Songwriter Harry McCarthy first played his song “The Bonnie Blue Flag” in Jackson in the spring of 1861. Its lilting tune and defiant words expressed the jubilation unleashed by secession. By 1862 Jackson had become an important Confederate manufacturing and railroad center, thanks in part to the Southern Railroad of Mississippi and the New Orleans, Jackson, and Great Northern Railroad, both of which passed through the town. The Southern offered a direct connection with Vicksburg, forty-four miles to the west by way of Clinton and Edward’s Station.
During the Vicksburg Campaign (1863), Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant crossed the Mississippi below Vicksburg and then turned north, instantly demonstrating the frailty of Vicksburg’s only rail link with points east. Jackson, even more vulnerable, was doomed to both a battle (14 May) and, following the fall of Vicksburg, a siege (10–16 July). In the looting and destruction that followed the siege, a Union colonel from Missouri saw amid the wreckage “pianos smashed so that the ‘Bonnie Blue Flag’ may never be played on them again.”
On 30 April–1 May Grant crossed two corps of his army (about twenty-five thousand men) to the east bank of the Mississippi at Bruinsburg, downstream from Vicksburg. When Gen. William T. Sherman’s 15th Corps crossed, the force totaled about forty thousand men in all. Grant was to fight five battles south and east of Vicksburg, capturing Jackson in the third of these, on 14 May, and sealing Vicksburg’s fate.
In addition to its instructions to Gen. John C. Pemberton in command at Vicksburg, the Confederate government offered a threefold response to Grant’s coup. All of the elements involved the defense of Jackson. On 1 May, Richmond ordered reinforcements to Mississippi from Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard’s command in the Carolinas and Gen. Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee at Tullahoma. These forces, which on 9 May came to include Lt. Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, were all directed to Jackson by rail. Had this force been allowed to concentrate there with Gen. John Gregg’s brigade, already in the town, Johnston’s force would have numbered about thirteen thousand.
On 3 May Gov. John J. Pettus ordered the construction of earthworks to ring the city on the west from points on the Pearl River up- and downstream. After the Battle of Port Gibson on 1 May, Grant planned to move northeast to reach the line of the Southern Railroad and turn west toward a crossing of the Big Black River east of Vicksburg. At Dillon’s Plantation, where he had established headquarters with Sherman’s corps, Grant learned of the Battle of Raymond, fourteen miles southwest of Jackson, on 12 May. Gregg had brought his brigade out of the Jackson entrenchment and fought for fourteen hours against a division of Gen. James B. McPherson’s 18th Corps. Gregg left McPherson with the distinct impression that his force was far larger than it was, betokening a Confederate buildup at Jackson. Grant then decided to move east against Jackson rather than west against Vicksburg. McPherson was ordered farther north, to approach Jackson on the Clinton Road, while Sherman advanced through Raymond toward Jackson.
Grant had surmised correctly. By 11 May Confederate reinforcements began arriving in Jackson. Part of Gen. W. H. T. Walker’s brigade moved through town to join Gregg at Mississippi Springs. On the morning of 13 May, Col. Peyton Colquitt, commanding the first elements of Gen. States Rights Gist’s brigade arrived. Gen. Johnston came in on one of the trains bearing Colquitt’s men and took up headquarters at the Bowman House, where he met with Gregg.
Confederate forces then at hand, including Mississippi state troops and civilian volunteers, numbered only about six thousand, but more were approaching fast. Gregg believed (incorrectly) that the Union advance would be from one direction only, on the Clinton Road, yet Johnston concluded almost immediately that the situation was lost. Johnston gave orders to evacuate Jackson, wiring secretary of war James Seddon, “I am too late.” His reference was certainly to Jackson but may also have included Vicksburg. Johnston ordered his infantry to march out to the north, on the Canton Road. While Gregg fought a delaying action west of town, Gen. John S. Adams gathered stores and movable property and followed the infantry north.
The Battle of Jackson comprised two separate actions. Battles northwest of town, on the Clinton Road at the O. R. Wright Farm, featured the heaviest fighting. Gregg had moved aggressively on the morning of 14 May, placing three regiments and the Brookhaven Artillery to resist the advance of Gen. M. M. Crocker’s division of McPherson’s 17th Corps. Gregg’s force included the 24th South Carolina under Lt. Col. Ellison Capers, which suffered the heaviest losses of any Confederate command (eleven killed, thirty-eight wounded, fifty-six captured). Gregg envisioned a hard-fought rearguard action, and it lasted until the advance of Gen. J. M. Tuttle’s division of Sherman’s 15th Corps from the southwest on the Mississippi Springs Road and over Lynch Creek. To try to hold that line, Gregg created a scratch force under Col. A. P. Thompson of the 3rd Kentucky Mounted Infantry and Martin’s Georgia Battery. After Thompson fell back into the Jackson earthworks, Sherman chose not to continue the assault but rather probed the Confederate line closer to the Pearl River. A column of engineers leading the 95th Ohio discovered a gap in the line where the railroad from New Orleans passed through the works. The Ohio regiment was soon well behind Confederate lines. By then, however, the Confederates were mostly gone, having completed their mission. They had left behind seventeen artillery pieces with the state troops and volunteers, which fell into Federal hands. Confederate losses have been estimated at five hundred, Union losses at about four hundred. By late afternoon the flag of the 59th Indiana flew over the State Capitol. Grant headed west almost immediately, fighting again at Champion Hill on 16 May. Sherman stayed behind to destroy the railroads and other public property.
The significance of the battle lay in its impact on the two Confederate forces nearest Grant. Pemberton, at Vicksburg, was now isolated. Johnston, pushed out of Jackson, saw half of his new command, in the words of Edwin C. Bearss, “scattered to the winds.” Once his force had been reconstituted, it was by necessity nearer to Yazoo City than to Jackson. The Federals left behind a scene of desolation and ruin, not only of railroad facilities but also of foundries, factories, gins, and mills.
The Siege of Vicksburg began on 18 May. Johnston’s forces, now near Yazoo City, grew to about thirty-one thousand men, but Johnston did little either to relieve Vicksburg or to enable Pemberton’s besieged garrison to break out. On 1–2 July, Johnston probed for any possible weakness in Grant’s ring around Vicksburg, but the end was near. On 3 July Grant ordered Sherman to prepare to move against Johnston as soon as the surrender came; when it came the next day, Johnston drew off toward Jackson. His force comprised infantry divisions commanded by Gens. John Breckinridge, Samuel French, William W. Loring, and W. H. T. Walker. Gen. William Jackson’s cavalry acted as rear guard for the march, which ended at Jackson late on 7 July. Johnston spent 8 July improving the Jackson earthworks before his infantry units took up their positions the next day: Loring between the Pearl River and the Canton Road, Walker as far as the Southern Railroad tracks, French from there to the Raymond Road, and Breckinridge from that road back to the Pearl. Johnston’s artillery included two thirty-two-pound rifled guns and the four guns of the Cotton Bale Battery, which were stationed at the northernmost point of the line, covering the Canton Road.
The line was stronger than that of 14 May but was compromised in two ways. This time, an attack could be expected down the Canton Road, Johnston’s line of retreat in May. And the New Orleans Railroad bridge over the Pearl remained in ruins. Supplies from the east could not come by rail any closer than a mile from the river, where wagons waited. Johnston did not believe he could withstand a siege, and he hoped merely to repel any frontal assaults the enemy might launch.
The force Sherman moved from Vicksburg east to Jackson was far larger than that of 14 May. It included three full infantry corps: the 9th under Gen. James Parke, the 13th under Gen. E. O. C. Ord, and the 15th under Gen. Frederick Steele. In all, Sherman had just under fifty thousand men at his disposal. By 8 July, after a sharp skirmish at Clinton, Sherman’s force was within striking distance of Jackson.
There was to be no great strike, however. Sherman’s corps—the 9th aiming at the Canton Road, the 15th on the Clinton Road, and the 13th on the Raymond Road—were not linked by any good north-south roads. The Confederate line was strong in itself, and the Confederates might counterattack into any gaps in the advance. Furthermore, Sherman’s artillery ammunition supply was low. The wagon train carrying his reserve supply would not reach him until 16 July. Sherman made little progress on 9–10 July and then ordered his forces to begin siege operations. Only north of Jackson, where Parke’s corps was aiming to reach and then turn south on the Canton Road, did substantial movement occur. Sherman’s lines were generally about fifteen hundred yards from the Confederate works, but in some places, such as the high ground of the Deaf and Dumb Asylum, artillery was as close to the enemy as four hundred yards.
On 11 July a sharp fight took place in front of the Cotton Bale Battery’s position, on the crest of a ridge north of today’s Fortification Street and just east of State Street. The hard-pressed battery, supported by Company A of the 14th Mississippi Regiment, turned back a Federal thrust down the Canton Road
On the night of 11 July, Sherman gave orders for a bombardment of Jackson to commence at 7:00 the following morning and last an hour. In all, artillerists fired some three thousand rounds into the city. Even an hour’s firing seriously depleted the ammunition on hand.
The bloodiest fighting of the siege came on 12 July, between Bailey’s Hill on the Union right and the Confederate lines about one thousand yards away. The previous afternoon, Hovey’s division of the 13th Corps had crossed Lynch Creek between the Raymond Road and the New Orleans Railroad, dislodging the 1st Arkansas Mounted Rifles. On 12 July, Isaac Pugh’s brigade of Jacob Lawman’s division was sent forward from Bailey’s Hill with orders to cross the railroad to its left and rectify the Union front beyond the creek. They faced a huge cornfield beyond which were concealed two well-placed Confederate infantry regiments, the 32nd Alabama and the 14th Louisiana, who knew the Union forces were coming. Two batteries, with twelve guns in all, lay just behind the Confederate infantry. The Federals hesitated before entering the corn and then advanced—to their destruction. In the tornado of artillery and rifle fire that engulfed the brigade, 68 men were killed, 302 more were wounded, and 149 were later captured. Confederates lost only 7 men.
The next day was uneventful, and a truce occurred on 14 July. A general cease-fire held from noon until 5:00 in the evening as soldiers from two Louisiana regiments, the 13th and the 20th, buried the dead from Pugh’s attack two days earlier.
Both Sherman and Johnston watched closely for the arrival of Sherman’s artillery reserve wagons. On 15 June Gen. William Jackson’s cavalry tried but failed to intercept the all-important wagons. Johnston, however, decided to evacuate the town before Sherman’s wagons arrived. He withdrew his infantry across the Pearl River bridges that evening. By the night of 17 July his force, largely intact, went into camps at Brandon. The Confederates left a flag flying over the Capitol, but by midday on 17 July it had been replaced with a flag from the 35th Massachusetts. Johnston also left behind his two thirty-two-pound rifled guns, twenty-four thousand artillery rounds, and fourteen hundred rifles. His casualties totaled 71 men killed, 504 wounded, and 25 taken prisoner. Sherman’s losses were greater but light considering the enormity of what had been done: 129 killed, 752 wounded, and 231 captured.
Severe destruction attended and followed the evacuation, the second in two months’ time. City Hall, the Governor’s Mansion, the Capitol, and the mayor’s house survived, in stark contrast to the rest of “Chimneyville.” On 23 July, according to Col. James Peckham of Missouri, “As I write the sky is illuminated by the light of burning buildings. Jackson is in ruins.”
- Edwin C. Bearss, The Campaign for Vicksburg (1991)
- Edwin C. Bearss and Warren Grabau, The Battle of Jackson, May 14, 1863
- The Siege of Jackson, July 10–17, 1863; Three Other Post-Vicksburg Actions (1981)
- Luther S. Bechtel, Diary, Mississippi Department of Archives and History
- Samuel Carter III, The Final Fortress: The Campaign for Vicksburg, 1862–1863 (1980)
- Civil War Scrapbook, Battles of Raymond and Jackson, Mississippi Department of Archives and History
- Richard N. Current, ed., Encyclopedia of the Confederacy (1993)
- Warren E. Grabau, Ninety-Eight Days: A Geographer’s View of the Vicksburg Campaign (2000)
- Wiley Sword, Blue and Gray (Spring 2004)