Life Hardly Endurable: An English Rebel on the Vicksburg Campaign
This extraordinary letter, written by former English army officer Stephen Edward Monaghan Underhill to his mother in Coldstream, Scotland in the waning days of the siege of Vicksburg, gives a lengthy account of Underhill’s experiences during the Vicksburg campaign while serving as an aide-de-camp to Brigadier General Stephen D. Lee. The 21-year old Underhill resigned his commission in the British army and entered the Confederacy through the blockade at Charleston, South Carolina in January 1863, journeyed to Mississippi and gained an appointment to Lee’s staff. Underhill gained favorable notice from Lee for his “gallantry and efficient service” during the campaign. Following his parole at Vicksburg, he was commissioned as a first lieutenant of cavalry and eventually became colonel of the 65th Alabama Infantry.
|Colonel Stephen E.M. Underhill|
The letter had a rather twisted path to publication in the Guernsey Times of Cambridge, Ohio. Underhill wrote that he had entrusted the letter to a civilian in Vicksburg as he anticipated that the city would soon be captured and that his private communications would be limited. Underhill’s letter was evidently either found or intercepted by Federal Lieutenant John C. Douglass (78th Ohio Volunteer Infantry) who was then serving as assistant adjutant general on Brigadier General Elias S. Dennis’s staff (2nd Brigade, 3rd Division, 17th Army Corps). Douglass sent the letter to his home in Ohio, and the Guernsey Times ran Underhill’s letter in their August 20, 1863 issue. Underhill did get an account of the Vicksburg campaign into an August issue of the Edinburgh Scotsman in Scotland, which was later picked up and re-published by the New York Evening Post on September 7, 1863. It's content closely mirrors this earlier letter written to his mother.
Headquarters, 2nd Brigade, Stevenson’s Division, Trenches, Vicksburg, Mississippi
Sunday, June 28, 1863, 11 A.M. to 4 P.M., the 42nd day of the siege
Mrs. Underhill, Coldstream, my dear, dear mother,
It is with feelings of great doubt and uncertainty that I sit down to write this. To give you some idea of how matters have turned out as they have, I must go back until, say, the middle of April. General [Stephen D.] Lee and staff and troops had returned from the Deer Creek Expedition. The enemy, as usual, lay in force on the side of the river seven miles away and all was going on quietly and well, when one dark night six iron clad gunboats and as many transports well protected with cotton bales started to run down the river and past our guns. I will not delay not to expatiate on the niggardly way in which ordnance and other stores were sent here. All were at their posts and all men could do was done. One iron gunboat was sunk, two others rendered disabled and helpless and two transports burned. The remainder, through frequently struck, got past. A few days after the enemy landed simultaneously at Snyder’s ten miles above us and at Bruinsburg 40 miles below. General Stephen D. Lee was sent to Snyder’s-pronounced the landing a mere feint and returned to his own command. Next morning troops were dispatched to meet the enemy: Generals [John S.] Bowen and [Brigadier General Martin E.] Green’s Missouri brigades and General [Edward D.] Tracey’s Alabama brigade, numbering in all 6,000 men.
|Brigadier General Stephen D. Lee|
On the 1st of May our army 6,000 strong encountered that of the enemy which numbered some 30,000. This force had marched across the peninsula, had embarked opposite Warrenton to disembark at Bruinsburg on the opposite side from their point of embarkation and some 30 miles further down the Mississippi. The 1st of May, as I said above, saw a bloody fight at the small town of Port Gibson on a small creek called Bayou Pierre, where notwithstanding the overwhelming superiority of the enemy, they were held in check all that day. Our loss was frightfully heavy and included the death of General Tracey, a young, brave, and able soldier whose loss is mourned universally. On the night of the 1st of May, our forces retreated meeting [Brigadier General William E.} Baldwin’s and [Colonel Alexander W.] Reynolds’ brigades, say 3,000 men, coming to reinforce them, burning the bridges, and took up a strong position near Grand Gulf on this side of Bayou Pierre (General Lee was not with this army but I had ridden down to see the fight and General Lee had given me a letter to General Bowen, the senior brigadier in command).
On the evening of the 2nd of May, General [William W.] Loring arrived and took command and so did General [Lloyd] Tilghman with part of his brigade. General Loring, learning that the enemy had by means of a pontoon bridge crossed Bayou Pierre and flanked us, ordered a retreat which commenced at 1 A.M. on Sunday May 3rd. Our heavy batteries at Grand Gulf on the Mississippi River which had several times repulsed the Federal ironclads were blown up and abandoned and with the enemy only a short distance in our rear, we marched toward Big Black, a stream crossed by the railroad at Big Black Bridge, some 12 miles from Vicksburg. We met other reinforcements (Taylor’s and Barton’s brigades) and we then headed for Hankerson’s Ferry over the same stream but lower down and some 20 miles from Vicksburg. General Lee had been ordered out to take command of Tracey’s Alabamians, a fine brigade some 2,500 strong, consisting of five regiments and a battery (20th, 23rd, 30th, 31st, and 46th Alabama Infantry regiments, Waddell’s six-gun Alabama Battery). To our brigade, which I of course rejoined, was entrusted the duty of guarding the rear. We skirmished heavily with the enemy all the way and succeeded in procuring time for the passage of all wagons, stores, etc. when our brigade itself crossed over and destroyed the bridge all under the enemy’s fire.
|Brigadier General Edward D. Tracey|
Killed at Port Gibson May 1, 1863
From this time until the 10th the armies lay on either side of the river, the Federals constantly getting large reinforcements from below, while we, whose disparity of numbers was daily on the increase, were only able to hold the various fords and ferries and were quite unable to redress or avenge upon the enemy the destruction and devastation with which they visited the country they occupied. The enemy remained quietly opposite us recruiting their numbers and the health of the troops until on the 10th they moved off in the direction of Jackson, the capital of this state. We now heard that reinforcements were on their way from Charleston, South Carolina and Port Hudson, Mississippi to our relief and that General Joe Johnston himself was about to command us in person. We at once moved up on this side of the Big Black and crossed at the railroad bridge, following in the enemy’s track. On the 11th, the enemy tapped the railroad and cut the telegraph wires thereby cutting off all our communication.
On the 12th they came across Gregg’s brigade on its way up from Port Hudson at Raymond. It made a gallant resistance but after losing one half of its number, had to retreat to Jackson. The two days we lay in line of battle in strong position near Edward’s Depot awaiting the enemy. On the evening of the 15th we started toward Clinton where we heard the enemy had last been seen. Our division being in advance, General Loring’s division (Buford and Tilghman’s brigades) 5,000 strong came next, and then came Bowen’s and Green’s Missouri brigades. Smith’s division remained behind to guard. Lieutenant General [John C.] Pemberton now took command we brought our forced march of Friday evening May 15th to a close on Saturday about 2 A.M. when we bivouacked in an open field. We had no wagons with us, but the men were so exhausted that they soon forgot their hunger in sleep. By 4:30 next morning, a courier arrived from General [Joseph E.] Johnston directing us at once to make a junction with him and immediately afterward a scout came in to say the enemy was making a forced march to get in our rear and between us and Vicksburg. General Pemberton at once ordered a retreat. Our wagons, ordnance, hospital, trains, etc. were all sent off on the Vicksburg road while the troops after a five mile march formed line of battle on a strong position near Baker’s Creek and Edward’s Depot on the Raymond and Clinton road, and there awaited the approach of the enemy.
|General John S. Bowen|
It was now about 7 A.M. The men were completely broken down by hard marching and none had had anything to eat for nearly 36 hours. Under these auspices we awaited battle on a glorious May morning. General Loring’s division was on the right; Stevenson’s on the left extending nearly to Baker’s Creek and our brigade (Lee’s) was on the extreme left of our division (Stevenson’s). General Bowen’s division was in reserve and General Pemberton commanded in person. The battle commenced about 7:30 with heavy skirmishing on the right. It gradually rolled round to the left, however, and came to us, ceasing on the right entirely. By 9 o’clock the enemy had massed large bodies of troops in our front and Cumming’s on our right. General Lee had, six different times, moved his brigade that it might not be outflanked by the overwhelming numbers of the enemy. Five separate times did I gallop at top speed upward of a mile and back bearing the same message from General Lee to General [Carter L.] Stevenson to the effect the enemy were outflanking him. Five times did I bring the reply, “Tell General Lee I know it and am moving my division accordingly.” Five times did we take a new position on our left, but the cry was “still they come.”
At this time the enemy seemed to have completed their arrangements for they made a simultaneous and vigorous attack along our lines. They advanced in three lines and to each of our little brigades they opposed at least a division. We could only bring two brigades into the fight at this time for the others were guarding and holding important positions. At first our men stood up the work gallantly and vigorously returned the deadly fire than thinned their ranks. They went down by dozens before the Yankee artillery and musketry, but many a Yankee bit the dust. There were two distinct lines respectively of blue and brown, marking where the dead of either army lay where they had fallen when the fray began. This unequal contest lasted several hours but though wearied almost to death and though pressed by overwhelming odds, the Second Brigade still held out, patiently awaiting the arrival and aid of our other two brigades or those of Loring or Bowen.
|General Carter L. Stevenson|
It did not come, however, and one of Cumming’s Georgia regiments being hard pushed broke and took shelter in the woods. It was like a bank crumbling away before the action of a torrent to watch our lines at this juncture. The panic seemed contagious and as it ran down the lines, regiment after regiment caught it toll both brigades were in full retreat, leaving all their artillery and all dead and wounded in the enemy’s hands.
With some trouble the fugitives were rallied on the crest of a hill and again faced the now victoriously advancing enemy. Once more the men from Alabama and Georgia sent their missiles into the ranks of Indiana, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Ohio, and the death yell of the Western men rang loudly out under the luxuriant magnolia groves in which they fought. Again the Southern troops showed signs of wavering and General Lee, seizing the banner of the 30th Alabama and followed by his staff, rode down the line and led it to the charge. New life seemed to have been infused into the Southern troops. They rushed on with leveled bayonets, cheering wildly. The Northerners rapidly though steadily retiring and pouring volley after volley into their pursuers. At length a shout announced some triumph for the enemy who in a moment rallied and halted, as did also our men, and sure enough there lay General Lee upon the ground. Before any of us could reach him he had disengaged himself from his dead horse and mounting another once more led the charge. We were now passing over our old position when once more did Lee’s horse fall dead, amidst a triumphant shot from the enemy. This time our troops fairly broke and ran notwithstanding every effort and all example. General Lee stood for a moment in despair. A ball, and then a second, both fortunately spent, struck his left sleeve, penetrating it and bruising his arm but doing no further damage. Capt. Elliott of our staff had his horse shot and a ball broke his sword. I escaped.
|The Vicksburg Campaign April-July 1863 courtesy of Hal Jespersen (www.cwmaps.com)|
Lieutenant Underhill participated in the battles of Port Gibson and Champion's Hill before falling back to Vicksburg.
General Lee now mounted a third horse and followed his brigade which was once more formed in the magnolia wood upon the hill. He sent me to General Barton to ask for reinforcements. I took a short cut and the first thing I knew I was amongst a number of Yankee sharpshooters who demanded my surrender. I declined, and spurring my horse in another direction, some of them fired and killed my horse. I then jumped into a ravine. At the bottom I met a wounded Federal officer who when I wouldn’t yield, fired three shots of his Colt at me but would not face me with his sword. I got into a rye field and ran up it. Some of our men were at the top and fired several shots at me ere they discovered their mistake. When I got up to the road I caught and mounted a loose horse (which by the way died last week of the sixth shot, five balls having failed even to maim him), saw several aides riding about who all told me the day was lost. Barton’s brigade had been demolished and Green’s wild Missourians, after having completely routed one Yankee division, retaken all our artillery and made 560 Yankees prisoners, had been surrounded by two other divisions and had only cut its way out with frightful loss. General Tilghman had been killed by a chance shot and General Pemberton had ordered a retreat to Big Black Bridge. I tried to get back to General Lee but the Yankees intervened. I tried to get around them, lost myself in a wood, got fired at again, and finally escaped by swimming Baker’s Creek.
|General Lloyd Tilghman|
Killed at Champion's Hill May 16, 1863
I was so hot, hungry, and tired to death that life was hardly endurable, but I rode sadly on with the tide of wagons and fugitives that poured along the road. At last I came up with our headquarters wagon, hauled it on one side, and enjoyed a wash and some flour scorees and a drink of water. I now asked if it was near noon and was thunderstruck to find it was past six. At Big Black Bridge I saw General Pemberton, but he could tell me nothing. I heard General Lee was killed and his brigade taken and was in despair. From a gentle eminence I could see Edwards’ Depot and the fine plantations and country seats in a blaze, showing too plainly the advance of the pursuing foe. I had nothing to do at the bridge, so I rode on to Vicksburg, got there at midnight, and put up at our own headquarters.1 So ended the battle day.
Our army was thoroughly beaten. Our junction with Johnston was prevented and we lost 18 guns and several thousand stand of small arms and some 5,000 killed, wounded, and prisoners. Our own brigade suffered frightfully. Naturally Vicksburg was in great alarm. I heard that General Lee had been surrounded, lost one regiment, and had cut his way out with the remainder of his brigade- that our whole army, except Loring’s division, had crossed to this side and we held the Yankees at bay at our breastworks on the other side until 8 o’clock, though there was some very severe fighting when Vaughn’s brigade broke and run. Upwards of 2,000 of them were taken as well as a number of Missourians who could not get away. The enemy took 21 more guns, making our two days’ loss in artillery amount to some 39 pieces. We were obliged to burn the bridge, a very fine one, which with its trestlework extended nearly a mile.
Of course I at once started to meet General Lee and though my way was much impeded by wagon trains and columns of troops, I met him at the head of his column, not much reduced, about half way from Vicksburg. He was apparently as delighted to see me as I was to see him- said he had feared I was either shot or taken and spoke very complimentary of my conduct. I thanked him and took my place and presently after, getting his leave, rode off across country to pay some farewell visits at some of the cotton plantations on the Yazoo River some 15 miles from town. In almost every house I found tears and lamenting, Negroes insolent, ladies in a dilemma what to do, most of the gentlemen away with their regiments. In the afternoon I got to Mr. Blake’s, a great friend of General Lee’s. He owns a beautiful plantation called Blakely, and many a nice dinner, many a delightful walk, and many a charming ride I have enjoyed in its lonely woods. I stopped to dinner and after that to tea, and after that till 11 o’clock, when though nearly persuaded to stay all night, fear overcame inclination and I rode away with rather a sad heart, for the probabilities are that next time I pass the house I shall find a pile of smoldering ruins and its inmates impoverished and perhaps homeless. Judging from other cases and similar one, this will be their fate.
|Vicksburg, Mississippi in 1860. (Courtesy of oldcourthouse.org)|
I got into Vicksburg early Monday morning May 19th and soon after finding the brigade, had to march with it from the camp to the trenches which from that day to this I have not left, save twice to church and when I occasionally ride to town on business. The same afternoon, heavy cannonading announced the enemy’s approach and from that night to this they have encircled us with a wall of fire, a hedge of steel. Our lines run around Vicksburg about two miles from town, joining the river at either end and thus forming a semi-circle some six miles in extent. Our lines, though naturally in a strong position running along the crest of a ravine or across the head of some impassable ridge or hollow, are constructed solely with shovel and pick. They are field works along and not an ounce of stone, brick, or lime is used in the construction of any of them. We have cotton bales which we use as sand bags, however.
Our river front is almost impregnable, I think. True, a number of boats can run down with the current at full speed some dark night but when one stops and attempts to fight our batteries, it doesn’t take long to sink them, as witness the Switzerland and their vaunted ironclad the Cincinnati some three weeks ago.
We are continually subjected to the most terrific fire from musketry, cannon, and mortars. Huge 13-inch shells, rifled projectiles, and all kinds of solid shot with thousands on thousands of rifle bullets are continually screaming in the air. It is astonishing to compare the ammunition they waste with the lives they destroy. All along our lines there is one unceasingly rattle of musketry from the enemy’s parallels. The air is almost always alive with shot and shell but the men do not expose themselves unnecessarily and we seldom have more than 10 or 12 killed in our brigade per day, and so it has been for 42 weary days and nights.
We have lost none of our staff since Baker’s Creek when we lost Colonel Stitt and though none of us are wounded, hairsbreadth escapes we have all had. But I have kept a journal of the siege and you will perhaps see all the particulars someday. We never expected to be besieged this way; consequently the 30,000 men in here have eaten up all our provisions and we are now reduced to eating mules, which, however, are just as good as cattle when one becomes accustomed to them. Our hopes have been raised from week to week by the belief that Johnston was in the rear of the enemy with a strong army to relieve us. But week after week has passed and he has not come, and we begin to fear he cannot come with sufficient force to whip the 100,000 by whom we are hemmed in. Unless he comes within ten days more there are but two courses open for us- one to surrender, the other to attempt to cut our way out. I know not which course may be adopted, but hope it will be the latter. In an event, I am going to give this letter, to hide in the meantime, to some civilian, who will post it after things are quiet as, if taken prisoner, I shan’t be able to write anything but very private notes until my release.
The enemy has run their ditches so close to ours that we can hear them speak. We believe them to be mining our works, but we have countermined. We do not think they will assault us again. They tired that on the 22nd of May and in less than ten minutes they had 600 killed and over 1,000 wounded. We, being protected by our works, had 100 killed and 150 wounded. If so much as an inch of one’s cap sticks above our parapets, it is sure to be struck with several rifle balls, so we have to take care. I am standing the sultry sun of the Magnolia State very well. I think it is one of the loveliest countries in the universe. Its luxuriant vegetation, laden peach trees, fragrant magnolias, and cape jessamine flowers, all of which abound, make it delightful. The rations, however, and I can’t agree with and I am getting very weak.
|Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton|
Less than a week after Underhill wrote this letter,
General Pemberton asked for surrender terms
from General Grant.
There are many ladies and children in town and the enemy generally shell the town proper at night, and always manage to kill or maim some of them per day. There is hardly a private house that has not been shattered by shot or shell and scarcely a resident of this wealthy and aristocratic little place, who is not impoverished, but all bear it cheerfully and would bear ten times more rather than reunite with the Northerners, and the Northerners know it. Why the very churches here seem to have been singled out and, save the Catholic Cathedral, all of them are more or less in ruins. I was confirmed in the Episcopal Church here by the Bishop of Mississippi shortly before the siege. Now the church is in ruins from mortar shells. I am getting along pretty well considering. The staff is sadly thinned by sickness. In peace and holiday times we had eleven, now we have two. You may not care for this letter but it will show you I have not forgotten you all quite.
I wrote you on Friday by a Federal prisoner going out and I hope you will get it soon. I will write you as soon as I can. I am naturally down spirited, so you must not expect me to say more. Before this reaches you the papers will have told you whether my hopes or fears will have been realized. Give my love to dear father. I was going to write him separately, but feel too sick and tired.
Love to dear Emily, Sarah, and Joe, and believe me my dear, dear mama, ever your affectionate son,
S.M. Underhill, Lt. and A.D.C. to Gen. S.D. Lee, 2nd Brigade, Stevenson’s Div., Dept. Miss. & E. La.
For an account of the surrender of Vicksburg, please visit my previous post entitled "A Glorious Conclusion: the Surrender of Vicksburg."
1 Lieutenant Underhill conversed with Mrs. Emma Balfour who lived next door to General Pemberton’s headquarters in the Willis-Cowan House in Vicksburg, as she recorded in her diary that Underhill spoke with her about the disaster at Champion’s Hill. “My pen almost refuses to tell of our terrible disaster of yesterday…. We are defeated – our army in confusion and the carnage awful! Lieut. Underhill came into tell of it – he thinks Gen. [Stephen D.] Lee killed. Gen. Stevenson was in command of the whole & Gen. Lee’s brigade four times met the shock of battle – going where they were most hotly pursued….The whole battery was captured – big guns and nearly all the men that were left…. By this time there was great confusion – the slaughter dreadful. Gen. Lee repeatedly rallied his men…all to no purpose. Just then he sent Lieut. Underhill to order up ammunition & as soon as he left, he was cut off from his Gen., but he could see him, the last man in the field, still trying to rally the fleeing men & the bullets falling in a shower around him. One horse had been killed under him (his large bay). He had mounted another. When Lieut. U. looked – or as soon as he could see – he looked and he [Gen. Lee] was not to be seen – so he thought he must have fallen immediately. He wept as he related all this, said he never saw such daring, such generalship – but alas it was of no avail. He said he was not ashamed of his tears, for God never made a purer, braver, or nobler man. I, too, wept, but not only for him, indeed all individual feeling seems merged in grief and interest for my country…. Lieut. U. has promised (he returned at once) to look out for Gen. Lee, Duncan Green, & Winston Reese diligently. I know I can rely upon him, and if living, though wounded, to have Underhill get them, and at any rate to send me written intelligence of them during the day. Later…Lieut. U. has just come to tell me that he has seen Major Gillespie just come from the Big Black – Gen, Lee is alive & unhurt! See how God shields the brave! He with our army has fallen back to Big Black where the fight is still going on….” Cotton, Gordon A. The Letters of Emma Balfour, 1847-1857. Vicksburg: The Print Shop, 2006
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