“Disturbing the Slumbering Hornet’s Nest:” The Attack on the Stockade Redan at Vicksburg

On May 22, 1863, the Stockade Redan was the scene of some of the bloodiest fighting of the entire Vicksburg campaign. Sergeant George Powell Clark, a member of the “Harper Reserves,” Company C, 36th Mississippi Infantry, was at the redan that day, and years later he wrote a detailed account of what he witnessed:

There was a continual sharp shooting, skirmishing, and artillery firing kept up until about 10 a.m. on the 22nd of May, at which time we could plainly see that another attack would be made on our works. For the space of perhaps a half hour there was complete silence all along both lines. Not a shot was heard, not a man was seen in our front during the short space and the experienced soldier knew that it was the calm that precedes the storm.

Soon blue columns were seen advancing four lines deep in front of Fort Hill. We knew from all the indications that this was going to be a desperate assault, and we nerved ourselves for the shock. One peculiar feature of this advance was that a large number of men came in front bearing rails on their shoulders. This will be explained in its proper place. As on the 19th they halted just behind the hill for a short rest, before disturbing the slumbering hornet’s nest that lay behind our frowning line of earthworks.

Everything was as still as death, except the wild tumultuous beating of thousands of hearts, as with mingled feelings of dread and awe, we await the shock of the coming conflict with fingers on the triggers of our muskets, ready to send the hurtling messengers of death into the devoted band. We had not long to wait, for soon we heard an officer, with the voice of Stentor giving the word ‘forward.’ Their scurried ranks came pouring over the hill and rushed right on our works. A withering fire of musketry, grape, canister and shells greeted them as they came in sight, and men fell like grass before the reaper, lying on the ground thick as the ‘autumnal leaves that strew the brooks in Vallombrosa.’

Here, now, the eyewitness could have seen war in all its awful sublimity and grandeur. Many years have elapsed since that stormy day; for these lines are penned on the 18th day of May, 1897, liking only four days on being 34 years since the one of which I am writing, but all those scenes come before my imagination as if it had only been yesterday.

But to return, what of the men bearing the rail? As I have said they were in front and of course received the first shock from the tempest of shot and shell that was hurled into their ranks. It seemed that the pitiless storm swept away half of their ranks at the first fire. But others would gather up and bear them on, only to share the same fate. Their battle flags were often seen to go down, but in a moment was soon seen fluttering in the breeze, as other hands bore them on toward the flaming crest of the hill in their front. Their lines wavered not, though hundreds fell in front of Fort Hill, and the rail bearers reached the ditch in front of the fort, bridged it, crossed over to the fort and planted their colors on our breastworks in several places.

Vicksburg Assault
Union soldiers assaulting the Vicksburg Defenses

Then began a fierce struggle for the possession of the fort. A regiment of Missourians was in reserve just in rear of the position occupied by our regiment, and when the stars and stripes were planted upon our works and the fierce struggle going on, their officers could not hold them back, but they came rushing without orders to our assistance. The Federals seeing this reinforcement coming to our aid, wavered and were completely repulsed. Their dead and wounded covered the ground over which they had so gallantly moved to the attack.

(Reminiscence and Anecdotes of the War for Southern Independence by George Powell Clarke, pages 101 – 102)

The violence done at the Stockade Redan forever marked that land as a place of death and destruction. For decades after the battle the citizens of Vicksburg were finding lead and iron reminders of the May 22nd assault on the fort. I found the following article about this very subject in a 1904 Vicksburg newspaper:

WAR RELICS UNEARTHED

CLAVER’S SQUAD FINDS PLENTY OF SHOT AND SHELL

Yesterday morning while the forces under Mr. W.A. Claver were at work, grading the portion of the cemetery, or as known to the old soldiers, the grave yard road, they unearthed a quantity of siege relics. They were found at the north side of the cross road facing the stockade redan, and somewhat to the east of Confederate avenue, and Capt. Rigby has no doubt that they are Union relics.

Stockade Redan 1
View of the Stockade Redan taken in the late 19th or early 20th Century. (Series 573, Vicksburg National Military Park Photographs, Mississippi Department of Archives and History)

Among the other things found in the bank were one 12 pounder shrapnel, one 12 pounder solid shot, one conical shell 20 pounder solid shot, one old spade minus handle, a cartridge box plate, several pieces of cast iron pipe, a set of cartridge box tins, a quantity of minie balls, and what appeared to be a quantity of human bones.

Vicksburg Relics 1
Scene from the Vicksburg National Military Park, late 19th or early 20th Century – note the man kneeling has several artillery projectiles at his feet. (Series 573, Vicksburg National Military Park Photographs, Mississippi Department of Archives and History)

Just at about that point Capt. Rigby states that the two contending lines were nearer together than almost any other point, and the casualties were the heaviest. There were mines and counter mines and no doubt the relics found yesterday were covered during an explosion.

VICK_WilliamRigby
Captain William T. Rigby served in Company B, 24th Iowa Infantry during the siege of Vicksburg. After the war he served as a commissioner and later chairman of the Vicksburg National Military Park (National Park Service)

It is probable when the forces begin the work of restoring the batteries and mounting guns many more of the like will be found.

The Vicksburg Herald, May 28, 1904

Today marks the 155th anniversary of the assault on the Stockade Redan, but the deeds of valor by the soldiers both blue and gray are still remembered so many years later. It is only fitting that we do this, as these brave men earned the right to be remembered.

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