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American Civil War: Battle of Big Black River Bridge

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American Civil War: Battle of Big Black River Bridge

Brigadier General Michael K. Lawler

Photograph Source: Public Domain
American Civil War: Battle of Big Black River Bridge

Major General John McClernand, USA

Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress
American Civil War: Battle of Big Black River Bridge

Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, USA

Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

 Battle of Big Black River Bridge - Conflict & Date:

The Battle of Big Black River Bridge was fought May 17, 1863, during the American Civil War (1861-1865).

Armies & Commanders:

Union

Confederate

Battle of Big Black River Bridge - Background:

In late 1862, Major General Ulysses S. Grant began a series of efforts to capture the key Confederate fortress of Vicksburg, MS. Located high on the bluffs above the Mississippi River, the town was key to controlling the river below. Having met numerous difficulties in approaching Vicksburg, Grant decided  to move south through Louisiana and cross the river below the town. He was aided in this effort by Rear Admiral David D. Porter's flotilla of gunboats. On April 30, 1863, Grant's Army of the Tennessee began crossing the Mississippi at Bruinsburg, MS. Driving off Confederate forces at Port Gibson, Grant pressed inland. With Union troops to the south, the Confederate commander at Vicksburg, Lieutenant General John Pemberton, began planning a defense outside of the city and requested reinforcements from General Joseph E. Johnston.

The bulk of these were transported to Jackson, MS though their travel to the city was slowed by damage caused to the railroads by Colonel Benjamin Grierson's cavalry raid in April. With Grant advancing northeast, Pemberton believed that Union troops would move directly on Vicksburg and began retreating back towards the city. Able to keep the enemy off balance, Grant instead struck towards Jackson with the aim of severing the Southern Railroad which linked the two cities. Protecting his left flank with the Big Black River, Grant drove forward with Major General James B. McPherson's XVII Corps on the right and ordered it to proceed through Raymond to cut the Southern at Bolton. To McPherson's left, Major General John McClernand's XIII Corps was to attack the railroad at Edwards while Major General William T. Sherman's XV Corps was to strike between Edwards and Bolton at Midway (Map).

On May 12, McPherson won a victory over some of the reinforcements from Jackson at the Battle of Raymond. Two days later, Sherman pushed Johnston's men from Jackson and captured the city.  Falling back, Johnston instructed Pemberton to strike at Grant's rear. Believing this plan to be too risky and that it left Vicksburg unprotected, he instead moved against Union supply trains operating between Grand Gulf and Raymond.  Johnston repeated his order on May 16 causing Pemberton to plan a countermarch northeast towards Clinton.  Having secured his rear, Grant turned west to deal with Pemberton and begin the advance on Vicksburg.  This saw McPherson move ahead in the north, McClernand in the south, while Sherman, having finished operations at Jackson, brought up the rear.

Battle of Big Black River Bridge - A New Line:

Before Pemberton could comply with Johnston's orders to move to Clinton, his army came under attack on May 16.  In the resulting Battle of Champion Hill, Confederate forces were badly beaten and Pemberton compelled to retreat towards Vicksburg.  Establishing a new line along the Big Black River, Pemberton hoped to hold the bridges there until Major General William Loring's division could rejoin the army.  Unknown to Pemberton, Loring had decided to retreat toward Crystal Springs with an eye to linking with Johnston.  At the river, he placed Brigadier General John S. Bowen's division, supported by Brigadier General John C. Vaughn's brigade, in a strong position on the east bank.

Anchoring his left on the river, Pemberton's line ran south to Gin Lake and was protected for large sections by a bayou of waist-deep water.  To enhance this position, the Confederates constructed earthworks and emplaced 18 guns.  In the rear, a planked over railroad bridge and a bridge constructed from the steamers Dot, Charm, and Paul Jones provided access to western shore where additional artillery had been deployed on heights overlooking the river.  While Bowen's men filled the majority of the line, Vaughn's assumed a position on the extreme left.

Battle of Big Black River Bridge - Grant Arrives:

Having spent the night at Champion Hill, Grant resumed his advance before dawn with McClernand's corps in the lead, McPherson's following, and Sherman's moving north to seek a crossing over the Big Black at Bridgeport.  Around 7:00 AM, McClernand's lead elements encountered Pemberton's defenses.  Forming for battle, he deployed Brigadier General Eugene Carr's division north of the railroad while Brigadier General Peter Osterhaus' extended the Union line to the south.  Arriving on the field, Grant immediately saw the strength of Pemberton's position and was concerned as the Confederate line was fronted by open ground with the exception of a thick stand of trees to the north.  Continuing to assess the situation, Grant knew that Pemberton could be forced from his defenses without a fight if Sherman succeeded in crossing the river further north.

Battle of Big Black River Bridge - A Sudden Victory:

While Grant considered his options, McClernand, who was eager to make up for a poor showing the previous day at Champion Hill, wished to attack.  The decision ultimately was taken from them by Brigadier General Michael K. Lawler.  Leading a brigade in Carr's division, Lawler moved his men through the trees at the northern edge of the field and then through a meander scar to a position close to the Confederate lines.  Seeing an opportunity, he then ordered his men to charge.  Quickly crossing an area open ground, they splashed through the bayou and struck Vaughn's brigade.

Stunned by the attack, Vaughn's men offered little resistance and fled towards the bridges.  Their retreat led to the collapse of the Confederate position.  Spurred on by Lawler's example, other Union formations surged forward.  Overwhelmed and at risk of being trapped on the east bank, Bowen's men streamed back over the bridges.  Seeing the Union troops pouring forward, Confederate engineer Major Samuel Lockett ordered both bridges burned.  Though this action prevented Grant's men from securing the bridges, it led to the capture of 1,751 Confederates who were trapped on the east bank.

Battle of Big Black River Bridge - Aftermath:

In the fighting at the Battle of Big Black River Bridge, Grant sustained only 39 killed, 237 wounded, and 3 missing.  Pemberton's losses were not accurately reported, but the battle saw Union forces capture 1,751 Confederates soldiers and 18 guns.  Though Pemberton still held a strong position on the west side of the river, this soon was compromised as Sherman succeeded in crossing at Bridgeport.  With no other choice, the Confederate commander withdrew west with his remaining forces and made for Vicksburg's elaborate defenses.  Taking a day to bridge the river, Grant resumed his pursuit and arrived at the city on May 19.  His initial assaults failed to carry the city and he instead elected to lay siege.  Lasting until July 4, the Siege of Vicksburg saw Grant finally carry the city and with the fall of Port Hudson, LA, the Mississippi River opened to Union traffic.

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