Part 7 of the series on Major Ramon t. de Aragon. After the Battle of Murfreesborough, Major de Aragon’s brigade was sent to Mississippi as part of the force led by General Joseph E. Johnston to attempt breaking through to Vicksburg.
De Aragon – The Chronicle of a Confederate Surgeon
Two months prior to the Battle of Murfreesborough, Union General Ulysses S. Grant set up his headquarters at LaGrange, Tennessee. There he conceived a campaign against the town of Vicksburg, Mississippi which would finally give the Yankees complete control of the Mississippi River and split the Confederacy in half. To that end he began concentrating his forces around the major railroad intersection at Grand Junction, Tennessee three miles east of LaGrange. Federal troops moved south into Mississippi in December, 1862.
The taking of Vicksburg would prove to be no easy task. On December 15, 1862, shortly after the bulk of Grant’s army left the area of LaGrange and Grand Junction, Confederate cavalry, under the command of Earl Van Dorn, attacked Holly Springs, Mississippi and captured a huge quantity of Federal supplies. Then on December Rebels galloped into Grand Junction inflicting fifty casualties on the garrison Grant had left there to guard the railroad. Yankee generals finally attempted several land expeditions against Vicksburg, but the Federals were stymied not only by troops commanded by Confederate General Pemberton but by the swampland in Mississippi and Louisiana. January, 1863 brought a series of naval assaults on the town that were no more successful than the land incursions.
In Middle Tennessee, Braxton Bragg’s army made their winter camp strung out between the towns of Shelbyville and Tullahoma. Skirmishing continued between their outposts and Rosecrans’ troops which moved out of Murfreesborough on occasion, but there was no inclination by either commander for a major confrontation during the winter months.
Sometime between January 8 and 11 the wagons containing the blankets belonging to the men of Cheatham’s Division finally showed up at Shelbyville. On January 13 Captain De Aragon received pay, his last as a Medical Steward, for the period of March 1 to May 19, 1862 – $28.96 (Confederate).
On January 21 from George Wm. Brent, Assistant Adjutant-General came “Special Order #15, by command of Braxton Bragg. The second item stated:
“Ninth Texas Infantry, Colonel W. H. Young, From Smith’s Brigade, Cheatham’s Division, to Ector’s Brigade, McCown’s Division.”
On January 31, on the return for the 2nd Division, Smith’s Corps, Major General John P. McCown commanding, shows the 1st Brigade to be Ector’s. McCown, however, was arrested and court-martialed on February 28 for his conduct during the Battle of Murfreesborough and command of the division was given to Brigadier General A. P. Stewart. The division was then placed in Polk’s Corps.
The campaign to capture Vicksburg continued into March with Federal General Nathaniel P. Banks moving north from New Orleans to link his forces with that of Grant. Meanwhile, Confederates continued to harass Yankee troops still in West Tennessee. On March 21 a reconnaissance on its way from LaGrange to Saulsbury was attacked as was a Federal train in route from Bolivar to Grand Junction. Then on April 17, a frustrated Grant sent Colonel Benjamin Grierson with seventeen hundred cavalrymen on a raid south from LaGrange into Mississippi to divert attention from the Union troop buildup around Vicksburg.
In April, Captain De Aragon made the trip to Chattanooga from camp at Shelbyville and there on April 30 he went before the Army of Tennessee Medical Board. He passed their examination and was officially promoted to Surgeon of the 9th Texas Infantry. This carried the rank of Major of cavalry. He arrived back at Shelbyville by May 2.
Pemberton’s troops at Vicksburg were under relentless pressure from increasingly large and frequent attacks and on May 9 a message was sent from Sec’y of War Seddon to Joe Johnston:
“Proceed to Mississippi with 3000 good troops and take command of forces there.”
Johnston, still not fully recovered from wounds received in May of the previous year replied that he would go although he considered himself unfit for duty.
That same day Assistant Adjutant General Thomas M. Jack sent orders from Polk to A. P. Stewart to have Ector’s and McNair’s Brigades to move immediately. Chief of Staff W. W. Mackall informed Polk that there would be a train at Shelbyville the next day for the two brigades and that they would march to Wartrace with three days cooked rations and board the train there.
On May 12, Confederate Brigadier General John Gregg attacked a Federal division of McPherson’s XVII Corps at Raymond, Mississippi When he discovered that he was badly outnumbered he fell back the fifteen miles to Jackson, Mississippi. The only other troops Johnston had there were those of Brigadier General W. H. T. Walker’s Brigade. Johnston arrived in Jackson, Mississippi on May 13 to find that Federal troops were converging on the town. He wired Richmond “I am too late.” He was receiving reinforcements from Port Hudson, South Carolina, and Tennessee and would soon have twelve thousand men but Grant was coming with twice that number. The next day he withdrew his troops by the Canton Road and camped six miles outside Jackson.
Johnston’s next move was to organize his reinforcements that were still in route. He ordered Brigadier General States Rights Gist to assemble the approaching reinforcements some forty or fifty miles from Vicksburg. Gist moved to Brandon, Mississippi on May 17 and ordered McNair to follow with his brigade of fifteen hundred. By Johnston’s order Ector’s Brigade, numbering about one thousand, was instructed to stay at the town of Meridian, Mississippi. Gist now had command of a force made up of his brigade along with Walker’s, McNair’s, Ector’s, Gregg’s, and J. Adams’.
Union troops occupied Jackson and as the town was an industrial center for the Confederacy, Grant ordered it burned to deprive the Southern army of its production. He then turned his attention to Pemberton who had twenty three thousand of his men at Edwards Station. He had left ten thousand troops at Vicksburg.
Johnston sent a message to Pemberton instructing him to bring a force against the enemy’s rear and affect a two-prong attack. Unfortunately, the man chosen to carry this message was a Union spy who placed it immediately in Union hands. The message was brought to Grant and after he read it had it resealed and sent on to Pemberton. Grant then sent McClernand to intercept him.
Pemberton was attacked by both McClernand and McPherson at a place that came to be known as Champion’s Hill on a farm owned by Sid Champion. Pemberton was forced to withdraw and in the process Major General William W. Loring’s Division was separated from the main body and could not rejoin it. After three days Loring joined Johnston who had returned to Jackson. Pemberton’s troops fell back to the Big Black River near Bovina some ten miles from Champion’s Hill. The Rebels, by now exhausted, were driven back and Pemberton ordered his men to burn the bridge over the river and return to Vicksburg. The attempt to link the two Confederate armies had failed.
Johnston established a line of defense between the towns of Jackson and Canton. He advised Pemberton that Vicksburg had become untenable and to evacuate. On May 19 Pemberton held a council of war with his officers and they decided that it was impossible to withdraw from the town.
Ector’s, Gist’s, and McNair’s Brigades arrived at Canton on may 20 and 21. The rest of Johnston’s reinforcements arrived by May 23. W. H. T. Walker was promoted to Major General and his division was made up of the brigades of Ector, Gist, Gregg, and Wilson. When the 9th Texas Infantry made camp Major De Aragon received his first month’s pay as a regimental surgeon -$162.00 (Confederate).
Johnston’s force now numbered about twenty-four thousand but Grant had himself received thirteen thousand reinforcements. Johnston wired President Davis for more troops stating “I can save Pemberton only by defeating Grant.”Although Richmond showed a much higher number of men with Johnston (they had a figure of thirty-four thousand), Davis sent word that the two divisions of Major Generals Samuel French and John C. Breckinridge were on their way.
When Pemberton’s men returned to Vicksburg, Grant felt that the Confederates’ morale had been broken. He received a rude awakening when he attacked them behind their extensive defenses. The month of June came and went with many bloody assaults on the Rebel fortifications but still Pemberton’s men held. As Grant tightened the stranglehold he had on the town, communications between Pemberton and Johnston became nearly impossible. Finally, on June 22, with the Southern troops and the entire civilian population starving, Pemberton sent an appeal to Johnston to affect an assault on the enemy so his army could escape. Johnston planned to attack on July 7, but Pemberton could hold no longer and he surrendered his thirty thousand men on July 4, 1863, the forty – eighth day of the siege. Although Grant had first insisted on “unconditional surrender,” after negotiations offered the troops parole instead of becoming prisoners of war and having to go to northern prison camps. The same day, the Confederacy received another severe blow as Robert E. Lee began withdrawing his army from the field at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
Johnston was moving on Vicksburg with a force of thirty thousand when he received word of Pemberton’s surrender on July 5. He immediately retraced his path to Jackson and Major General William Tecumseh Sherman came after him with forty thousand troops back across the Big Black River and past Champion’s Hill. The Yankees appeared in front of the works at Jackson on July 9.
The fortifications at Jackson had been hastily constructed and were badly located. Johnston wrote that they consisted of rifle pits at intervals in a line south of town from a point just east of the Canton Road to within a short distance of the Pearl River. He aligned his troops with Loring’s Division on the right, Walker’s Division, with Major De Aragon’s unit, right of center, French’s Division left of center and Breckinridge’s Division on the far left. Brigadier General Jackson was ordered to have his cavalry “observe and guard” the fords of the Pearl River.
Johnston felt that the spirit and confidence of his army justified standing up to Sherman’s superior numbers, so he decided to give them a fight. The enemy, however, entrenched themselves on the heights overlooking the town. On July 12 they began a heavy cannonading against Breckinridge and then launched an infantry attack. July 13 through the 16 Grant began reinforcing Sherman giving him as many as two hundred cannon with which to shell the town. Jackson had become undefendable and Johnston withdrew his army thirty five miles east to Morton, Mississippi on the night of July 16.
While at Morton, Major De Aragon became greatly concerned for his family’s safety. They were apparently still in Moscow, Tennessee just nine miles from Grant’s headquarters at LaGrange. In late July he wrote the following letter:
“Hd.In Ms. 9th Tex. Infy.
Col H. S. End…
Chief of Staff
I respectfully have the honor to apply for a leave of absence for thirty days. My reasons to make … an application at such a time are based on the condition …family … requires immediate relief. For the last two years I have been with the army and my family has been within the enemy’s lines. All communications between me and my family have been cutoff. I am a foreigner and do not have relatives to whom my family can call for relief while in my absence. Neither can my family be provided from a ruthless enemy. Men devoid of all gentlemanly principles, where bravery is based on the abuse of women and children. At present, Sir, my family apply to … for the relief which in our … can grant and if two years of devotion, fatigue, and privation are sufficient grounds to your kind consideration I respectfully wish it.
Yr obedient servt
R. T. De Aragon
Surg. 9th Tex Infy
PS I have an able and accomplished Asst Surg to have in my place during my absence.
R. T. De Aragon”
At the bottom of the page was written this note:
“Approved because there is present but 279 men in 9th Tex
Asst Surg Trimble is
able to attend to them.
Johnston’s Medical Director gave his approval on the following day with this message:
“Hd Gen Walker’s Div
Near Morton, July 30, 1863
Major Gnl to Dr.
Medical Director’s office
Insp? Ask that this leave be granted. Dr. A. Has been a most faithful officer and this position of his family is, I have no doubt, …
D W Yandell
S O No 7″
Major De Aragon was able to get his family out from behind Yankee lines. Most of the letters written by him during the war that have survived were written during late 1863 to early 1864 and were addressed to his wife in the town of Summerfield, Alabama.
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