Written By Fredric C. Lynch, Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War
The Medal of Honor (MOH) is the United States’ highest military award for “conspicuous gallantry at risk of life above and beyond the call of duty.” Ohioans received 196 of the 1,522 Medals of Honor awarded during the American Civil War. Of them, 120 were presented to Ohio soldiers and sailors for valor during the campaign to capture Vicksburg, Miss. between May and July 1863. Ninety-six of those Ohioans were honored with the MOH for valor demonstrated during a single battle fought May 22, 1863. That is the highest one-day total for award of the MOH in American History.
The objective of the American Civil War’s Vicksburg Campaign was to conquer and destroy the Confederate stronghold in and surrounding Vicksburg, Miss. The city headquartered and harbored defenses that enabled the Rebels to control access to the lower Mississippi River. The Union Army first attacked the city’s strong fortifications May 19, 1863. Unfortunately, unexpectedly strong resistance yielded high casualties and the attacked failed. An especially formidable fortification encountered was the section of the defensive line called the “Stockade Redan,” a 17-foot tall dirt wall protected in front by an 8-foot wide, 6-foot deep ditch.
General Ulysses S. Grant, the Union forces’ commander, ordered an attack upon the Stockade Redan for May 22. His plan called for attacking units to benefit from logs and boards laid across the water-filled ditch, and ladders placed in front of the fortification’s earthen walls. These were to be put in place ahead of the assault by a group of volunteers officially designated the “Storming Party,” but afterwards dubbed the “Forlorn Hope.”
As reported in the Sacramento Daily Union newspaper following the battle: “The 22d of May, 1863 will be always memorable as a day of heroic daring and forlorn hopes. On the one side was a cordon of battlements and rifle pits, stretching a natural chain of most formidable earthworks for six miles or more, and defended by the remnant of the (Confederate) Army of the Mississippi, amounting to 15,000 or 20,000 men. On the other was a vast army, the conquerors of five battlefields, and wrought up to the highest pitch of morale. The history is that of a herculean attempt by a splendid army to storm one of the finest — if not the finest — fortifications in the world. The chivalric and romantic bravery of that action was worthy of the best days of the Crusades or the ‘Old Guard.’”
The “Storming Party” chosen to precede the May 22 attack was to carry pre-positioned logs two men to a log, rush toward the enemy’s entrenchments, and place the logs across the ditch to form the groundwork for plank bridges. The second 50 man detachment was to follow with boards to be thrown across the logs to provide bridges for attacking forces to cross. The third detachment was to carry scaling ladders, rush across the board bridges, and position the ladders against the dirt embankment. Afterwards, Union infantry forces would charge in force to capture the defensive works.
On May 21st each regimental commander in the Union’s Army of Tennessee’s Fifteenth Army Corps’ Second Division was ordered by General William T. Sherman, their commander, to assemble their troops, outline the plan of operations, and request volunteers for the “Storming Party.” Each of their 15 regiments was to provide 10 volunteers. In total, 300 soldiers volunteered. Of them, 150 unmarried men were approved for the mission. They were the “Forlorn Hope.”
The assault of the storming party launched at 10 a.m. The gallant volunteers grabbed their logs, planks, and ladders in sequence and charged across more than 1,000 yards of open battlefield. The Storming Party encountered intense enemy fire. As Sergeant George Powell of the Confederate’s 36th Mississippi Regiment noted, the Federals: “fell like grass before the reaper.” Any that made it to the ditch or got across it were trapped and forced to stop. By 11 a.m., their valiant effort was clearly a failure. As General Sherman noted, “about half of them were shot down. When the survivors reached the ditch, they were unable to construct the bridges as too many logs had been lost along the way when their bearers were shot down.”
Of the 150 volunteers who were the “Forlorn Hope” at Vicksburg, 85 percent were killed or seriously wounded. Seventy-eight of their number were awarded the Medal of Honor.
Among Forlorn Hope volunteers to receive the MOH, was William Archinal of the 30th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. In course of the action, he was wounded and subsequently captured by Confederates. After his parole, Archinal wrote: “When I was taken into the fort, a rebel officer came up to me, slapped me on the shoulder, and said: ‘See here, young man, weren’t you fellows all drunk when you started this morning?’ I replied, ‘No, Sir!’ ‘Well, they gave you some whiskey before you started, didn’t they?’ he said, and I answered, ‘No Sir, that plan is not practiced in our army. ‘Didn’t you know it was certain death,’ he asked me again, and I replied, ‘Well, I don’t know, I am still living! ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘You are living, but I can assure you that very few of your comrades are.’”
Another 30th Ohio Infantry Regiment survivor and MOH recipient was Uriah H. Brown. The report of his gallantry noted, “Despite the death of his captain at his side during the assault he continued carrying his log to the defense ditch. While he was laying his log in place he was shot down and thrown into the water. Unmindful of his own wound he, despite the intense fire, dragged 5 of his comrades from the ditch, wherein they lay wounded, to a place of safety.”
Most of the MOH award citations for heroes of the Forlorn Hope simply state, “Gallantry in the charge of the volunteer storming party.” Among them is that of David Jones. He was a member of Co. I, 54th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Years after the war, Jones applied for a veterans’ pension. His file includes a vivid description of what he experienced: “. . . claimant and others, were compelled to remain all day in the hot sun, and suffering from all most incessant firing of cannon by the enemy at that time claimant and his comrades, who were still alive then, could not retreat until after night, for the reason, that they all would have been killed by the enemy. Said storming party was composed of 150 men, who volunteered for that purpose, at the request of General WT Sherman. Applicants ears bled at that time from the severity of concussion, from the enemy’s cannon….”
David F. Day was a sixteen year old Private in Co. D, 57th Ohio Infantry. His regimental commander, Colonel Americus
V.Rice, described him as “a most gallant and meritorious young soldier.” Day was courageous in the attack on the “Stockade Redan.” According to Col. Rice, “In the assault he was severely wounded in the wrist, and his gun was shot from his hands. With his bayonet he dug a hole in the Rebel works, in which he was shielded from hand-grenades, and remained there until he could return to our lines under cover of darkness.”
Sadly, today, the remarkable courage of the 150 Union Army volunteers who comprised the “Forlorn Hope” at Vicksburg May 22, 1863 is a rarely noted element among the abundance of remarkable sacrifices that comprise American Civil War history. Fortunately, each member of the Storming Party wherever they rest in honored glory also stands tall today with honor among our nation’s greatest military heroes.
For more information, recommended sources are:
The Campaign for Vicksburg: (3 volume set) by Edwin C. Bearss; Vol. I-Vicksburg Is the Key; Vol. II-Grant Strikes a Fatal Blow; Vol. III-Unvexed to the Sea; Morningside Bookshop 1991.
Civil War Medal of Honor Recipients: A Complete Illustrated Record by Robert P. Broadwater; McFarland 2007.