Working for Vicksburg: A Voice from the 33rd Illinois

     Former newspaper editor Edward J. Lewis from Bloomington, Illinois noted with pride the contribution his regiment, the 33rd Illinois, made in hemming in the Confederate army at Vicksburg in May 1863. “I trust the good people of McLean will agree that the 33rd has at last done something in this Vicksburg campaign to deserve the good opinion which used to be entertained of us at home. We are working for Vicksburg and hope to get it before long.”

          The son of Quaker parents, the adventuresome Lewis was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on September 25, 1828, and being educated by his father and studying law with his brother, he moved to Bloomington, Illinois in 1855 where he went to work on the Bloomington Daily Pantagraph newspaper working for Jesse W. Fell. The newspaper became a voice for the new Republican Party but before the war broke out, Lewis traveled west to the gold fields of Colorado to seek his fortune. It didn’t take long for him to figure out the panning for gold in the Rockies didn’t “pan out” and he returned to Bloomington to resume his editorial pen just in time for the outbreak of hostilities.

          Lewis joined Co. C of the 33rd Illinois in August 1861 and by the spring of 1863 was serving as the company’s first lieutenant. Lewis was a frequent correspondent with the Pantagraph and his account below of the crucial two weeks of the Vicksburg campaign covering May 8-22, 1863, represents some of his best wartime writing. The 33rd Illinois, also known as the Normal Regiment or the Teacher’s Regiment, under Colonel Charles E. Lippincott served as part of Brigadier General William P. Benton’s First Brigade of the Fourteenth Division of the 13th Army Corps, and was brigaded with the 99th Illinois, 8th Indiana [see here], and 18th Indiana regiments. During the opening battles of the Vicksburg campaign, the regiment lost 13 wounded at Port Gibson, one killed and two wounded at Champion’s Hill, 13 wounded at Big Black River, and lost 15 killed and 87 wounded during the May 22nd assault on the 2nd Texas Lunette at Vicksburg.

          Lewis’ letter was originally published in successive issues of the Bloomington Daily Pantagraph on June 20th and 22nd 1863, both portions being featured on the first page of the newspaper.

 

Captain Edward J. Lewis, Co. C, 33rd Illinois Volunteer Infantry (1828-1907)

Rear of Vicksburg, Mississippi

June 1, 1863 

Dear sir,

          I wrote you on the 6th instant giving a somewhat detailed account of our landing in Mississippi, our night march upon Port Gibson, the Battle of Magnolia Hills [Port Gibson], and the subsequent occurrences up to the date of my letter. I have since written you briefly on the 27th outlining the stirring events since that time of which I now propose to give you a somewhat fuller account. I will premise, however, that the correspondent of the St. Louis Democrat published in that paper a very excellent and accurate account of the battle already named and taking that letter as a standard, you have probably ere this had the pleasure of reading from his pen better accounts of the subsequent fights than any other army correspondent will be likely to give you.

          To resume the narrative. Our division  marched from Bayou Pierre on the 7th and also on the 10th and 12th, lying in camp on the intermediate days while other divisions were coming up and passing on. Our general course had been rather northward, and, on the 12th, we were but five miles from Edward’s depot on the Vicksburg & Jackson Railroad some four miles east of Black River. On this same day, however, McPherson’s corps fought and defeated the Rebels near Raymond some 15 miles east of us. We could perceive that our large army was occupying all the surrounding country making movements and feints in every direction to puzzle the Rebel leaders, and we had instantly occasion to admire the skill with which General Grant was handling us, divisions cooperating but never jostling, trains arriving in crossroads at the proper times and places, and the enemy everywhere out-generaled, outnumbered, and beaten.

          On the 13th we made a flank march eastward for Jackson and on the night of the 14th the brigade lay in bivouac six miles from that town and waked the echoes of the dark, dripping woods with tremendous cheers on the announcement that another victory had been won over the enemy and that General Grant’s headquarters were in Jackson. On the 15th we countermarched to the west about 12 miles passing through Raymond where we received the false intelligence of Hooker’s capture of Richmond and yelled over as only soldiers can.

          On the 16th we again advanced westward and presently found that a fight was raging in front. In fact, the great Battle of Champion’s Hill (called by the papers Baker’s Creek and Edward’s Station) was going on. Our division was held in reserve as both Hovey and Osterhaus were hotly engaged for several and the roar of artillery and musketry was terrible. The ground was very ridged and broken and was covered with woods. Parts of it were fought over several times with heavy loss on both sides.

          About the middle of the afternoon, our division was ordered forward. While forming line near the enemy, two of the men of my company Chapman Shores and Isaac Shiner fell mortally wounded by one accidental shot from our own guns, but of this there was no certainty. They had surgical attention immediately, but both died the same evening. We advanced and occupied a ridge from which a couple of Union regiments had been driven and there awaited attack. But all this time, Grant had been throwing forces on the enemy’s left flank, had completely turned it, and the Rebels had fled precipitately to escape total destruction.

We pushed on in pursuit, passing captured cannon, disabled caissons, dead horses, and men, and constantly meeting squads of the Rebel coming in as prisoners. “Double quick” was presently ordered and rushing with a tremendous pace past everything our brigade came on the rear of a large body of the enemy retreating through a field to the left of the road. Our artillery opened on them with great rapidity and fair effect, and we pushed on again, soon finding some of the enemy halted in front from whom we received a volley with no other effect than wounding Colonel Lippincott’s horse under him. Our artillery was brought forward and opened, and our skirmishers advanced to feel the position. The enemy again fled, and our brigade moved on again in line of battle through the now fast-gathering darkness to Edward’s Station. Here we found storehouses containing considerable amounts of commissary and other stores. The Rebels had set fire to a train of cars loaded with ammunition and provisions. The successive explosions furnished us with music for some hours, but we were in time to save most of the provisions and a liberal issue of them was speedily made to our own boys.

General John C. Pemberton

Among the captured stores were a large number of knapsacks, evidently stored by their owns for safety during the fight. Our boys made us of some of the contents to supply their own woeful deficiency of clean under clothing. But about the luckiest haul was made by Orderly Bush of my company who made an early break for the “great house” of the place and negotiated with the Negro cook for a nice basket of provisions which the cook declared had been put up expressly for the supper of General Pemberton himself.  I assure you the hungry officers of Co. C fully appreciated the flavor of the Rebel chieftain’s grub. Then we took possession of some really fine mattresses, found among the Rebel hospital stores, and spreading these on the ground under a tree and enjoyed a hearty sleep.

At early dawn on the 17th, we were in motion throwing out skirmishers from time to time until no less than six companies of our regiment were so engaged. Feeling the enemy from time to time, we advanced some four miles when the main body of our brigade came to a halt in a small piece of marshy woods, the skirmishers occupying its farther edge and having before them 300 or 400 yards across an open field the much-talked-of works protecting the great bridge and trestle over Big Black River. Here we lay down for about three hours while the artillery of both sides kept up a hot combat over our heads. Our danger was about equal from both sides. Many of our own shells exploded prematurely, the pieces falling uncomfortably near us, and some of our force being actually wounded thereby. Branches and splinters from the trees fell all about us and on us. One man of my company Corporal John A. Larimer was struck by a 12-lb shell which ploughed the ground up nearby, grazed his back, and fell near him without bursting. He was considerably bruised and for the time disabled but has recovered.

There was a call for sharpshooters from our man body to climb trees and try to reach the enemy in their shelter and a number of volunteers had just gone to the front for that purpose (several of our McLean County boys among them) when there was a tremendous fire of musketry on our right, a long thundering cheer, and a dense column swept out upon the plain with the stars and stripes proudly floating in the van. It was our Second Brigade [General Michael K. Lawler] charging the works! Our skirmishers and sharpshooters caught the contagion and joined in the rush; the 99th Illinois forming the right of our brigade held back for a few moments only and then their Colonel [George W.K. Bailey] led them to the charge without orders; the four fragmentary companies of the 33rd Illinois lying next in line were on their feet instantly, the men straining upon the start like bloodhounds in the leash and the officers holding them back for the sacred order which soon came, and then and we and our Indiana brethren on the left rushed on to assist the line which had already charged. The Rebels did not wait for the shock. Their left center broke and fled in a mass toward the right and as the brave Iowans and the advanced Illinoisans poured over the works and dashed after them like hounds on the track of deer, the whole line of works was abandoned and the Rebels fled in a dense mass towards the river, our boys pursuing and firing on them.

Captain Lewis' Civil War camp desk (McLean County Museum of History)

On the extreme left of their line, an entire brigade was cut off by our rapid advance and came out and surrendered in a body; and on the extreme right also, a regiment was captured by a charge of another part of our forces immediately following the success on the left. The remainder fled in haste across the river, setting fire to the great bridge and to their two boat bridges. [pontoons] Where I crossed the plain with our regiment there was an ugly slough about halfway across at least waist deep and so full of brush as to be almost impassable. But this slough became shallow and ceased to be an obstruction. But all along the immediate front of the breastworks there was a hideous cypress slough more than neck deep and full of heavy brush which ought to have stopped any charge in the world had the defense been maintained with resolution.

I hardly know how our boys got over it so quickly as they did, but there were some logs over it and some heavy brush which could be traveled on with care. A little trestle bridge where the railroad crossed it was on fire when we came over. All the right of the works were lined with field artillery, 17 pieces being captured there, of which 14 were first straddled by the 33rd boys and claimed as our trophies. The left of the works where the successful break was made was unsupplied with cannon, the pieces intended for it having been captured at Champion’s Hill.

At 10:30 a.m. we were resting inside the enemy’s works. They threw a few cannon balls at us afterwards from the bluff beyond the river, but speedily fled when our 30-lb Parrotts came to the front and opened on them. The great railroad bridge was entirely burned and a number of spans of the trestle work also which is in all at least half a mile long. It was said that Sherman crossed the Black some miles above while we were assaulting the works in front. We built a floating bridge and crossed on the 18th, finding no defenses of importance on the right bank.

Captain Henry M. Kellogg, Co. C, 33rd Illinois

On the 19th, our division came in sight of the works of Vicksburg and got a position in a valley quite well to the front where men were occasionally hit by stray balls and shells. On the 20th, we made a change to a nearer position in which we suffered some loss. The only man injured was our captain Henry M. Kellogg who fell gallantly sword in hand leading his company to the charge. A piece of shell passed through his head, and he died almost immediately. He had been very unwell for some days and was scarcely able to keep the field but had still insisted on doing so. A presentiment of his approaching fate seemed to weigh on him upon his lonesome days and he had several times spoken of it. I bespeak for his name an honorable place in the records of McLean’s gallant dead and for his bereaved young family the sympathy of a loyal people.

On the 21st we were engaged in skirmishing and sharpshooting, winning considerable ground driving the Rebel skirmishers mostly into their works and pestering their cannoneers and others inside. Three companies of our regiment were still so engaged on the 22nd and Co. B had been sent back as guard to the artillery captured at Black River so that only six companies were in the grand charge of that day including, however, your three McLean companies A, C, and G which formed the left wing.

The charge was made at 10 a.m. Our brigade marched by the right flank in a deep valley, the 99th Illinois leading, then the 33rd, then 8th, and finally the 18th Indiana. Rushing out upon the ridge at the head of the valley, we encountered a terrific crossfire from forts and rifle pits of shells, grape, canister, musket balls, etc., under which the men fell fast, and it seemed a marvel that any survived. Some confusion arose here in attempting to form under such a fire and the colors and most of the left wing of the 33rd along with the colonel and colors and some companies of the 8th Indiana became separated from the rest of the brigade and attacked a fort on the left where the 22nd Iowa, 77th Illinois, and 130th Illinois and some others had gained a foothold. The main part of the brigade made a lodgment under the immediate wall of the fort which they had been intended to attack and maintained their position until nearly dark, shooting down any Rebels who showed themselves over the parapet. Had they been supported heavily, they would doubtless have forced their way into the fort, whether or not the interior defenses had allowed them to hold it.

As it was, they fought long and gallantly and left the track of their advance thickly strewn with their dead. Our colonel and lieutenant colonel [Edward B. Roe] were both temporarily disabled by balls, but neither of them dangerously wounded. Two of my own company, William D. Shoup and David H. Matchett, were killed on the ridge when we first came under direct fire and several others were wounded near the same position.  Co. E lost six killed almost together and every company lost more or less.

Throwing grenades at Vicksburg

In the meantime, those of us of the left wing followed the colors, gathered in a partially sheltered spot just across the ridge where Colonel David Shrunk of the 8th Indiana soon joined us with part of his regiment and under his lead, we made a charge to the left across the railroad and up to a position under the large fort which had been assailed by our Second Brigade and other troops. We passed through another hot place in this movement and lost several men among them Mr. Rude of Co. G. Our colors changed hands also: Color Sergeant Willis of Co. A had been hurt in the first charge and gave the national flag to Corporal Shaw of my company who transferred the regimental banner to Corporal Wills of the color guard. Wills also fell wounded near the railroad just where I received my little scratch on the knee from grapeshot. Corporal Dubois of my company promptly picked up the banner and carried it during the rest of the day.

A portion of our small force engaged the enemy’s rifle pits as sharpshooters and others of us made our way up to the advanced position close under the walls of the left-hand fort. Here our advanced force had at first affected an entrance into the fort itself with the bayonet and had their colors planted on the wall for some time but were driven out. When I arrived, our foremost boys were lying under a bank about 20 yards from the wall watching the top of the parapet and shooting every Rebel who attempted to rise above it and fire. Nothing but this watchfulness saved the mass of us from being shot for we were chiefly unprotected from the direct front fire and standing from 20-40 yards from the wall. A few of our poor fellows, indeed, were still farther advanced, having remained in the ditch of the fort itself when driven over the wall. The Rebels lighted shells and threw them over the ditch, killing and wounding several. Three or four men got out and escaped to us while the others surrendered to the Rebels. Several times we looked for the Rebels to charge on us, but they did not. Our men held their position until long after dark and only retired when it was evident the attack had failed along the line generally.

Since the unsuccessful charge we have been busily engaged in building extensive breastworks, advancing them nearer and nearer the Rebel works, bringing up artillery, sharpshooting at the enemy whenever they show their heads above the walls. We are night and day within easy rifle range of their works, but its occasionally that one of our men is hit. Their artillery has scarcely replied to ours at all for some days. When our mortar boats shell the city at night, we can see the great projectiles mounting and falling and hear their explosion and what seems to be the crash of roofs and walls. We are working for Vicksburg and hope to get it before long.

I trust the good people of McLean will agree that the 33rd has at last done something in this Vicksburg campaign to deserve the good opinion which used to be entertained of us at home.

Edward J. Lewis


Sources:

Letter from First Lieutenant Edward J. Lewis, Co. C, 33rd Illinois Volunteer Infantry, Bloomington Daily Pantagraph (Illinois), June 20, 1863, pg. 1 and June 22, 1863, pg. 1

Biographical information from the McLean County Museum of History

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