Future in question for historic Chickasaw Bayou battle site
by Wally Northway
Published: July 12,2013
On a wet, gray day in late December, nearly 300 Americans were killed just north of Vicksburg, and another 1,100-plus were injured.
Today, it is largely forgotten, commemorated only by a single, badly scarred historical marker standing on U.S. Highway 61 Business.
The event was the Civil War’s battle of Chickasaw Bayou, a failed attempt by Union forces in late 1862 to capture the Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg, and while there are efforts to remember and preserve the events of the Federal’s successful Vicksburg campaign of the summer of 1863, there is little talk or plans for doing the same at Chickasaw Bayou.
“It is an extremely significant battlefield,” said Bill Hawke, director of the American Battlefield Protection Program, “and it deserves preservation.”
However, preservation of the site would face steep challenges. And, in a twist of irony the nature of the terrain and annual flooding, which played a major role in shaping the fight in 1862, today serves as both enemy and protector of the battlefield.
The Battle of Chickasaw Bayou represented the Union’s first attempt at taking Vicksburg, which by the winter of 1862 had become the key to controlling the Mississippi River. Federal Gen. William Sherman, with a force of 30,000-plus men, steamed out of Memphis, headed for the Yazoo River, in late 1862, planning to attack Vicksburg from the north. They landed in the Mississippi Delta opposite a high ridge known as the Walnut Hills.
The federal forces found an extreme landscape of sloughs, bayous, lakes and swamps. Disembarking on Dec. 26, it took three days for the Union army to slog a mere mile or so to get into position, giving the Confederate general and future Mississippi State University president Stephen D. Lee time to receive reinforcements and arrange his defenses atop the near-vertical Walnut Hills.
The result was a sharp, bloody Union defeat in a disjointed assault made on Dec. 29. For the Confederates, who only had roughly 13,000 men, total casualties were 207, while the federals counted 208 in dead alone. Another 1,005 Union men were wounded and 563 missing for a total of 1,776 casualties, more than eight times those of the Rebels.
Finding prospects for future success as scanty as dry land on which to operate, Sherman began the fallback to Memphis on Jan. 2, 1863.
Parker Hills says the significance of the Battle of Chickasaw Bayou cannot be understated. A 32-year military man who retired as a brigadier general in the Mississippi Army National Guard, Hills currently operates Battle Focus, a Clinton-based leadership training company designed for warfighters and corporate leaders alike. He provides tours of the battlefield to clients as well as interested tourists and is a preeminent expert on Chickasaw Bayou.
“The loss at Chickasaw Bayou directly led to (Gen. U.S.) Grant’s other unsuccessful attempts to take Vicksburg,” Hills said, referring to the late-winter/early-spring Yazoo Pass and Steele’s Bayou expeditions, which were also defeated as much by the nightmarish Delta terrain as by Confederate defenses. “And the lack of success in those operations led to Grant’s successful campaign and capture of Vicksburg in the summer of 1863.
“Grant’s Vicksburg campaign has been called the greatest offensive ever waged on American soil. I used the campaign to train my officers when I was in the military. I still use it today at Battle Focus.”
Despite its acknowledged significance, the only reminder of the action is the lone marker on U.S. Highway 61 Business, which has been hit by vehicles and re-erected so many times it only stands a few feet tall now.
However, Hills is not the only one who sees the importance of battle, including the National Park Service’s American Battlefield Protection Program. It ranks the Chickasaw Bayou battlefield, the core of which is within walking distance of the Vicksburg National Military Park, with a preservation priority of “B.”
“’A’ sites are those such as Gettysburg and Vicksburg,” Hawke said. “’B’ is still a high ranking, though; it is very significant.”
But, actually preserving the site would be difficult. The battlefield, except for the position of the Confederates atop the Walnut Hills, floods at least once annually, and in fact is flooded now during the historically dry summer. The site is in private ownership, requiring a displacement of residents if the entire arena of operations were preserved.
Hills also said the roads are so bad that a bus cannot navigate them.
“It is absolutely prime farmland because of the flooding each year, but has little use beyond agriculture,” Hills said. “(And) nobody wants to displace folks off their land,” adding that an Indian mound that was a key feature of the battle “currently has a quan sit hut on top of it.”
The unattractive land, however, is also helping protect the site. Hawke said a concern in protecting battlefields is that a developer will come in and buy it. But, developers have been held at bay by the flooding and terrain. A prior study found that of the battlefield’s total theatre that encompasses nearly 23,000 acres, more than 15,000 acres remain undeveloped.
The site’s future, thus, remains in flux.
“There is little or no talk of doing anything with the Chickasaw Bayou site,” Hills said. “The whole area from King’s Crossing to Old Highway 61 needs to be preserved.”
But perhaps the adage is true — everyone loves a winner. Even Sherman himself seemed to write off Chickasaw Bayou in his report and perhaps set the course for its uncertain future:
“”I reached Vicksburg at the time appointed, landed, assaulted and failed.”
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