‘Forlorn Hope’ proved Illinois’ courage during Civil War

The Illinois Memorial at the Vicksburg National Military Park, Vicksburg, Mississippi. This photograph by Carol M. Highsmith is in the public domain care of the Library of Congress.

Abe Lincoln told Ulysses S. Grant who told William Tecumseh Sherman who told the farm boys in his Illinois volunteer army. Take Vicksburg, Miss., and we can win this war and go home.

In 1863, the Confederates already knew who Grant was, but were less educated about his 35,000-man Army of the Tennessee and its 22,000 rural kids from Illinois. But the task at hand was a crucible.

Control the entire Mississippi River from Vicksburg, and rend the Confederacy’s Civil War assets in half. Win the war. That’s literally what they had joined up to do. Lincoln had asked the nation’s citizens to fight to save the Union. It was not philosophical rhetoric.

This image of Ulysses S. Grant is from the Brady-Handy photograph collection in the public domain care of the Library of Congress.

On the morning of May 22, 1863, it called for all the courage and grit the kids could muster. They’d have to bridge the gullies guarding fortifications with planks, boards and ladders, which might be impossible. In fact, it was. The 150 who toted ladders and left their guns behind called the mission “Forlorn Hope.”

It was the most heroic day in the history of Illinois soldiers. Forty-one Illinois soldiers won the Medal of Honor for that morning’s one charge. Of the 150, fewer than half survived.

Almost none left the field without bullet holes and shrapnel scars.

They knew they all could die. And likely would. But they went anyway. Some might survive the climb, and give Grant’s army a path forward. Miracles are impossible until they happen. That’s what the soldiers from Illinois hoped.

This would be one of those events that define why Americans revere military veterans. They not only sign up to serve. They sign up to risk their lives for a higher cause, even if odds stand against them.

America was in peril, and Illinois sent 285,000 men to save the Union. What America was, or would be, had yet to be proven. Slavery had not been purged from the nation’s soul, and Robert E. Lee hinted he’d try to take Washington.

All the two dozen volunteer infantry regiments from Illinois had to face that month were 200 cannons and 20,000 fortified and entrenched Mississippi Rebels perched above them. The Rebels were massed along a high-ground ring of berms and hidden fortifications six miles long.

Sherman told Captain Richard Wood of the 97th Illinois to rouse his volunteers and storm the fortifications. Find us a way in, he said.

On the morning of May 22, 1863, they charged.

But it did not work. It was a terrible loss though with a complex residual effect. It did not stop Grant or the Union Army.

Just as Grant proved to be dogged in chasing Rebels, the farm kids from Illinois proved their valor, too. There was a chance, and they took it.

As they charged that morning, shrapnel, musket fire and cannon artillery sliced through them. The bodies piled high. It was a carnage. The survivors had to hunker down and gradually withdrew.

Armies across Europe had units dedicated to deliberate sacrifice for four centuries. The “avant-garde” or the Dutch “verloren hoop” risked such perils for money, fame and career advancement.

But this was America’s “Forlorn Hope.”

In the same week of 1863, Gen. George Meade’s Army of the Potomac ended the South’s only real chance for ultimate victory at Gettysburg. What might have been a more strategic confrontation finally ended on the banks of the Mississippi.

It had been six weeks bathed in incomprehensible heroics. Though the nation venerates Gettysburg, most bestow less attention and praise on the valor of Vicksburg.

Vicksburg and Gettysburg inspired Lincoln to create what became the nation’s highest military award for valor. There is nothing about the Medal of Honor or the reasons it is given that are average. The evidence and testimony to be nominated and receive the ribbon are many-layered. MOH nominations must be proved beyond a doubt.

For that reason, Medal of Honor recipients have always been special. All American soldiers swear implicitly to accept the risk of death.

The Medal of Honor is that oath fulfilled, even though “Forlorn Hope” was nearly a desperate, deliberate suicide mission.

Three hundred soldiers volunteered from Grant and Sherman’s unit. Officers limited the group to 150, and insisted no married men volunteer, but some did anyway.

The air was filled with flying metal. After their race across a blood-drenched field of 500 yards, survivors eventually hunkered down so close to the ramparts that Confederate artillerymen could not depress muzzles steeply enough to hit them. So the Confederates lobbed grenades down the banks and shot anyone who exposed his head.

Most of the 22,000 Illinoisans in Grant’s army at Vicksburg came home to make Illinois the state it would be. They were farmers, storekeepers, and hometown leaders from counties arrayed west of Chicago, then a city of only 100,000. The Union army had been 48% farmers before the war. We were an agrarian country then.

Those who survived “Forlorn Hope” finally were awarded the Medal of Honor, but not until 1894. Each of their citations ended with the same line. “Gallantry in the charge of the storming party.”

In the 19th century, the custom was to honor those who survived battle, not those who gave their lives. By World War II, half of all Medals of Honor were given posthumously.

In 1894, 53 survivors of “Forlorn Hope” finally were awarded their Medals. Another 25 soldiers who took part would receive the same award in other ceremonies. A dozen Illinois Volunteer Infantry regiments carried the heavy lifting.

Sherman’s several other assaults after “Forlorn Hope” would cost him roughly 3,000 dead and wounded soldiers. His units had been tardy to follow the “storming party” and the courage of that cost was wasted.

But no one forgot “Forlorn Hope” or its meaning. Lincoln said he needed to save the nation, and Illinois stood up, from Rockford to La Salle County to McHenry, Grundy, Lee and DeKalb counties, all the way down to Effingham.

“Forlorn Hope” became an inspirational talisman.

Grant grudgingly settled into a siege for two months. Vicksburg was cut off from help that never arrived and surrendered on July 4, 1863, a day after Lee lost at Gettysburg.

Thus within one week, the Confederacy’s chance to win the war was gone.

If evidence of resolve for that task was needed, “Forlorn Hope” had proved America’s kids were not the surrendering sort.

They stood up and faced death.

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