THE CHARGE UP CHAMPION'S HILL
This week marks the one hundred fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Baker's Creek (also known as the Battle of Champion's Hill to Southerners.) As Civil War battles go, it doesn't rate near the top of the list of the most important battles. You probably have never even heard of it. Before the day ended, it would be the most bloody and vicious battle of the war for more than one hundred and fifty Laurens County men of the 57th Georgia Infantry. More men in the regiment were killed on that one day than in the entire war. Almost as many men in the 57th were wounded that day than in the four years of fighting. The date was May 16th, 1863. The place was Baker's Creek near Champion's Hill in Hinds County, Mississippi. Ironically the battle took place within a few miles of U.S. Highway 80 between Jackson and Vicksburg and also runs through the heart of Laurens County.
The 57th Georgia was organized in May of 1862. Company B and Company C of the regiment were formed in Laurens County. Some of the soldiers, like the Garnto brothers, were residents of western Johnson County. Company I was formed by soldiers from Laurens and Wilkinson County. Lt. Col. Cinncinatus Saxon Guyton of Laurens County was second in command of the regiment.
Vicksburg, Mississippi, according to most military authorities, was the key to entire Civil War. Its commanding heights allowed Confederate artillery to control shipping up and down the Mississippi River. On the 13th of May, Gen. Johnston, C.S.A., decided to unite his forces in one concentrated attack on the forces of U.S. Grant. Johnston ordered Gen. Pemberton to attack the Federals at Clinton, east of Vicksburg. The plan failed. The Confederates began a retreat toward Vicksburg. On the night of the 15th, Pemberton's forces were camped at a crossroads south of Champion's Hill. Federal forces were surging ahead, moving by their right flank. The Confederates did an about face and turned toward what they thought was the rear of the Yankee column. Before the maneuver could be completed, Pemberton's men ran head long into the advancing Federal troops.
The 57th , under the command of Gen. Stevenson, took the left. His mission was to protect the wagon trains on the Clinton Road. Just as the 57th had formed in their lines, the skirmishers of Hovey's Division engaged them near the foot of the hill on the Champion plantation. About 10:30, the Federal skirmishers began their advance up the hill. Two more brigades, McGinnis' and Slack's, were thrown into action against Stevenson. By noon, Federal forces were attacking Stevenson's entire front. The Confederates were forced to retreat for six hundred yards. Three hundred prisoners were taken and eleven artillery pieces were lost. With their backs in the woods, the Confederates rallied and forced the Federals back down the hill.
As the afternoon progressed, fresh Union troops were brought in. The 57th and the other regiments under Stevenson's command were falling, one after another. The Union forces advanced and took the hill. Stevenson and his men were forced further to the right. Stevenson reported that he was outnumbered nearly ten to one. Years after the war, John L. Keen of Brewton wrote. "In this battle, our First Lieutenant was killed and several others of our regiment. The color bearer was shot down, and the next man hoisted the flag; he was suddenly shot down until the third man was killed ." The men found themselves cut off from the main body of the Confederate army. The tide of the battle began to turn. On the north side of the battle field, elements of Logan's division had advanced to the top of the hill. Stevenson found his entire division cut off from the main body. He was forced to make a long sweeping detour to the South. They arrived the next day with no baggage, cooking utensils, or wagons at Crystal Springs.
The Union Army was victorious. The battle at Baker's Creek or Champion's Hill was devastating to the 57th. The casualties totaled forty killed, ninety-six wounded, and forty- eight prisoners of war. It was the worst day for any Laurens County company in the war. The carnage was more savage than their fellow Laurens Countians had suffered at Gettysburg, Spottsylvania, and Fredericksburg. 1st Lt. Virgil C. Manning of Laurens County was the highest ranking officer killed in the battle. 5th Sgt. Washington Hobbs, and privates, Wilkinson C. Price, John L. Stewart, Jordan Surmons, Alonzo Walker, John Walker, and James R. Witherington were also killed.
Fielding J. Bass, John English, Fielding Fordham, Thomas Garnto, Martin Hightower, John Hobbs, Larry Hobbs, Thomas Holmes, Aaron Hutchinson, Joshua Hutchinson, David Maddux, Alfred L. Morgan, Moses L. Pope, Sr., F.J. Ross, Samuel F. Scarborough, Richard N. Smith, Wingfield B. Smith, William M. Snellgrove, Joshua J. Underwood, Wingfield W. Underwood, Thomas B. Winham, and Green S. Young were wounded. Some of these men, like Thomas Garnto, had limbs amputated. Garnto's amputation was performed by a Union surgeon after he was captured and while he lay dying on the battlefield along side privates Ross and Richard Smith. Smith was taken to Ft. Delaware and died there in prison. Thomas White and Elbert Underwood were also captured.
With the news of the battle and its toll, the citizens of Laurens County went into mourning. A memorial service was held at Boiling Springs Methodist Church. The church is still located across the road from the old muster grounds where Company B trained in preparation for war. The members took it especially hard, since James Boatright, a member of the community had been killed.
The Battle of Baker's Creek proved to be the turning point in the Vicksburg Campaign. Federal Forces had tried for over a year to capture the strategic port city. The seven week siege of Vicksburg was about to begin. On July 4th, the city of Vicksburg fell, just one day after Lee's defeat at Gettysburg. The tide of the war turned in favor of the United States. All 342 remaining members of the 57th Georgia, along with all of the defenders of Vicksburg, were captured. The men were paroled after a couple of months. They returned to Georgia, disheartened and demoralized. The 57th was sent to Savannah where they fought a battle on Whitemarsh Island in February, 1864. From there they were transferred to Andersonville, where they served as prison guards until the spring. The 57th also participated in the battles of the Atlanta Campaign, seeing the most action at Kennesaw Mountain, Peachtree Creek, Atlanta, and Jonesboro. In the last major engagement of the Army of the Tennessee, they lost fifteen men at Bentonville, North Carolina.
On April 26, 1865 the 57th Georgia, then a part of the 1st Georgia Consolidated Infantry surrendered at Greensboro, North Carolina. The long journey home began. The fighting, the dying, the starving, and suffering was over - finally. The bodies of the dead never made it home from Baker's Creek. They lie in unmarked graves somewhere between the creek and Vicksburg, known only to God.