Here's What You Need to Remember: In spite of McClernand’s poor performance, Grant seemed pleased, overall, with the results of the day. He recognized immediately that the Battle of Champion’s Hill had secured the Union’s position between Confederates Johnston and Pemberton.
Abraham Lincoln considered Vicksburg the key to the war in the West and a necessary target for the Union if they hoped to achieve overall victory. “Vicksburg is the key,” wrote Lincoln. “The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket. I am acquainted with that region and know what I am talking about, and as valuable as New Orleans will be to us, Vicksburg will be more so.”
Vicksburg, situated on a high bluff, was the last Confederate military stronghold on the Mississippi River. The location of the city allowed the Confederacy significant mobility along the strategic river, not only regarding troops, but also supply and communications. Southern President Jefferson Davis understood as well as Lincoln the importance of Vicksburg. In a letter dated May 8, 1863, Davis wrote: “If [Lt. Gen. John] Pemberton is able to repulse the enemy in his land attack and to maintain possession of both Vicksburg and Port Hudson, the enemy’s fleet cannot long remain in the River between those points from their inability to get coal and other necessary supplies.”
A Move to Cut Union Communications
On the morning of May 14, Pemberton was en route to Edward’s Depot just east of Vicksburg, where he was preparing to establish defensive positions, when he received a message from General Joseph Johnston, who had just evacuated Jackson. Johnston informed Pemberton that Union Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman had moved between them with four detached divisions at Clinton. If Pemberton could advance on Sherman from the rear while Johnston advanced from the front, together they could defeat Sherman’s detached divisions. It was a bold idea, but it did not sit well with Pemberton. Advancing on four enemy divisions to the east meant moving the majority of Confederate forces farther away from Vicksburg, leaving the city even more vulnerable to an attack by the Union forces of Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.
Pemberton convened a council of war with his generals. The opinions in the council were mixed, but a majority of the generals favored the advance that Johnston had proposed. Pemberton, however, felt that moving on Clinton would be suicidal, and instead sided with his two senior divisional commanders, Maj. Gens. William W. Loring and Carter L. Stevenson. They proposed that Pemberton move toward Grant’s rear and cut off his communication and supply lines in the hope of forcing him to retreat. Pemberton agreed and ordered his army to move the next day toward Dillon’s Plantation, located on the main road leading from Raymond to Port Gibson.
Pemberton was unaware that Johnston had evacuated Jackson without a fight. In a letter to his new commander, Pemberton wrote: “I shall move as early tomorrow morning as practicable with a column of 17,000 men to Dillon’s, situated on the main road leading from Raymond to Port Gibson, 7½ miles below Raymond and 9½ miles from Edward’s Depot. The object is to cut the enemy’s communications and to force him to attack me, as I do not consider my force sufficient to justify an attack on the enemy in position or to attempt to cut my way to Jackson.”
At 1 in the afternoon of May 15, Pemberton put his men into motion. Moving his army across Baker’s Creek during the afternoon proved impossible as the creek had swelled tremendously due to a hard-driving rainstorm that had washed away the bridge. Pemberton halted for several hours before eventually moving his army across the creek using the Clinton Road Bridge, 1½ miles to the north. He continued marching toward Raymond Road and eventually gave orders to bivouac for the night near the Elliston plantation, home of Mrs. Sara Elliston, where Pemberton established his headquarters. Upon settling in, Pemberton detailed Colonel Wirt Adams’s 1st Mississippi Cavalry to patrol the vicinity during the night and scout for enemy positions. The night passed uneventfully.
The next morning, around 6:30, Adams encountered the lead Union forces of Maj. Gen. John A. McClernand’s XIII Corps on the Raymond Road and began to skirmish with them. Around the same time that Adams sent word to Pemberton of his encounter, Pemberton received a troubling dispatch from Johnston. “Our being compelled to leave Jackson makes your plan impracticable,” wrote Johnston. “The only mode by which we can unite is by your moving directly to Clinton, informing me, that we may move to that point with about 6,000 troops. I have no means of estimating enemy’s force at Jackson. The principal officers here differ very widely, and I fear he will fortify if time is left him. Let me hear from you immediately.”
Pemberton Takes Champion’s Hill
Pemberton, thinking that Adams was simply skirmishing with a small band of Union forces on the Raymond Road and sensing the urgency in Johnston’s dispatch, ordered his men to begin a retrograde march toward Clinton in the hope of reuniting with Johnston’s forces. As Pemberton and his men began their countermarch, Union forces commenced to attack the head of his column with long-range artillery fire. Pemberton fell back to strategic Champion’s Hill, a 75-foot-high prominence located on the grounds of the Champion plantation.
As the early-morning clash grew more intense, Pemberton quickly deployed all three of his divisions into battle lines stretching roughly three miles in length, with Loring on the right, Bowen in the center, and Stevenson on the left. The line of battle was quickly formed, without any interference on the part of the enemy. The position selected was a naturally strong one, and all approaches from the front well covered. Even Grant later commended Pemberton’s position, writing in his memoirs: “Champion’s Hill, where Pemberton had chosen his position to receive us, whether taken by accident or design, was well selected. It is one of the highest points in that section, and commanded all the ground in range.”
The Crossroads: Pemberton’s Weak Spot
There was one weakness in Pemberton’s battle line, however. The left flank was vulnerable to an attack from the north via the Jackson Road, which crossed at the crest of the hill. This key intersection, known as the Crossroads, became one of the most hotly contested parts of the battlefield. During the early morning of May 16, Pemberton was unaware that a Union force commanded by Maj. Gen. John A. Logan (3rd Division, XVII Corps) was attempting to move from Bolton, down the Jackson Road to the Crossroads, in an attempt to cut the Confederates off from Vicksburg. If the Union forces could surprise Pemberton’s men at the Crossroads and overlap their left flank, Pemberton’s army would be trapped and all would be lost for the Confederates.
Good scouting on the part of the Confederacy foiled the Union trap before it could be implemented. Around 9 am, a Confederate messenger brought word to Pemberton that Union forces were moving along the Jackson Road toward the Crossroads on their left flank. This information allowed Pemberton to adjust his lines in the defense of the Crossroads, and he ordered Stevenson and his men to establish lines at the crest of Champion’s Hill. If the Confederates were to have any hope for success, the left flank had to hold their positions. One of the most critical and bloody parts of the battle was about to begin.
The Battle for the Crossroads
At about 10 o’clock, the battle began in earnest along Stevenson’s entire front. Stevenson described the fighting in his official report: “At about 10:30 am a division of the enemy, in column of brigades, attacked [Brig. Gen. Stephen D.] Lee and [Brig. Gen. Alfred] Cumming. They were handsomely met and forced back some distance, when they were reinforced, apparently by about three divisions, two of which moved forward to the attack and the third continued its march toward the left, with the view of forcing it. The enemy now made a vigorous attack in three lines upon the whole front. They were bravely met, and for a long time the unequal conflict was maintained with stubborn resolution. But this could not last. Six thousand five hundred men could not hold permanently in check four divisions, numbering, from their own statements, about 25,000 men; and finally, crushed by overwhelming numbers, my right gave way and was pressed back upon the two regiments covering the Clinton and Raymond roads, where they were in part rallied. Encouraged by this success, the enemy redoubled his efforts and pressed with the utmost vigor along my line, forcing it back.”
While the Confederate left was surging back and forth against Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson’s XVII Corps around the Crossroads, other Union forces began focusing their crosshairs on the Confederate center and right. Brig. Gen. Alvin P. Hovey’s 12th Division, XIII Corps, battled along the center of the Confederate position with great success. Hovey ordered Brig. Gen. George F. McGinnis and Colonel James R. Slack to press their skirmishers forward up the hill and follow with their respective brigades. In a few minutes the fire opened briskly along the entire line, continuing for an hour. The Union troops drove forward 600 yards up Champion’s Hill, capturing 11 guns and more than 300 prisoners.