The 22nd Kentucky Under Fire
The following letter is from Dr. Benjamin F. Stevenson, surgeon of the 22nd Kentucky Volunteer Infantry following the failed assault on the Chickasaw Bluffs. Stevenson offers clear insight and opinions on the failed operation to capture Vicksburg in the waning days of 1862. In his later years, Stevenson is quite critical of General Sherman in correspondence with several friends and acquaintances. This letter is addressed to his wife, shortly after the Chickasaw Bayou debacle.
Steamboat "Crescent City," Jan. 8, 1863
Dear Wife-I wrote to you on the 25th December, on our way down the river. Since that time important events have transpired, of which you will probably have seen accounts in the public papers before this reaches you. I would have written sooner, but my time has been so wholly engrossed with my official duties that I could not do so. I give you, after a fashion, a running commentary of events as they occurred.
The fleet reached the mouth of the Yazoo River on the 25th, and proceeded up that stream twelve miles. Here the troops were debarked, near some earth works which guarded the approaches to Vicksburg from its rear. The range of hills on which the works are constructed are known here as the "Chickasaw Bluffs." I ought to premise that our expedition was intended to co-operate with the forces under General Grant, who was expected up from the landward side in time for join action. Banks was also expected to lend some aid from below. You must understand I only give camp rumors. Grant and Banks failed to come to time, and General Sherman determined to feel the strength of the enemy and ascertain his position, unsupported as he was. My opinion then was, and now is, with the force under his command, he was fully justified in so doing.
On the 26th DeCourcey's Brigade marched to miles in the direction of the enemy's works, and had some skirmishing with the rebel pickets, and exchanged a few rounds of cannon shot, without results on either side; and after one or two hours, withdrew to the boats again. On the 27th all the troops were ordered out, but did not reach the field in time for any effective work before night, our brigade in advance. At four o'clock, as the 22d was marching in column through and open field, flanked on our left by a narrow but deep bayou, with forest and dens jungle beyond, a well-directed fire was opened on us by rebel skirmishers, the first round killing one man and wounding ten others severely. Our column was at once deployed into line, and a sharp action commenced, and kept up until the artillery drove the enemy from their ambuscade. The cannonading ceased at sundown, and our troops bivouacked on the field for the night.
Having one amputation to perform, and numerous wounds of less gravity to dress, my position was in the rear and under shelter. On the 28th the battle re-opened at seven A.M. in serious earnest, and such a continuous roar of artillery and roll of small arms, as was kept up throughout the day, from right to left, I had not before heard. The casualties of the day gave surgeons ample work to occupy all their time, and to test their utmost strength and fortitude. Men were brought in wounded in every imaginable form--in limbs, abdomen, chest, head, arms, hands, etc.
In the afternoon I aided Surgeon Pomerene, of the 42d Ohio, in the exsection at the elbow joint of one of his men; and then he aided me in the amputation of the left arm, at the shoulder, of Henry Valance, of Company C, 22d Kentucky.
During the day the rebels were driven through a dense forest over half a mile, and, during the succeeding night, a bayou was bridged which separated the opposing hosts. I should remark that throughout both nights, 27th and 28th, rain poured down unceasingly , during all of which time our boys were sleeping on their arms or digging trenches, which labor was performed by reliefs of one-half the regiment every second hour. These operations were occasionally interfered with by the enemy dropping a shell or shot in the midst of our boys, as they were now fully and fairly in range of the rebel batteries.
On the morning of the 29th the order to assault at noon was given, and the central portion of the rebel works assigned to Gen. Morgan's division, and, as I think, without due consideration for the exhausted condition of the men. They had been engaged, without intermission, for forty hours, fighting or working; they had endured two nights of cold drenching rain; they had been badly fed, and many of the men were sick.
They went in with alacrity, and came out with untarnished honor, but repulsed and terribly cut up. The distance was greater than anticipated, and the obstructions very much more than had been counted on. They had a space of full half a mile to pass over, covered with fallen timber; they had a bayou, or ravine, deep in mud and water, to wade through. All these difficulties were surmounted, and the open grounds immediately in front of the works reached and occupied, when a concentric fire from an array of masked batteries was opened on our fatigued and exhausted men, before which it was impossible for any troops to stand or advance. The force fell back in good order, bringing with them most of our wounded.
What has been the total loss in killed, wounded, and missing, I have no means of knowing; nor do I know the losses in our brigade. The 22d went into action with about 400 bayonets, and came out with eighty three killed and wounded, and twenty nine missing. Among our killed are two captains--Garrard, of Frankfort, and Hegan, of Louisville, both much valued and much regretted.*
After the repulse the forces re-embarked, and the boats dropped down the Yazoo, and have been ascending the Mississippi at the rate of fifteen miles a day.
We are lying to-night at the mouth of the White River in Arkansas, and have orders to be in readiness to debark early to-morrow morning.
I have never undergone a week of as much anxiety and fatigue as the last. During the three battle days I was on my feet eighteen or twenty hours each day, and my legs have not yet rested sufficiently. Very many men have sickened, and thus my labors have but little intermission.
I fear you will think I have written you a miserable letter, but situated as I am, without any privacy, in the social hall of the boat, filled to its utmost capacity, and surrounded by the noisiest crowd of profane-swearing, dram-drinking, card-playing, song-singing, reckless, impudent, dare-devils in the world, it is the very best I could do.
Love to all, with kisses to the children.
*The 22nd was numerically the weakest regiment in the brigade. The young blood of Kentucky was poured out on both sides in this most unfortunate contest.
In a side note, General Morgan reported on the state of the colors of the 22nd Kentucky. Days later he wrote, "It is worthy of note that DeCourcey's entire brigade brought back their colors, thought the flag of the 16th Ohio was shot to tatters, only shreds remaining on the staff, and the flag of the 22d Kentucky was scarcely less torn, and not less dripping with blood."