Events set to mark 146th anniversary of Champion Hill

Published 11:24 pm Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The 1863 Battle of Champion Hill was a decisive prelude to the battle and siege of Vicksburg, a bloody, one-day clash that saw more than 6,000 Union and Confederate men wounded, killed or missing.

The 146th anniversary of the battle will be commemorated May 16 with re-enactments, book-signings, a trek along the historic Jackson Road and the unveiling of a memorial marker.

Activities begin near Bolton, at Champion Hill M.B. Church, the site of the original Champion family home which was burned by the Union army in 1863.

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One of the highlights of the commemoration will be the walk through the battlefield along Old Jackson Road, the sunken roadway that served as the primary route between Vicksburg and Jackson, said Rebecca Blackwell Drake, a board member of the Champion Heritage Foundation, which works to preserve the battlefield.

“The Old Jackson Road will be opened to the public for the first time,” Drake said. “People will be able to walk through the heart of the battlefield.” Constructed before the Civil War, the road is one of the oldest road beds in the state and is in pristine condition, she said.

Also, Dr. Timothy Smith, Civil War historian and author of “Champion Hill: Decisive Battle for Vicksburg,” will speak on the battle that took place May 16, 1863, and the importance of the old road.

Sid Champion, great-great-grandson of Sid and Matilda Champion, will be on hand to unveil a new historic marker for the battlefield, the second placed at the site of the battle, Drake said.

The marker dedication will be followed by the one-mile battlefield stroll to the “Hill of Death,” so named by Union Gen. Alvin P. Hovey because of the number of casualties suffered by both sides there, Drake said, adding, “the carnage there was terrific.”

“I cannot think of this bloody hill without sadness and pride,” Hovey wrote, “sadness for the great loss of my true and gallant men; pride for the heroic bravery they displayed. No prouder division ever met as vastly superior foe and fought with more unflinching firmness and stubborn valor. It was, after the conflict, literally the hill of death; men, horses, cannon and the debris of an army lay scattered in wild confusion.”

For those unable to make the walk, a tractor-pulled trailer will provide transportation to the hill. A brief ceremony will be held there, followed by re-enactments featuring about 75 participants.

Afternoon events — including a book-signing by Smith, Mississippi historian and author Grady Howell Jr. and Drake; living history demonstrations; and a raffle drawing for an 1858 replica of an Army Texas .44-caliber revolver — will take place at the Matilda House, located about an eighth of a mile west of Champion Hill M.B.

Other guests will include members of the Champion family; Terry Winschel, chief historian of the Vicksburg National Military Park; and retired Brig. Gen. Parker Hills.

In their book, “Vicksburg and the War,” Vicksburg historians Gordon Cotton and Jeff Giambrone called Champion Hill “a terrible bloodletting for both sides. They quote Chaplain R. L. Howard of the 124th Illinois Infantry, “We covered ourselves with glory, but at the cost of many precious lives.”

The Vicksburg National Military Park Web site counts Federal casualties — missing, wounded or killed — at 2,421, and Confederates at 3,840. Park literature says Champion Hill was “the largest, bloodiest, most significant action of the campaign.”

The Union victory there followed by another victory at the Big Black River wore down Confederate forces and gave the Norths armies a foothold from which to attack Vicksburg from the east.

Union assaults on the city followed May 19 and 22, both unsuccessful.

“Grant acknowledged that the city could not be taken by direct assault,” Cotton writes. “He decided to besiege the city and starve the Confederates into submission.” Vicksburg surrendered July 4, 1863, after six weeks of siege.

Smith is a Mississippi native with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history from the University of Mississippi and a doctorate from Mississippi State University. He teaches history at the University of Tennessee at Martin, and has written books on the battle of Shiloh and other Civil War events.

Drake has co-authored three books, including “My Dear Wife: Letters to Matilda,” the correspondence between Sid and Matilda Champion. Proceeds from Drake’s books go to the Champion Heritage Foundation.

“If we can save our battlefield, we can save our history,” Drake said. “And that benefits the state because it encourages tourism.”