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 19: From Surge to Siege
On the afternoon of May 18, 1863, as the setting sun cast lurid shadows over the fields, there was a flurry of activity to the front and the sound of musketry heralded the arrival of the Union army before Vicksburg.
One Confederate soldier, safely ensconced behind the city’s formidable ring of earthworks, wrote, “As we gazed in the distance we caught sight of the enemy approaching Vicksburg. Their column extended as far as the eyes could see. Their battle flags snapped in the breeze above them, and onward they came—a magnificent host indeed.”
The magnificent host of which he wrote were the men of Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s XV Corps, the first Union soldiers to reach the city. As his troops fanned out in line of battle, skirmishers were sent forward to feel the Confederate position and Federal artillery roared into action. But the day wore away with nothing more than a long-range artillery duel as Grant and Sherman gathered their forces in hand and reconnoitered the Confederate works.
Despite the strength of the city’s fortifications, the Union commander was anxious for a quick victory and believed that a strong show of force would result in the speedy capitulation of Vicksburg. But of his three corps, only one, Sherman’s, was in proper position to attack. The other two corps were still on their way from Big Black River. Directed to strike on May 19, Sherman unleashed his artillery which pounded the enemy works for hours, tearing large holes in the earthen fortifications. The thick smoke of the guns also shrouded the fields.
Early in the afternoon, once the guns fell silent, Sherman’s men surged across the fields and down into the deep ravines fronting the Confederate works. There they encountered a dense obstruction of felled trees, known as abatis, which caused them to break ranks. Singly and in small groups the soldiers in blue worked their way through the obstruction and clawed their way up the steep slopes toward Stockade Redan, which guarded the Graveyard Road entry point into Vicksburg. Although they succeeded in planting their flags on the exterior slope of the fort, Sherman’s troops were hurled back after losing 900 men.
Perhaps realizing that he had been a bit too hasty, Grant made a more thorough reconnaissance and brought his entire force onto the field. Three days later he tried again. At 6 a.m. May 22, more than 200 Union cannons roared into action and for four hours bombarded the city’s defenses. At 10 o’clock that morning, Grant hurled his legions forward in a larger, better coordinated attack. Advancing over a broad, three-mile front the Union army struck with determination. Sherman’s corps once again pushed forward astride Graveyard Road, McPherson’s troops advanced along the Jackson Road, and the soldiers of McClernand’s XIII Corps hit the Confederate line from Baldwin’s Ferry Road south across the railroad to Square Fort (now known as Fort Garrott). In all three locations the men in blue managed to plant their colors on the exterior slopes of the forts, but only at Railroad Redoubt did they penetrate the Vicksburg defenses. However, the lodgment was short-lived and by day’s end the breach was sealed and the Federals were driven back with heavy losses.
His nose bloodied twice, Grant contemplated his next move. In the meantime he left behind his dead and wounded, many of whom had been lying exposed since May 19. The bodies of the dead began to bloat and turn black. One Confederate noted, “The Yanks are trying to stink us out of Vicksburg with the offal of their dead.”
The Union commander had lost enough men and decided to “outcamp the enemy.” On May 25, he directed his subordinates to reduce Vicksburg by siege. It their efforts to capture Vicksburg, the engineers would soon prove that “spades are trump.”