A Gunner's Life at Chickasaw Bayou with the 17th Ohio Battery

     Writing home aboard the steamboat Hiawatha in mid-January 1863, Sergeant Absalom Mattox of the 17th Ohio Battery could scarce conceal his frustration with the fruitless result of the army's fight at Chickasaw Bayou. 

    "No soldier in this army had any other idea or thought of anything else but that we would take Vicksburg if we had to lie in the swamp a month," he wrote. "The idea of retreating never once entered my head, although I now think it the wisest thing General Sherman did, for had we remained there until this time and with the hard rains we have had in the last few days we would never have got out alive, for the Rebels could have shelled those woods and either killed us or taken us all prisoners. The expedition has not cost the government less than $10 million, besides many valuable lives and has resulted in no good, but on the contrary has cast a gloom over the whole country which will be hard to clear up."

    The 17th Ohio Battery had been raised in the vicinity of Dayton, Ohio in July 1862 by Captain Ambrose A. Blount and was equipped with six 12-pdr bronze Napoleons at Cincinnati before departing for the front where it played a small role in the defense of Covington during the Kirby Smith scare of September 1862. That fall, the battery traveled to Memphis where it joined the 13th Army Corps of the Army of the Tennessee where it took part in the campaigns at Chickasaw Bayou, Arkansas Post, Vicksburg, and later in Louisiana. 

    Sergeant Mattox's account of Chickasaw Bayou was published in the January 28, 1863 edition of the Springfield Republic


"I knew and felt that something was wrong somewhere. We had been brought out without anything to eat, no blankets, and but half of the men had their overcoats and over roads that the cannon would sink in over the hubs and our horses had all given out and nothing to feed them with- and here we were in this condition to attack and probably lay siege to Vicksburg." ~ Sergeant Absalom Mattox, 17th Ohio Battery

On board steamer Hiawatha

January 14, 1863

    We have made the long-expected attack on Vicksburg and have failed to accomplish anything; but on the contrary have retreated (masterly of course) and this army is now on its way up the Mississippi. I will try and give you a brief description of our attack and the fight, or least what I know of it. We did not land at Milliken’s Bend, as I supposed we would, but went down the Yazoo River and ascended it some twelve miles, which brought us to a point some nine miles from Vicksburg. But before leaving Milliken’s Bend, General Stephen Burbridge’s brigade with one of our guns made a kind of a John Morgan raid some 30 miles into the country going to a place called Dallas. On the road they burned cotton houses, corn, grain, and three fine railroad bridges, captured a few prisoners, and any amount of contrabands, mules, and wagons. The property destroyed will amount to a million dollars. They were gone out two days, Christmas and the day after.

William Hunt was serving as quartermaster sergeant in the 17th Ohio Battery during Chickasaw Bayou but the following year would be promoted the rank of first lieutenant. Note the crossed cannon and "17" on his pork pie hat.

    We arrived at our place of landing on the Yazoo on Saturday afternoon and immediately unloaded which took us until dark. I was just getting ready to lie down to sleep when the captain came around with orders to have the men hitch up and get ready for a march. We were ordered to take nothing but our overcoats along as the captain said we were only going out on a little scout to drive out a body of Rebels that were in the woods. We did as ordered, none of us thinking we were going to attack Vicksburg in our condition with hardly men enough to man four guns. We marched over one of the roughest roads I ever was on in my life some eight miles and then encamped for the night. It was then 2 o’clock in the morning and I was unlucky enough on the road to have a wheel on my cannon come off, so I was compelled to take my men and horses and go back two miles and get my gun out. I succeeded and got back to camp about 4 a.m. I laid down in a regular Mississippi tamarack swamp and you can believe my head was weary and my body sore and tired and I was heartsick for I then knew that we had come to make the attack on Vicksburg, and that the Rebels were strongly fortified within a mile of us and could shell us in the swamps and woods at any time. I knew and felt that something was wrong somewhere. We had been brought out without anything to eat, no blankets, and but half of the men had their overcoats and over roads that the cannon would sink in over the hubs and our horses had all given out and nothing to feed them with- and here we were in this condition to attack and probably lay siege to Vicksburg.

    But I spread my rubber blanket on the ground (or rather in a mud hole) and slept at the rate of 60 miles an hour for about one hour when I was awakened by a large 30-pound Parrott gun going off, which gun opened the ball and was fired by the 8th Ohio Battery. In a moment every man was up and I know I never got into my boots so suddenly in my life for we been told during the night that it was expected the Rebels would shell the woods and I did not know whether they were shelling us or not. It was not light yet but some of the boys got a big fire made and two or three of them had one or two crackers, which they divided and gave us all a little. From 5 a.m. until after 8, a continuous artillery fire was kept up, a very heavy fire. About 8 o’clock we were ordered out to the front. Now remember, this was my first engagement and as a very heavy firing of both artillery and musketry had been kept up for two or three hours and men were coming back every few minutes and giving exaggerated reports, you can imagine how I felt.

    We started out hungry and tired and after various stops at last got out on the front. I found that we were fighting under great disadvantage- our position was a very bad one and theirs a very good one. We were in a low swamp probably 15 feet higher than the Mississippi at its present stage, but in time of high water, this swamp is overflowed to the height of 20 feet. Between us and the Rebels there was a bayou or marsh 100 feet wide with water in it probably ten feet deep. Right across the bayou was a piece of low ground and just beyond this was a low hollow and this was filled with Rebels and right back of this hollow arose some hills some 300 feet high upon which the Rebels had all their artillery and fortifications so that they were right on top of us and it was no trouble at all for them to fire right down on us. Likewise, it was very difficult for us to elevate our guns so high as to affect anything. 

Chickasaw Bayou


    General Burbridge was with us and he told us to immediately open out on them, which we did, throwing quite a number of shells on top of the hill and in the hollow but meeting with no response at all from the Rebels except by their picket sharpshooters who were right across the bayou from us and kept up a continual firing at us. We kept up our fire until noon when we were taken a little farther up on the right to where the bayou took a turn to the right. This was a very exposed position and a very good one: at this point we were only three miles from Vicksburg, but could not see the city for the hills. We here threw shells with three guns for about one hour but still the Rebels would not open their artillery on us. We could see them very plainly bringing regiment after regiment down into the hollow and we threw shells right into the midst when some would drop and some run, but the most of them kept on down the hill. We threw a shell through the roof of a house which I took to be some general’s headquarters, as a large body of cavalry was all the time around the house, but as soon as the shell lit in amongst them, how they did run!

    About 3 o’clock we were moved down on the left to fire on a battery that had been firing on the 8th Ohio Battery all day. We had hardly let one shell go until they turned their guns on us and the shell and solid shot came in amongst us thick and heavy. We kept up a fire on them until dark and finally between the 8th and us we silenced two Rebel batteries. A twelve-pound solid ball came within about two feet of my head and went into a large tree about three feet from me and it sunk into the tree almost a foot; had it been a shell and exploded so near us, it would have killed all on the third gun, but the Rebels threw mostly solid balls, trying I suppose to dismount our guns. Our captain and boys all acted very bravely and the 17th Ohio Battery comes out with a clear conscience having done their duty, and we have credit from headquarters and General Smith of doing the best firing and more execution than any other battery on the field. We threw the first and only shells that were thrown into Vicksburg. We know we threw them into the city for we got information from Rebel deserters and General Smith told the captain so. Just after dark, Sabbath evening, we fell back in the woods to General Burbridge’s headquarters about a half a mile from the front and there found some hard crackers that had been sent out from the boat. These and pond water was all we had to eat and drink that day.

Absalom Mattox
17th Ohio Battery

    The next morning, we were up early and started out again. General Burbridge was with us and took us out to our old position on the right again. The first three guns were taken to the front and all opened at once. Our shell had hardly got out of the guns when the Rebels opened out a tremendous fire on us and the shells and balls came thick and fast into our midst. They had during the night erected a number of batteries and they fired on us from the front, right, and left. We were in a heavy crossfire which we returned with vigor for about half an hour when it got so hot that General Burbridge gave orders for us to limber up and leave which we did instantly. We got out of there mighty quick.

    We were moved down again on the left and here we kept up a fire all day, but it was the hottest in the afternoon. General Sherman had ordered the 6th Missouri Infantry to come over the bayou and make a charge on some Rebel breastworks and if they succeeded in crossing and driving the enemy, we were to commence shelling the Rebels as our boys drove them up the hollow. The 6th Missouri had a small sand bar, perhaps 15 feet wide, upon which they were to cross and across this bar the Rebels had their works and thousands of men. Our boys started but could only go in small squads of 10 or 20 at a time and when our boys would get about halfway across the Rebels would rise up out of the works and pour a thousand shots into the poor boys. Then our boys would drop down and after the volley jump up and start again, and in the way the whole regiment finally got across, but when they got over they could do nothing but lay against the embankment and they were so close that when the Rebels would rise up to fire, out boys would reach up and grasp the Rebel bayonets and here these poor boys lay from 11 a.m. until after dark with the dead and wounded all around them. To make it more disagreeable, it commenced raining about 3 p.m. and rained hard all night. They came back during the night as they could not stay there.

    This afternoon (Monday) we also had it very hard. We commenced pouring grape and canister into the ravine and the Rebels opened out on us heavy, but we held our position until dark when we again fell back to camp and laid out in a heavy rain all night. Luckily none of our men were hurt although they made some very narrow escapes. One twelve-pound cannon ball came past our gun and it passed between the gun and the wheel; had it went three inches to either side it would have hit the gun and tore it all to pieces.

The shot-torn and bullet-rent colors of the 22nd Kentucky shown after their repulse at Chickasaw Bayou attest to the intensity of fire during the December 29, 1862 assault. 

    On Monday night we had some earthworks thrown up to protect us. We were now given a 30-pound Parrott gun to man. But on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, we were ordered to fire no more than we could help, as he had fired some 600 shells and canister and could get no more. I never was kept in such suspense as the last three days I spent in those woods. The Rebels were continually firing on us and we could not return a shot but could lie behind trees and on the ground to keep from being shot. I believe we stayed there three days longer I should have turned gray. No soldier in this army had any other idea or thought of anything else but that we would take Vicksburg if we had to lie in the swamp a month. The idea of retreating never once entered my head, although I now think it the wisest thing General Sherman did, for had we remained there until this time and with the hard rains we have had in the last few days we would never have got out alive, for the Rebels could have shelled those woods and either killed us or taken us all prisoners. The expedition has not cost the government less than $10 million, besides many valuable lives and has resulted in no good, but on the contrary has cast a gloom over the whole country which will be hard to clear up.

    The Rebels took three stands of colors from us, one each from the 16th and 58th Ohio and one from the 13th Illinois. These three regiments were ordered across the bayou to make a charge on the Rebel rifle pits and the Rebels retained their fire until our boys were almost upon them, when they opened a terrific fire of musketry and artillery on us, dropping our poor boys by hundreds in their tracks. They never flinched, but stood up like brave men against fearful odds. Colonel Kerschner of the 16th Ohio was acting brigadier of the 16th Ohio, 58th Ohio, and 13th Illinois, and led the boys on. He fought bravely and it was in this charge he was shot and one report says killed, and another only wounded and taken prisoner. The 16th Ohio lost about 300 men- our total loss will probably amount to 3,000 killed, wounded, and missing.


To learn more about Chickasaw Bayou, check out:

Death in the Bayou: The 16th Ohio at Chickasaw Bluffs

Captain Kaufman's Captured Diary: A Relic of Chickasaw Bayou

Flags of Chickasaw Bayou

There Goes My Brigade to Hell: the 42nd Ohio at Chickasaw Bayou

Bonebrake's Redemption: Richmond to Chickasaw Bayou with the 69th Indiana

"I'm shot, my God, I'm Shot" A Melancholy Event on the Way to Chickasaw Bayou

Masters of the Field: A Confederate Artilleryman at Chickasaw Bayou

Source:

Letter from Sergeant Absalom Mattox, 17th Ohio Battery, Springfield Republic (Ohio), January 28, 1863, pg. 1

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