Flags of Chickasaw Bayou

    For General Stephen D. Lee, repulsing the Federal attack at Chickasaw Bayou on December 29, 1862 was almost too easy. “At 11 a.m., Federal infantry 6,000 strong moved gallantly up under our artillery fire, crossing the dry lake at two points, one being in front of the vacated pits and the other about 200 yards from my line. Here our fire was so terrible that they broke, but in a few moments they rallied again sending a force to my left flank. This force was met by the 28th Louisiana and 42nd Georgia and handsomely repulsed. Our fire was so severe that the enemy lay down to avoid it. Seeing their confusion, the 26th Louisiana and a part of the 17th Louisiana were marched on the battlefield and under their cover 21 commissioned officers and 311 non-commissioned officers and privates were taken prisoners, four stand of colors and 500 stand of arms captured,” Lee wrote.[1] Federal casualties in the assault at Chickasaw surpassed 1,700 men, while Confederates losses numbered roughly 200.

 

The tangled undergrowth of Chickasaw Bayou impeded Federal efforts to reach Vicksburg through its vulnerable flank. The assault on December 29, 1862 proved to be a fruitless venture that cost the Union army 1,700 casualties. 

          The following day, some of the prizes of war were put on display in front of Major General Martin L. Smith’s headquarters. A correspondent with the Mobile Register noted that “four of the five colors captured” on December 29th were on display. “One belonged to the 29th Missouri; this was very bloody and must have been in the hottest of the fight. Another, the 58th Ohio, was badly torn, a shell having passed through the center. Another, the 13th Illinois, was badly mangled and the other, the flag of the 31st Missouri, was uninjured,” it was reported.[2]

 

The identity of this fifth flag is elusive although most accounts published in Southern newspapers specifically report the capture of five flags. General Lee reported capturing four flags, all from General Frank P. Blair’s brigade as noted above, and the other regiments that were in close enough proximity to the Confederate works to risk having their flag captured at Chickasaw all belonged to Colonel John DeCourcey’s brigade. Colonel DeCourcey specifically stated in his after-action report that “all regiments brought back their colors.” However, it is possible that the fifth flag captured was the brigade headquarters flag that belonged to General Blair. A correspondent with the Daily Missouri Republican reported that during the truce of December 31st when the Federals were permitted onto the field to bury their dead, he conversed with a number of Confederates about the battle. “They boasted of having taken the standard of Blair’s command, a proud distinction for that flag as it was planted near the last line of works,” he wrote.

 

General Frank P. Blair
(Library of Congress)

          Blair’s brigade arrived at Chickasaw Bayou on December 26, 1862 aboard several different transports: the 13th Illinois aboard the John Warner, the 58th Ohio aboard the Polar Star, the 29th Missouri aboard the Kennett, and the 31st Missouri aboard the Isabella. The two Missouri regiments had just entered the service, and the 29th Missouri carried a flag presented to them by the citizens of St. Louis. The 13th Illinois and 58th Ohio had been in service for about a year, the 13th Illinois having been in Arkansas and Missouri while the 58th Ohio had seen service at Shiloh and in western Tennessee. The brigade was organized at Helena, Arkansas and actually consisted of six regiments; the above four named which lost their flags at Chickasaw and the 30th and 32nd Missouri which missed out on the assault. General Blair, newly commissioned as brigadier general, assumed command of the brigade for the Vicksburg expedition.

 

          General Blair’s report describes the situation he faced on December 29, 1862. “I made a personal reconnaissance of the enemy’s position in my front,” he wrote. “It was exceedingly difficult. The works of the enemy on their right were more formidable than any other approach. Almost every gun and rifle pit bore on upon us and many enfiladed our line of battle. The natural obstructions were certainly as great as from any other direction, and we had not the advantage of as thorough or complete a reconnaissance of the ground, not had we the facilities of a pontoon bridge to cross the bayou in our front which was deep and the bottom of it nothing but treacherous quicksand. The enemy had improved their position with consummate skill. The bed of the bayou was perhaps 100 yards in width covered with water for a distance of 15 feet. On the side of the bayou held by my troops, there was a growth of young cottonwoods thickly set which had been cut down by the enemy at the height of three to four feet and the tops of these saplings thrown down among these stumps so as to form a perfect net to entangle the feet of the assaulting party. Passing through this and coming to that part of the bayou containing water, it was deep and miry and when this was crossed we encountered a steep bank on the side of the enemy at least ten feet high covered with a strong abatis and crowned with rifle pits from end to end. Above them was still another range of rifle pits, and still above a circle of batteries of heavy guns which afforded a direct and enfilading fire upon every part of the plateau which rose gently from the first range of rifle pits to the base of the embankment which formed the batteries. These formidable works, defended by a strong force of desperate men such as held them on the 29th, would seem to require almost superhuman efforts top effect their capture.”[3]

 

          The Missourian formed his brigade into two line stacked one behind the other with a two-regiment front with 50 yards spacing between the lines. In the front line, the 13th Illinois being the right front regiment and the 31st Missouri the left front regiment. The 58th Ohio supported the 13th Illinois and the 29th Missouri supported the 31st Missouri. All told, Blair’s brigade had about 1,800 men that took part in the assault. Just before noon, the signal to begin the assault was given and Blair’s men marched forward through a storm of artillery fire and musketry that eventually would claim a third of the force. “The brigade rushed with impetuosity to the attack and pressed over every obstacle and through a storm of shell and rifle bullets and carried the first and second ranges of the rifle pits with an irresistible charge,” General Blair reported. But the brigade bogged down as they approached the Confederate guns atop the bluff; the men went to ground and continued to take heavy casualties. The first and second lines became intermixed as the soldiers desperately tried to push the assault. General Blair looked to his right expecting Colonel DeCourcey’s men to assist in the charge, but they had likewise fallen to ground near the works and could go no further. It quickly became a bloodbath.[4]

 

The captured colors of the 29th Missouri Volunteer Infantry; note the tattered condition of the flag and the large blood stain above "29th Regt." (Missouri State Museum)

          “So dense now hung the smoke that the heights appeared enveloped in a terrific storm,” a reporter recalled. “Out of the clouds came rolls like thunder, one clap dying away in the roar of another. The color bearer of the 29th [Missouri] was struck down; a sergeant seized the flag. It was one given by the ladies of St. Louis and the company bore it in trust. Torn into shreds, ragged, but already covered with glory, the tattered ensign again rose from the bloody ground. Grasped by Lieutenant Henry A. Rosenbaum, it was borne bravely forward a few steps when he also fell, one leg torn from its socket by a cannon shot. Captain Rogers cried ‘The colors must never drop,’ and again there was a standard bearer and again one moment after, there was a corpse. Receiving a ball in his breast, he fell dead grasping the standard even while his brave heart fled. The colors were down and did not rise again. The enemy, rifling our dead at night, found the flag consecrated by the best blood of that company, and carried it away.”[5] Captain William H. Gray of the 29th Missouri wrote that “our regiment was literally cut to pieces” at Chickasaw Bayou, “losing full half of the fighting force in the attempt. It was indeed a death trap.” The 29th Missouri lost 19 killed, 70 wounded, and 61 captured.[6]

         

          Sergeant Jesse D. Pierce of Co. H carried the colors of the 13th Illinois in the assault but was struck down shortly after crossing the first line of enemy rifle pits. The concussion of a shell knocked him insensible. “He suddenly lost consciousness of everything and remained in that condition until partly restored by the cold rain which fell heavily the succeeding night; and he was then made a prisoner,” wrote the regimental historian of the 13th Illinois. “He was informed by his captors that he was found lying on the flag, supposedly dead, and that he had to be rolled over to liberate the flag, which they valued much more than they did the sergeant.” The regiment lost 27 killed, 107 wounded, and 40 captured.[7]

 

Men of the 13th Illinois Infantry in the fall of 1862 in Arkansas (Wilson Creek National Battlefield)

The captured flag later turned up in the office of Major Thomas P. Turner at Libby Prison and was discovered by a Massachusetts soldier on April 3, 1865 as the Confederates were abandoning the city. “John F. Locke entered Major Turner’s office, found two captured Union flags, one silk, the other bunting, and hung out the Union flag from a window or doorway before any of our troops were in sight and while there were yet many straggling Rebel soldiers in the street. He claims thus to have raised the first Union flag in Richmond,” S.K. Lothrop wrote. The flag was then presented to Governor John Andrew in May 1865 who then sent the colors to Governor Oglesby of Illinois. [8]

 

The story of the colors of the 31st Missouri is a confused one. The Confederates reported displaying an undamaged flag bearing the identification of the 31st Missouri in Vicksburg the day after the battle, but two soldiers from the 13th Illinois also reported retrieving flags marked as belonging to the 31st Missouri from the field. After dark on December 29th, Private Jack Kenyon of Co. K, 13th Illinois crawled onto the battlefield to try and retrieve the lost regimental standard of the 13th Illinois and thought he had succeeded. “In his search he came across a flag whose figures he thought were a “one” and a “three.” While not knowing our flag was missing, this seemed proof that it was so, and he determined to rescue it from eventually falling into the enemy’s hands. He tore the flag from the staff and wound it about his body and continued what proved an unavailing search. Just before daylight, he had recrossed the bayou and reached camp only to find that the flag was the state flag belonging to the 31st Missouri,” it was written. Private George Sutherland of Co. I had made a mental note of the location of a fallen U.S. flag while the regiment was retreating from the field that afternoon. “He noticed a flag partly rolled up and nearly concealed under the body of a dead soldier and the other wreckage of the battlefield. Enough of the flag was exposed to show a figure “three” and he had no doubt that it was our flag. From the first, he had determined to return to the battlefield during the night and bring away the flag,” it was stated. Sutherland obtained permission from the regimental surgeon to conduct the search and “after a tedious search he found the flag and dragged it, staff and all,” to the first line of rifle pits then ran for the bayou and triumphantly bore his trophy to Surgeon Plummer who was taken down considerably by the revelation that it was the national colors of the 31st Missouri.” If both the state and national colors of the 31st Missouri were retrieved, it is possible that the flag captured by the Confederates was a flank marker identified with the 31st Missouri. The 31st Missouri lost 17 killed, 72 wounded, and 62 captured.[9]


 

Capt. Andrew Gallfy, 58th O.V.I.

What happened with the flag of the 58th Ohio is also something of a mystery, compounded by the fact that this regiment was a German one and period sources from the regiment are few and far between. The Confederates describe finding the flag in bad condition, a cannon ball having ripped its center, but the circumstances of its loss on the field are unknown. Whitelaw Reid noted that the 58th Ohio “was ordered to charge the enemy’s works which it performed in gallant style, being the first to reach the works. After pressing the enemy back and gaining the first line of rifle pits, it became evident that further efforts would prove unsuccessful. The regiment, therefore, fell back. In this affair, the 58th lost 47% of the whole number engaged. Among the killed were three officers including the brave and efficient Lieutenant Colonel Peter Dister. Among the wounded were captains Morrison and Fix, lieutenants Defenbaugh, Kette, and Oderfeld, while captains Gallfy and Andreregg were captured,” he wrote.[10] It seems likely that a soldier from the 26th Louisiana Infantry captured the 58th Ohio flag, as Captain Anderson Moss captured the diary that belonged to Captain Peter Kaufmann of the regiment upon the field and later had the diary published in the Vicksburg Daily Whig (see here). 

 



[1] United States. War Department. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Volume 29-Part I. Washington: [s.n.], 1894, pg. 682.  

[2] Daily Louisville Journal (Kentucky), January 20, 1863, pg. 4

[3] O.R., op. cit., pg. 655

[4] O.R., op. cit., pg. 656

[5] “The Great Attack on Vicksburg,” Daily Missouri Republican (Missouri), January 15, 1863, pg. 1

[6] “Chickasaw Bayou,” National Tribune, April 25, 1907, pg. 6

[7] Committee of the Regiment, Military History and Reminiscences of the Thirteenth Regiment of Illinois Volunteer Infantry in the Civil war of the United States, 1861-65. Chicago: Woman’s Temperance Publishing Association, 1892, pg. 248

[8] 13th Illinois Regimental History, op. cit., pg. 285

[9] 13th Illinois Regimental History, op. cit., pgs. 282-283

[10] Reid, Whitelaw. Ohio in the War: Her Statesman, Generals, and Soldiers. Volume II: The History of Her Regiments and Other Military Organizations. Cincinnati: The Robert Clarke Co., 1895, pg. 351

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