Determined to Conquer or Die: With the 24th Indiana at Champion Hill

The ultimate triumph of Grant’s Vicksburg campaign in July 1863 in a way masks the hard fighting that it took for the Federals to take the Confederate bastion. The price for Vicksburg included not just the siege itself, but tough engagements at Raymond, Jackson, Champion Hill, and Big Black River that allowed the Federal army to approach Vicksburg from behind and encircle the town.  For Captain Francis Redburn of the 24th Indiana the toll in casualties and personal loss proved staggering. At just the Battle of Champion Hill alone, his regiment lost 201 men killed and wounded while Redburn’s own company lost 21 men of that total.

“I crossed the Mississippi River on the 30th of April with 54 men and since that time I have lost 25 men killed and wounded,” he wrote. “While we rejoice on account of our great victories, let us not forget to remember that we are called on to mourn the loss of the gallant dead. Those comrades were all dear to me. We have been associated together and had shared in common all the hardships and privations incident to civil war for two long years. These are strong bonds of friendship.”

          In the following letter written to the editor of the Princeton Clarion, Captain Redburn provides a detailed account of his regiment’s part in the Battle of Champion Hill, a decisive if costly victory on the road to Vicksburg. During the Vicksburg campaign, the 24th Indiana was part of General George F. McGinnis’ First Brigade of General Alvin P. Hovey’s 12th Division of the 13th Army Corps. The 24th Indiana served alongside the 11th Indiana, 34th Indiana, 46th Indiana, and 29th Wisconsin in McGinnis’ brigade.

          Captain Redburn’s account of the fight at Champion Hill originally was published in the July 25, 1863, edition of the Princeton Clarion.

 

This group shot depicting eight soldiers from the 34th Indiana, which fought alongside the 24th Indiana at Champion Hill, underscores the tight bonds of comradeship that defined much of the soldier experience in the Civil War. The regiment, known as Morton's Rifles and named for the state's governor Oliver P. Morton, wore Zouave-style jackets; unusual attire in the Western theater. The 11th Indiana, also serving in McGinnis' brigade during this time, was also known as a Zouave regiment. 

Headquarters, 24th Regiment Indiana Volunteers

Near Vicksburg, Mississippi

June 14, 1863

          Early on the 16th of May we took up our line of march from Bolton’s Station on the road leading to Edward’s Depot. General Hovey’s division had the advance and the 24th had the advance of the division. About 10 a.m. we found the enemy in position on Champion Hill. The hill is very high and steep and, on either side, it is broken by narrow and deep ravines which reach about halfway up its sides. These ravines afforded the most excellent position for the enemy. The hill was covered with heavy timber and thick underbrush- upon the whole it was the strongest natural position for defensive operations I ever saw.

          When the line of battle was formed, the 24th Indiana occupied the right in an open field. Companies A, G, and K were immediately thrown out as skirmishers. We had to advance about 300 yards across an open field and attack the enemy on his own ground and under cover. We very cautiously approached near the wood and then by rapid and hard fighting we drove the enemy from his first position and thus gained shelter which enabled us to operate more successfully. We continued to drive the enemy’s skirmishers until we had possession of the greater part of the right side of the hill when we were ordered to report to the regiment which had advanced to the woods. We promptly obeyed, this being the most hazardous skirmishing I ever did.

          The whole line now advanced and the 29th Wisconsin made a gallant charge directly up the hill, the 24th Indiana sweeping the hill on the right. This charge was conducted in gallant style and was a complete success resulting in the capture of two pieces of artillery, 250 prisoners, one stand of colors, and one colonel. [This initial engagement for control of Champion Hill was waged against the Georgia regiments of General Alfred Cumming’s brigade.]

 Just after this, we received orders to move to the left to support the 11th Indiana which was heavily pressed. We moved at a double quick about 300 yards to the left when we became engaged with an overwhelming force which we stood and fought for nearly one hour within 50 yards of the enemy’s main line while exposed to the most desperate and destructive fire I ever witnessed.

Colonel William T. Spicely
24th Indiana Infantry


Our support on either side was driven back yet still we stood and fought five times our number but were soon flanked on either side and compelled to fall back or surrender. This was a terrible hour for the 24th. Officers and men were falling fast along the whole line and the enemy was within 30 yards pouring a galling fire on us, still there was no panic and the men moved back slowly, loading, and firing as they went. When we had fallen back about 50 yards we railed and stood about 15 minutes when we were driven back then made a second stand about 75 yards further back and fought there about 20 minutes when we were again forced to fall back. [The 24th Indiana was repeatedly attacked by Francis M. Cockrell’s Missouri brigade after their initial triumph at Champion Hill.]

The third and last stand was made on the summit of the hill where we railed the men of the various regiments in one common line to make the final stand. At this time, we were reinforced by two regiments of General Quimby’s division. To hold the summit of this hill was the last and only hope of the 12th Division. Immediately to our rear was a large open field; a rout, not a retreat, across that field would have been certain destruction. There we fought and continued to rally and fight for one terrible hour. Finally, victory crowned out efforts and the hill was ours. No troops ever behaved more gallantly or exhibited better courage than the 12th Division did on this occasion- every man seemed determined to conquer or die.

I hope and trust that I may never witness another such scene. The ground on which we fought was literally covered with the dead and wounded and it was truly a bloody field. The 24th Indiana lost 201 killed and wounded while the loss of the division was over 1,400. Our brigade was left behind to take care of the wounded and bury the dead. This required several days labor and as soon as we had accomplished the work assigned us and paroled all the wounded Rebels in the vicinity, we moved on to the line in front of the enemy’s works at Vicksburg.

This army during the past two months has undergone many hardships and privations. We have now been in the field 60 days with no shelter but a gum blanket; we had not even a second short with us and are often short of rations. I have seen men march through mud and rain all day and night with nothing to eat and scarcely a complaint was to be heard. The boys felt, as they would say, that they were putting down the rebellion. This was the reason that they were so cheerful and contented under such circumstances. They are enthusiastic in their praise of General Grant and fully believe that wherever he leads they are sure of victory.

Captain Redburn noted that his men "are enthusiastic in their praise of General Grant and fully believe that wherever he leads they are sure of victory."

I crossed the Mississippi River on the 30th of April with 54 men and since that time I have lost 25 men killed and wounded. While we rejoice on account of our great victories, let us not forget to remember that we are called on to mourn the loss of the gallant dead. No one can sympathize more deeply with the friends of those who perished on that terrible field that I can: those comrades were all dear to me. We have been associated together and had shared in common all the hardships and privations incident to civil war for two long years. We had stood side by side in more than one hard-fought battle. These are strong bonds of friendship. We have the consolation to know that they were engaged in a noble cause and that they fell bravely fighting under the flag of their country in defense of civil and religious liberty.

I herewith submit a list of casualties; in that list will be found the name of my second lieutenant whose valuable services I am and will be deprived of for some time. He was severely wounded at Champion Hill while gallantly discharging his duty and afterwards was captured and paroled by the enemy.

 

Killed:

Corporal William H. Kirk, Privates William Phillips, Joseph S. Wasson

Wounded:

Second Lieutenant E. Roberts, severely;. R. Lagrange who have since died, Conrad Keppler, arm, since died;

Severely wounded: J.H. Canniff, leg; Moses J. Colern, Robert J. Falls, John Burns, Thomas S. Fisher, James Oliphant, James P. Swain, Sam H. Shannon, E. Williams

Slightly wounded: Corporal James Coats, John J. Cunningham, John Hornbrook, Alex D. McRoberts, James Tolbert

Prisoner: Isaac P. Laffe

Source:

Letter from Captain Francis M. Redburn, Co. K, 24th Indiana Volunteer Infantry, Princeton Clarion (Indiana), July 25, 1863, pg. 1

 

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