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The Mississippi College Rifles in 1863

By Dr. Walter G. Howell

The Mississippi College Rifles spent winter quarters for 1862-63 in their entrenched positions behind the destroyed town of Fredericksburg on the Rappahannock River. General Lee’s strategy was to keep his army between the Union army and the Confederate capital at Richmond. Lee faced a new adversary in 1863, after President Lincoln replaced General Burnside with “Fighting Joe” Hooker as commander of the Army of the Potomac.
In late April, Hooker split his army, keeping a large force strung along the Rappahannock facing Fredericksburg, while his main army attempted to circle around Lee’s left flank and attack from the rear. When he reached Chancellorsville to the west of Fredericksburg, Hooker stopped. Lee sent Stonewall Jackson to outflank Hooker’s position. Jackson considered a night attack against Hooker but was mistakenly shot by a Confederate sentry and died days later.
General Jeb Stuart took command of Jackson’s army and attacked Union lines at Chancellorsville on May 2. The fighting quickly spread to Fredericksburg and raged for three days before Hooker gave up the battlefield. Chancellorsville was a Confederate victory, but at a great loss. Lee lost the one general he had complete confidence in and trusted more than any other.
While Hooker was moving on Chancellorsville, another Union army crossed the Rappahannock down-stream from Fredericksburg and attacked Confederates occupying the heights behind the town. The Mississippi College Rifles, as part of the 18th Mississippi, held their positions during repeated assaults by Union forces; but the fighting again was fierce. The 18th Mississippi had to withdraw briefly on May 3, but was able to reoccupy Marye’s Heights the next day. Lee held Fredericksburg, and Hooker’s army pulled back across the river.
The Rifles lost twenty-two men wounded and captured during the fighting on May 3 at Marye’s Heights. Several Rifles were assigned to a special unit fighting at U. S. Ford, located on the river between Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg; and three were wounded and eight captured by the Union army. Rifles captured during these engagements were later exchanged. The Rifles had fifty-eight men on the company roll at the end of May, 1863.
While Lee’s army rested after Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg, a newspaper in Richmond reported the alarming news that the Union General Ulysses S. Grant had invaded Mississippi from the Louisiana side of the Mississippi River, had pushed eastward on Raymond and had captured Jackson. Men of the Rifles read of the Confederate defeat at Champion Hill and learned that Grant was laying siege to a Confederate army at Vicksburg.
Letters from home were slow to be delivered, and the Rifles had little information on fighting around Clinton. They knew what armies could do to small towns, and Clinton’s location between Jackson and Vicksburg made it vulnerable to attacks by Union and Confederate armies.
General Lee had tried for months to persuade President Jefferson Davis to allow Lee to invade Pennsylvania to draw Hooker’s army out of Virginia. Lee was confident he could beat Hooker on northern soil, eliminating any threat to Richmond and giving Lee the chance to threaten Washington City itself. Lee held out the possibility that victory in Pennsylvania might lead to English and French recognition of the Confederacy, something Davis had sought for two years.
After Grant’s siege of Vicksburg, Lee convinced President Davis that a victory in Pennsylvania and a march on Washington City could weaken Grant’s threat to Vicksburg. The Army of Northern Virginia would fight a second battle at Manassas before beginning an invasion of Pennsylvania in June, 1863.


Editor’s note: 2011 marked the beginning of the sesquicentennial observation of the American Civil War. This is the thirteenth in a series of pieces by Dr. Walter Howell that will follow the movements of the Mississippi College Rifles, the fate of Clintonians involved in the fighting and other events on the home front. Clinton will host a sesquicentennial observation weekend April 19-20.

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