Story of Champion Hill
From the Diary “With Fire and Sword”
edited by Rebecca Blackwell Drake
General Crocker of my State was now leading our division, and the magnificent General McPherson commanded the army corps. The night of May 15, the division bivouacked in the woods by the side of a road that leads from Bolton toward Vicksburg. We marched hard and late that day. The morning of the 16th my regiment was up and getting breakfast long before daylight. The breakfast consisted of some wet dough cooked on the ends of ramrods; nothing more.
Troops were hurrying past our bivouac by daylight. Once I went out to the roadside to look about a bit. It was scarcely more than early daylight, yet cannon could occasionally be heard in the far distance, something like low thunder. As I stood there watching some batteries hurrying along I noticed a general and his staff gallop through the woods, parallel with the road. They were leaping logs, brush, or whatever came in their way. It was General Grant, hurrying to the front. Shortly came the orders, “Fall in!” and we too were hurrying along that road toward Champion Hills. By ten o’clock the sound of the cannon fell thundering on our ears, and we hurried all we could, as riders came back saying the battle had already begun. As we approached the field the sound of great salvos of musketry told us the hour had surely come. The sound was indeed terrible.
At the left of the road we passed a pond of dirty water. All who could broke ranks and filled canteens, knowing that in the heat of the fight we would need the water terribly. I not only filled canteen, I filled my stomach with the yellow fluid, in order to save that in the canteen for a critical moment. Just then there was in front of us a terrific crashing, not like musketry, but more like the falling down of a thousand trees at once. Our brigade, a small one, was hurried into line of battle at the edge of an open field that sloped down a little in front of us then up to a wood-covered ridge. That wood was full of the Rebel army. Fighting was going on to the right and left of us, and bullets flew into our own line, wounding some of us as we stood there waiting.
There was an old well and curb at the immediate right of my regiment, and many of our boys were climbing over each other to get a drop of water. Soon the bullets came faster, zipping, zipping among us, thicker and thicker. We must have been in full view of the enemy as we stood there, not firing a shot. Our line stood still in terrible suspense, not knowing why we were put under fire without directions to shoot. Zip! Zip! Zip! Came the Rebel bullets, and now and then a boy in blue would groan, strike his hand to a wounded limb or arm, drop his gun and fall to the rear; or perhaps he fell in his tracks dead, without uttering a word. We too, who saw it, uttered no word, but watched steadily, anxiously at the front.
When General Grant himself rode up behind us, and so close to the spot where I stood, that I could have heard his voice. He leaned against his little bay horse, had the inevitable cigar in his mouth, and was calm as a statue. Possibly smoking so much tranquillized his nerves a little and aided in producing calmness. Still, Grant was calm everywhere; but he also smoked everywhere. Be that as it may, it required very solid courage to stand there quietly behind that line at that moment. For my own part, I was in no agreeable state of mind. In short, I might be killed there at any moment, I thought, and I confess to having been nervous and alarmed. Every man in the line near me was looking serious, though determined. We had no reckless fools near us, whooping for blood. Once a badly wounded man was carried by the litter-bearers - the drummers of my regiment - close to the spot where the General stood. He gave a pitying glance at the man, I thought, - I was not twenty feet away, - but he neither spoke nor stirred. Then I heard an officer say, “We are going to charge.” It seems that our troops in front of us in the woods had been sadly repulsed, and now our division was to rush in and fight in their stead, and the commander-in-chief was there to witness our assault. Two or three of us, near each other, expressed dissatisfaction that the commander of an army in battle should expose himself, as General Grant was doing at that moment. When staff officers came up to him, he gave orders in low tones, and they would ride away. One of them, listening to him, glanced over our heads toward the Rebels awhile, looked very grave, and gave some mysterious nods. The colonel who was about to lead us also came to the General’s side a moment. He, too, listened, looked, and gave some mysterious nods. Something was about to happen.
“My time has probably come now,” I said to myself, and with a little bit of disgust I thought of the utter uselessness of being killed there without even firing a shot in self-defense. The suspense, the anxiety, was indeed becoming fearfully intense. Soon General Grant quietly climbed upon his horse, looked at us once, and as quietly rode away. Then the colonel came along the line with a word to each officer. As he came near me he called me from the ranks and said: “I want you to act as sergeant-major of the regiment in this battle.” I was surprised, but indeed very proud of this mark of confidence in me. “Hurry to the left,” he continued. “Order the men to fix bayonets - quick!” I ran as told, shouting at the top of my voice, “Fix bayonets! Fix bayonets!” I was not quite to the left, when I heard other voices yelling, “Forward! Quick! Double quick! Forward!” and the line was already on the run toward the Rebels. I kept up my shouting, “Fix bayonets!” for by some blunder the order had not been given in time, and now the men were trying to get their bayonets in place while running. We were met in a minute by a storm of bullets from the wood, but the lines in blue kept steadily on, as would a storm of wind and cloud moving among the tree-tops. Now we met almost whole companies of wounded, defeated men from the other division, hurrying by us, and they held up their bleeding and mangled hands to show us they had not been cowards. They had lost twelve hundred men on the spot we were about to occupy. Some of them were laughing even, and yelling at us: “Wade in and give them hell.” We were wading in faster than I am telling the story.
On the edge of a low ridge we saw a solid wall of men in gray, their muskets at their shoulders blazing into our faces and their batteries of artillery roaring as if it were the end of the world. Bravely they stood there. They seemed little over a hundred yards away. There was no charging further by our line. We halted, the two lines stood still, and for over an hour we loaded our guns and killed each other as fast as we could. The firing and the noise were simply appalling. Now, I was not scared. The first shot I fired seemed to take all my fear away and gave me courage enough to calmly load my musket at the muzzle and fire it forty times. Others, with more cartridges from the boxes of the dead. In a moment I saw Captain Lindsey throw up his arms, spring upward and fall dead in his tracks. Corporal McCully was struck in the face by a shell. The blood covered him all over, but he kept on firing. Lieutenant Darling dropped dead, and other officers near me fell wounded.
I could not see far to left or right, the smoke of battle was covering everything. I saw bodies of our men lying near me without knowing who they were, though some of them were my messmates in the morning. The Rebels in front we could not see at all. We simply fired at their lines by guess, and occasionally the blaze of their guns showed exactly where they stood. They kept their line like a wall of fire. When I fired my first shot I had resolved to aim at somebody or something as long as I could see, and a dozen times I tired to bring down an officer I dimly saw on a gray horse before me. Pretty soon a musket ball struck me fair in the breast. “I am dead, now.” I said, almost aloud. It felt as if someone had struck me with a club. I stepped back a few paces and sat down on a log to finish up with the world. Other wounded men were there, covered with blood, and some were lying by me dead. I spoke to no one. It would have been useless; thunder could scarcely have been heard at that moment. My emotions I have almost forgotten. I remember only that something said to me, “It is honorable to die so.” I had not a thought of friends, or of home, or of religion. The stupendous things going on around me filled my mind. On getting my breath a little I found I was not hurt at all, - simply stunned; the obliquely-fired bullet had struck the heavy leather of my cartridge belt and glanced away. I picked up my gun, stepped back into the line of battle, and in a moment was shot through the hand. The wound did not hurt; I was too excited for that.
The awful roar of battle now grew more terrific, if possible. I wonder that a man on either side was left alive. Biting the ends off my cartridges, my mouth was filled with gunpowder; the thirst was intolerable. Every soldier’s face was black as a negro’s and, with some, blood from wounds trickled down over the blackness, giving them a horrible look. Once a boy from another part of the line to our left ran up to me crying out: “My regiment is gone! What shall I do?”
There was now a little moment’s lull in the howling noise; something was going on. “Blaze away right here,” I said to the boy, and he commenced firing like a veteran. Then I heard one of our own line cry, “My God, they’re flanking us!” I looked to where the boy had come from. His regiment had indeed given way. The Rebels had poured through the gap and were already firing into our rear and yelling to us to surrender. It was surrender or try to get back past them. I ran like a race-horse, - so did the left of the regiment, amid a storm of bullets and yells and curses. I saved my musket, anyway. I think all did that, - but that half-mile race through a hot Mississippi sun, with bullets and cannonballs plowing the fields behind us, will never be forgotten. My lungs seemed to be burning up. Once I saw our regimental flag lying by a log, the color-bearer wounded or dead. I cried to a comrade flying near me, “Duncan Teter, it is a shame - the Fifth Iowa running.”
Only the day before Teter had been reduced to the rank for some offense or another. He picked up the flag and with a great oath dared me to stop and defend it. For a moment we two tried to rally to the flag the men who were running by. We might as well have yelled to a Kansas cyclone. Then Captain John Tait, rushing by, saw us, stopped, and, recognizing the brave deed of Corporal Teter, promoted him on the spot. But the oncoming storm was irresistible, and, carrying the flag, we all again hurried rearward. We had scarcely passed the spot where I had seen Grant mount his horse before the charge when a whole line of Union cannon, loaded to the muzzle with grape-shot and canister, opened on the howling mob that was pursuing us. The Rebels instantly halted, and now again it seemed our turn. A few minutes rest for breath and our re-formed lines once more dashed into the woods. In half an hour the battle of Champion Hills was won, and the victorious Union army was shortly in a position to compel the surrender of the key to the Mississippi River. Grant’s crown of immortality was won, and the jewel that shone most bright in it was set there by the blood of the men of Champion Hills. Had that important battle failed, Grant’s army, not Pemberton’s, would have become prisoners of war. Where then would have been Vicksburg, Spotsylvania, Richmond, Appomattox?
Six thousand blue and gray-coated men were lying there in the woods, dead or wounded, when the last gun of Champion Hills was fired. Some of the trees on the battlefield were tall magnolias, and many of their limbs were shot away. The trees were in full bloom, their beautiful blossoms contrasting with the horrible scene of battle. Besides killing and wounding three thousand of the enemy, we had also captured thirty cannon and three thousand prisoners.
When the troops went off into the road to start in pursuit of the flying enemy, I searched over the battlefield for my best friend, poor Captain Poag, with whom I had talked of our Northern homes only the night before. He lay dead among the leaves, a bullet hole in his forehead. Somebody buried him, but I never saw his grave. Another friend I found dying. He begged me only to place him against a tree, and with leaves to shut the burning sun away from his face. While I was doing this I heard the groaning of a Rebel officer, who lay helpless in a little ditch. He called to me to lift him out, as he was shot through both thighs, and suffering terribly “Yes,” I said, “as soon as I get my friend here arranged a little comfortably.” His reply was pathetic. “Yes, that’s right; help your own first.” I had not meant it so. I instantly got to him and with the aid of a comrade, pulled him out of the ditch. He thanked me and told me he was a lieutenant colonel, and had been shot while riding in front of the spot where he lay. I eased his position as best I could, but all that night, with many other wounded soldiers, blue and gray, he was left on the desolate battlefield.
Now I realized how terrible the fire had been about us, - for some comrades counted two hundred bullet marks on a single oak tree within a few feet of where the left of the regiment had stood loading and firing that awful hour and a half. Most of the bullets had been fired too high, else we had all be killed. Near by lay the remains of a Rebel battery. Every horse and most of the cannoneer lay dead in a heap, the caissons and the gun carriages torn to pieces by our artillery. Never in a any battle had I seen such a picture of complete annihilation of men, animals, and material as was the wreck of this battery, once the pride of some Southern town -its young men, the loved ones of Southern homes, lying there dead among their horses. That was war! Some weeks after this battle, and after Vicksburg had been won, my regiment was marched in pursuit of Joe Johnston, and we recrossed this same battlefield. We reached it in the night, and bivouacked on the very spot where we had fought. It was a strange happening. Our sensations were very unusual, for we realized that all about us there in the woods were the graves of our buried comrades and the still unburied bones of many of our foes. Save an occasional hooting owl the woods were sad and silent. Before we lay down in the leaves to sleep the glee club of Company B sang that plaintive song, “We’re Tenting To-night on the Old Camp Ground.” Never was a song sung under sadder circumstances. All the night a terrible odor filled the bivouac. When daylight came one of the boys came to our company and said, “Go over to that hollow, and you will see hell.” Some of us went. We looked but once. Dante himself never conjured anything so horrible as the reality before us. After the battle the Rebels in their haste had tossed hundreds of their dead into this little ravine and slightly covered them over with earth, but the rains had come, and the earth was washed away, and there stood or lay hundreds of half decayed corpses. Some were grinning skeletons, some were headless, some armless, some had their clothes torn away, and some were mangled by dogs and wolves. The horror of that spectacle followed us for weeks. That too, was war!
I have written this random but true sketch of personal recollections of a severe battle because it may help young men, who are anxious for adventure and war, as I was, to first realize what war really is. My experiences probably were the same as hundreds of others in that same battle. I only tell of what was nearest me. A third of my comrades who entered this fight were lost. Other Iowa and other Western regiments suffered equally or more. General Hovey’s division had a third of its number slain. I have been in what history pronounces greater battles than Champion Hills, but only once did I ever see two lines of blue and gray stand close together and fire into each other’s faces for an hour and a half. I think the courage of the private soldiers, standing in that line of fire that that awful hour and a half, gave us Vicksburg, made Grant immortal as a soldier, and helped to save this country.
“With Fire and Sword” first published by Neale Publishing Company, 1911, and reprinted in 1992 by Press of the Camp Pope Bookshop, Iowa City, Iowa. For a reprint of this book write to P.O. Box 2232, Iowa City, Iowa, 52244.
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