Sunday, September 6, 2015

A Visit to the Raymond Battlefield

I'm in Vicksburg, Mississippi, one of the towns that has to be on the bucket list of anyone interested in the American Civil War. After all, the campaign that led to the fall of Vicksburg, thus securing Union control of the Mississippi River and splitting the Confederacy in two, was arguably the decisive campaign of the war. Much more than the Battle of Gettysburg, the Siege of Vicksburg ensured that the Confederacy would eventually go down to defeat. Thousands of Northerners died to capture Vicksburg, just as thousands of Southerners died trying to protect it.

The story of the Union conquest of Vicksburg is a long one. It started with the naval attack of Admiral David Farragut in May of 1862 and ended with the final surrender of Vicksburg to General Ulysses Grant in July of 1863. It's a dramatic tale that has it all: ferocious battles between ironclads, daring cavalry raids behind enemy lines, spies and double-agents, near-suicidal assaults against seemingly invincible fortresses, fierce internal dissensions among the general officers of both sides, terrified civilians unwillingly caught up in the maelstrom of war, and, of course, epic pitched battles. Honestly, if HBO wanted to do a Civil War mini-series, the campaign for Vicksburg would be a perfect subject.

One of the most interesting episodes in the long struggle for control of Vicksburg is the Battle of Raymond. On May 12, 1863, having finally succeeded in getting his army on the east bank of the Mississippi River below Vicksburg, General Grant was moving his troops rapidly northeastwards, leaving the confused and scattered Confederate forces unable to even find him. It was an early example of a style of warfare that, in the 20th Century, would come to be known as blitzkrieg. That morning, on a hilly field southwest of the small town of Raymond, a single Confederate brigade slammed into a Union force that, unbeknownst to them, was roughly three times their strength. The result was a confused and brutal day-long battle.

This battle is of particular interest to me because it involved the 7th Texas Infantry Regiment. Readers of my book Shattered Nation will know that this is the regiment to which my fictional character, James McFadden, belongs. The Battle of Raymond was a small engagement by Civil War standards, with five thousand Confederates fighting against twelve thousand Yankees; there were quite a few Civil War battles with ten times as many combatants. Yet it certainly was important to the men of the 7th Texas. Of the Texans, twenty-two were killed, sixty-six wounded, and seventy captured. The regiment would go on to fight in such brutal battles as Chickamauga, Atlanta, and Franklin, yet it never again suffered losses as severe as those it sustained on the field of Raymond.

Anyone expecting a big visitor's center with a well-produced introductory video at the battlefield is going to be disappointed. There is an information kiosk with a few useful maps, a paved circular walking trail, and several reproduction cannon to signify the positions of artillery batteries, but nothing as fancy as one finds at any of the battlefields preserved and interpreted by the National Park Service. Still, we are fortunate that there is any battlefield at Raymond at all, for would certainly have been lost to real estate development had it not been for the hard work and dedication of a group of local preservation activists calling themselves the Friends of Raymond. These people deserve the thanks of all lovers of history for saving the Raymond Battlefield from disappearing, as so many other historical sites have sadly done.

When I visited the battlefield this morning, it was very quiet and peaceful. It might have been hard to find, but I had received a helpful email from a member of the Friends of Raymond in response to an earlier request for help and so knew pretty much where to go. No one else was there and the battlefield was quiet and peaceful, quite in contrast to the violence and death that had shaken the same ground just over a century and a half before. Not all of the battlefield has yet been preserved, but the land across which the 7th Texas made its gallant and ill-fated charge can be followed almost exactly. A creek bed in which savage fighting took place appears almost unchanged from what it must have looked like during the battle. It was very easy to get a feel for the battle.

I was particularly interested in finding the monument to the Texas troops that I understood had been erected in recent years. Frustratingly, though, I could not find it and got back into my car with a sense of disappointment. I hadn't gone more than a few hundred yards back down the road, though, before I saw the monument on the other side of the road. I quickly pulled over and walked over to it. I was a little surprised to see that it is right next to someone's driveway and don't understand why they didn't put it on the battlefield itself. Alas, some questions have no answers. What matters is that it is a dignified and appropriate monument to the men of the 7th Texas Infantry.

I'd encourage anyone to visit the Raymond Battlefield. Yes, there's not much there. Yes, the engagement was minor compared to other, more famous battles. But it is part of a crucial story that helped decide the destiny of our nation and was a shining example of the courage and endurance that the men of the North and South displayed on countless similar battlefields throughout the war. They deserve to be remembered.

As for me, it was on to Vicksburg.

1 comment:

  1. I am so glad that you were able to make this journey Jeff. It sounds as though it was definitely worth the drive.