Battle of Big Black River Bridge (May 17, 1863)

Also Known As: Battle of Big Black

Updated: November 13, 2017

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.

At the onset of the American Civil War, the State of Tennessee comprised the majority 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 be denied easy access to supplies from the Gulf of Mexico and territories in the American West.

Admiral David Farragut captured the port city of New Orleans, Louisiana 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.

In July 1862, General Henry Halleck was called to Washington and promoted to chief of all Union armies, leaving Grant in charge of operations in the Western Theater. In December, Grant launched his first of several failed attempts to capture Vicksburg. When spring arrived, he initiated 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 mid-April, his men had carved a path through the Louisiana wilderness that would enable Grant to march the Army of the Tennessee past Vicksburg, cross the Mississippi River, and then attack the city from the south. The plan proved successful, and by May 1, 1863 the Federals established a base of operations at Port Gibson, Mississippi.

Once back in Mississippi, Grant turned his attention to Jackson, about fifty miles east of Vicksburg, where General Joseph E. Johnston, who commanded all Confederate forces in Mississippi, was assembling an army. On May 14, the Federals arrived at Jackson. With only about 6,000 soldiers available to defend the city, Johnston withdrew, allowing Jackson to fall into Union hands.

With Johnston out of the way, Grant returned his attention to Vicksburg, which was defended by the Confederate Army of Mississippi, commanded by Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton. 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 XIII Corps. The middle column was Major General James B. McPherson's XVII Corps. The right, northernmost column was Major General William T. Sherman's XV Corps, which departed on May 16 after destroying everything of military value in Jackson.

Meanwhile, Johnston ordered Pemberton to leave his defensive positions near Vicksburg on May 15, to 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 decided to ignore 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 isolate Grant's army by severing its 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. 

Just after sunrise on the morning of May 16, Pemberton's army, marching north, encountered Grant's army, marching west, near Champion Hill, twenty miles east of Vicksburg. After a series of attacks and counterattacks, 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 prepared a railroad bridge crossing the river, and a steamer, which spanned the width of the river, to accommodate a retreat, if necessary.

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 the Confederate position was fronted by a bayou of waist-deep water, which was protected by eighteen canons, the Rebels threw down their weapons and fled for the two makeshift bridges spanning the river when the Yankees began their advance. The majority of Pemberton's soldiers made it across, but 1,700 men were stranded and captured when the Confederates burned the bridges to prevent any Union pursuit. The Federals suffered 276 casualties at the Battle of Big Black River Bridge compared to 1,751 soldiers for the Confederates, most of whom were prisoners. The Union victory made the fate of the Rebel soldiers who eluded capture and escaped 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.

Ohio units that participated in the Battle of Big Black River Bridge included:

Infantry units:

  • 16th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
  • 20th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
  • 32nd Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
  • 42nd Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
  • 48th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
  • 54th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
  • 56th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
  • 57th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
  • 68th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
  • 78th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
  • 83rd Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
  • 114th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

Artillery units:

  • 2nd Ohio Artillery Battery
  • 3rd Ohio Artillery Battery
  • 11th Ohio Artillery Battery
  • 16th Ohio Artillery Battery
  • 17th Ohio Light Artillery Battery

Cite this Entry

MLA Style

"Battle of Big Black River Bridge," Ohio Civil War Central, 2017, Ohio Civil War Central. 22 Nov 2017 <http://www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=145>

APA Style

"Battle of Big Black River Bridge." (2017) In Ohio Civil War Central, Retrieved November 22, 2017, from Ohio Civil War Central: http://www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=145

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