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Posted 3/9/2017

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


Introduction:

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 18: Bridging the Big Black River

Dense columns of black smoke rose to the sky May 17, 1863, as flames engulfed the bridges across Big Black River. The forethought of Maj. Samuel Lockett, the army’s chief engineer, had saved the Confederates from an even greater debacle than had already befallen them. Lockett’s destruction of the bridges prevented Federal pursuit and enabled the shattered and demoralized remnants of the once-proud Army of Vicksburg to reach the protection of the city’s defenses. Now it was the turn of Union engineers to demonstrate their skill and efficiency by bridging the river as rapidly as possible to enable Grant’s victorious army to drive on to Vicksburg. 

The III Corps of the Army of the Tennessee set about bridging the river in three different locations, each utilizing different methods and materials. To the north, on the Federal right, the advance unit of Sherman’s XV Corps reached the east bank of the river at Bridgeport around 10 a.m. and began efforts to bridge the stream. The accurate fire of Confederate soldiers who manned an outpost on the far shore, however, drove them from their task. Union artillery was brought forward and peppered the Southerners with canister at point-blank range, resulting in their speedy surrender. With opposition gone, Capt. Henry C. Freemen raced forward with his pontonniers to bridge the river. Each pontoon consisted of three India rubber tubes connected with loops, and equipped with ties to fasten the stringers in place. The rubber tubes were quickly inflated with bellows, the wooden stringers lashed in place, and the units ferried into place and anchored. Once the decking was laid and the approaches graded, the bridge was ready for use. Two of Sherman’s divisions manage to cross the river on May 17.

Following the collapse of the Confederate defenses, Maj. Gen. James McPherson of the XVII Corps was directed by Grant to cross the river near Amsterdam. (The hamlet no longer exists, but was located along present-day U.S. Hwy. 80 opposite Bonner-Campbell Institute.) Bridges were thrown across the river at Hooker’s Ferry, a mile west of Amsterdam, and at Coaker’s Ferry, nearer to the hamlet. 

Capt. Andrew Hickenlooper, the corps chief engineer, and Capt. Stewart Tresilian supervised construction of the bridge at Coaker’s Ferry, which warrants detail. As they had no pontons, they were forced to use materials at hand. A two-man raft was first built by which a shear line was ferried across the river. Boxworks of timbers from a dismantled cotton warehouse were constructed in three sections, and each section filled with 47 cotton bales. The sections were floated into position, spiked together, and decked over.

“Yankee ingenuity” had constructed a bridge strong enough to enable the army’s artillery and supply trains to cross the Big Black.
To the south, where the battle had been fought that morning, Lt. Peter Haines and Lt. Francis Tunica, engineers with Maj. Gen. John McClernand’s XIII Corps, crept to the river bank under cover of darkness. Around midnight, after Confederate sharpshooters had left the area, they began construction of a 200-foot long floating raft bridge made with materials provided by nearby cotton warehouses.  Assisted by Capt. William Patterson’s Kentucky Company of Engineers and Mechanics they labored throughout the night and by 7 a.m. on May 18, McClernand’s command was pushing across the river.

The engineers had once again worked their magic, and before the sun set on May 18, the vanguard of the Union army caught sight of the spires of Vicksburg. But between the Federals and their objective was a formidable ring of fortifications around the city that all knew would have to be assaulted. Grant would not keep them long in waiting.

civil war Engineers at Vicksburg ERDC USACE Winschel