Battle of the Big Black River, 17 May 1863

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A second disastrous defeat in two days for the Confederate army defending Vicksburg. After suffering a defeat at Champion’s Hill (16 May) that resulted in nearly 4,000 losses, the Confederate commander, General Pemberton, had retreated to the line of the Big Black River. In the aftermath of Champion’s Hill an entire division from his army had been cut off. General Loring, the commander of that division, had decided to head east, hoping to join with General Joseph Johnston, who was attempting to raise another army to help defend Vicksburg.

Brigandine armourBig Black River, battle of, 17 May 1863

Pemberton did not know this, and so decided to make a stand on the Big Black River, in an attempt to keep the bridges over the river open for his missing division. This was a massive gamble. If Grant had managed to capture those bridges intact, he would have been so close behind the retreating Confederates that they would have had very little chance of entering the defences of Vicksburg successfully. However, Pemberton did have a potentially very strong position on the banks of the river, and the loss of an entire division had dealt a severe blow to his strength.

Brigandine armourBig Black River, campaign 1863

While Grant was planning how to deal with this new Confederate position, one of McClernand’s brigades, commanded by Brigadier General Michael Lawler, on the extreme right of the Union army, launched their own attack, possibly in an attempt to make up for the embarrassment of the previous days inactivity. If that was their intention they succeeded completely. The Confederate soldiers were not ready to stand and fight again, and turned and fled almost without a fight. Union losses were very low (39 dead, 237 wounded and 3 missing). The Confederates lost very few men dead or wounded, but 1,750 were captured (one brigade lost 1 dead, 9 wounded and 1,012 missing or captured!). Most of the captured men were trapped on the east bank of the river when the bridge they had been keeping open was destroyed.

The destruction of that bridge was the one redeeming feature of what was otherwise a total disaster. It slowed down Grant’s advance, and gave Pemberton one day to get his men into the elaborate defences around Vicksburg. The next day (19 May), Grant’s men finally reached Vicksburg, and launched an immediate assault in the hope that they would win another easy victory. This time they were beaten back. The siege of Vicksburg had begun.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (5 October 2006), Battle of the Big Black River, 17 May 1863 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_big_black_river.html

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