Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Siege of Jackson

Following the surrender of Confederate Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton's army at Vicksburg on July 4, 1863, U.S. Grant, rather than resting on his laurels, immediately ordered William Tecumseh Sherman to return to Jackson to defeat Joseph E. Johnston's “Army of Relief” once and for all and to complete the destruction of the railroads and other military installations in and around the capital city. Sherman had already clashed with a portion of Johnston’s troops on May 14 in the battle of Jackson, but since then Johnston (right) had gathered a sizable force (which he chose not to use to provide any “relief” to Pemberton) and had significantly strengthened the defensive works around Jackson using both slave labor and the troops on hand to construct rifle pits, artillery positions and connecting trenches. Johnston, a native or Virginia and a graduate of West Point, was a master of defense and had selected strong positions for his artillery. His army consisted of veteran officers, including former U.S. Vice President John C. Breckinridge, who commanded Johnston's southern flank. Anchored on the Pearl River above and below the city, Johnston’s position was a strong one. All in all, Johnston had a formidable force. His only weakness, perhaps, was the Confederate commander’s own natural timidity.

To make the march back to Jackson, Sherman would have three corps available: the IX Corps, under John G. Parke, composed largely of eastern seaboard troops; the XIII Corps, under the command of Edward O.C. Ord, a West Point roommate of Sherman; and Frederick Steele, commanding Sherman's own XV Corps. As Sherman's forces arrived in front of these formidable works, he chose not to assault them. No doubt, Sherman well remembered the losses sustained during the May 19 assault at Vicksburg, as well as the failed general assault two days later. Instead, Sherman began digging siege works and extending his lines to encircle the city. On the north end of Jackson, Parke's IX Corps marched across country and into position near the state's insane asylum. Establishing artillery emplacements on the grounds of the insane asylum (whose inmates still occupied the place and rushed to the windows to see the commotion outside), Parke moved his infantry closer to town and took position on a ridge opposite the main Confederate defensive line, near modern day Fortification Street. For the next several days, the IX Corps targeted their artillery fire at the capitol building, which was clearly visible, and at the Cotton Bale Battery, a salient position in the Confederate line.

On July 11, Brig. Gen. Thomas Welsh's division of Parke's Corps advanced on both sides of the Canton Road to test the strength of the Confederate defenses. In response, the rebel batteries poured shot and shell into the advancing federal line. Although they took few causalities, it was evident that the line was strongly manned. On the east side of the Canton Road, however, in the sector near the Cotton Bale Battery, the 2nd Michigan Infantry advanced without support, thinking the rest of the brigade under Col. Daniel Leasure was also advancing. Despite charging alone, the Michiganders drove in the Confederate pickets and advanced to within a few yards of the Confederate works, manned at that point by troops under the enigmatic William W. Loring. “Old Blizzards” was so concerned with Welsh's advance that reinforcements were rushed to his aid from the south end of the line. These reinforcements were from Benjamin Hardin Helm's brigade of Breckingridge's division. Helm, who was President Lincoln's brother-in-law, would be killed just two months later at Chickamauga. Without support, the attack by the 2nd Michigan was doomed to fail. During the attack, Capt. Charles B. Haydon of Co. I was wounded a short distance from the rebel works. When he regained consciousness, Haydon (right) wrote in his dairy that when he could not move or speak he began to wonder if he were not already dead. "I soon discarded this idea but still felt certain that I must die very soon. My whole feeling,” he wrote, “became one of wonder & curiosity as the change which I believed I was about to experience.'” After a few minutes, Haydon was carried back to the lines from members of his company and lived to fight another day, although he never fully recovered from the wounds he received at Jackson and died in Cincinnati in March, 1864.

On the southern flank was Edward O.C. Ord's XIII Corps. Ord had arrived in Vicksburg during the siege and had taken command of John McClernand's corps after he was dismissed from the service by Grant. East of the railroad (along present day South State Street), Brig. Gen. Jacob Lauman's division was ordered to advance toward the Confederate defenses in order to establish a continuous line with the Union right flank anchored on the Pearl River. After reaching the assigned position, the XIII Corps dug in. Some of their entrenchments are today the only existing infantry works in Jackson. Unfortunately for one brigade of Lauman's division, July 12 would end disastrously. Rather than establishing a defensive position as ordered, Lauman ordered Isaac Pugh's brigade to continue the advance against the Confederate line, clearly visible across a corn field. Despite serious concerns for his brigade, which consisted of the 53rd, 41st and 28th Illinois and the 3rd Iowa, Pugh obeyed and sent his men forward across the muddy cornfield. Waiting for the Federals was a masked 6-gun battery of the famed Washington artillery and Cobbs Kentucky battery, plus two regiments of infantry under Daniel W. Adams (above right), the brother of Confederate General Wirt Adams. The line was supported by Marcellus Stovall's brigade of Florida and Georgia troops. The results of the ill-advised attack were devastating. Struggling through abatis felled in front of the Confederate works, Pugh's brigade was cut to pieces, pounded by the guns of the Washington artillery and Cobb's battery and raked by Confederate rifle fire. Watching the action was the famed Orphan Brigade of Kentucky, who was in support of Cobb's battery. One of the men, a soldier in the 6th Kentucky, was greatly impressed with the fighting before him. That night, he wrote that "the roaring artillery and the rattle of musketry, all combined, made it the most sublime sight that my eye was ever permitted to witness." After the bloody work was done, Dan Adams ordered his men to cease fire after spotting white handkerchiefs along the shattered Union line. During the assault, the Federals lost 68 killed, 302 wounded and 149 missing, many of them captured by the Confederates. In all, more than half of Pugh's brigade was wiped out in the attack, which lasted only few minutes.

Among the dead was George Poundstone (right), the flagbearer of the 53rd Illinois. Poundstone's body was found on the field still clutching the regimental colors, stained with his blood. The flag, still stained with Poundstone's blood, is now at the Ilinois State Military Museum. Lauman, following the attack, appeared unable to function and could only report that he had been “cut to pieces.” Arriving at his headquarters, Edward Ord immediately dismissed Lauman and replaced him with Alvin P. Hovey. The veteran Lauman would never be called on again to command troops during the war and spent the remainder of the conflict at his home in Iowa. A truce between the lines was later agreed to bury the dead, which had taken on decidedly unpleasant aromas in the hot Mississippi sun.

Along this section of the Confederate line occurred a strange incident involving, of all things, a piano. Near the works of the famed Washington artillery was Slocum's battery. In front of their position was a fine mansion known as the Cooper House. Burned by the Confederates in order to provide a field of fire, men from the battery went into the house and rescued a piano and carried it up and over the parapet. Before, during and after the attack by Pugh's brigade, some of the more musically-inclined soldiers played and sang around the piano in the Confederate works, serenading their men (and no doubt the Yankees as well) with familiar tunes like the ‘Bonnie Blue Flag’ and ‘Dixie.’ The piano was abandoned after the siege and captured by Sherman's men, but it survived and was later given to Private Douglas Carter of Texas, who played the piano during the siege. Today, the piano (above) resides in the Confederate Memorial Hall Museum in New Orleans.

After settling down to a classic siege, few other incidents of note took place around Jackson, but Sherman used the time well, sending cavalry and infantry north and south of Jackson to tear up railroads and burn depots in all directions. North of Jackson, in Madison County, Charles Woods’ (right) brigade of Parke's Corps, along with a Union cavalry brigade, moved toward Canton. Along the way, they burned the depot at Calhoun Station, about halfway to Canton. Many of the men in Wood's brigade were German immigrants. Ironically, Calhoun station would be settled around the turn of the century by other German immigrants and renamed Gluckstadt. The only troops opposing Woods' and Cyrus Bussey's expedition were cavalry under the capable leadership of William Wirt Adams. Outnumbered, however, he could not stop the Federal advance and Canton was briefly occupied and much of her railroad facilities wrecked, along with the Dixie Works, a supplier of Confederate war materiel. Other combat teams moved south along the New Orleans, Jackson and Great Northern Railroad as far as Bahala and Brookhaven, wrecking bridges, trestles and tearing up track.

Sherman was also waiting on his heavy artillery ammunition to arrive by wagon from Vicksburg. Upon arrival, he planned to bombard the city and force Johnston's hand. Johnston, however, was aware of the train's advance and wisely chose to save his army before Sherman could get his planned artillery bombardment started. On the night of July 16, after leaving a skeleton force to man the works, Johnston quietly withdrew his army across the Pearl River on pontoon bridges. So skillfully did he plan and execute the withdrawal that Union scouts were unaware the Confederates had left until sunrise the next morning, when they found the works abandoned. From the Cotton Bale Battery, the Federals observed a white flag waved by a black man. Upon investigation, he revealed that Johnston had abandoned the city. With the news, the race was on to be the first unit to occupy the city. The 35th Massachusetts won the race to the capitol building (above, seen in the 1840s) and the regimental flag was raised above the building by Sgt. Maj. Samuel G. Berry. After posting guards and gathering up Confederate stragglers, the Federals were in possession of Mississippi’s capital city for the second time in the war.

As with the previous occupation of Jackson, additional destruction took place, only adding to the misery of the townsfolk. Jackson, after suffering two Union occupations, earned the nickname “Chimneyville” because of the number of buildings which had been burned. Even Sherman, who established his headquarters in the Governor’s Mansion, observed that the city “with the destruction committed by ourselves in May last and by the enemy during this siege, is one mass of charred ruins." A Confederate soldier by the name of J.M. Armstrong echoed these
sentiments. “The city is a perfect waste,” he wrote. “All the citizens gone.  Their fine fences have been torn down for shelters and all the gardens is our common pasture.  A great many houses have been broken open & ransacked by our men & everything that is valuable taken away.  I am perfectly disgusted with such conduct.  The citizens say they were not ½ so much damaged by the federals while they stayed here.” Numerous other accounts also mention the destruction which occurred in Jackson. Even so, there is still a great deal of debate about the actual extent of the damage, as many of the most prominent public buildings survived intact. In addition, photographs taken in 1866 show a large number of intact buildings, indicating that they were either rebuilt during the war or immediately after, which, given the general state of affairs seems unlikely. Alas, the actual extent of damage may never be fully known. What is known is that the people of Jackson, white and black, suffered from lack of food and water, and soon after Johnston’s men evacuated the city Mayor Charles Manship (above) approached Sherman to request assistance. Sherman, with Grant's approval, provided 200 barrels of flour and 100 barrels of salt pork to the citizenry. Sherman wanted to go further, establishing an exchange depot on the Big Black River where Mississippi citizens could trade cotton and other commodities for food, but Grant vetoed that idea.

In addition to providing food, there was additional destructive work to be done. Sherman sent patrols in all directions to tear up railroad bridges and facilities and attempted to pursue Johnston across the Pearl. Accordingly, Frederick Steele (left) was sent toward Brandon with two brigades to see where Johnston had gone. After a skirmish with Confederate cavalry near Miller’s cornfield (in the vicinity of the present day Brandon Library), Steele’s men occupied the town of Brandon. Soon, according to the Brandon Republican newspaper, “every backyard in the place was filled with a gang of thieves who broke open smokehouses, dairies, pantries, fowlhouses and emptied them of their contents…There was not enough chickens left to herald the dawn.” Much of the business district also went up in flames at the hands of the 114th Illinois Infantry. Steele, however, did not chase Johnston any further due to the heat and returned to Jackson, leaving Brandon as a smoldering ruin. After completing their work, Sherman's expedition began the long march back to Vicksburg on July 22. The siege of Jackson was over. July 17, 2013, is the 150th anniversary of the end of the siege.

As with any military action, provisions had to be made for the dead and wounded. Many of the Confederate dead were subsequently buried in Jackson's Greenwood Cemetery, where they remain today. The Union dead would be reinterred, in 1866, in the Vicksburg National Cemetery. All totaled, the human toll was small compared to other engagements - slightly more than 1,600 killed, wounded and missing, and most of the Union casualties were from the disastrous assault by Pugh's brigade on July 11.

Today, despite the destruction which took place in Jackson in 1863, a number of prominent buildings remain, included the Old Capitol, the Governor's Mansion and the Jackson City Hall. Unfortunately, little physical evidence remains from the siege lines. There is a Union battery position (a “lunette”) on the grounds of the former insane asylum (now the University of Mississippi Medical Center) and a few remnants of the XIII Corps trenches in Battlefield Park (right) on the south end of town. Unfortunately, these are incorrectly identified as Confederate trenches and include two Spanish American field artillery pieces, both pointing the wrong direction. Regrettably, the site of the Cotton Bale Battery been bulldozed within the past year to make way for a large hospital complex.

Photo and Image Sources:
(1) Johnston:
(2) Artillery:
(3) Siege map:
(4) Haydon:
(5) Adams:
(6) Confederate artillery:
(7) Poundstone:
(8) Piano:
(9) Woods:
(10) Old Capitol:
(11) Destruction:
(12) Manship:
(13) Steele:
(14) Battlefield Park: Photo by author

Monday, July 15, 2013

Lenny Skutnik: Hero of the Potomac

For those who enjoy trivia, here's a question: what do Civil Rights pioneer Rosa Parks, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, NBA star Dikembe Mutombo, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, MLB player Sammy Sosa and Mississippi native Lenny Skutnik all have in common? The answer is found in the story of a American hero with an unlikely name.

In the early 1980s, Martin Leonard "Lenny" Skutnik, born in Mississippi in 1953, was employed as a low-level government worker in the print shop of the Congressional Budget Office. Prior to that, he had held a variety of jobs, working as a painter, fast food cook and at various times as an employee in a meat packing plant, furniture factory and supermarket. In short, there was nothing remarkable or extraordinary about Lenny Skutnik. Likely, his name would not be known today, except that on January 13, 1982, something extraordinary happened. On that day, you see, Lenny Skutnik became an American hero. On that cold January day, Air Florida Flight 90 crashed into the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. Somewhat reminiscent of the recent airline crash in San Francisco, the airplane clipped the 14th Street Bridge on takeoff and dropped into the ice-choked river, killing 74 passengers on board and four people on the bridge. Observing the rescue operations from the shore of the river, Lenny Skutnik, who was just a by-stander, watched as Priscilla Tirado struggled to grab hold of a lifeline dropped to her from a rescue helicopter. As her hands slipped from the lifeline, she started to sink into the frozen river. Seeing the disaster unfold before him, Skutnik tore off his boots and coat and dove into the snowbound Potomac River.

After being dragged to the shore, Priscilla Tirado, though nearly frozen from the icy waters, was taken to the hospital and miraculously survived. As a result, Skutnik was rightfully hailed as a hero. Although he had no training as a "first responder," he didn’t need it. He simply saw someone in need and acted without hesitation, the proverbial “Good Samaritan.” Of course, many “ordinary” people do heroic things. Many times, they are never known or recognized by others (and many times that's by choice). Lenny Skutnik probably would have preferred it that way, too, but his heroic rescue was caught on camera that day, and he became an instant household name because of it. Less than two weeks later, Skutnik was invited to attend the State of the Union Address, where he and his wife sat in the President’s box next to First Lady Nancy Reagan. During the forty minute speech, which was President Reagan's first State of the Union address, Reagan made Skutnik’s act of heroism a centerpiece of his message to the American people:

Just just two weeks ago, in the midst of a terrible tragedy on the Potomac, we saw again the spirit of American heroism at its finest, the heroism of dedicated rescue workers saving crash victims from icy waters. And we saw the heroism of one of our young Government employees, Lenny Skutnik, who, when he saw a woman lose her grip on the helicopter line, dived into the water and dragged her to safety. And then there are countless quiet, everyday heroes of American life, parents who sacrifice long and hard so their children will know a better life than they've known; church and civic volunteers who help to feed, clothe, nurse and teach the needy; millions who've made our nation, and our nation's destiny, so very special, unsung heroes who may not have realized their own dreams themselves but then who reinvest those dreams in their children. Don't let anyone tell that America's best days are behind her, that the American spirit has been vanquished. We've seen it triumph too often in our lives to stop believing in it now.

Of course, Skutnik received a rousing ovation from all those present, and the accolades didn’t stop there. In the coming weeks and months, Skutnik was honored with awards from the U.S. Coast Guard and by the Carnegie Hero Fund, among others, and received thousands of letters (many delivered without an address other than to the “Hero of the Potomac”) and honors poured in from such diverse organizations as the Japan Volunteer Fireman’s Association and the Polish American Police Associations of Philadelphia and New York. He also earned a trip home to Mississippi aboard Governor William Winter’s plane, where “Lenny Skutnik Day" was celebrated on February 10. The day before, his mother’s hometown of Columbia, Mississippi, declared their own “Lenny Skutnik Day.” He even received an anonymous check for $7,000 from someone in Virginia and an offer from a Washington car dealership for use of a car for a year. None of these honors, however, was ever as distinct and memorable as being recognized by President Reagan during the State of the Union Address. Now, of course, it is a regular occurrence to recognize notable persons (though not necessarily heroes) during the annual speech before Congress. Among the most recent honorees was Brian Murphy, a police officer from Wisconsin who was shot twelve times while responding to a shooting at a Sikh temple. During previous speeches, Rosa Parks, Tony Blair, Dikembe Mutombo, Hamid Karzai and Sammy Sosa have all been recognized in similar fashion, but Martin Leonard Skutnik was the first. Ever since, the Washington press corps refers to all such honored guests at the State of the Union as “Lenny Skutniks.”

Today, Skutnik is retired from the Congressional Budget Office after more than thirty years and leads a quiet, “ordinary" life with his wife. He's  reportedly still a bit embarrassed about all the fuss. "I wasn't a hero," he has said, "I was just someone who helped another human being. We're surrounded by heroes. What made this different was that it was caught on film and went all over the world." He is still grateful for the recognition by President Reagan, however, and proudly displays a photo of the momentous occasion in his home. Though his fame has faded over time, the “Hero of the Potomac” – and especially his name - will never be completely forgotten.

(1) Newspaper:
(2) Skutnik rescue:
(3) Reagan:
(4) State of the Union:
(5) Skutnik today:

Sunday, July 7, 2013

A Tale of Two Soldiers, Part II

Following the failed assaults of May 19 and 22, 1863, Grant opted to begin siege operations to take fortress Vicksburg. With overpowering artillery from the army encircling the city and the Union navy operating in the Mississippi River, Grant's troops pounded Vicksburg day and night with an unrelenting bombardment. For six long weeks the Confederate defenders endured this constant barrage while their food and supplies dwindled. All the while, Union infantry crept ever closer by digging approach trenches toward the Confederate lines. The 36th Mississippi, which had been posted in a very exposed position at the Stockade Redan during the two assaults, was moved to another  place in the line on June 2. Here, Sergeant Christopher Rankin Rials and his comrades had to contend daily with Union sharpshooters who made life difficult (and often deadly) for anyone exposing themselves above the trenches. Of even greater concern to the men was a much more pernicious enemy: hunger. According to George Powell Clarke of Co. E, who wrote his memoirs for a newspaper in the 1890s, food was a constant concern for the men:

During all those forty eight days and nights of continual fighting, we subsisted on less than one quarter rations and this consisted for the most part of cow peas, boiled in clear water with a little salt for seasoning. Meat, during the last half of the siege, was a thing almost unknown. Our bread, during most of the time, was made of rice, and towards the last of peas ground in the mills. O! how our stomachs loathed that pea bread.

Across no-man's land was the 45th Illinois, which was stationed near the Shirley House. On June 25, the "Washburn Lead Mine Regiment" played a role in one of the most significant actions of the siege. In the Jackson Road sector, a mine shaft packed with 2,200 pounds of black powder was placed underneath one of the main Confederate forts, the Third Louisiana Redan. Once the mine detonated, according to the plan, Union infantry would rush into the resulting breach and capture the fort. Among the units picked to lead the charge was the 45th Illinois. When the mine exploded, a Union soldier remembered that “you could see nothing but a black cloud of dirt and powder smoke, throwing the earth thirty or forty feet in the air." Into the breach went Mortimer Leggett's Brigade of Logan's Division, led by the 45th Illinois, including Capt. John O. Duer of Galena. The fighting was desperate, with men from both sides wading into the bloody debris with wild abandon. The struggle continued for hours, but again the Union effort failed. The Confederates, aware that tunnels were being constructed underneath their positions, had built a secondary line behind the fort. Grant, stymied again, looked to try more mine explosions at other points along the line. With all likelihood, they would have worked too, as Pemberton's exhausted and hungry troops were getting weaker and weaker with each passing day.

Faced with overwhelming odds and a demoralized army, Pemberton decided to do the hitherto unthinkable: surrender. At 8:00 in the morning on July 3, white flags went up along the Confederate works near the Shirley House and in view of the 45th Illinois, and for the first time in six weeks the guns went silent. Men from both armies cautiously came out into the open and fraternized with each other. Several hours later Grant and Pemberton met between the lines to discuss terms of surrender. Although negotiations continued throughout the night by message, the fighting remained suspended pending the outcome. Then, on the morning of July 4, it was official. U.S. Grant had taken the "Gibraltar of the South." With the surrender, the Confederates marched out of their trenches and stacked arms. In recognition of the courage of the Southerners, few of the victorious Federals cheered. Grant rode into Vicksburg at the head of Logan's division, and the "Stars and Bars" flying atop the Courthouse was replaced by the flag of the 45th Illinois (although another regiment later claimed the honor). Seeing the condition of the gaunt Confederates, many of the Yankees offered them food. George Clarke remembered that "a genuine son of the Emerald Isle" came by and asked some of the men of the 36th Mississippi if they were hungry. When they said yes, he "emptied his haversack, which contained crackers, bacon, coffee, etc. We thanked him and he passed on. Several others passed and divided with us, until we had enough to make a good meal."

With the surrender, something had to be done with all the prisoners. After determining that sending them upriver to prison would take too much time and occupy too many transport vessels, Grant decided to parole the Confederates until properly exchanged. In essence, they would sign an oath to not take up arms again until they were "exchanged" with an equal number of Union prisoners. Until the oath was signed, the Confederates were free to move about behind their lines. Willie Tunnard, a soldier in the 3rd Louisiana Infantry, wrote that Vicksburg presented "a strange yet animated scene" and was thronged with curious men from both armies (the Confederates seemed especially interested in the Union gunboats). On July 7, a "clear, and very warm day," the work of paroling the men began in earnest. Confederate soldiers signed the oath individually in the presence of paroling officers assigned from various Union regiments. In the case of Willie Tunnard and Christopher Rankin Rials, who were both soldiers in Louis Hebert's brigade, that officer was Capt. Duer of the 45th Illinois. After signing the parole papers (seen here is the parole signed by Sgt. Rials), the Confederates went back to camp until July 11, when the surrendered army began the long march to Enterprise, leaving behind the city they fought so valiantly to defend.

After they were "properly exchanged," most men in Pemberton's army rejoined their regiments and went on to fight in the campaigns of 1864 and 1865, and many thousands were killed and wounded as a result. Not all soldiers remained in the army, however. Some, like Sgt. Rankin Rials, decided it was time to go home, where he had two small children to take care of. By 1866, he and Louisa added three more to the fold. In time, the couple had a total of eight children. Sgt. Rials resumed his life as a farmer and apparently got into the sawmill business. Tragically, he was murdered in 1880 by a nephew by marriage, possibly the result of a business disagreement. Rankin Rials was 50 years old. After Vicksburg, Capt. John Oliver Duer was promoted to Major, then Lieutenant Colonel and finally colonel of the 45th Illinois. Serving throughout the war, Duer would eventually be given the rank of Brevet Brigadier General, one of nine Union generals from Galena, Illinois (including a certain Ulysses S. Grant). Returning to Galena after the war, Duer moved to Monticello, Iowa, where he was a bank cashier and merchant, building a "large, commodious store" to sell his wares. He was also elected as the town's treasurer and served as a city councilman. The father of four, Gen. Duer, like Sgt. Rials, died in 1880 and is buried in the Oakwood Cemetery in Monticello. He was 42 years old.

On July 7, 1863 (150 years ago today), these two men, one in blue and one in gray, met face to face. The encounter probably made no impression on Capt. Duer, as Sgt. Rials was just one of hundreds of men signing the oath that day. For Christopher Rankin Rials, though, it was likely an event he would remember for the rest of his life. After this brief moment in time, the men went on different paths, one to success and official recognition, the other to a life which ended in tragedy. For me, however, the life of Sgt. Rials was exceedingly significant, for his son Aaron, born in 1866, was my great grandfather. I can only ponder what might have changed had Rankin Rials not gone home to Copiah County after Vicksburg and instead been killed on some distant, bloody field.

Photo and Image Sources:
(1) Siege lines:
(2) Assault:
(3) Surrender:
(4) Rankin Rials Oath: Image by author from MDAH files
(5) Duer grave:

Friday, July 5, 2013

A Tale of Two Soldiers

Christopher Rankin Rials was born in Copiah County, Mississippi, about 1829. A married man, he and his wife Louisa had three children, the youngest of whom, Elbert Martin, was born in 1861. The next year, Rankin, as he was known, left to join the Confederate Army and enlisted in Co. D of the 36th Mississippi Infantry. He was already thirty-three years old when he joined the "Hazlehurst Fencibles." Although he was older than most recruits, Rankin Rials was apparently a good soldier. Other than a brief stay in the hospital in Saltillo that fall, the record indicates he was present for duty for the rest of 1862 and into the spring and summer months of 1863. In fact, Christopher Rankin Rials became a sergeant in his company.  In Galena, Illinois, several months before Sgt. Rials shouldered a musket to fight for the Confederacy, John Oliver Duer (right) enlisted in the Union Army. Born in 1838 in Maryland, Duer was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in Co. D of the 45th Illinois Infantry. Known as the "Washburn Lead Mine Regiment" (named in honor of Rep. Elihu B. Washburne, who added an 'e' to his name) the 45th Illinois saw action early in the Civil War. Led by Col. John E. Smith, a Swiss-born jeweler from Galena, the regiment's baptism of fire was at Fort Donelson. At Shiloh on April 6-7, 1862, the "Lead Miners" suffered 26 killed and 199 wounded and missing. After that, the unit participated in all of Grant's campaigns in Mississippi aimed at Vicksburg, and by the winter of 1862-63 were on the way down the Mississippi River with the rest of Grant's army to begin what would be the final effort to capture "The Gibraltar of the South."

By the late spring of 1862, John O. Duer, now twenty-five years old, had been promoted to captain. During the Vicksburg Campaign, his regiment saw extensive action in the battles leading up to the siege of Vicksburg, including the battles of Raymond and Jackson (where on May 14, 1863, several companies were forced to make a hasty retreat in the face of angry honey bees stirred up by Confederate bullets hitting their beehives). The regiment was also at Champion Hill, where one veteran remembered that the regimental flag was "riddled with bullets" and that all of the color bearers were killed or wounded. Meanwhile, the men of the 36th Mississippi, commanded by Col. William Wallace Witherspoon (left), were stationed at Snyder's Bluff north of Vicksburg. While they did not take part in the battles between Port Gibson and Big Black River, they had already seen plenty of action. After their first engagement at Farmington (near Corinth), Sgt. Rials and the rest of the Fencibles fought in the battles of Iuka and Corinth, where the regiment lost 12 killed and 71 wounded out of 326 present for duty. During the Vicksburg Campaign, Hebert's Brigade (which included the 36th Mississippi) was at Snyder's Bluff to protect the northern approaches to the city. On May 16, 1863, following the defeat of John C. Pemberton's army at Champion Hill, however, Hebert's Brigade was ordered into the trenches at Vicksburg to await Grant's expected arrival. The regiment, in fact, was thrown into one of the most critical points on the Confederate line. Known as Stockade Redan (above), the fort occupied primarily by the 36th Mississippi guarded the ominously-named Graveyard Road. Other regiments of Herbert's Brigade moved into trenches to the right, stretching all the way to the Jackson Road, another vital avenue into fortress Vicksburg. It would not be long before the Mississippians felt the full fury of Grant's army.

On May 19, William T. Sherman deployed his XV Corps, which had arrived first in front of the Confederate defenses at Vicksburg and prepared to launch an attack against the sector of the line held, in part, by the 36th Mississippi. According to Louis Hebert, the cannonade which preceded the attack was ferocious. "From that time our entire line became subjected to a murderous fire," he wrote, "and nearly every cannon on my line was in time either dismounted or otherwise injured."  Once the barrage ended, the Union infantry surged forward, but the Federals were met with an equally withering fire from the fort's defenders. As one soldier in the 36th Mississippi recalled "At the proper time our batteries opened on them with grape, canister, and shrapnel shells, which told fearfully on their crowded ranks." Faced with mounting casualties, Sherman's attack ground to a halt and the May 19 assault ended in failure. Grant, however, would give it one more try. At 10:00 a.m. on May 22, Grant's entire army, consisting of three corps, moved  forward to attack the whole of Pemberton's defenses. In the Graveyard Road sector, Francis P. Blair's Division of Sherman's corps moved to attack the Stockade Redan, led by a volunteer group of 150 men armed with wooden planks to bridge the ditch in front of the Confederate fort. As the lead elements of the assaulting column, known afterwards as the "Forlorn Hope," passed through a road cut just 400 feet in front of the fort, the men of the 36th Mississippi rose to their feet and began pouring shot and shell into the ranks of the Union column. In spite of the ferocious fire, some Federal soldiers were able to climb the parapet and plant their regimental colors. However, the temporary gains were not enough and the attack again stalled in front of Stockade Redan. Elsewhere along the line, men in blue and gray fought bitterly for control of the various forts. Along the Jackson Road, Maj. Gen. John A. Logan's division was assigned the task of attacking the 3rd Louisiana Redan and the Great Redoubt. During the assault, Col. John Eugene Smith (above right) led the 45th Illinois to the slope of the redan but could go no further. Too exposed to retreat, the Federals stayed until dark when they were finally able to pull back. Despite a short-lived breakthrough at the Railroad Redoubt in the sector assigned to the men of the XIII Corps, Grant's second assault, as on the 19th, failed to dislodge the Confederates. Tragically, the attempt added another 3,200 Union casualties to the rolls of the dead and wounded, along with several hundred more on the Confederate side. Neither Sgt. Christopher Rankin Rials nor Captain John O. Duer were among them, however.


(1) Duer: h
(2) Witherspoon:
(3) Stockade Redan:
(4) May 22 Assault:
(5) Smith: