Portrait of Ulysses S. Grant

Fought on May 17, 1863, the Battle of Big Black River Bridge, was the final battle in Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign. [Wikimedia Commons]

Battle of Big Black River Bridge

May 17, 1863

Fought on May 17, 1863, the Battle of Big Black River Bridge, also known as the Battle of Big Black, was the final battle in the Vicksburg Campaign of the American Civil War.

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Prelude to the Battle

At the onset of the American Civil War, the State of Tennessee comprised most of the northern border of the Confederate States of America in the West. Defending that border was difficult for the Confederacy because three major rivers (the Mississippi, which flows south to the Gulf of Mexico, and the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, which flow north to the Ohio River) provided relatively easy access to the South.

By late 1861, President Abraham Lincoln was pressuring Union commanders in the west to invade the South. In February 1862, Major General Ulysses S. Grant responded by capturing Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River, both in northwestern Tennessee. With two of the three main rivers connecting the North and South under Union control, the Federals turned their attention to the Mississippi River. If the Union could gain control of the Mississippi, the Confederacy would lose easy access to supplies from the Gulf of Mexico and territories in the American West.

Farragut Captures New Orleans

Admiral David Farragut captured the port city of New Orleans on May 18, 1862, closing down Confederate access to the Gulf. In June, the Union tightened its grip on the Mississippi when Federal forces captured the river city of Memphis, Tennessee. Nevertheless, the South still controlled traffic on much of the river because of its strong fortifications at Vicksburg, Mississippi.

Federals Move Against Vicksburg

In July 1862, President Abraham Lincoln summoned Major General Henry W. Halleck to Washington to serve as chief of all Union armies. Halleck’s departure left Major General Ulysses S. Grant in charge of operations in the Western Theater.

In December 1862, Grant launched the first of several unsuccessful attempts to capture Vicksburg. When spring arrived, he tried a new, more complicated plan. On March 29, 1863, Grant put part of his army to work constructing bridges, draining bayous and building a road past Vicksburg on the west side of the Mississippi. By May 1, his army had recrossed the river at Bruinsburg, Mississippi and established a base of operations at Port Gibson.

Federals Capture Jackson, Mississippi

Before assaulting Vicksburg, Grant turned his attention to an army that General Joseph Johnston was assembling in Jackson, Mississippi, forty miles to the east of Vicksburg. By May 14, 1863, Union soldiers overpowered Johnston’s rearguard as he evacuated Jackson in the face of Grant’s larger army at the Battle of Jackson. After ordering the destruction of anything in the city that could support the Southern war effort, Grant marched his army back toward Vicksburg.

Grant Marches on Vicksburg

With Johnston out of the way, Grant returned his attention to Vicksburg. On May 15, the Union army began leaving Jackson in three columns headed west. The left, southernmost column was Major General John A. McClernand’s 13th Corps. The middle column was Major General James B. McPherson’s 17th Corps. The right, northernmost column was Major General William T. Sherman’s 15th Corps, which departed on May 16 after destroying everything of military value in the city.

Pemberton Attempts to Stop Grant

As Grant’s forces headed west, Johnston ordered Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton, commander of the Confederate Army of Mississippi, to leave his defensive positions near Vicksburg on May 15 and move east to stop Grant’s advance. Pemberton felt conflicted because he was also under orders from Confederate President Jefferson Davis to defend Vicksburg at all costs.

After calling a council of war, he ignored Johnston’s order, believing that a direct confrontation with Grant’s army would be overly risky. Instead, Pemberton marched south, on May 15, hoping to sever Grant’s supply lines back to the Mississippi River. After starting his march south, Pemberton received another order from Johnston repeating his former directive. This time Pemberton complied and reversed his course back north.

Battle of Champion Hill

Just after sunrise on the morning of May 16, Pemberton’s army, marching north, encountered Grant’s army, marching west, near Champion Hill, 20 miles east of Vicksburg. After a series of attacks and counterattacks at the Battle of Champion Hill, the Federals forced the Rebels back across Bakers Creek and seized the bridge crossing the stream by late afternoon. During the night, Pemberton established a new defensive line behind bales of cotton along the east side of the Big Black River, just east of Vicksburg. To his back, Pemberton repaired a railroad bridge that crossed the river, and a steamer that spanned the width of the river, to accommodate a retreat.

May 17, 1863 — Clash at Big Black River Bridge

On the morning of May 17, 1863, three divisions of Grant’s army, commanded by Major General John A. McClernand, caught up with the Rebels. Even though a bayou of waist-deep water, fronted by eighteen cannons, protected the Confederate lines, the Rebels threw down their weapons and fled for the two makeshift bridges when the Yankees advanced. Most of Pemberton’s soldiers made it across, but the Rebels stranded 1,700 of their comrades when they burned the bridges to prevent the Yankees from crossing the river.

Aftermath of the Battle

The Union victory made the fate of the Rebel soldiers who eluded capture and made it back to Vicksburg inevitable. Grant invested the city for the next six weeks before the Pemberton surrendered Vicksburg and his army on July 4, 1863.

The Federals suffered 276 casualties at the Battle of Big Black River Bridge, compared to 1,751, for the Confederates, most of whom were prisoners.

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Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Battle of Big Black River Bridge
  • Coverage May 17, 1863
  • Author
  • Keywords battle of big black river bridge
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date August 1, 2021
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 8, 2021
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