Review: Champion Hill: Decisive Battle for Vicksburg
Champion Hill: Decisive Battle for Vicksburg. Timothy B. Smith. New
York, NY: Savas Beatie LLC (2004). 502 pp. 41 maps.
This is a review and summary of Timothy B. Smith's Champion Hill:
Decisive Battle for Vicksburg. Dr. Smith sets out to write the first
detailed history of the most important battle of the Vicksburg
Campaign (some would say the entire war), and he has done an admirable
job. Champion Hill is a detailed tactical level description of the
battle, which occurred on May 16, 1863 on the eponymous hill located
over 20 miles east of Vicksburg. This is no "New History" book filled
with the social or political aspects of Champion Hill and its results.
Instead, Dr. Smith announces early on in the Preface that "what you
are about to read is a battle study molded out of the old school".
And he makes good on his promise. The action picks up as Smith
details how Grant's Union Army of the Tennessee tried all winter of
1862-1863 to find a way to get at Vicksburg from dry land east of the
Mississippi River. It then goes on to chronicle the battles leading
up to Champion Hill. The majority of the text describes in tactical
detail the ebb and flow of the Battle of Champion Hill. He follows up
with a brief description of the pursuit to Vicksburg, the Siege, and
the surrender of the Confederate Army on July 4, 1863. The book
weighs in at just over 500 pages, with exactly 400 pages of text. The
book contains an interesting amount of other material after the main
read is finished. These include a "Thereafter", which details the
lives of the main players after the Battle, a regimental-level "Order
of Battle" which includes even regimental commanders (but no unit
strengths), and a very interesting set of modern-day photos of the
battlefield along with a keyed map allowing you to see the facing and
position of the camera. Dr. Smith includes almost 40 pages of
endnotes and an impressive bibliography containing numerous primary
sources from manuscript collections and of course many secondary
works, including the important previous works of Ed Bearss and Warren
Grabau. And last but not least are the maps. Ted Savas, the
publisher, has as usual filled this book to the brim with detailed
tactical maps of the fighting. By my count, of the 41 maps, 32 cover
the Battle of Champion Hill, with most of the others covering the
preliminary action at Port Gibson, Raymond, and Jackson.
Smith leads off with a chapter detailing exactly why Vicksburg was so
important to the Confederacy. He mentions that Vicksburg is situated
on high bluffs on the eastern side of the Mississippi River just after
a hairpin bend, making it an ideal place to fortify and block the
River. As long as Vicksburg (and to a lesser extent Port Hudson to
the south) held, the Confederacy was not split in two. Vicksburg
became even more important as the Federals took both Memphis and New
Orleans, two key points to the north and south respectively. Grant's
six failed attempts while situated in Louisiana west of Vicksburg are
described, and Smith concludes that these diversions, along with some
fortuitous Union cavalry raids, set up Grant's ultimately successful
Details are given on the past history of the two commanding Generals,
Pemberton and Grant, along with brief descriptions of the Division and
Corps commanders. A point Smith goes back to time and again is the
fact that he regards Pemberton as "a bureaucrat", not a field general.
He believes that although Pemberton meant well, his skill set was
simply not suited for a fight to the finish against a man with plenty
of practice at hard fighting in Grant. The Confederate Division
commanders were all West Pointers with the exception of William
Loring. John Bowen is referred to as "Pemberton's finest field
subordinate", and Stevenson is marked as a "thoroughly untested field
commander". Smith goes on to describe Grant's struggles, both in
private life and early in the War. But he makes the point that Grant
had always stuck to whatever he set his mind on doing, and that this
trait would help him in the Campaign ahead. Grant's triumvirate of
Corps commanders, Sherman, McClernand, and McPherson, are given brief
introductions similar to those of the five Confederate Division
commanders. In his descriptions of these men, Smith differs from the
commonly held view. He is higher on McClernand and harder on
McPherson than most, and although I do not entirely agree with this
assessment, it is nevertheless refreshing to see someone do their own
research and not just rehash old views ad nauseum. Grant landed on
the east side of the Mississippi at Bruinsburg, Mississippi on April
30, 1863. The Federals then moved inland, where they attacked
brigades under the command of John Bowen. In the resulting Battle of
Port Gibson, Smith writes that Bowen bought time for Pemberton to take
charge of the deteriorating situation. However, according to Smith,
Pemberton's fortress holding mentality rendered him incapable of the
aggressive action required to save the day, and the city of Vicksburg,
by attacking Grant then and there and pinning him against the River..
Grant next moved inland, staying east of the Big Black River and
relying on the countryside for supplies. Smith relates that Pemberton
"implemented halfway measures" throughout this crucial time, neither
concentrating his forces for a decisive attack nor impeding Grant's
advance with any kind of regularity. At the Battle of Raymond, James
McPherson's Union Corps fought the Confederate Brigade of John Gregg.
Gregg had moved from the state capital of Jackson to block Grant's
movements in that direction. After describing the fighting in some
detail, Smith allows that "Raymond was not James McPherson's best day,
but it did offer a demonstration of his tactical abilities". The
appearance of troops from Jackson caused Grant to change his plans.
Instead of concentrating in between Jackson and Vicksburg and then
heading west, he would instead deal a blow to the troops in Jackson first.
Joe Johnston's record in the field was one of "perplexing mediocrity",
according to the author. As Grant moved toward Jackson, Pemberton
missed an opportunity to fall on the Corps of Gen. John McClernand at
Fourteenmile Creek. McClernand was acting as a roadblock in the
direction of Vicksburg while Grant took care of business to the east.
Grant overran Mississippi's Capital rather easily in the almost
misnamed "Battle" of Jackson. With this act, Grant prevented the city
from acting as a troop concentration point for the Army of Relief
General Joe Johnston was then attempting to assemble. Smith points
out the contrast in the actions of the commanding Generals to this
point in the Campaign. He characterizes Grant as "audacious" and
Pemberton as bumbling. At this time, due to some now outdated
directions from Johnston, Pemberton decided to move southeast and
outside of his natural line of the Big Black River. Smith declares
this to be an odd decision, given that by moving in this direction the
Southern commander was basically interposing Grant's Army between the
Vicksburg garrison and Johnston, rather than moving closer.
As McClernand maintained his position, McPherson's Corps moved west
from Jackson, and Sherman's Corps destroyed all government property in
the city, including (and especially) the railroads. Grant's men were
well-rested in the days before the battle, while Pemberton's were not.
This would be important in the upcoming battle. On the night of May
15, both Armies camped within several miles of each other, Pemberton's
essentially in their positions at the start of the battle the next
day. As the decisive battle loomed, Johnston was moving ever further
away from Pemberton!
Smith next takes a look at the topography of the battlefield, pointing
out that Champion Hill dominated the surrounding area and that it
would play the central role in the fight. He also mentions that
Baker's Creek at Pemberton's back had only one bridge readily
available to the Southern Army, though Pemberton's engineers were hard
at work on a southern bridge on the Raymond Road. The road network is
discussed as well. Grant was advancing against Pemberton on three
roads, the Jackson Road to the north, the Middle Road in the center,
and the Raymond Road to the south. The Jackson and Middle Roads
intersected just south of Champion Hill. Smith marks this crossroads
as vital. Pemberton's Army needed to keep control in order to be able
to retreat over the bridge on Baker's Creek that they had just marched
over the previous night. If the Federals took control of the vital
crossroads, and the Jackson road to the west, Pemberton's entire Army
could be cut off. Grant had similar forces on all three roads.
Stevenson's large Confederate Division covered Champion Hill and the
crossroads on the left of the line, Bowen covered the center, and
Loring covered the Raymond Road to the south on the right flank.
Pemberton had left two whole Divisions near Vicksburg, and to make
matters even worse, he was forced to react awkwardly as his Army lay
where they had camped the night before. It seems Grant had again been
the first to move. The initial contact came in the form of
skirmishing along the Middle and Raymond Roads. Unfortunately for
Pemberton and the South, he had neglected to picket the northern
Jackson road, and Grant was coming in hard on his flank with three
S. D. Lee, who Smith rates very highly for his performance at Champion
Hill, saw Grant's column north of Champion Hill, and rushed his
Brigade to cover that flank and with it the vital crossroads just
south of there. His Brigade was not nearly enough, even though he
also had the help of two guns of the Virginia Botetourt Artillery
unlimbered on the crest of Champion Hill. Cumming's Brigade also
partially moved to the crest, although Cumming was forced to leave two
regiments behind to hold off McClernand's Federals advancing west
along the Middle Road towards the crossroads. Hovey's and Logan's
Federal Divisions from Grant's column had moved into position north of
Champion Hill, and they were ready to attack at around 10:30 A.M.
Smith believes that Grant thought McClernand to be a better tactician
than McPherson. His rationale for this is that Grant traveled with
McPherson's column along the Jackson Road in the north, and he gave
McClernand control of operations on both the Middle and Raymond Roads.
At this point Smith also brings up the relative inactivity during the
battle by the forces under McClernand. He justifies this
uncharacteristic behavior of McClernand by pointing out that Grant had
ordered him to be cautious and not to bring on a general engagement.
Hovey attacked Champion Hill around 11 A.M., hitting and routing the
part of Cumming's Brigade posted there. Logan's troops followed not
long after, attacking Lee's and Barton's Brigades with similar results
to Hovey. The Federals had gained control of the vital crossroads,
and also had cut the Jackson Road to the west somewhat near the bridge
over Baker's Creek. The situation was critical to say the least for
General William W. Loring and his Brigadiers were not at all
cooperative with Pemberton. In fact, Smith relates that they were
treasonously hostile on several occasions during the battle.
Specifically, they first refused to come to the aid of the left wing,
they later wanted to attack while acting as read guard(!), and then
Loring performed the controversial move of abandoning the Army to its
fate at Vicksburg. Bowen's Division moved north to the rescue of
Stevenson's Division and counterattacked up Champion Hill around 2:30
P.M. This fine Division of Missourians and Arkansans was combat
hardened, and they drove Hovey's and Logan's Divisions back to their
starting points near the Sid Champion house north of the hill. Some
of Stevenson's routed Rebel Division tried to help Bowen, but their
attacks soon faltered. Luckily for the Union, Marcellus Crocker's
Division had reached the field, but it really only stabilized the
lines until Crocker's third brigade under Holmes counterattacked.
These fresh troops, along with heavy Union artillery fire and Bowen's
lack of ammunition, turned the tide. Apparently Stevenson, on his own
authority, had ordered Bowen's ordnance train west across Baker's
Creek! Needless to say Smith is not very kind in his comments about
Stevenson regarding this major mistake.
Communication between the separated Federal columns was incredibly
slow. Many wooded ravines covered this area of Mississippi, and it
made lateral movement exceedingly difficult. As a result, McClernand
in the center did not order an attack until 2 P.M., even though Grant
had sent the order much earlier. For all intents and purposes,
McClernand's column sat and skirmished against only 2 Confederate
regiments from 11 to 2 while only several hundred yards to the west
and the northwest Logan and Hovey were fighting for their lives.
Loring disobeyed Pemberton for quite some time before finally moving
with two of his brigades for the vital crossroads at around 2:45 P.M.
As McClernand finally got into action, essentially outflanking Bowen
on his right rear, Loring's first Brigade under Buford showed up.
Buford had his last two regiments taken from him without his
knowledge. They were used to excellent effect in delaying McClernand
while Bowen moved south and out of the trap he found his Division in.
The other six regiments of Buford covered Bowen's left. Loring then
arrived with Featherston, and the Confederates at last managed to
temporarily stabilize the situation. But it was too late. They had
permanently lost both the crossroads and Jackson Road, and now they
had to retreat on the southern Raymond Road, and hope that the bridge
started by their engineers earlier in the day was finished.
Pemberton withdrew around 5 P.M., with Featherston covering the rear
on the left, and Tilghman covering the Raymond Road on the right.
Skirmishing and artillery fire marked the extent of the fighting along
the southern Raymond Road between Tilghman and the Federal Divisions
of A.J. Smith and Frank Blair. Barton's Confederate Brigade, after
having been routed earlier in the day by Logan, had moved west and was
now covering the northern crossing of Baker's Creek. S.D. Lee had
crossed at the southern crossing and was moving north to guard the
northern crossing (Pemberton did not know Barton was already there).
Barton thought Lee was the enemy, and withdrew from the crossing!
Thus the Federals were handed a gift and crossed Baker's Creek.
Bowen, covering the southern crossing and waiting for Loring, was then
forced to withdraw. As a result, Loring, still east of the Creek as a
rear guard, decided not to cross and took his entire Division south
and then back northeast to Johnston. He thus saved his Division but
deprived Pemberton of much-needed strength in the Siege to come. This
decision has been controversial ever since, and Smith, although not
committing decisively one way or the other, seems to lean towards the
impossibility of Loring crossing Baker's Creek. He says that Union
artillery already had the crossing covered, and that Loring's decision
was a prudent one. This is the first time I had heard it presented
this way. I had always thought Loring deliberately took himself out
of the Campaign to rid himself of a commander he hated. Smith,
although blasting Loring earlier for his disobedience, gives the
Division commander a pass in this case.
In the aftermath of the battle, Hovey's Division, which had suffered a
disproportionate number of casualties, remained behind to tend to the
wounded and the prisoners, and to bury the dead. Out of 29,000 Union
troops present, 2,441 were casualties, for an 8.4% casualty rate.
Pemberton suffered much more severely. Out of 24,000 men, he lost
3840 for a casualty rate of 16%. When you throw in the removal of
Loring from the campaign, the Confederate casualties were disastrous.
Smith also points out that the above stats are a little misleading.
Hovey's, Logan's, and Crocker's Divisions of the northern column had
done most of the fighting for the Union, while the four divisions to
the south suffered very little. I was amazed at just how few troops
were casualties in McClernand's columns. To me, Smith gives
McClernand a little too much of a free pass. If he had been more
aggressive, Bowen or even the entire Confederate Army could have been
trapped and destroyed. He does point out Grant's order to be
cautious, but McClernand had to have heard the obviously major
fighting going on right in front of him. Grant's orders at that point
were for all intents and purposes obsolete. On the Confederate side,
Stevenson and Bowen did almost all of the fighting, and Loring's
tardiness allowed his Division to escape virtually unscathed from the
The subsequent night time retreat of Loring near and sometimes almost
through Union camps that night is an entirely different story,
however. Smith calls Champion Hill a "decisive strategic and tactical
victory" for Grant. He blames Pemberton almost completely for the
defeat, citing his poor approach march, his lack of proper cavalry
reconnaissance, his almost criminal neglect when he failed to ride
over to the left completely to directly observe the fighting, and his
decision to leave two full divisions behind in the entrenchments of
Vicksburg. He points out again that Pemberton was unfit for command,
and that he was a bureaucrat and a desk general. At this point he
goes back to Loring's decision not to cross Baker's Creek and retreat
with Pemberton. As I stated earlier, Smith believes that it would
have been a close call if Loring had tried to cross the Creek, and
that Loring might have been trapped and forced to surrender.
In the final chapter, Smith describes the disaster that befell the
Confederates at the Big Black River Bridge the next day. Grant
pursued relentlessly, and as a result routed the Confederates out of
their entrenchments on the east side of Big Black River. Over one
thousand more Rebels were captured, and Grant was well on his way to
besieging Vicksburg. He then proceeds to wrap up the ensuing
assaults, the Siege, and the surrender of Pemberton on July 4, 1863.
Smith points out that Champion Hill was the most important and
decisive battle of the Vicksburg Campaign, although he stops short of
calling it the most important battle of the entire Civil War. It
vaulted Grant and Sherman to later prominence, although it cut
McClernand down at the height of his success. He had only himself to
blame, due to a selfish proclamation he issued to his Corps after the
Second Assault at Vicksburg on May 22. Grant relieved him and he
never again held an important field command. Finally, Smith points
out that with some better decision making by Pemberton, and with some
more timely support of Bowen, the Confederates could have won the day.
Champion Hill was a closer-run affair than it would seem at first sight.
In several interesting sections after the text, Smith details the
later lives of the main players involved in the battle. He also has
an excellent selection of modern-day photos, accompanied by a map
depicting the position and orientation of the camera for each photo.
What amazed me was that the Jackson Road in that area is obviously no
longer used. It is little larger than an ATV path at this point!
The first thing that struck me after reading Champion Hill was Dr.
Smith's assessments of McClernand and McPherson. He states that Grant
thought McClernand was a better tactician than McPherson, and bases
that on the fact that he rode with McPherson's column on May 16 and
allowed McClernand independent command to the south. I do not
entirely agree with this assessment, as I mentioned previously. For
instance, how did Grant know which column would strike the enemy
first? And how did he know precisely where the enemy was in strength
when he set out on the morning of May 16. Regardless, I do partially
share Smith's high opinion of McClernand. Although I am not fond of
his unbounded and very public ambition, the political General did show
a good tactical eye and an aggressive nature in numerous fights.
However, I would not excuse his timid performance on May 16 as much as
Dr. Smith does. He points to an order from Grant to McClernand not to
bring on a general engagement. This is all well and good, but heavy
fighting raged only several hundred yards to the west and northwest of
McClernand on Champion Hill. Surely he heard the racket made by tens
of cannon and thousands of rifled muskets? At that point, Grant's
orders had become obsolete. McClernand had a chance to at the very
least bag Bowen's entire Division of excellent fighters, a fine prize
indeed, but he was uncharacteristically timid this day. While I also
agree that Pemberton was to blame for the defeat, Loring's performance
deserved a court-martial, and Joe Johnston was his usual timid self at
the time of decision. It didn't help that the inexperienced Stevenson
was in charge of the Division hit first and holding the most important
terrain of the entire battle. These rather small points aside, I
thought Dr. Smith's battle history of the Battle of Champion Hill to
be well told and excellently explained book which went down to the
regimental level. Since I am almost as much of a wargamer as am
amateur historian and Civil War buff, I thoroughly enjoyed the
attention to detail. As I mentioned in the introduction, Smith
differs in some cases with Bearss, and does not hesitate to say so.
He backs this up with good explanations, and I appreciate the fact
that he was not simply rewriting Bearss' chapters on Champion Hill.
I must also take a moment here to mention the maps done by Ted Savas,
who also happens to be the publisher. Anyone who has read any books
published by Savas, whether under his old name of Savas Publishing or
now Savas Beatie, knows that Mr. Savas has more appreciation for
numerous good maps than any other publisher I have ever seen. This
book is no exception. Fully 41 maps cover the action in regimental
level detail and accompany Smith's words in perfect harmony. They
allowed me to fully appreciate just what went on and gave me an
insight into the battle I haven't had up to this point. I did have
one minor quibble, and this coincides with the observation of Tony
Gunter, who posts on the "civilwarwest" Yahoo Group. Mr. Gunter has
pointed out in the past that the maps use various shades for
elevation, and this makes it a little harder to determine elevations
than if topographical lines of elevation had been used. This is, like
my minor disagreements with some of Dr. Smith's conclusions, a minor
quibble. No one does maps like Mr. Savas, and I mean NO ONE.
As anyone who reads my reviews on a regular basis knows, I tend to
recommend a book as long it is of reasonable quality if it is the only
one to cover a given battle. In this case, although Dr. Smith's book
is the only one to concentrate on Champion Hill to date, it is an
almost perfect model of everything a tactical battle study should be.
Smith delivers on his promise in the Preface, and delivers in a big
way. This book was well-written, both in terms of being able to
explain the often confusing action, and also in being able to keep me
entertained at the same time. Dr. Smith has obviously done his
homework, as the numerous manuscript collections in the bibliography
suggest. His "Thereafter" section detailing the later life of the
participants was also a fresh idea, as were the modern photographs of
the battlefield. And the maps, as usual in a Savas-published book,
were obviously seen as a major part of the book and not thrown in as
afterthoughts like some books published today (Donnybrook comes to
mind). Every serious student of the Civil War, and especially of the
war in the Western Theater, should own a copy of this book. I eagerly
look forward to more work from Dr. Smith in the future.
502 pp., 41 maps.
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