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.