A Fredericksburg in the West: A Witness to the Chickasaw Bayou Fight

     On the morning of December 29, 1862, the 6th Missouri drew the task of spearheading a Union attack across a narrow neck of land along Chickasaw Bayou. The ridge beyond was lined with Confederate artillery batteries and rifle pits which made the perilous assignment something that made even veteran troops hesitate before attempting.

“There was some hesitancy as to which company would cross first and finally Co. F volunteered and were duly accepted by the colonel,” one soldier noted. “They crossed the bayou followed by a portion of Co. K who had been detailed to make a road up the opposite bank which was very steep and right upon the top of which were Rebel sharpshooters in their rifle pits. After the completion of the road, the balance of the regiment was to cross. But this idea was finally abandoned and in about an hour and a half the whole regiment had reached the opposite side. A portion of Co. K who had crossed with spades and shovels commenced digging, but it was found to be useless and too perilous. Directly over their heads were Rebel rifle pits so close that some of the boys of Co. F locked bayonets with the Rebels.”

This account of the Chickasaw Bayou campaign was written by a soldier of the 6th Missouri Infantry under the nom-de-plume of “Yank.” The letter was published in the January 30, 1863, edition of the Weekly Pioneer & Democrat of St. Paul, Minnesota. The 6th Missouri was part of Colonel Giles A. Smith’s First Brigade of General Morgan L. Smith’s Second Division of Sherman’s 13th Army Corps. Other units in the brigade included the 113th Illinois, 116th Illinois, the 8th Missouri, and the First Battalion of the 13th U.S. Infantry.

 

The troops of Sherman's corps at Chickasaw Bayou later became known as the 15th Army Corps and adopted the simple army cartridge box and the slogan "40 rounds" as their corps badge. This fine example of a Model 1861 .58 caliber cartridge box contained two tins to safely store 40 rounds of paper-wrapped ammunition along with a small pocket to carry gun tools such as a worm and a pick. The lead-filled U.S. cartridge box plate served to add weight to keep the leather flap down. 

On board U.S. transport Universe, near Napoleon, Arkansas

January 17, 1863

          Sherman’s army corps marched to the Tallahatchie River in Mississippi and formed a junction with the remainder of Grant’s army and encamped for a few days. In the meantime, a consultation having been held by the commanding generals, it was deemed advisable that the division commanding by General Morgan L. Smith should return to Memphis. We arrived at Memphis on December 13th and found General George Morgan of Cumberland Gap notoriety with his command encamped there.

          After a few days consumed in active preparations, we received orders to embark and accordingly went on board the numerous boats waiting to convey us down the river. On the evening of the 20th our splendid fleet set sail down bound for the express purpose of capturing the last hold of the Rebels on the Father of Waters, Vicksburg. Nothing of more than ordinary interest transpired on our voyage. On the 26th ultimo we landed a little above the mouth of the Yazoo River and pitched tents. After passing Helena, Arkansas, General Steele’s division fell in our rear and accompanied us down the river.

          On the morning of the 27th, our troops having marched out a few miles, the Rebels commenced throwing shells at our advance. This opened the ball. I cannot attempt anything like a detailed account of the movement of the troops under Morgan and Steele but shall confine myself particularly to the part assigned to the First Brigade of the Second Division as my knowledge of the disposition of this portion of our force is more explicit. Our brigade was commanded by acting brigadier Giles Smith and the division by Morgan L. Smith.

General Morgan L. Smith suffered a severe wound at Chickasaw Bayou which gave the command of his division to General Andrew J. Smith. Between Giles Smith, Morgan L. Smith, and A.J. Smith, it is easy to get confused with the Federal command structure at Chickasaw Bayou. 

          General A.J. Smith’s division held the extreme right, Morgan L. Smith’s next on the left, Steele’s in the center, and Morgan’s on the extreme left of our line. The total force is variously estimated but I do not believe that it exceeded 30,000 men. On the right in front of our men was a bayou of about 150 yards in width. In the rear of this bayou, a short distance, appeared a prominent ridge intersected by ravines. This ridge was strongly fortified by the Rebels with numerous masked batteries and rifle pits and from our position we could discover the Rebels moving to and fro. The hill or portion of the ridge directly opposite the position held by our right seems to have been considered by the Rebels (and very wisely) as the most important point of defense.

          It was determined to storm the hill and deemed advisable to build a bridge. Accordingly the 54th Ohio and 55th Illinois regiments were detailed to make the attempt, but after several endeavors in the face of almost incessant fire from the Rebel rifle pits, the project was abandoned as impracticable. The enemy’s fire was too hot. They had every advantage of us; from the opposite bank of the bayou were rifle pits in which the Rebel sharpshooters were entrenched. While superintending the attempting building of the bridge, our brave intrepid General Morgan Smith was wounded severely by a rifle ball penetrating just above the right hip. This was most unfortunate for us as the wounding of General Smith at this time contributed chiefly to the sad results that followed in my humble opinion.

Captain Charles O. Patier
Co. K, 6th Missouri Infantry
Note the 15th Army Corps badge on his breast

          With his accustomed coolness, he rode up to a battery nearby and remarked, “Boys, throw a few shells in there. I’ve got one of their balls and must go back to the rear.” I am informed that the ball has not yet been extracted. The General is, I am happy to state, in a fair way to recover; may he see many Rebels fall before the steady fire and determined tread of his gallant boys who would follow him to the cannon’s mouth! After our General Smith was wounded, General A.J. Smith assumed command of the Second Division on the morning of the 28th. General Stuart’s brigade of the Second Division having been in the advance was relieved on the morning of the 29th by Giles Smith’s brigade consisting of the 6th and 8th Missouri, 13th Regulars, and the 116th and 118th Illinois regiments, the latter regiment not having been on the field because of the inefficiency of the arms furnished to it by the government. The brigade had previously been in the reserve. The 6th Missouri was assigned the advance in the brigade.

          After the abandonment of the bridge-building, a narrow neck of land was found crossing the bayou and by this route only could our troops cross. This was passage was well-known to the enemy and thitherward they directed their too accurate fire. But the bayou must be crossed, and the hill stormed! The Generals in immediate command hesitated as it was too desperate an attempt. The Rebels fortified on every hand and every advantage of position, it was too great of odds to contend against, but General Sherman’s orders are peremptory, they must cross. It looked and many believed that death would be the inevitable result to each and every man that attempted it. Artillery had poured volley after volley, shell after shell had exploded among them, killing doubtless hundreds of the enemy, yet they still held their position, and the growl of the bulldogs was ineffectual.

Lieutenant Colonel James H. Blood
6th Missouri Infantry (U.S.)


The only method that remained was to rout them by an infantry charge. It required men of the most undaunted courage, men old in service whose bravery and endurance were beyond question, to make the fearful effort. The 6th Missouri as I said before being in the advance was to be the first to pass through the perilous ordeal. Under the command of Lieutenant Colonel James H. Blood, who has for a long time commanding the regiment, the 6th was ready to go where duty called. There was some hesitancy as to which company would cross first and finally Co. F volunteered and were duly accepted by the colonel.

          They crossed the bayou followed by a portion of Co. K who had been detailed to make a road up the opposite bank which was very steep and right upon the top of which were Rebel sharpshooters in their rifle pits. After the completion of the road, the balance of the regiment was to cross. But this idea was finally abandoned and in about an hour and a half the whole regiment had reached the opposite side. A portion of Co. K who had crossed with spades and shovels commenced digging, but it was found to be useless and too perilous. Directly over their heads were Rebel rifle pits so close that some of the boys of Co. F locked bayonets with the Rebels. The pits were occupied by the 42nd Georgia and 17th Louisiana regiments.

          On the other side of the bayou, the 13th Regulars were deployed to the right and left of the passage or neck after which they kept up a continual fire in the direction of the Rebel fortifications, thus as far as possible, protecting the 6th from annihilation. While I cannot but regard the order to cross from whatever source it may have originated as rash and absurd in the extreme, yet I and every true citizen of this distracted country must admire and applaud the daring bravery and unflinching devotion of those men who willingly obeyed it. The 8th Missouri also afterwards came up and assisted the 13th Regulars.

          Sixteen of the gallant 6th Missouri lie entombed in the once honored soil of Mississippi. Green grows the sod over them and may no traitor’s foot pollute it. Lieutenant Robert L. Vance was the only commissioned officer killed; a noble, high-minded man, a good soldier, attentive to his duties, an ardent lover of his country and devoted to her cause, we miss him! He died like a brave and gallant officer and on the banks of the Yazoo he slumbers. May the waters flow gently, and southern winds be hushed as they pass his resting place, alone and solitary, in the land of the stranger and the enemy.

          Of Lieutenant Colonel Blood, too much cannot be said. He shared the peril with his men and although twice wounded, never flinched. The Rebel balls fell thick and fast around him, but he remained cool and collected, never gave up his command, but remained at his post, resolved to do or die as the case might be with his gallant followers. Verily, he deserves well of his country. May the Rebel balls ever prove as harmless to him as on the present occasion.

          But there is a finale to all this gallantry, heroism, bloodshed, and death that shrouds it in a great measure in dissatisfaction. Was it all in vain, this sacrifice of blood and treasure? This remains for time to divulge. Was Sherman out-generaled? It certainly appears so! It is stated that General F.P. Blair’s brigade was fearfully decimated. Our total loss is estimated at 1,700. Who is to blame? Who assumes the responsibility? I await developments.

 

Yank

 

Source:

Letter from “Yank,” 6th Missouri Volunteer Infantry, Weekly Pioneer & Democrat (Minnesota), January 30, 1863, pg. 3

Comments

Most Popular Posts

Arming the Buckeyes: Longarms of the Ohio Infantry Regiments

Dressing the Rebels: How to Dye Butternut Jeans Cloth

Bullets for the Union: Manufacturing Small Arms Ammunition During the Civil War

The Cannons are Now Silent: The Field of Death of Tupelo

The Vaunted Enfield Rifle Musket

Straw Already Threshed: Sherman on Shiloh

Federal Arms in the Stones River Campaign

Federal Arms in the Chickamauga Campaign

The Legend of Leatherbreeches: Hubert Dilger in the Atlanta Campaign

In front of Atlanta with the 68th Ohio