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

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