Fought on May 16, 1863, the Battle of Champion Hill, also known as the Battle of Baker's Creek, was the decisive battle in the Vicksburg Campaign of the American Civil War.
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. Still, the South 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.
Collision at 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. Pemberton quickly drew up into a defensive line along the crest of a ridge overlooking Jackson Creek. He also posted Brigadier General Stephen D. Lee’s men atop Champion Hill to watch for Union troop movements. Both armies soon discovered each other’s positions.
Grant arrived at Champion Hill at about 10 a.m. and ordered an attack. McPherson’s corps did most of the fighting and by 1 p.m. they captured the hill. A fierce Confederate counterattack recaptured the hill late in the afternoon. Undaunted, Grant launched his own counterattack using reinforcements who had recently arrived from Clinton. Outnumbered, the Rebels fell back across Bakers Creek. By late afternoon, the Federals seized the Bakers Creek Bridge, enabling them to cross the stream and advance as far as Edward’s Station by midnight. The battle ended when Pemberton established a new defensive line along the Big Black River, just east of Vicksburg that night, and awaited Grant’s next move.
Aftermath of the Battle
The Federals suffered 2,457 casualties (410 killed, 1,844 wounded, and 187 missing) compared to 3,840 Confederate casualties (381 killed, 1,018 wounded, and 2,441 missing/captured) during the Battle of Champion Hill. Although the disparity in casualties was not great, the battle was a decisive Union victory. Johnston’s attempt to use Pemberton’s army to halt Grant’s advance before reaching Vicksburg failed. The Confederates made one last stand the next day at the Battle of the Big Black River Bridge before losing their last escape route and being driven back into Vicksburg where they endured a six-week siege before surrendering the city on July 4, 1863.