Off the Rails: The Failed Federal Assault on Vicksburg’s Railroad Redoubt
The massive Federal assault against Vicksburg’s defensives on May 22, 1863, started with such promise. For a time the Stars and Stripes even floated above the soaring ramparts of the Railroad Redoubt. But the tides of battle shifted and things swiftly went off the rails.
After a winter of maneuvering through the bayous of Louisiana and Mississippi, Grant ordered the Union Army of the Tennessee to move south along the roads and levees of Louisiana to find a crossing of the Mississippi River south of Vicksburg. Soldiers cut trees to lay them in the mud, effectively corduroying roads, while engineers bridged flooded bayous to eventually lead Grant’s army to Disharoon’s Plantation. Crossing the mighty river at Bruinsburg, Mississippi, on April 30, 1863, Grant’s army secured the area in the largest amphibious landing in American history until the Allied landings in the invasion of North Africa during the Second World War.
Between May 1 and 17, 1863, Grant’s army pushed deep into Mississippi, defeating Confederate forces at Port Gibson, Raymond, Jackson, Champion Hill and the Big Black River Bridge, before arriving in the rear of Vicksburg. Grant and many in his army believed the capture of Vicksburg would be swift, despite seven miles of Confederate earthworks featuring nine major defensive works connected by rifle pits. Overconfident, on May 19, Grant’s pressed the Confederates at different points, while a division under Sherman assaulted Stockade Redan, which guarded one of the major points of ingress into the city. Quickly blunted, Grant realized he would need a stronger push to take the fortress city.
Meanwhile, Grant’s army was strengthening its positions along the broken terrain facing the Confederate defenses. A flotilla of gunboats and mortar flats under the command of Rear Adm. David Dixon Porter patrolled the waters, ready to synergize and support the ground troops. Roads were cut through the countryside to the Yazoo River, bringing in supplies and reinforcements — as well as rumors from Memphis that a large force near Jackson was being organized to destroy the Federal army.
“I now determined on a second assault,” remembered Grant in his memoirs. “[Confederate Gen. Joseph] Johnston was in my rear, only fifty miles away … there was danger of his coming to the assistance of Pemberton, and after all he might defeat my anticipations of capturing the garrison if, indeed, he did not prevent the capture of the city.” The pressure was on, and Grant was ready to roll the die.
On May 21, Grant drew up his plan of action:
A simultaneous attack will be made tomorrow at 10 a.m. by all the army corps of this army… At an early hour in the morning a vigorous attack will be commenced by the artillery and skirmishers… The troops will go light, carrying with them only their ammunition, canteens, and one day’s rations… If prosecuted with vigor, it is confidently believed this course will carry Vicksburg in a very short time.
The thousands of men and boys in Maj. Gen. John A. McClernand’s XIII Corps were, for all intents and purposes, the left flank of Grant’s army. Three of the nine major Confederate forts loomed over the ridge that protected McClernand’s veterans. Manning this section of the Rebel works was the left flank brigade of Maj. Gen. Carter Stevenson’s worn-out division. The brigade of Alabamians under the command of 29-year-old Brig. Gen. Stephen Dill Lee had proved fighters throughout the campaign, holding against overwhelming odds at Port Gibson and Champion Hill. Lee moved Col. Isham Garrott’s 20th Alabama Infantry into Square Fort, an enclosed earthen structure anchoring the brigade’s left flank, with the 23rd, 30th and 31st Alabama running north in the rifle pits. Having lost half the regiment at Champion Hill, Lt. Col. Edmund Pettus took command of the remnants of the 46th Alabama defending the rear works of the Railroad Redoubt. This fortification sat directly south of and abutted the once vital Southern Railroad of Mississippi tracks that connected Vicksburg with Jackson.
The Night Before: May 21–22
McClernand’s dispositions for assaulting the Railroad Redoubt were haphazard to begin with: two brigades from the 14th Division under the command of Brig. Gen. Eugene A. Carr upfront, supported by the two brigades of Brig. Gen. Andrew Jackson Smith’s 10th Division behind them. They faced the same broken terrain found all around Vicksburg, but the problem was compounded by the railroad tracks that split both divisions in half. This would cause one brigade from each division to move on separate objectives, the right two brigades fronting the Second Texas Lunette situated along Baldwin’s Ferry Road.
Commanding the front-rank brigade of Carr’s division was Brig. Gen. Michael K. Lawler. The 250-pound Irishman was a veteran of the Mexican American War and had most recently handsomely led his brigade of Iowans through a meander scar to help route Pemberton’s defenders at Big Black River Bridge. Supporting “Big Mike” Lawler’s boys was Col. William J. Landrum’s brigade of Smith’s division. Landrum, like Lawler, was a veteran of the Mexican American War, and practiced law in Kentucky before the war. Landrum’s Prairie State regiments had spent May 20 skirmishing with Lee’s Alabamians. Relieved at night, the entire brigade sat in reserve the next day, while Lawler’s men took their place. McClernand pulled the 10th Division back, replacing them with the 14th Division on May 21.
When orders were received that a general assault would take place the following morning, Col. William P. Stone of the 22nd Iowa Infantry in Lawler’s brigade used the setting sun to personally reconnoiter the ground his regiment was ordered to cross. Getting to within 50 yards of the Confederate entrenchments, Stone was “satisfied …that the fort next to the railroad could be carried more easily and with less sacrifice than any other point on our front, and I determined to direct my regiment against it.”
As darkness descended on the opposing forces, Lawler formed his brigade and moved it around Maj. Maurice Maloney’s siege guns, inching through briar patches and felled obstructions, and fending off hordes of mosquitos to reach the ravine in front of the Railroad Redoubt for a rapid dash up the hill to take the fortification in the morning. Landrum’s brigade moved into Lawler’s former position directly behind the hill in support.
Lee, to his credit, was very much aware of the intentions of the Federal forces massing before him. Federal sharpshooters had been active on his front since May 19. Federal batteries opened on his positions the following day and into the night. But Lee’s position was strong, with plenty of reserves to plug any breaches the Federals might make. When naval gunboats and mortars began the barrage of the city during the night going into May 22, it was increasingly apparent that the assault was coming.
The Assault: May 22
At 8:00 a.m., Federal artillery opened along the entire length of Grant’s lines. The deafening roar of 30-pounder Parrott rifle siege guns operated by members of the 1st United States (Siege Guns) under Maloney fired on the Railroad Redoubt. Capt. Charles H. Lanphere’s 10-pounder Rodman guns, 7th Battery Michigan Light Artillery, of Brig. Gen. Peter Osterhaus’ 9th Division roared into action on the Rebel works and rifle pits just south of Maloney’s guns. The heavy siege guns tore gaping holes in the sloping walls of the Railroad Redoubt’s exterior escarpment.
Inside the forward trench of the Railroad Redoubt were two consolidated companies of the 30th Alabama. Exhausted from a lack of sleep during the night, Lt. James Madison Pearson and his small band of “yellowhammers” endured a constant barrage of cannon fire. “A large number of the enemy’s guns were concentrated upon our position, in fact at one time three shells exploded so simultaneously over and in the work, scattering dirt, trash, and debris in every direction,” Pearson wrote after the war. “It seemed that the very elements were resolving themselves into chaos, and that the very earth beneath us was as unstable as if an earthquake was in operation.”
After two hours of constant artillery fire, Lawler’s men fixed bayonets and moved up the steep slope of the Railroad Redoubt. On the right side of the brigade was Col. Stone’s 22nd Iowa, followed by Hawkeyes in the 21st Iowa in one column. On the left, the tenacious Badgers of the 11th Wisconsin pushed forward, supported by the 97th Illinois. Within 10 minutes, the Federal soldiers crested the redoubt’s outer wall — and were immediately met by a wall of smoke and lead.
Maj. Salue G. Van Anda, commanding the 21st Iowa, remembered that “the fire of the enemy from both flanks, as well as the front, was terrific. Many of our officers and men fell on every side, but with a determination that knew no fear, the enemy’s works were gained.” Iowans began to scale the redoubt’s walls and entered a breech created by Maloney’s siege guns. Confederate defenders who did not retire to the secondary line of trenches fought hand-to-hand, but within 10 minutes, the front of the redoubt was in Federal hands. The flag of the 77th Illinois was brought forward and placed on the walls, flying defiantly in front of the Rebels’ main defenses. Soon, one of the 22nd Iowa’s flags was brought up and placed by the Illinois colors.
Initial success was quickly blunted as casualties mounted for the Federal attackers. Lt. Col. Cornelius Dunlap, commanding the 21st Iowa, had remained in the rear during the initial assault because of a foot wound suffered at Port Gibson. But seeing their success, he hobbled down the slope, through the abatis and up to join his men.
Exuberant enough to tarry in a high, exposed position, Colonel Stone had “regarded the door to Vicksburg as opened, and so said to Colonel Dunlap, and we were looking over the ground, congratulating ourselves upon our success, when I was shot in the arm by a sharpshooter from the woods beyond their rifle pit.” No sooner had Stone been hit, when the much-beloved Dunlap was shot through the head and killed instantly.
Meanwhile, the left side of the assault had pushed up to broken portions of hilly terrain directly in front of the Rebel works, but were met by a galling fire as soon as they began to crest the slope. Pinned down, the Midwesterners continued to do the best they could, and Landrum sent reinforcements to bolster the left flank, but the Alabamians had locked their enemy in place.
Lawler and Landrum were in trouble. At 10:10 a.m., a dispatch was sent back to McClernand stating: “[T]the enemy are massing their forces in our front. No movement of our troops on our left. We ought to have re-enforcements.”
This was all true. Confederates reinforcements in the form of Col. Thomas N. Waul’s Texas Legion had been moved into the works directly behind the Railroad Redoubt. The Federal left flank had not moved beyond the protection of the last major hill in front of the Confederate works. But because McClernand had arranged his assaults in one long line, he had no real reserves to exploit the advantages he gained. By 11:15 a.m., he sent Grant a request for a diversion of troops nearby under General McPherson to prevent the massing of Confederate reinforcements. But Grant simply advised an increasingly desperate McClernand to draw from his reserves.
At noon, McClernand sent the first of two eyebrow-raising messages. Requesting a “vigorous push” by the other corps to again prevent Rebel reinforcements in his sector, he wrote to Grant “we have possession of two forts, and the Stars and Stripes are floating over them.” While it was true the flags of the 77th Illinois and 22nd Iowa were indeed floating over the escarpment of the Railroad Redoubt, full possession was an exaggeration. But receipt of this message forced Grant to act.
The hours ticked away as the Federals, stuck in the ditch outside the Railroad Redoubt, waited through the day’s sweltering heat for support or relief. Soon the Confederates took to rolling artillery shells with lit fuses down the slope. Landrum reported back by mid-afternoon that the “hand grenades” were “hurting us considerably.”
According to Lieutenant Pearson, stuck on the other side of the Federals, those hand grenades were actually having a telling effect on his men. “The pitching of grenades continued and coming from the direction of our forces back of us … our troops were throwing them under the mistaken apprehension that the Yankees were in possession of the works.” One of Pearson’s men called back to the rear Confederate trench to “quit throwing those things you are killing Alabama troops.” A reply from the rear trench yelled back, “Damn Alabama troops from Ohio.” Pinned down by both friend and foe alike, Pearson and his men soon surrendered rather than be killed. As Pearson walked to the rear a prisoner of war, his boot “slushed” with the blood of the dead from inside the redoubt.
With the Federals effectively stalled, Stephen D. Lee looked to press his advantage and drive the attackers away from the Railroad Redoubt. As sunset was quickly approaching, Lee wanted his left flank secured and turned to Waul’s relatively fresh troops to reclaim the point of the fort. The Texans responded with gusto; two officers “not only willingly agreed, but solicited the honor of leading their companies to the assault. Not wishing to expose a larger force than necessary….”
The hand-picked force gathered to run the gauntlet of Federal fire was met by Lieutenant Colonel Pettus, who had commanded the remnant of the unit that originally occupied the section of the siege works. Musket in hand, Pettus “offered to guide and lead the party into the fort.” Despite well-aimed volleys of musketry, the small Rebel force sped between its main line and the point of the Railroad Redoubt. Exhausted and weakened by significant casualties, the Federals gave way and moved down the ravine. Two more companies of Texans moved forward, fully securing the fort and capturing both prisoners and the colors of 77th Illinois. The remnants of Lawler and Landrum’s brigades fell back to the ridgeline fronting the Railroad Redoubt and kept up a desultory fire through the night.
While it is difficult to ascertain Confederate casualties from the action at the Railroad Redoubt — most reports being written after the siege and combining losses suffered throughout the period — the Federal attackers suffered mightily. Lawler’s casualties were 54 officers and enlisted men killed outright, 285 wounded and 29 captured; Landrum suffered 42 killed and 273 wounded.
In the ensuing weeks, as Federal forces tightened their grip around Vicksburg, McClernand reflected on the campaign. His men spearheaded the advance down the levees in Louisiana. They were the first to land on Mississippi soil, the first to tangle with Confederates in Port Gibson. They shielded Grant’s movements into the state, contributed significantly at Champion Hill and overwhelmed the Confederates at Big Black River. They assaulted the Railroad Redoubt and 2nd Texas Lunette vigorously. He was pleased.
General Orders, Number 72 was McClernand’s congratulatory order to the XII Corps, attributing the campaign’s successes to that point to his veterans. Written on May 30, the order had made its way to the press, and inevitably into the hands of fellow corps commanders Sherman and McPherson. However, Grant was aware of the order before his angry subordinates reported it, requesting from McClernand on June 17 clarification whether it was genuine or a fabrication of the newspapers.
Confirming the order came from him, McClernand realized his error, but blamed his adjutant — per War Department orders dating to April 1862, a copy ought to have been forwarded to headquarters. And, as Sherman pointed out, McClernand was in violation of War Department General Order No. 151, prohibiting official letters to be published in newspapers without authorization.
At 2:00 a.m., on June 18, 1863, Lt. Col. James Wilson arrived with Grant’s special order relieving McClernand of his command. Surprised, the general blurted, “Well, sir! I am relieved! By God, sir, we are both relieved!” The political general spent the better part of a year trying to prove that Grant and other West Pointers conspired to destroy his reputation — to no avail. The assault on the Railroad Redoubt (and his own blustering) ended his time in the Army of the Tennessee.
Through a vigorous pursuit by the veterans, Vicksburg National Military Park was created by an act of the Congress in 1899. The monumental task of locating the siege lines that had eroded away over forty years, as well as the locations where Union and Confederates fought, camped, worked, and experienced this watershed moment, began immediately. Letters by veterans arrived from all over the United States confirming (and sometimes disagreeing) the places where their regiments took part over the vast landscape. For the veteran’s goal was to ensure the park commemorated the assaults accurately.
In writing his experiences from that notable day, James Madison Pearson explained why the preservation of the battlefield and ensuring the story was told truthfully was so important. “I would remark that often, for nearly 40 years, my mind reverts to that as the most memorable day of my life,” he opened a letter on the subject, before expanding on the sentiment throughout the text. “I had passed through Vicksburg twice since the war [before the park existed]… and what a change had taken place! … A feeling of sadness crept over me as I thought all the pomp and circumstances…had gone forever.” The veterans guaranteed that the hallowed grounds, where their youthful lives were changed forever, were preserved for the benefit of future generations to appreciate.