“Grant’s crown of immortality was won, and the jewel that shone most brightly in it was set there by the blood of the men of Champion Hill… Six thousand blue and gray-coated men were lying there in the woods, dead or wounded when the last gun of Champion Hill was fired.” — Major S. H. M. Byers, Fifth Iowa Infantry
Also called the Battle of Baker’s Creek, this large conflict led by Union Major General Ulysses S. Grant and Confederate Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton took place between Edwards and Bolton in Hinds County, Mississippi, on May 16, 1863. Following the Union occupation of Jackson, Mississippi, both Confederate and Union forces made plans for future operations. Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston retreated with most of his army, up the Canton Road; but, he ordered Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton, commanding about 23,000 men, to leave Edwards Station, located about 27 miles west of Jackson, and attack the Union troops, who were then situated at Clinton, about 10 miles northwest of Jackson.
Pemberton and his generals felt that Johnston’s plan was dangerous and decided instead to attack the Union supply trains moving from Grand Gulf to Raymond. On May 16th; however, Pemberton received another order from Johnston repeating his former directions. Pemberton had already started after the supply trains and was on the Raymond-Edwards Road with his rear at the Crossroads, one-third mile south of Champion Hill’s crest. Thus, when he ordered a countermarch, his rear, including his many supply wagons, became the advance of his force.
Early on May 16, 1863, General Ulysses S. Grant received news that Confederate forces were at Edwards Station preparing to march east. Ordering his columns forward, his army marched westward from Bolton and Raymond, soldiers slogging over rapidly drying roads in three parallel columns. About 7:00 a.m., the southernmost column made contact with Confederate pickets near the Champion Plantation, and shots rang out. The Battle of Champion Hill — the most decisive engagement of the Vicksburg Campaign — had begun.
Confederate battle lines, three miles in length, ran from southwest to northeast along the military crest of a ridge overlooking Jackson Creek. The crest of Champion Hill, on the left of the line, was picketed as a security measure. Pemberton’s position was suited for defense and was especially formidable against attacks via the Middle and Raymond roads. He was unaware, however, that a strong Union force was pushing down the Jackson Road toward his unprotected left flank. If unchecked, these Federals would capture Edwards and cut the Confederates off from their base of operations at Vicksburg.
For protection, Pemberton posted Brigadier General Stephen D. Lee’s men atop Champion Hill where they could watch for the reported Union column moving to the Crossroads. Lee spotted the Union troops at about the same time that they also saw him. When Pemberton received a warning of the Union movement, he quickly deployed his three divisions.
Shortly after 9 a.m., a courier brought a warning of the Federal advance along the Jackson Road. Confederate troops were shifted to the left to cover Champion Hill and protect the vital Crossroads As the Southern troops hastened into position on the crest of Champion Hill, Union soldiers near the Champion House swung from a column into a double line of battle. Artillery was wheeled into position and unlimbered. At about 10:00 a.m., Union Major General Ulysses S. Grant ordered the attack, and the bloodshed began in earnest when the guns roared into action.
Two Union divisions —10,000 men in battle array — moved forward in magnificent style with flags flying. The long blue lines extended westward beyond the Confederate flank. To meet this threat, Confederate troops shifted farther to the west, creating a gap between the forces defending the Crossroads and those defending the Raymond Road. By 11:30 am, Union forces had reached the Confederate main line of resistance, and cheering loudly, they stormed the position. Fighting was intense as the battle raged on Champion Hill, with the lines swaying back and forth as charge and countercharge were made. But, the strength of numbers prevailed, and the blue tide swept over the crest of Champion Hill shortly after 1:00 p.m. while the Rebels retired in disorder.
The Federals then swept forward, capturing the crossroads and closing the Jackson Road escape route. Confronted by disaster, Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton ordered his two remaining divisions to counterattack. Leaving one brigade to guard the Raymond Road, the Southerners marched from their right along the Ratliff Road toward the Crossroads. With characteristic abandon, the 4,500 soldiers of Brigadier General John S. Bowen’s division attacked, hitting the Union Crossroads. At the point of a bayonet, they drove the blue-clad troops back three-quarters of a mile, regaining control of Champion Hill. Insufficient numbers, however, caused the attack to falter just short of the Champion House.
Union General Ulysses S. Grant ordered up fresh troops to drive back the Confederates. When the additional soldiers arrived from Bolton, Federals, along the Middle and Raymond Roads intensified their drive. All morning they had operated under instructions to “move cautiously,” but now threw themselves forward into battle. Confederate resistance was shattered in a matter of moments, and Confederate General Pemberton ordered his army from the field via the one escape route still open — the Raymond-Edwards Road crossing of Bakers Creek.
Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman’s Brigade, acting as the rear guard for the Confederate army, was ordered to hold its ground at all cost. In so doing, General Tilghman was killed. Along with the rest of Major General William W. Loring’s division, his brigade was cut off from Edwards Station and eventually made its way to Jackson by a circuitous route. In the late afternoon, Union troops seized the Bakers Creek Bridge, and by midnight, they occupied Edwards Station.
The Confederates were in full retreat towards Vicksburg. If the Union forces caught these Rebels, they would destroy them. This victory cost the Union 410 killed, 1,844 wounded, and 187 missing, out of 32,000 men. The victory at Champion Hill foreshadowed the ultimate success of Grant’s campaign. For the Southerners, it was a disastrous day for General Pemberton. His army lost 381 killed, 1,018 wounded, and 2,441 missing out of the 23,000 men he led into battle, coupled with the loss of 27 vital artillery pieces.
After the battle, more than 20,00 Confederate troops fled westward towards Vicksburg. The Rebels didn’t expect another battle that would occur at the Big Black River, just a few miles down the road.
Of the Champion Hill area, the battlefield and some of the original roads are very well preserved. However, there are no original buildings. Thousands of acres of the core battlefield are privately owned, and the State of Mississippi owns another 800 acres of the outlying area. The Civil War Preservation Trust has protected an additional 402 acres through conservation easements and land purchases. There are hopes that parts of these properties may become an extension of the Vicksburg National Military Park. However, at present, many of the sites cannot be publicly accessed, and there are no “official” guide maps of the area.
A private tour of the Champion Hill Battlefield can also be arranged with a descendant and property owner. ($25/person, minimum of two as of February 2013). By all accounts, this is an excellent tour given by the great-great-grandson of the property’s original owner.