Corporal Henry Platt Pearsall and the “Forlorn Hope”
Among the many brothers in blue with connections to Missouri who received the Medal of Honor in the American Civil War, several received their award for conspicuous service during the Vicksburg campaign in the late spring and summer of 1863. A majority of these were recognized for their deeds in a single charge; in fact, no single military action in U.S. military history has precipitated more Medal of Honor recipients than the charge of the “Forlorn Hope” at Vicksburg, Mississippi, on the 22nd of May 1863. The citation on these awards: “gallantry in the charge of the volunteer storming party,” understates the precarious situation in which these men volunteered to place themselves to achieve victory for Union forces.
The Forlorn Hope
Corporal Henry Platt Pearsall of Company C, 30th Ohio Infantry, was one of seventy-eight volunteers who received the Medal of Honor for gallantry as part of an advance force charged with placing boards and logs across an eight-foot-wide, water-filled ditch and ladders on 17-foot-high earthen walls to prepare the way for a Union attack on the “Stockade Redan,” a particularly troublesome section of the Confederate defensive line. This “storming party,” as it was officially designated, later became unofficially nicknamed the “Forlorn Hope.”
In three detachments of 50 unmarried men each, the 150 chosen men of 300 volunteers from Tennessee’s 15th Army Corps, 2nd Division, began their fateful mission. With two men to a log under intense enemy fire, the first detachment crossed 1,000 yards of open ground to lay the groundwork across the ditch for plank bridges. Their casualties were so heavy that the storming party was unable to complete the bridges as too few log bearers survived to deliver their essential cargo. In his article on Ohio’s “Forlorn Hope” Medal of Honor Heroes, brother Frederic C. Lynch of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War notes that 85% of the 150-volunteer storming party were killed or seriously wounded in the charge of May 22, 1863.
Brigadier General Hugh Ewing, under whose colors the storming party attempted their unsuccessful task, had nothing but praise for these brave volunteers under his command: “The troops bore themselves throughout with gallantry and spirit. Their general commanding believes nothing but the broken and entangled nature of the ground over which they charged, with a want of previous knowledge of its condition, prevented them from successfully entering the enemy’s works.”
The charge of the Forlorn Hope is memorialized in my poem, “The Forlorn Hope–Vicksburg, 1863”:
The Forlorn Hope–Vicksburg, 1863
Back in Vicksburg, the town was surrounded
With a battle line twelve miles long.
U.S. Grant sought to conquer the city,
But the rebel defenses were strong.
An advance storming party was risky;
They could possibly lose every man.
But they must cross a ditch and climb over a wall
Just to capture the Stockade Redan.
With extreme disregard for the danger,
While exposed to a torrent of lead,
The men carried their logs and their ladders
and soon painted the path with their dead.
The one hundred and fifty brave soldiers,
All unmarried and all volunteers,
Had advanced at a run while opposing cannon
Brought fresh screams to their still-ringing ears.
So from ten in the morning ’til darkness,
They would fight the good fight ’til they fell.
A majority there didn’t make it;
The remainder survived living Hell.
The survivors were honored as heroes,
Received medals almost to a man
For extreme gallantry of the storming party
At the fight for the Stockade Redan.
Henry Platt Pearsall
Doe Run, Missouri, is a small rural community in southeast Missouri which formed in the 1880s as a lead-mining town. In 1931, it became the final resting place of Corporal Pearsall following his death at age 89. Unlike so many of his comrades, Corporal Pearsall survived the bloodshed of the American Civil War and returned to civilian life. His U.S. Veterans Administration pension payment card lists him as an invalid, having suffered a gunshot wound to his right arm. A newspaper obituary fills in some of the more mundane details of his life: he married Martha Ann Parks, who preceded him in death on June 2, 1913; he had three children, two of which survived him; he died on the same farm in Missouri he had made his home since 1866.
The bravery displayed by Union forces at the Battle of Vicksburg was not limited to Corporal Pearsall and the Forlorn Hope; you can also read about Union drummer boy Orion P. Howe and the poetry he inspired by his actions in the field on May 22, 1863.