“The recruits were not generally of the fine material of the original enlistment. Yet after drilling and discipline for several months we had a fine regiment,” said Carrick W. Heiskell, former captain of Company K from Hawkins County, now promoted to major of the 19th Tennessee after Murfreesboro.
Back home, two new regiments, the 60th Tennessee and 61st Tennessee, of mostly conscripts, were being formed in the area of Sullivan, Hawkins and Washington counties.
The 60th Tennessee featured two companies from Sullivan County. Company E formed in the Fordtown community and was placed under the command of William P. Barron, while Company G formed in Blountville and was placed under the command of Capt. J.W. Bachman of Kingsport. Bachman had volunteered with the 19th Tennessee by telegraph at the start of the war and was quickly promoted to the brigade staff before being assigned to the 60th Tennessee.
In February 1863, Company G was inspected by Capt. Bob Houston, assistant inspector general, who reported the following: “I take pleasure in stating that in discipline, efficiency and military appearance this company exceeds that of any I have ever seen in Volunteer service.”
Five companies were drafted from Washington County, three from Jonesborough, one from Boones Creek and one from Leesburg. Hawkins County provided one company, Company B, which formed in Rogersville and was placed under the command of Capt. Samuel Rhea Gammon.
The companies gathered in Haynesville, now known as Johnson City, and the regiment was formed there.
The 61st Tennessee also featured two companies of men from Sullivan County. Company E, Under James P. Snapp, who was later promoted to major of the regiment and replaced by L.H. Denny, enrolled in Blountville. Company K, under command of Samuel H. Kelton, enrolled in Zollicoffer, known today as Bluff City. This regiment also featured a Hawkins County company, Company B, under command of William Francis Sturm, formed in Rogersville. The 61st formed into a regiment at Henderson Mills, now known as Afton, Tenn, in Greene County.
The two regiments were assigned to the brigade of Gen. John C. Vaughn and quickly shipped to the Vicksburg area to deal with the growing threat from Gen. U.S. Grant. They were used as reinforcements at the battles of Chickasaw Bayou and Chickasaw Bluffs and saw little real action, but that was about to change.
By April 30, 1863, Grant had his army across the Mississippi River, on the same side as Vicksburg and south of the city. From there the Union army began to advance across the state, starting with victory at Port Gibson on May 1, followed by victory at Raymond on May 12. By May 14, Grant had taken Jackson and turned west toward Vicksburg, scoring yet another victory at Champion Hill on May 16.
The commanding general of the Confederate forces, John C. Pemberton — a native Pennsylvanian, rushed to gather his scattered and broken brigades for the defense of Vicksburg. In order for retreating Confederate forces to reach Vicksburg, the Big Black River bridge between there and Champion Hill had to be held. Into this confusion, Pemberton sent Vaughn’s untested brigade.
The Big Black River bridge area was perfect for a defensive stand, and Maj. Samuel Lockett, chief engineer, was dispatched along with Vaughn’s brigade to fortify the area. In his report, Lockett noted the ground and his preparations for defense.
“The Big Black River, where it is crossed by the railroad bridge, makes a bend somewhat in the shape of a horseshoe. Across this horseshoe, at its narrowest part, a line of rifle-pits had been constructed, making an excellent cover for infantry, and at proper intervals dispositions were made for field artillery. The line of pits ran nearly north and south, and was about one mile in length. North of and for a considerable distance south of the railroad and of the dirt road to Edwards Depot, nearly parallel with it, extended a bayou, which in itself opposed a serious obstacle to an assault upon the pits. This line abutted north on the river and south upon a cypress-brake, which spread itself nearly to the bank of the river. In addition to the railroad bridge, which I had caused to be floored for the passage even of artillery and wagons, the steamer Dot, from which the machinery had been taken, was converted into a bridge, by placing her fore and aft across the river,” Lockett wrote.
As stragglers and retreating brigades passed through, some were ordered to join Vaughn’s brigade in the line. The right of the line was manned by Col. Cockrell’s brigade from Missouri, and the left of the line was manned by Gen. Green’s brigade of Missouri and Arkansas men. The center was held by Vaughn and his East Tennesseans. According to Lockett’s report, there were 4,000 men and 20 cannons manning the line.
All night of May 16, the men defending the bridge waited for the arrival of an entire Confederate division still cut off from Vicksburg. On the morning of the 17th, soldiers were spotted marching toward the bridge, but these soldiers were not wearing Confederate gray or butternut, they were wearing Union blue. The men of the 60th and 61st Tennessee from Hawkins, Sullivan and Washington County were about to meet Grant in person on the field of battle.
Brigadier Gen. Michael K. Lawler’s brigade was the first of the Union troops to arrive, and the cannons of both sides exchanged fire.
Lawler’s brigade was made up of veterans who quickly scouted out the situation and spotted a flaw in the Rebel defense. A swampy ravine to the north of the line could allow a hidden advance and a chance to turn the enemy’s left flank. Lawler, turning a Rebel strength into a weakness, quickly ordered a regiment to the ravine while he positioned the rest of his brigade to attack the center of the Confederate line at the same time.
As Yankees wading through waist-deep water and dense brush arrived at their objective, additional Union brigades and Grant arrived to support Lawler’s attack. The order was given, and the men in Vaughn’s brigade were in for a terrible surprise.
Confederate Col. Elijah Gates wrote of the attack “They formed their men on river in the timber, where we could not see them. They brought their men out by the right flank in column of fours, about 140 yards in front of my regiment, at a double-quick. I then opened a most terrific fire upon them and kept it up until the brigade had passed out of my sight behind a grove of timber immediately upon my right.”
Vaughn’s brigade was hit from two sides at once. A tough position for veteran troops, an impossible one for soldiers who had been in the army for only a few months.
Col. Cockrell, whose brigade held the right side of the Confederate defenses, wrote, “I saw the line between the railroad and first skirt of timber north of the railroad beginning to give way and then running in disorder. I watched this disorderly falling back a few minutes, when I saw that the enemy had possession of the trenches north of the railroad and were rapidly advancing toward the bridge, our only crossing and way of escape, the enemy now being nearer this crossing than my line. I therefore ordered the brigade to fall back, and, moving rapidly, gained the bridge.”
Grant recalled the moment the Rebel lines broke. “I heard great cheering to the right of our line and, looking in that direction, saw Lawler in his shirt sleeves leading a charge upon the enemy. I immediately mounted my horse and rode in the direction of the charge.”
Grant would write in his memoirs, “The assault was successful. But little resistance was made. The enemy fled from the west bank of the river, burning the bridge behind him and leaving the men and guns on the east side to fall into our hands. Many tried to escape by swimming the river. Some succeeded and some were drowned in the attempt.”
Lockett, who had been so proud of his defenses, set fire to the bridge and the steamboats in a last-ditch effort to stop Grant but trapped several Confederate soldiers. While some did manage to escape, both the 60th and 61st suffered heavy casualties. The 60th lost 18 officers, including Lt. Col. Nathan Gregg, and 239 men. The 61st lost 288 men and had its regimental colors captured by the 26th Iowa. In total the Confederates lost about 1,700 men and 18 cannons. Adding insult to injury, Grant used the captured cannons against Vicksburg