The 17 May 1863 Battle of Big Black River Bridge, part of the Vicksburg Campaign, resulted from a Confederate Army attempt to slow Union pursuit as the Southerners retreated following their defeat at the Battle of Champion Hill. A division of Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton’s Southern army had become separated from the main body. Pemberton ordered the units headed by Maj. Gen. John S. Bowen and Brig. Gen. John Vaughn to hold the bridge over the Big Black River, less than twenty miles from Vicksburg, to allow time for the missing division to reunite with the army. Unbeknownst to Pemberton, however, the troops he was waiting for had been cut off by the enemy and were headed away from the river.
The Confederate line of entrenchments at the Big Black River Bridge was about a mile long and ran north to south inside a horseshoe-shaped curve on the east side of the river. Flanked by swampy terrain, it was fronted by relatively flat, open ground. Confederate manpower along the line was estimated at about four thousand, with nearly twenty pieces of artillery. To the rear of the fortifications were two bridges over the river: the Vicksburg and Jackson Railroad bridge, and a makeshift bridge formed by mooring the steamer Dot crossways in the river and removing its machinery.
Union troops under the command of Maj. Gen. John A. McClernand appeared on the edge of the fields in front of the Confederate works on the morning of 17 May 1863. An artillery engagement ensued, followed by a brisk exchange of musketry by sharpshooters from both sides. Not until the afternoon, however, did Brig. Gen. Mike Lawler’s Iowa, Wisconsin, and Indiana troops attempt an attack. The Federals formed near the fortifications on the Confederate left while hidden from sight by a slight rise in the terrain known at the time as a “meander scar.” At the command, US forces charged across the short span of open ground to the Confederate line, overrunning the entire southern position in less than three minutes.
The Confederates quickly abandoned their lines in a disorganized retreat to the bridges over the Big Black. In the confusion, some soldiers drowned as they tried to swim across. Only the foresight of army engineer Samuel Lockett prevented the catastrophe for Pemberton’s army from being even worse: he had prepared the bridges to be burned in just such an emergency. Their destruction temporarily halted the Federals, giving the Southerners the time they needed to retreat to the Vicksburg lines.
The Union Army achieved total victory at Big Black River Bridge. For the relatively small cost of approximately 275 casualties, Federal forces inflicted heavy losses on the Confederates, including capturing more than 1,700 prisoners, 18 cannons, vast quantities of ammunition and small arms, and five battle flags. The battle left the Confederate Army weakened and effectively bottled up inside the Vicksburg lines, cut off from supply.
- Michael Ballard, Pemberton: The General Who Lost Vicksburg (1991)
- Leonard Fullenkamp, Stephen Bowman, and Jay Luvaas, eds., Guide to the Vicksburg Campaign (1998)
- Terrence Winschel, Triumph and Defeat: The Vicksburg Campaign (1999)
- Terrence Winschel, Vicksburg: Fall of the Confederate Gibraltar (1999)