Confusion Compounded: The Pivotal Battle of Raymond 12 May 1863

A Scholarly Monograph By Warren Grabau

8 November 2001

The Papers of the Blue and Gray Education Society, Number 12

The Battle of Raymond is a tale of confusion and cross-purposes from beginning to end. It is difficult to describe the events in a linear time sequence, where Action B by the Greys is a direct response to Action A by the Blues. The confusion was so great for much of the time that units moved seemingly without any relationship to what was happening on the other side. The confusion arose, in part, because of near-total misunderstandings by both sides of the actual strategic situation, and in part because of the atmospheric conditions. A strong temperature inversion concentrated the smoke and dust of battle so that visibility was reduced to a few yards. Add to this the normal “fog of war” and the fact that the battle was fought mostly inside a dense stand of second growth forest that not only impeded visibility; but, also made it impossible for regiments to maintain even a semblance of the alignments that were necessary to maintain command and control. I have addressed the problem briefly in an appendix. Under the circumstances, it is easy to understand why both sides seemed at times to behave in such bizarre ways. I have chosen to tell the story twice, once from the Union and again from the Confederate points of view. This device makes a coherent account of the battle and its context possible. Even more important, it is possible to describe in some detail the situations as seen by the participants that led to the decisions that were made. Some of those decisions, that seemed so irrational, were reasonable if we consider only those things that they knew at the time.

The accounts of the battle are as confused and confusing as the battle itself. Given the environmental conditions in which the battle was fought, it is easy to understand why personal accounts vary greatly. No one person actually saw the battle; they each saw only a tiny segment of it circumscribed by jungle, smoke, and dust. All too frequently whole regiments, blinded by dense smoke and dust, emerged from the woods in utterly unexpected places. In consequence, they were almost certainly misidentified by friend and foe. It is hardly surprising to find that accounts of the battle are ambiguous or contradictory. Even the most careful analysis sometimes leaves the student with the conviction that the same unit was at two different parts of the field at the same time! Or, in some cases, that it had been swallowed by a time warp for a long period of time.

In some instances, even normal battlefield management can lead to confusion. For example, it is common for a commander to report the precise deployment of his regiments at the beginning of an engagement. It is tempting for the historian to assume that the same order existed throughout the day unless changes are specifically noted. However, this is by no means an accurate assumption at Raymond for several reasons. Among the more common and prosaic of those reasons occurs when the battle lasts for several hours. It was customary to pull regiments out of the line during quiet periods and replace them with reserve regiments. This gave the men a chance to rest and refill both cartridge boxes and canteens. Such changes were rarely noted in battle narratives. Perhaps such minor command shuffles were deemed unremarkable, or maybe they were forgotten in the larger adrenaline rush of battle. Thus it is easy to see how a specific regiment could be reported in one place in the line at midmorning, and in another at high noon.

Of course, there may be other reasons for discrepancies in troop positioning. For example, an advancing line consisting of several regiments might tend to converge on a single point (because of the configuration of the terrain, or the vagaries of enemy resistance, or whatever) and in the process “pinch out” one or more of the units comprising the original line. The pinched out regiment might fall back or move to one of the flanks and rejoin the advance. Or it might decide that it had done enough and declare itself a component of the reserve. In any event, the order of regiments at the conclusion of the fight would no longer be the same as when it started–and in the fog of battle, the brigade commander might not even be aware of it!

All of which leads inevitably to the conclusion that other interpretations of the details of the confusing Battle of Raymond are quite possible. The following account is my interpretation. There is no assurance that it is correct in every detail. Indeed, it is almost certainly erroneous in some of them. I offer no apology for this. Like you, I cannot see through the murk of powder smoke, dust and woodland any better than the commanders did! The only advantages we have, at the distance of 138 years, are the leisure to consider alternatives and the ability to compare them with the battle accounts that survived.

One thing is certain, the Battle of Raymond is difficult to comprehend without at least a minimal appreciation of the tactical and operational practices of the time and of the ways in which the operational environment — the terrain and the weather–affected the basic behavior of regiments. In the account that follows, I have tried to reconcile the various records to the fullest extent possible, but in some instances, I have fallen back on the device of using the tactical doctrine that contemporary historians call “standard operating procedure.” A brief summary of some of the important considerations is provided in the Appendix. Important parts of my interpretation of the battle are based on such considerations. It is, I hope, a not unreasonable procedure, given that for considerable periods during the battle the fight was carried on through the initiative of the individual regimental commanders. The brigade, division and the Corps commander on the Union side were “lost” somewhere in the smoke and dust.
The Regional Landscape

The village of Raymond nestles in a countryside of gently rolling hills and broad, gentle valleys. The town itself occupies the watershed between the headwaters of two large drainage systems. Snake Creek is to the north and east while Fourteen Mile Creek is to the west and south. Being so near the headwaters, there are no large creeks in the immediate vicinity. The extreme headwater creeks are all dry for much of the summer and autumn and flow continuously only during the winter and spring when the rain is most copious. Eventually, the coalescing channels of the ephemeral headwater creeks combine to form channels that flow perennially. At that point, they begin to form relatively broad and flat floodplains. However, the creek beds through these plains are almost all entrenched to some degree; that is, they tend to be characterized by very steep–and often vertical–banks ranging in height from a few to as many as 15 feet. Thus, even in summer, when the water may be only ankle deep or even less, the channels remain as major military obstacles that cannot be crossed readily, even by infantry. Crossing with a horse-drawn vehicle, an artillery caisson or a wagon is impossible without first cutting a ramp through the steep banks.

The climate is mostly warm, humid, and subject to intense storms that may deposit 6 or more inches of rain in a single 24-hour period. Such a storm can convert the larger creeks from their normal trickle to a raging torrent that can spread across the floodplain within a matter of minutes. Flash floods do not persist for long, but they are awesome while they last.

Daytime from mid-March to early October is often hot and oppressive, commonly combining temperatures of 90 degrees or more with relative humidities exceeding 90 percent.

The soils have been derived mostly by the weathering of a complex of soft tertiary sedimentary rocks. They have all been contaminated by the addition of airborne silt from the floodplain of the Mississippi River some 50 miles to the west. The material was carried by the prevailing westerly winds of the late Wisconsin epoch of the Pleistocene “Ice Age.” The soils of the uplands are relatively light and easy to cultivate, but they dry quickly. If freshly worked, the large silt component makes them wonderful dust producers. The “shock” or concussion wave and air currents created by the firing of an artillery piece over a field of freshly cultivated soil will raise a huge cloud of yellowish dust that settles with agonizing deliberation. The effect of the explosion of an artillery shell close to the ground need only be imagined. Rain will quickly convert a freshly tilled field or unsurfaced road into a quagmire. There is a well established and well-founded adage that Mississippi dirt roads are either muddy or dusty–there is no middle ground.

The landscape of 1863 was a mosaic of cultivated fields and small discontinuous forest patches. By and large, the hilltops and gentle side slopes were under cultivation, while the steep slopes of the ravines, and the flat surfaces of the floodplains, remained in timber. The floodplains escaped cultivation because of the recurrent danger of flash floods that not only made the soil difficult to work, but also ruined planted crops. The forested areas were not, as might be supposed, remnants of the primeval forest. The large trees had long since been harvested either for building materials or fuel. Nearly every home used wood for both heating and cooking so the demand for wood was insatiable. Fences and farm outbuildings were mostly built of logs or split rails. Much lumber was exported from the region. It is hardly surprising in the light of those demands that the wooded tracts tended to consist of second-growth trees with abundant underbrush and jungle-like growths of the ubiquitous vines of the region: Cats-claw (it merits the appellation!), poison ivy, Virginia creeper, honeysuckle, grape, and green briar. The vegetation of the floodplains was especially luxuriant because the persistent flash floods provided abundant water.

The region was dominated by subsistence agriculture, so the “typical” landowner was not a cotton planter, but rather a yeoman farmer. Such holdings were relatively small. Farmhouses were not very distant from each other. Three or four farmsteads per mile near the roads were the norm. Since no accounts of the Battle of Raymond mention farm buildings, it may be concluded (with something less than total confidence) that while the battle was fought in a mosaic of cultivated fields and woodlands, it was an area devoid of farmsteads.

There were few slaveholders in and around Raymond in 1863. This fact had a significant but frequently overlooked impact on the conduct of the campaign. In regions where slaveholding was the norm, an invading Union army invariably attracted a large train of slaves who had deserted their plantations. These people had to be fed. As a general rule, the best source of food was the Federal army’s commissary. The addition of a horde of freed slaves placed an imposing, sometimes impossible, burden on the supply system. At no time during the Vicksburg campaign, while the Army of Tennessee was operating in the interior of west-central Mississippi, did this become a problem. Had Grant’s army been faced with the necessity of feeding large numbers of ex-slaves, the campaign would almost certainly have failed because the already overburdened Federal supply system would not have been able to cope. Thus an unexpected feature of the local demography liberated the Federals for a campaign of open maneuver.

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