Storming Vicksburg: Earning a Medal of Honor in the Forlorn Hope
What does it take a earn the Medal of Honor?
For Private William Reed of the 8th Missouri Infantry, it took the courage to volunteer for a bold effort to storm the fortifications of Vicksburg on May 22, 1863. Three days before Reed had participated in the first effort to storm Vicksburg and found it an impossible task. He had no delusions that this effort would prove any easier. “We learned that 150 men of our division were wanted to constitute a forlorn hope, to move in advance of the main army with fixed bayonets and scale the walls,” he wrote. “A total of 14 men were required from our regiment and none but those that would volunteer. I considered my life no better than the others and was the fourth man to put down my name. They say as long as there is life, there is hope, but my prospect of every getting back safe was not very promising.”
William Reed regularly sent letters back to his hometown newspaper in Pennsylvania, the Union County Star and Lewisburg Chronicle. His account of the forlorn hope at Vicksburg first saw publication in the June 16, 1863 edition of that newspaper.
May 24, 1863
Within the past few days the hills of Vicksburg have been made the bloodiest field of the war in the southwest. I will give a condensed account of the part in which we participated as a full account would require too much time to present.
On the 7th instant, our division (Blair’s), then the only troops at Milliken’s Bend, left that placed and marched southward to Hard Times Plantation 60 miles south of Vicksburg where we were ferried across to Grand Gulf. The latter place with six pieces of artillery had been captured on the 3rd by a force under Admiral Porter. From there we marched eastward to Raymond about 25 miles from Jackson where we joined the main army. At this place, General Grant’s advance had a battle with the Rebels and whipped them severely, taking a great many Rebels as prisoners as the courthouse and church were filled with the wounded.
On the morning of the 16th, we left Raymond and marched northward and about 2 o’clock came on a large body of Rebels at Champion Hill where a heavy fight took place. We routed the Rebels and towards evening they were in full retreat and panic-stricken. The next day we crossed Big Black River; Sherman’s corps occupied the right, Steele’s division the extreme right, and our division joining on the left. On Monday the 18th we advanced in line and heavy skirmishing took place. The next morning, we advanced slowly and came in sight of their works and at 10 o’clock a charge was ordered. We marched forward under one of the most galling fires we ever were under; we pushed up near the works but found it impossible to scale them. We remained there until dark and then retired under cover of night, our regiment losing 47 killed and wounded. One ball passed through my hat which was the nearest I came of being hit; a sergeant was badly wounded at my side.
|Thrulstrop's famous painting of the assault at Vicksburg speaks to the daring of the Union soldiers who stormed the fortifications, and the tenacity of the Confederate defenders.|
Skirmishing occurred the two following days and on the 22nd our division received orders that a simultaneous attack would be made on the works at 10 o’clock. We learned that 150 men of our division were wanted to constitute a forlorn hope: to move in advance of the main army with fixed bayonets and scale the walls. A total of 14 men were required from our regiment and none but those that would volunteer. I considered my life no better than the others and was the fourth man to put down my name. When ready, we formed in line, the brigade in our rear ready to follow. They say as long as there is life, there is hope, but my prospect of every getting back safe was not very promising.
Precisely at 10, our cannon opened, and the order “forward” was given. We then rushed on with a yell and got up to the works but found it impossible to scale them. Never did I see men fall as they did there: the road became blocked with the killed and wounded. We got under as good a cover as could be found and remained there until dark. Out of the 150 men, one half were killed or wounded. I got back safe, but it was more than I expected. Our regiment lost about 40 killed and wounded that day. Our force fell back that night and the plan of carrying the works by force was abandoned.
We are now fortifying and are going to take the place by siege. Heavy firing is kept up along our lines all the time as the Rebels are trying to prevent our fortifying. Our storming party was excused from all duty for several days. In our company there are now 12 privates for duty as in two days’ fight, we had one killed and nine wounded. The whole force was cut up badly. The Fort Donelson fight was nothing like this. I am well and in good spirits. The rheumatism has left me, and our wounded are all taken to Young’s Point.
On December 12, 1895, President Grover Cleveland presented William Reed with the Medal of Honor “for gallantry in the charge of the volunteer storming party on May 22, 1863 while serving with Co. H, 8th Missouri Infantry, in action at Vicksburg, Mississippi.” Born February 21, 1839 in Laurelton, Union Co., Pennsylvania, William returned to Pennsylvania after the war and lived to the age of 79, passing away in the midst of the First World War on May 30, 1918 in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania. He is buried at Riverview Cemetery in Huntingdon where a government marker for Medal of Honor recipients marks his final resting place.
To read a second account of this action from the two men serving with the 30th Ohio Infantry, click here to read "The Forlorn Hope at Vicksburg."
Letter from Private William Reed, Co. H, 8th Missouri Volunteer Infantry, Union County Star and Lewisburg Chronicle (Pennsylvania), June 16, 1863, pg. 1