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Posted 11/22/2016

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By Terry Winschel
U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center, Historian


Engineers in Union blue and Confederate gray played a prominent role in the Vicksburg campaigns of 1862-1863. Although their contributions have largely gone unnoticed in published works on the campaign, the stories of these men and the fatigue parties that toiled under their supervision are worthy of note and will be detailed in this series of articles.

Part Twelve: Duckport Canal and the march on Vicksburg

On March 29, 1863, Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant ordered Maj. Gen. John A. McClernand, commander of the XIII Corps of the Army of the Tennessee, to open a road from Milliken’s Bend south to New Carthage on the Mississippi River below Vicksburg. Two days later his rugged soldiers took up the line of march and, thus, the Vicksburg campaign began in earnest.

McClernand directed Col. Thomas W. Bennett of the 69th Indiana Infantry to investigate the road which followed along the Mississippi River’s natural levee. Bennett’s task force consisted of his own regiment, two companies of the 2nd Illinois Cavalry, a detachment of the 6th Missouri Cavalry, and two mountain howitzers.

Extending the length of the column and slowing the rate of march considerably was Capt. William F. Patterson’s Kentucky Company of Engineers and Mechanics. Besides Bissell’s Engineer Regiment of the West, Patterson’s was the only other pioneer unit in Grant’s army. Organized at Camp Haskins, near Somerset, Kentucky, in October 1861, the company served with the Army of the Ohio until it was assigned to the Army of the Tennessee in November 1862. The Kentuckians had extensive experience in road construction and, on this march, transported pontoons and yawls to bridge flooded bayous.

As Bennett’s task force neared the hamlet of Richmond, at the confluence of Roundaway and Walnut Bayous, the Federals encountered Maj. Isaac F. Harrison and the troopers of the 15th Louisiana Cavalry Battalion. Two companies were quickly ferried across the bayou on Patterson’s yawls and, after a brief skirmish, drove the Confederates away. The Kentucky pioneers spent the day of April 1 bridging the bayou. It was the first of several bridges they would build to facilitate the march.

The same day Bennett’s task force took up the line of march, ground was broken on the ill-fated Duckport Canal. The Federals sought to create a three-mile canal stretching from Duckport Landing on the Mississippi River to Cooper’s planation on Walnut Bayou. This would open a water route to supply Grant’s army as it pushed south through Louisiana and eliminate the need for lengthy and heavy wagon trains.

A work force of 3,500 men, including six companies of Bissell’s Engineer Regiment of the West, began the effort under the direction of Col. George G. Pride, a volunteer aide-de-camp on the army’s engineer staff. Rapid progress was made on what became known as “Pride’s Ditch,” as the soldiers excavated a canal seven feet deep and forty feet wide.

At noon on April 13 the levee was cut and four steam dredges entered the canal and commenced deepening the channel. Fatigue parties worked to remove trees and stumps as they cleared Walnut Bayou south to Dr. David Dancey’s Crescent Planation (which still stands on Louisiana Highway 602). Water levels in the bayous, however, did not rise as rapidly as the engineers expected.

Compounding their difficulties, the Mississippi began to fall. By May 4, even the most optimistic engineer gave up hope and work on the canal came to stop. Two dredges and twenty barges were marooned in the shallow of the canal and Walnut Bayou. Only one vessel, the tug Victor, managed to reach New Carthage.

Failure of this undertaking--the last canal effort of the Vicksburg campaign, compelled the Union army and its supplies to travel overland to New Carthage.