Death in the Bayou: The 16th Ohio at Chickasaw Bluffs
The Battle of Chickasaw Bayou or Chickasaw Bluffs (December 26-29, 1862) represented General U.S. Grant’s first major effort to capture the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi. His close friend General William Tecumseh Sherman commanded a force of four divisions totaling roughly 32,000 federal troops which undertook this expedition. The plan was to sail up the Yazoo River to a point just north of the city of Vicksburg, effectively landing in the rear of the city’s defenses, then take the position by storm. The effort ultimately failed, stymied by unexpectedly stout Confederate defenses, and the significant challenges of the ground itself.
|Chickasaw Bayou in 1864|
Sherman’s men landed in a heavily wooded swamp, a tangled growth of cypress trees, vines, and bushes more home to turtles, alligators, and vermin than to heavily loaded infantrymen. After a few days of maneuvering, Sherman directed an assault on December 29, 1862 that became a bloody repulse; all told, the Federals lost 1,776 casualties during the campaign and extracted less than 200 casualties from the Confederates. Significantly, one out of six Federal casualties at Chickasaw Bayou came from just one regiment: the 16th Ohio Volunteer Infantry.
The second organization [a three months’ organization saw service from May-August 1861] of the 16th Ohio Volunteer Infantry mustered into three years’ service on October 2, 1861 at Camp Tiffin in Wooster, Ohio. Raised throughout the northeastern part of Ohio, the 16th Ohio was led by Colonel John F. DeCourcey and was armed with .71 caliber French-made Vincennes muskets and saber bayonets, and the 16th Ohio was the only Ohio regiment so equipped. Initially sent into eastern Kentucky, the 16th Ohio saw action at the seizure of Cumberland Gap in April 1862 and took part in a small unit action at Tazewell, Tennessee in August 1862. Driven all the way back to Ohio River by the Confederate invasion of Kentucky in late August 1862, the regiment arrived “worn out, ragged, shoeless, and covered with the accumulated dust of sixteen days’ march. Their appearance was forlorn in the extreme.”
|Corporal James M. Dennis, Co. F|
Library of Congress
Rested and re-equipped, the 16th Ohio left Point Pleasant, Virginia in November 1862 and was sent down to Memphis, Tennessee via steamboat where it joined the Army of the Tennessee. Assigned to Brigadier General George Washington Morgan’s Third Division of Sherman’s 15th Army Corps, Colonel DeCourcey (as senior colonel in the brigade) assumed command of the Third Brigade which consisted of the 16th Ohio, 42nd Ohio, 54th Indiana, and 22nd Kentucky regiments. Loaded upon the steamer Henry von Phul, Colonel DeCourcey and the 16th Ohio set out from Memphis for their meeting with destiny at the Chickasaw Bluffs on December 20, 1862.
|Tattered national colors of the 16th Ohio|
Chickasaw Bluffs, Mississippi
January 18, 1863
We landed a few miles above Vicksburg Christmas evening. Friday afternoon skirmishers were thrown out and several regiments sent to feel the enemy. They soon found him and a lively fire was kept up for some time; the gunboats in the meantime throwing shells, etc. But soon all was quiet again and we slept on the boats. Saturday morning our division advanced a mile and a half which took us all day. Towards evening the advance had quite a sharp fight with the enemy having two to four killed and nine wounded. We slept on our arms and early Sunday morning we marched down to where the other regiments were. We had hardly arrived when the enemy fired upon the pickets to our left. We were soon in line and the firing for several hours was terrific in the extreme. The right of the line and the artillery suffered severely. About noon the firing slackened a little. Our line and artillery moved down over the levee; our division was lying behind it in reserve. One of our men was shot through the head and killed while asleep. We then moved behind the levee for better protection.
|General George W. Morgan|
Commanding Third Division
At this time the Rebels attempted to capture our battery and charged furiously upon it. General [George W.] Morgan ordered several regiments to charge on them, our regiment included. We drove them at this time about half a mile. They opened their artillery and infantry upon us, and the thunder of battle on both sides was truly frightful- the men began to fall very fast- one ball brought down eight men of the 54th Indiana to the ground and three of them lay dead in a heap, one having his head knocked off- the dead lay around pretty thick.
It was a delightful Sabbath morning when we started out to meet the enemy and felt it was wrong all the time I was engaged in it. The bullets came thick and fast and though I saw many of my companions and friends fall all around me, through the mercy of God, I was spared. The fighting ceased only with the darkness of night. I slept but little and the battle opened early Monday morning, mostly with artillery. About noon it was rumored that our brigade was going to charge the Rebel works. The men were in ranks with arms stacked awaiting orders. Soon the word came to fall in, which we all did cheerfully. General Morgan rode up and said, “My boys, I want you to take that hill. I know you can do it. I put great confidence in you. I want you to jump like rabbits over the trees and brush and you will win immortal glory for yourselves. By God, we will take it.”
|Private Thomas Eagle, Co. I, 16th Ohio Infantry|
Library of Congress
We started across felled timber and through water and mud about a mile under a most galling fire of shot and shell from six Rebel batteries. Our men fell by dozens. But on we went. I pressed on till I got to their second breastworks. How I got there I don’t know, for many a brave man fell long before this. I screened myself as well as I could behind one of their rifle pits, but they were not made to shield us, and afforded by little protection. Right beside me, to my left, lay a young man with his brains blown out. To my right was one with his arm broke and another with his fingers shot off, and Mr. Kizer dropped down right behind me with his arm shot off. Poor man! I can see him running yet, carrying his arm along with him.
|Map of the Battle of Chickasaw Bayou, December 26-29, 1862|
Courtesy of Hal Jespersen (www.cwmaps.com)
We soon found it was no use, and our men began to retreat. I hardly knew whether to risk an attempt to get back or not. I looked around and could see neither of the wounded men I had seen a few minutes before. I started back and, thank the Lord, I did not get a scratch. I believe your prayers helped me. I tell you I thought of you and my poor little children. But there was little opportunity to think of anything for the battle was awfully terrific at this time. With men falling all around, some without arms and others shot through with cannon balls, some with hands or legs off, think you could then be much time for reflection? About this time Colonel Philip Keshner of our regiment was shot. Captains Addison S. McClure, Cushman Cunningham, William P. Vandoorn, Milton Mills, and George H. Harn are all gone. The Rebels waited till we got pretty well up before they opened all their six batteries. To hear the shrieks and groans of the wounded was awful.
|Chickasaw Bluffs as viewed from General Morgan L. Smith's position|
It rained hard all night- they were in it and remained out all the next day. Tuesday night it was very cold and there was a hard frost. I stood picket close to the Rebels- could hear them talk and chop and heard their band play “The Star Spangled Banner.” Our wounded were yet out in the cold and darkness, moaning and calling for water. On Monday evening, the Rebels fired on a flag of truce three times and twice on Tuesday morning. Wednesday morning, I saw with hundreds of others, the Rebels running from one dead man to another picking their pockets and stripping them of their clothing. Our men fired whenever they got a chance.
|Captain Eli W. Botsford, Co. C|
Led the remainder of the regiment off the field
About noon on Wednesday our men got in with a flag of truce and had four hours to get off the dead and wounded. Only two or three of the wounded were yet living. Only think of it! Forty-eight hours in the weather without food, drink, or attention of any kind! The wretches stripped every dead man of his boots or shoes and clothing. I did feel near so bad while in battle as I did at night.
Many of our brave men are gone to return no more. Half of our regiment is missing. What a fearful thing is war, and what sad havoc it makes. It is heartrending to see how men are killed and mangled up. I saw on Wednesday afternoon about one hundred dead men in a row laid side by side. It was a fearful sight to look upon- and nearly all of them stripped naked by the worse then heathens with whom we are contending.
|16th Ohio Infantry Regimental Colors|
Another soldier of the regiment reported that Colonel John F. DeCourcey refused to lead the regiment in the bloody charge and described the impact the heavy losses had on morale. “Colonel DeCourcey stood to one side and neither said stay or go. He said we would be cut to pieces if the charge was made, and his words came true. Our regiment went in with 18 officers and came out with five, two of whom were wounded. The 16th Regiment is ‘gone up.’ Six companies have been made of what is left. The boys all swear they will leave at the first opportunity and that they won’t fight under drunken generals or for the Negro. Sherman, Morgan, and the other field officers were all drunk. Morgan blames Sherman for destroying the 16th Ohio; I blame them both. The truth is, a man is not used half as well here as a dog is in Holmes County.” Letter from “N.,” Holmes County Farmer, February 12, 1863, pg. 2
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