counterattack recaptured the hill late in the afternoon. Undaunted, Grant launched his own counterattack, using reinforcements who had recently arrived from Clinton. Outnumbered, the Rebels fell back across Bakers Creek. By late afternoon, the Federals seized the Bakers Creek Bridge, enabling them to cross the stream and advance as far as Edward's Station by midnight. The battle ended when Pemberton established a new defensive line along the Big Black River, just east of Vicksburg, that night and awaited Grant's next move.

During the engagement, one of Pemberton's two divisional commanders, Major General William W. Loring failed to reinforce Pemberton's left flank as he was ordered to do. When Loring's division became separated from Pemberton's main army during the fight, Loring chose to move away from Vicksburg and join General Joseph Johnston's forces in central Mississippi. In his after-action report, Pemberton lamented that "Had the movement in support of the left been properly made when first ordered, it is not improbable that I might have maintained my position, and it is possible that the enemy might have been driven back. . . ."

Ohio units that participated in the Battle of Big Black River Bridge included:

Infantry units:

  • 16th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
  • 20th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
  • 32nd Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
  • 42nd Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
  • 48th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
  • 54th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
  • 56th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
  • 57th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
  • 68th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
  • 78th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
  • 83rd Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
  • 114th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

Artillery units:

  • 2nd Ohio Artillery Battery
  • 3rd Ohio Artillery Battery
  • 11th Ohio Artillery Battery
  • 16th Ohio Artillery Battery
  • 17th Ohio Light Artillery Battery

The Federals suffered 2,457 casualties (410 killed, 1,844 wounded, and 187 missing) compared to 3,840 Confederate casualties (381 killed, 1,018 wounded, and 2,441 missing/captured) during the Battle of Champion Hill. Although the disparity in casualties was not great, the battle was a decisive Union victory. Johnston's attempt to use Pemberton's army to halt Grant's advance before reaching Vicksburg failed. The Confederates made one last stand the next day at the Battle of the Big Black River Bridge before losing their last escape route and being driven back into Vicksburg where they endured a six-week siege before surrendering the city on July 4, 1863.

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