1) The Battle for Port Gibson, Mississippi
Thursday, April 30 – Friday, May 1, 1863
I shiver in the late night chill of the last night of April, first day of May. The
dusty scent of pine resin mixes with the sweetness of magnolia and
honeysuckle to bid me sleep. The pines provide a soft bed of needles that
entice me to yield to bone deep weariness, but I can’t. Six thousand men in
the fields and woods to our rear are counting on us to be the first line of
defense; the sharp point of the sword, the warning shot.
We six of Company A, 15th Arkansas Infantry of the Confederate States Army
are assigned picket duty. Our post overlooks Rodney Road along which we
force marched hours ago from Grand Gulf on the Mississippi River. The road
crosses Bayou Pierre southeast of the town of Port Gibson, a mile or two to our
rear. This is the road Grant’s invading army will use as they march inland from
Bruinsburg where they landed unopposed. Their objective is Vicksburg, about
thirty miles to the north. This is where we have to stop twenty thousand
I say into the dark, “Midnight?”
My platoon sergeant, Buck Buchannan keeps no truck with officers and the
trappings of rank, so there is no “sir” offered in his reply and none expected on
my part. We’ve been together too long for that.
The clop of horse hooves on the hard packed dirt of the road to our rear draws
our attention. We wait. A challenge is issued, “Who goes there!”
“General Green; what unit, and who are you?”
“Private Bill Fiedler of the 15th Arkansas, sir!”
“General Green?” Buck questions in a whisper which is only a little less than
I can make out the Brigade commander in the light of the near full moon. He
is a lean, tall man standing over six feet and sits his horse with his long legs
seeming to touch the ground.
“Who’s in command here?” He asks into the dark.
“Lieutenant Evans Atwood, down the road a piece, sir.”
“Can you hear me Lieutenant?”
“Yes sir,” I reply. “Do you have orders sir?”
“General Green; out here?” Buck whispers again.
The general rides closer, “No orders; I’m riding to make sure you pickets are
I am as confused as Buck; a general checking pickets? I hear Buck shift and
know he’s looking at me with a “what’s this about” look. Does the general
know something we don’t? “We’re ready sir. I was told we’re not expecting
Yankees until morning?”
“That’s right lieutenant, but we must be prepared.”
“Yes sir; we’re ready.”
“Very well; carry on.” He turns off the road and into the woods riding toward
the pickets of the 12th Arkansas Sharpshooters. They have the same duty
across the road to our north and west of a large home owned by the Shaifer
family whose land we are on.
“It’s a nervous general who checks his own pickets,” says Buck.
“Yeah, I don’t like it. What does he know?” I say louder, “Be alert men”. I
get various affirming grunts and mumbled “Yes sirs” from down the line. They’
re already alert; they know what a General riding pickets means.
“You think the Yanks’ll attack in the dark?” Buck asks.
“They don’t know we’re here.”
“They know we’re somewhere.”
“They’ll send skirmishers to probe and find us. Then we worry about an
”If it happens, we ain’t fallin’ back over that plowed field in the dark without
getting picked to pieces.”
“We’ll make our stand here Buck. We can’t let them by, or we’ll be cut off. We’
re going to stay put right here and fight.”
“I don’t like it.”
“Nobody does. Our advantage is having seen the lay of the land in daylight,
and we’ve got surprise on our side. We can hold them till dawn then we’ll be
able to see. Pray the Lord shows a way.” I pause a moment, “Try to get some
“Yeah, rest; you’re a bigger fool than I know you to be”.
Our whispered conversation seems to boom in the still dark. We’ve not fought
a night action, and the prospect is not a happy one. Battle is confusing enough
when you can see. Tonight, if it comes, will be like fighting blindfolded. I try
to picture the road as I saw it this afternoon, but in the dark, nothing is
There’s a knot in my stomach. I’ve got to think clear or get us killed. The
cold coupled with my extreme fatigue makes it hard for me to focus.
Across the road, in the woods, I hear the 12th’s challenge to General Green and
imagine a conversation similar to ours. The general rides toward the Shaifer
There’s lantern light there and I can see movement in the yard through the
trees. People are crossing back and forth, in and out; women and children
loading a wagon.
We sense more than hear noise on the road from the west where it shouldn’t be
and our attention is shifted. It comes closer, moving around the corner two
hundred yards from us, and materializes into black forms spanning the road
Behind me, General Green assures the folks loading the wagon that they’re safe
until morning, “The Yankees won’t attack at night,” I hear him say; “you can
rest easy.” There is no way to warn them without giving away our position.
They’ll know soon enough.
The apparitions materialize into the enemy. We can hear their commands as
they move toward us. Someone up front of their formation says, “There’s
My mouth is dry, and my hands are sweating. Even in the cold, the
anticipation of ambush has me wishing I could shed my coat. My heart pounds
as I watch them come nearer. “Come on, come on; just a little further and you’
re mine.” I hear the muffled cock of Buck’s rifle. I cock my Springfield and
slide it forward in the same motion. Sighting down the barrel, I target a
Yankee on the far side of the road; closest to the stake I placed as a range
marker. He’ll be first.
General Green and the ladies exchange pleasantries as the general departs. The
Yankees hear it and halt. One of them says, “It’s only the women in that
house. There’s nobody here; move out! Let’s go.”
I hold my breath and feel my heart pounding against the ground. My hand
moves from the trigger and wipes sweat from my brow. My hat feels like it
weighs a ton. I re-sight on the Yankee closest to the stake. When he’s past the
stake, there will be five targets within the range. I wait. It seems like forever
as they grow closer and closer; Buck shifts again. We’re anxious. I see six, one
each. When we fire, we’ll lose our night vision from the muzzle flashes and be
firing blind. Our boys have hunted enough at night to know that. Hopefully,
that’s another advantage over the invading factory and mill workers. They’re
Forty yards now; they’re moving with confidence, weapons loose; not ready;
cocky. Wait…wait, they’re at thirty yards now; it’s time. I breathe deep, hold
it, aim, and squeeze the trigger. The muzzle loading Springfield roars with a
flash and cloud of smoke, blinding me from my target as I absorb the rifle’s
recoil. I move up on my knee to reload. As I do, I am deafened by the near
simultaneous roar of five more rifles.
Loading the Springfield is automatic and has to be in the dark with
compromised vision. I try to see the road to assess the damage, but the smoke
and flash prevent it. Screams of wounded men tell me we’ve been accurate.
Some of the smoke lifts and with the aid of muzzle flashes, I make out the
enemy moving. They’re firing everywhere, but not near us. How could they
have missed our muzzle flashes? Then I know; we downed the forward troops;
this is their second line. They’re confused and afraid and are firing wild. Good.
“Aim at their muzzle flashes,” Buck yells!
“Fire and move!” I shout. The enemy will overcome their confusion soon and
will be firing at our muzzle flashes too. The second volley sounds. Our men
Across the road, there are shouted orders from the Twelfth to form a skirmish
line and move forward. They open fire on the Yankee flank.
The Federals in front of us hear the increased firing from their left and fall
back. We continue to pour lead into where they were, but we’re making more
noise and smoke than danger. The battle is moving away from us.
The 12th break contact and fall back to their position. We both celebrate with
shouts and comments directed at the parentage and heritage of the Union
soldiers. The smell of gunpowder hangs heavy as I shout, “Causalities?”
“None,” Buck says in a voice boosted by the thrill of combat.
I am shaking. The probe lasted minutes, but seems like hours. “Those were
their skirmishers; now they know we’re here. We’ll soon see if they attack or
wait to morning.”
We hear the Yankees reforming and moving into position. Horses whinny and
neigh in the dark, working under a burden. They’re bringing up artillery.
“Sounds like they ain’t content to wait,” someone offers.
Our big guns are located on Foster Ridge, the next ridge back from our position
here by Magnolia Church on a ridge of the same name. They’re on higher
ground and have the advantage of having laid out fields of fire before dark.
“They’re comin’. Our big guns should start any time now,” says Buck.
Boom! Thunder, lightning, and iron shatter the night as they flash over the
road into the gathering Yankees. We hear the crash and whistle of canister shot
as it thrashes the trees. Moments later, Boom; an enemy answer.
Buck moves to me, “Fall back, or stand?”
“Stand; they’re going to disperse in the ravines below us, but the only clear
way to come is the road. Move everyone up and spread out facing that way.”
Buck goes to carry out my orders.
The artillery continues its deadly work. The firing of each piece sends
gunpowder born thunder rolling over the fields, gullies, and washes where
troops of both sides lay hidden. The earth trembles and shakes from
concussion of firing and impact. Shells scream over our position on the way to
their final destination in some Yankee gun crew’s belly. It is savage work. The
flash of exploding gun powder, the screaming of the wounded, the bursting of
shells, the rattle of grape shot crashing through fences and timber, assault the
senses, striking terror that only training and experience can subdue.
The muzzle flashes of artillery light their positions as well as ours, and we are
able to choose targets, fire, and move. The cries of their wounded tell us we
are effective. As they return fire, we target their muzzle flashes, and continue
our skillful, accurate, death dealing work. The enemy fire is inadequate and
inaccurate. They aren’t as we good as we are.
The battle continues for over an hour with no break. My mouth is parched
from the gun powder as I rip open the cartridges with my teeth before pushing
them down the barrel of my rifle, but I cannot stop to open my canteen and
drink. The right side of my face is stinging from the repeated blasts of caps
into the chamber and the back flash. I rub dirt over my face to ease the pain,
and to prevent further burns. My nostrils and throat are raw from the smoke
The Union artillery pieces are silenced one by one either by our cannon fire, or
their ineffective fire and desire to conserve powder and shot until daybreak.
They did not expect this spirited a resistance and choose to break off the
engagement and reorganize; wait for daylight.
Their skirmishers fall back too. We can hear hundreds, maybe thousands
regrouping along the road and in the woods. We are panting from exhaustion.
The physical strain of battle deepens the fatigue from our forced march.
The Blue Bellies feel worse than we do. They have been forced to yield. We
have not given up one inch of ground, nor lost one soldier to wound or death. I
fear it won’t last.
Looking around, I see Buck crouching off to my right, and I make my way to
“Fine mornin’ ain’t it Boy?” Buck’s teeth show bright white in his black
bearded, gun powder marked face as he grins at me in victory. Nathanial
James Buchannan is much older than my twenty-six years. He enlisted to fight
the northern insistence that the south change their ways, and he’s very good at
it. His passion swept me along and we joined together.
Even though he’s over forty, he and I are close. We’ve know each other since I
was six, and before the war, we traveled and adventured . We’re opposites in
most ways, and are good and bad for each other. Buck is honest, hates liars,
cheats, and thieves as much as I do, and has never said anything he did not
mean. It takes him awhile, but once he reasons it out, if he speaks it, it’ll
“I guess we showed those boys how Arkansians can shoot!”
“We made some Yankees wish for home, that’s for sure, and some we sent a
great way beyond.” The men gather round, pass around canteens to drink and
wash hot faces, and wind down from the night’s battle.
Buck cuts it short with, “What are your orders Lieutenant?” He has a way
spurring me to action while letting me think it was my leadership, not his, that
got us where we needed to be.
It’s darker now as the moon has dropped below the tree line. We can’t be
certain of where to go if we could go. The Magnolia Church is a shadow on the
ridge. “We don’t have orders to fall back unless pushed off this ridge, so we’re
going to stay.” Everyone is quiet and listening. “We’re going to take up
positions facing the road. Their skirmishers are on the next ridge or in the
gullies and may come to try us again.” Turning to Buck, “Sergeant, I figure it
to be about 3:00 in the morning; that gives us three hours before first light. I
suspect we’ll have company then. Organize a rest and watch schedule
including me. Each man needs time to take care of himself, get water, and
sleep a little.” Chuckles from the men; all know there will be no sleep tonight.
“How we fixed for caps and cartridges? Give me a count.” There is fumbling
in the dark as each man checks. We tally a number, or as close to it as we can
get. “We don’t have enough ammo. Buck, assign two men to go to the rear
and get as much as you can. Make some noise when you come back, or we’re
likely to shoot.” The detail is sent, and the rest of us take time to go to the
creek, wash our faces, and fill canteens, answer nature’s call, and rest.
The woods calm, an owl hoots while crickets, frogs, and other critters are heard
again. The Yankees are milling around down the road. There’ll be no sleep in
their camp either. It’s almost as if the battle was a bad dream. The stinging on
my face and the moans of their wounded tell me otherwise. I lay back to relax
and let my mind wander.