The Christmas War in Calhoun County

While no battles of any importance occurred in Calhoun County, Mississippi, Leon Burgess, in his M.D.L. Stevens and Calhoun County, Mississippi offers Stevens’ account of a December skirmish in the north of the county. The original story appeared in The Calhoun County Monitor on June 4, 1903.

In December, 1862, Gen. Grant’s army pressed back the Confederate army from Holly Springs to Coffeeville where after a sharp engagement Grant fell back to Water Valley, threw out a strong cordon of cavalry and encamped for the winter.

About Christmas a strong company of Kansas Jayhawkers invaded Calhoun County north of Schoona River, spending their fury in and about the village of Banner. They captured the few horses and mules remaining in the county, robbed every chicken roost and hen nest, stole turkeys, geese and ducks, and now and then they took a fat hog. In their rounds they confiscated a barrel of moonshine whiskey near the big rock at the head of Cowpen Creek. They drank freely, filled their canteens and came to Banner, where they took and destroyed everything in sight. In the afternoon they set out for Water Valley. Each marauder had his canteen full of “wild cat” and, tied in front and behind his saddle, a good lot of turkeys, geese, ducks and chickens, and a haversack full of eggs. They left Banner yelling like a mob of Hottentots, all full of wild cat whiskey; more than a hundred strong, the Federals insulted every old man they met and drove women and children from their homes.

A small squad of Willis’ Texas Cavalry was hanging around Grant’s army, watching every movement. They learned of the contemplated raid on Banner, followed in the of the Federal cavalry and kept a close eye on their movements. The Texans received into their ranks a few of the Calhoun boys at home on furloughs, armed with double-barreled shot guns and mounted on mules and horses. The company numbered about 20 of the battalion and 12 or 15 of the local boys. They saw from a distance the devastation of Banner and the surrounding country and saw that the Jayhawkers were tanking up on the “bust skull” whiskey and were preparing to leave for Water Valley. Willis, under the guidance of a friend, hosted his small band of braves in a narrow valley were the horses were tied and the boys were concealed on the crest of a narrow ridge about 60 yards from the road that ran up a narrow hollow west of Gore’s Branch 5 or 6 miles from Banner.

On came the drunken Federal mob, more than a hundred strong, singing, cursing and looting, all bent on reaching Water Valley with their booty. They crossed Gore’s Branch, the headwaters of Long Persimmon Creek, and moved up the road running parallel with the long ridge. When the Federal cavalry had filled the road at the foot of the ridge, Willis gave the command to fire. Sheet of flames leapt from 30 guns; volley after volley was poured into the panic-stricken Federal ranks. Horses and riders were piled promiscuously on the road.

The Rebel boys rushed down the hill and captured men, horses, turkeys, ducks, chickens and canteens half full of mountain dew. They mounted and followed in hot pursuit of the fleeing Federals. Down by Trusty’s and Tatum’s they charged the retreating Jayhawkers, killing and capturing men and horses; their charge to Tuckalofa Creek was a race for life. The next day a regiment of Federal cavalry came out and buried the dead and cared for the wounded. No estimate on killed or wounded.

The Battle of Jackson: May 14, 1863

In the spring of 1863, the war dividing the nation focused on Vicksburg. Lincoln told his civilian and military leaders, “Vicksburg is the key!” Confederate President Davis was of the same mind: “Vicksburg is the nail head that holds the South’s two halves together.” In Confederate hands, Vicksburg blocked Union navigation down the Mississippi and allowed communications and reinforcements from Confederates to the west. The natural defenses of the city were ideal, earning its nickname of the Gibraltar of the South.

Frustrated in his former attempts to take Vicksburg, the Battle of Port Gibson (May 1) gave Union General Ulysses S. Grant a much-needed foothold on the eastern bank of the Mississippi south of the city, but Grant felt that he needed a base north of Vicksburg that could be supplied via the river from Memphis and Port Hudson to subdue the stronghold.

Grant’s Confederate opponent in the campaign, General John C. Pemberton, was of the same mind: “To take Vicksburg, to control the valley of the Mississippi, to sever the Confederacy, to ruin our cause, a base upon the eastern bank immediately above (Vicksburg) was absolutely necessary.” Pemberton admitted that such a move on the part of Federal troops “might destroy Jackson and ravage the country”, but “that was a comparatively small matter.” Though Jackson had the only secure railhead east of Vicksburg, a vital connection to the rest of the Confederacy, Pemberton, a Pennsylvanian who had taken up rebel arms, thought little of Mississippi’s capital city on the Pearl in comparison to his vital command on the Mississippi.

To secure this hypothetically crucial base above Vicksburg, Grant, along with his trusted lieutenant William T. Sherman, moved the Army of the Tennessee to the northeast, and on May 12 headquartered his troops at Dillon Plantation some 6 miles west of Raymond. About sundown, as the camp was settling in to its evening routine, an excited courier drove his lathered horse into camp and poured out the news that Federal troops under Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson’s XVII Corps had encountered a large Confederate force commanded by Brig. Gen John Gregg at Raymond, defeating it after a savage battle. “When the news reached me of McPherson’s victory at Raymond,” Grant later wrote, “I decided at once to turn the whole column towards Jackson and capture that place without delay.”

Beforehand little more than a dot on a map in the mind of the great Union captain, Jackson now came into focus for Grant as a military objective. He had become convinced that Confederate forces assembling in or near Jackson might be stronger than he had initially supposed, and he had reports of reinforcements pouring into the city, including Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, the Confederate commander of the Department of Tennessee and Mississippi. Johnston was widely respected by his troops, fellow officers and even President Davis, with whom he had an acrimonious relationship.

These reports put at risk Grant’s proposed crossing of the Big Black near Edwards, a move designed to bring his troops north of Vicksburg, since it would leave a potentially strong army commanded by a reputedly able general on his rear flank. He now saw more clearly the city’s value as a communication and transport center through which supplies of men and war materials could be funneled to Vicksburg. In addition, destroying Jackson, which also had some importance as a manufacturing center (mostly of cloth), would cripple the state’s ability to supply the rebel army. It’s reasonable to assume that Grant would also be aware of the impact on morale that the capture of the capital city of Mississippi, the home state of President Jefferson Davis, would have on the Confederacy as a whole.

Grant was confident that he could take Jackson then swing his forces back to the west before Pemberton took notice. It was an audacious ploy; by this move to the northeast of Port Gibson, Grant had cut himself loose from his base, but the Northern general had learned to provision his troops as they marched, taking what they needed from the farms and villages they encountered, and the Union army found plenty to sustain their progress. Because the city was reputedly heavily fortified, he decided to strike with his entire army, 10 divisions, some 40,000 men. Grant positioned McPherson to the north and Sherman to the south of his eastern advance towards Jackson, positioning Gen. John A. McClernand on the western flank, facing any possible attack from Pemberton’s troops in Vicksburg.

Jackson, at the outbreak of the war, had a population of 3,191 (Vicksburg had 4,591 and Natchez, the most prosperous city in the state, 6,612.) The city’s arsenal had been destroyed in a disastrous explosion the previous November; Confederate troops stationed there for its defense numbered some 6,000. Well before the final advance of Federal forces, the city seemed to have resigned itself to subjugation. As early as May 2, Pemberton (ever the fatalist) telegraphed Governor J.J. Pettus, advising him to remove the state archives from the capital. By May 6, people began leaving Jackson. The Mobile Register and Advertiser reported, “The trains for the interior are crowded with non-combatants, and the sidewalks blocked up with cases, barrels, old fashioned trunks and chests, which look antiquated enough to have come out of Noah’s Ark.”

By the time Johnston arrived to take command of the city’s defense on the 13th, all who had the means to escape the city had done so, and the Confederate commander’s assessment of his chances to save Jackson could not have been buoyed by the then funereal aspect of the beleaguered capital. Johnston knew his situation was dire; Pemberton had refused his request for reinforcements from Vicksburg the previous week, and the additional troops promised by his superiors had yet to arrive. Johnston was met in Jackson by Gen. Gregg, who was forced to retreat to Jackson with his 3,000 soldiers after the fierce encounter at Raymond. Faced with a two-pronged Union attack by able commanders leading some 25,000 troops and with no time to organize any reasonable defense, Johnston, a seasoned general and career solider, retreated to the northeast.

On May 14, Union forces advanced towards Jackson in a deluge turning roads that had choked them with dust for weeks into trenches of shin-deep mud. After two short skirmishes lasting less than four hours, Grant’s troops entered a silent Jackson under a pouring rain. The Battle of Jackson, such as it was, had ended. Rails and bridges were destroyed, factories put to fire. Vicksburg’s artery to the east was cut; in less than two months, the Confederate Gibraltar would fall into Union hands. Jackson, abandoned by its defenders and occupied by a hostile army, was looted and burned by soldiers and civilians alike for the first of four times, bitterly earning its nickname: Chimneyville.