Pursuing the retreating Confederates into Vicksburg, Grant was determined to assault the works immediately, rather than give them time to rest and regroup. He ordered all the available troops from his three corps to attack. With insufficient preparation and little knowledge of the terrain, they were unable to make much headway against the formidable defense, natural and constructed, of Vicksburg. A typical report is that of T.K. Smith, from Blair’s division of Sherman’s corps. His brigade did as well as any, but they were unable to gain a foothold on the parapet. They fell back, and, as Smith says, stayed in their position until they got the order to attack again on the 22nd.
As night fell, I ordered the FIFTY-fourth Ohio, with three companies from the One hundred and twenty-seventh Illinois as a reserve, to deploy far to my left, with a view of connecting with General Rannson’s picket. Colonel Giles A. Smith meanwhile had advanced and relieved my pickets on the right. Thus we remained resting on our arms till daybreak, when, by orders from General Sherman, I threw the pickets, as skirmishers, forward within close range of the enemy, advancing the brigade in line of battle on either side of what is called the Graveyard road, leading to what was supposed to be a sally-port in the fortifications, the right wing, Eighty-THIRD Indiana and One hundred and twenty seventh Illinois with its left, the left wing, FIFTY-FIFTH Illinois and FIFTY fourth Ohio with its right, upon the road till we reached the crest of a hill 500 yards from the enemy’s works, company B First Illinois Artillery, captain Barret, in position in front, still supported by details from the FIFTY-FIFTH Illinois.
At 9 a. m., the signal being given by Battery A, five shots were fired to get range, when a vigorous fire was opened along the line, skirmishers and sharpshooters pouring in most destructive volleys from sheltered points along the range of hills and close under the parapets.
At 11 o’clock the following order was received from department headquarters, viz:
Corps commanders will push forward carefully, and gain as close position as possible to the enemy’s works, until 2 p. m. ; at that hour they will fire three volleys of artillery from all the pieces in position. This will be the signal for a general charge of all the army corps along the whole line. When the works are carried, guards will be placed by all DIVISION commanders to prevent their men from straggling from their companies.
By order of Major-General Grant,&c.
At 1 o’clock I assembled my pickets, calling in the FIFTY-fourth Ohio. A reconnaissance of the ground over which I should pass had developed the fact that it would be impossible to advance my whole brigade in line of battle, the hills and knobs being exceedingly precipitous, intersected by ravines in three direction, the bottom treacherous, filled with sink holes, concealed by dried grass and cane; the whole covered by abatis of fallen timber form a dense forest cut six months or more ago, affording spikes and cherveraux de frise most difficult to surmount. The roadway alluded to is cut and filled, slightly winding upon a ridge nearly perpendicular to my line of battle, and at its point of intersection fore I placed my right wing, Eighty-THIRD Indiana and One hundred and twenty-seventh Illinois command of Colonel Spooner its senior officer, in whose ability and dauntless courage I repose fullest confidence on the right of the road, with instructions to press forward as rapidly as possible, and in such order as he could best get over the ground. I of his line of skirmishers, and Captain Moore, company D, to the FIFTY fourth Ohio, brigade officer of the day, to aid him, I formed the FIFTY FIFTH Illinois with its right upon the road; the FIFTY-fourth Ohio on line with the FIFTY-FIFTH, with orders to guide upon it; and the FIFTY-seventh Ohio immediately in the rear but not in reserve.
At the appointed hour the signal was given, and at the command “forward” the troops advanced gallantly and without hesitation, it was almost vain to assay a line, owing to the nature of the ground, yet three times, under a most galling and destructive fire, did these regiments halt and dress upon their colors; the nerve and self-possession of both officers and men perfect; not a man flinched from his post. Having advanced some 400 yards, I discovered that the men were thoroughly exhausted, and halted the left wing under the crest of a hill from 65 to 75 yards from the ditch and parapet, and where they were comparatively sheltered from the small-arms of the enemy. Returning to reconnoiter the position of my right wing under the crest of a hill, from my view by the embankment of the road, I perceived their colors advanced to the very base of the parapet, and also that my brigade was alone, unsupported on the left or right, save by portion of the Thirteenth Regulars, who Indiana and One hundred and twenty-seventh Illinois.
To the left, as far as I could see(and from an elevated point I had great range), not a soldier to be seen, and only an occasional puff of smoke from the riffle of a sharpshooter, concealed far away among the hills, revealed the fact that we had friends near us outside of our DIVISION. Therefore I determined to that my command, report, and wait for further orders, especially as from the position my left wing occupied (that which General Ewing is now fortifying) great execution could be done by my men upon the sharpshooters of the enemy, who from the trees close behind the works, were picking off our officers with devilish skill.
Returning to the front, I sent and aide-de-camp to General Blair with report. I received in answer orders from General Sherman “to get my men as close to the parapet as possible, and be ready to jump in when they began to yield,” coupled with the assurance that McPherson was well engaged, and that General Grant was on the ground, and that the artillery, of the enemy, which began to enfilade us, would be silenced. I ordered my men to cease firing and fix bayonets, with intent to charge, when, upon closer view, I discovered the works too steep and high to scale without proper appliances; a few men could have been got over by the aid of a ladder of bayonets of digging holes in the embankment, but these would have gone to destruction. I could not make a demonstration with my isolated command that would have resulted permanently; therefore I determined to maintain the position and await developments. The sequel to the attempt at assault is my guarantee for the course I pursued.
Meanwhile details were ordered back and ammunition furnished in abundance; the most accurate marksmen were thrown forward, with carte-blanche to select the best cover. Companies were advanced from each regiment and relieved as ammunition gave out or guns became for. A most deadly fire was kept up, and none of the enemy ventured his head above the wall who failed to pay the penalty. At the same time the right wing, with stern determination, maintained their ground. Their loss had been fearful, falling upon their best line and non-commissioned officers. Captain after captain had been shot dead; field-officers were falling; still, there was no flinching. I communicated through my aides.
As night fell, I received a verbal order, through an unusual source, to fall back to my original position. This order was in immediate conflict with two received from General Sherman, and gave me no little surprise. I had won by severe loss the best position to fortify in our whole front. Already I had made arrangements to plant batteries upon the hill I occupied. Reluctantly I left the command with Colonel Rice. Colonel Malmborg, senior officer, having been most painfully wounded in the eye, and went, back in person for report and explanation.
At General Blair’s headquarters I received the following written orders:
Brigade commanders will collect the forces of their respective regiments, and occupy the last ground from which they moved to the assault to-day, where their men will be well covered, advancing a line of skirmishers as near as possible to the enemy’s works, for the purpose of occupying his attention. They will be prepared to assault at day break in the morning.
By order of Major General F. P. Blair,&c.,
At this it had become quite dark, when suddenly the whole scene was brilliantly lighted by the flames of certain wooden houses within the works, ignited by simultaneous action of the enemy for the purpose of discovering our change of movement. This purpose had bee anticipated by Colonel Spooner, who, with skill and good judgment, withdrew from the ditch beneath the parapet to shelter. A few moments later, and hand-grenades and the grave would have been supper and bed for his men.
In pursuance of the last order, I quietly withdrew my command by details. At 3 o’clock in the morning they were in their old position. Here we remained till the morning of the 22nd, instant, when orders issued to all the army corps for a simultaneous attack were received.