Born on the south side of Deep River between Cedar Falls and Franklinville in Randolph County, Howell Gilliam Trogdon (24 Oct. 1840 – 2 Dec. 1910) was one of eleven children of John Trogdon and his wife Isabella Hardin. Before he was twenty years old he had moved to Missouri; he was working as a cabin boy on a steam boat when he enlisted in the US Army in St. Louis on May 28, 1861.
He was mustered into Company B (“the American Zouaves” ) of the 8th Missouri Volunteer Infantry on June 12, 1861. He was placed on “detached service” from June 28, 1862, probably detailed to serve as a courier and spy. In July 1862 he was captured near Ripley, Mississippi bearing dispatches from General William Sherman to General Schuyler Hamilton. He was tried and condemned to death, but the sentence was commuted to incarceration at federal prison camps in Tupelo, Miss., Mobile, Ala., Montgomery, Ala., and Richmond, Virginia.
He finally was paroled on November 19, 1862, and somehow found his way back to his regiment in western Tennessee, where Grant’s forces had been trying cut the Confederacy in half by gaining control of the Mississippi River. The key to that strategy lay in occupying Vicksburg, “the Gibraltar of the West,” a heavily fortified city on a high bluff whose guns prevented the US Navy forces from advancing any higher up the Mississippi.
After burning Jackson, Miss., on May 15, 1863, Grant’s army battled towards Vicksburg, hoping a quick and powerful advance would keep the retreating Confederate forces off balance and disorganized. By the time General Pemberton’s forces arrived in Vicksburg, the Confederate retreat threatened to turn into a rout, stopped only by the relative safety provided by the trenches and earthwork fortifications built to protect the city in the fall of 1862. A 12-mile-long line of forts and earthen embankments protected Vicksburg on the North, East and South; the Mississippi River was its moat to the west, where Admiral Porter’s blockading forces had bombarded the city for the past year.
Approaching Vicksburg on the road from Jackson, a Union officer observed “A long line of high, rugged, irregular bluffs, clearly cut against the sky, crowed with cannon which peered ominously from embrasures to the right and left as far as the eye could see. Lines of heavy rifle-pits, surmounted with head-logs, ran along the bluffs, connecting fort with fort, and filled with veteran infantry…. The approaches to this position were frightful- enough to appall the stoutest heart.” [Carter, The Final Fortress: The Campaign for Vicksburg, p. 211.]
Grant felt that a quick strike into the heart of the city could cause the collapse of the Confederate lines and preclude a lengthy siege. Even though attacks on the 19th and 20th of May failed to break through the Confederate fortifications, Grant decided to try one last massive assault. A perceived weak spot was identified near one fort, called the “Stockade Redan,” where the 10-foot-tall embankment was protected by a ditch 12 feet wide and 5-6 feet deep. To cross this ditch and breach the wall of the fort, Grant ordered a “forlorn hope,” an advance guard of 150 volunteer troops, sent on what was probably a suicide mission. The advance party would carry heavy logs toward the bluff, 2 men per log, and throw them across the ditch to create the foundation for a bridge. The second detachment would closely follow with lumber to create the deck of the bridge, and a third detachment would rush across the bridge and plant scaling ladders against the face of the embankment so that the supporting brigades could carry the fort in a grand assault. Most of the first wave of attacking soldiers, the “forlorn hope,” would probably be killed or wounded; others might survive long enough to seize a foothold and occupy the Confederate defenders while the final wave with better prospects could punch through the weakened defenses.
Howell G. Trogdon wrote the following sketch in explanation of his Medal of Honor award:
“On the 22 of May ’63 a detail was called for out of our Regiment, but for what we did not know. There were 22 volunteers from our Regiment. We were ordered to take a hundred rounds of ammunition, 40 in our cartridge box and 60 in our pockets. We were then marched in front of General Grant’s headquarters where we stacked arms. We here met details from other Regiments which swelled the number to 250 all told. Generals Grant, Sherman, Cogan, Morgan and Smith, Jiles A. Smith, Ewing, Oustenhouse, Steele, F.P. Blair and others were there. Attention was called and Gen. Sherman made a short speech. Pointing to the front he told us that we were there as a forlorn hope to the front, that we were to file to the right and go into the mouth of a cut where we would be provided with the scaling ladders.
“I noticed here that there was no one bearing the flag. Then I cried out to General Sherman, ‘Say, General, won’t it be advisable for some one to carry the flag so if we get scattered we will see something to rally to?’ About twenty yards from us there was a fine silk flag set in the ground in front of some general’s headquarters. General Sherman walked over and taking the flag brought it to me saying in a jovial manner, ‘It’s a dangerous job my boy to try to put that flag on the fort.’
“We then marched on into the cut and awaited the signal for the charge on the fort with our improvised scaling ladders. At 10 o’clock [A.M.] we heard the boom of the cannon which was our signal to charge. Then we swept forward and were met by a terrific fire from the enemy so deadly that our little band was almost annihilated. At this moment I ran forward waving the flag and rushed on toward the fort. A canister struck the staff a few inches above my hand and cut it half in two. Then they depressed their guns and a cannon ball struck the folds and carried it half away, knocking it out of my hands. I got down off of the fort and picked the flag up and rushed back and flaunted it in the faces of the rebels and said, ‘What flag are you fighting under today, Johnny?’” [Quoted in The Randolph Guide, April 15, 1970,” Cedar Falls Man Fought for Yanks,” Trogdon’s statement was provided by his great-grandaughter Mary P. Johnston.]
The “forlorn hope” was doomed from the outset by the plan to carry the bridge materials more than a thousand feet across an open “no man’s land” in full view of the Confederate fort. Says one analysis of the action:
“The moment the ‘forlorn hope’ emerged from the ravine, they came within view of the enemy, who opened so heavy a fire on them that their works were covered with clouds of smoke. The gallant little band advanced at a dead run, but in the eighty rods [1,080 feet] of open ground which lay between them and the fort, about half of them were shot down. When the survivors arrived at the ditch, they found it impossible to build a bridge, as so many of the logs had been dropped by the way, and it was equally impossible to remain where they were, exposed to the enemy’s fire. There was nothing for it but to jump into the ditch and seek shelter. Private Howell G. Trogden [sic], who carried the flag of the storming party, planted it on the parapet of the fort, and dropped back into the ditch, where he kept up a fire on the Confederates whenever they attempted to reach it and take it in.” [W.F. Beyer and O.F. Keydel, eds., Deeds of Valor: How America’s Civil War Heroes Won the Congressional Medal of Honor, 1903, p. 191.]
“After Trogden had planted his flag on the parapet, the Confederates tried to capture it by hooking it with the shanks of their bayonets, but failed, owing to the hot fire kept up by the sharpshooters. Thereupon Trogden asked me for my gun to give the enemy a thrust. This was a very foolish request, as no soldier ever gives up his gun, but I concluded to try it myself. I raised my head up about as high as the safety of the case would permit, and pushed my gun across the intervening space between us and the enemy, gave their bayonets a swipe with mine, and dodged down just in time to escape being riddled. I did not want any more of that kind of amusement, so did not undertake to force the acquaintance any further. After we had been in this predicament about two hours, they sent over a very pressing invitation to ‘Come in, you Yanks. Come in and take dinner with us.’ We positively declined, however, unless they would come out and give us a chance to see if the invitation were genuine. This they refused to do, but agreed to send a messenger. By and by it arrived in the shape of a shell, which went flying down the hill without, however, doing any damage.” [Statement of Corporal Robert Cox, Company K, Fifty-first Illinois Infantry, quoted in Beyer
“The other brigades advance to the support of the stormers, but were driven back by the heavy fire, and all that reached the ditch were thirty men of the Eleventh Missouri… They planted their flag along side that of the storming party, and sought shelter where they could, in the ditch, or in holes dug in the embankment. The Confederates finding it impossible to depress their guns sufficiently to reach them, dropped 12-pounder shells among them, but the fuses were cut too long, and consequently did not explode for about ten seconds. This gave the stormers time not only to get out of the way, but even to toss some of the shells back over the parapet, otherwise not a man would have survived. As it was, the bottom of the ditch was strewn with mangled bodies, with heads and limbs blown off.” [Beyer and Keydel, p. 192] “All day long, from 10 o’clock in the morning until darkness fell, the unequal fit went on; then the little body of survivors crept out of the ditch, carrying with them their flags, riddled with bullets, and made their way back to their own lines. Of the storming party eighty-five per cent were either killed or dangerously wounded, and few of them escaped without a wound of some kind.” [Beyer and Keydel, p. 194]
“When the storming party withdrew, they left behind them William Archinal, who had been stunned by a fall, and who was afterwards captured by the enemy… [Archinal stated] “When I was taken into the fort, a rebel officer came up to me, slapped me on the shoulder, and said: ‘See here, young man, weren’t you fellows all drunk when you started this morning?’ I replied, ‘No, Sir!’ ‘Well, they gave you some whiskey before you started, didn’t they?’ he said, and I answered, ‘No Sir, that plan is not practiced in our army.’
“‘Didn’t you know it was certain death,’ he asked me again, and I replied, ‘Well, I don’t know, I am still living!’
“‘Yes,’ he said, ‘You are living, but I can assure you that very few of your comrades are.’” [Beyer and Keydel, p. 194]
Howell Trogdon closes by saying :
“Only three of my comrades succeeded in reaching the fort with me: Sergeant Nagle who was killed on the spot and a Private from 54 Reg. who shared the same fate. The reply to my question to the Reb [‘What flag are you fighting under today, Johnny?”] was, ‘You’d better surrender Yank.’ ‘Oh no Johnny, you’ll surrender first,’ was my answer.
“I never left that place of death until after midnight. My canteen was shot away, my clothes was full of holes and the banner was hardly recognizable. Then I crawled back over the corpses of the Forlorn Hope over dead and through the cane and back into our lines with the remnant of the Flag.” [From his statement in The Randolph Guide.]
The siege of Vicksburg lasted until the Fourth of July; its starving citizens lived for months in caves dug out of the high banks along the Mississippi while Union gunboats shelled the city. Grant finally captured 29,500 prisoners while losing about 5,000 of his soldiers killed, wounded or missing. He would later write, “the fate of the Confederacy was sealed at Vicksburg.” Control of the Mississippi would never return to Confederate hands, and the states South and West of the river were cut off from the rest of the Confederacy. “The Father of Waters,” said Abraham Lincoln, “again goes unvexed to the Sea.”
Howell Trogdon was honorably discharged May 22, 1864. He and 50 other survivors of the forlorn Hope were awarded the Medal of Honor by Act of Congress on August 3, 1894. Trogdon settled in Chicago, where he married and raised a family. He died in Los Angeles in 1910.
W.F.Boyer and O.F. Keydel, eds., Deeds of Valor: How America’s Civil War Heroes Won The Congressional Medal of Honor (Detroit: Perrien-Keydel Company, 1903); Samuel Carter III, The Final Fortress: The Campaign for Vicksburg, 1862-1863 (NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1980); The Randolph Guide, April 15, 1970,” Cedar Falls Man Fought for Yanks.” Entry reposted permission of the author and was originally published at Notes on the History of Randolph County, NC http://randolphhistory.wordpress.com/2009/11/11/howell-gilliam-trogdon/ (accessed November 14, 2011).