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Posted 6/16/2017

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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 23: A Column of Dirt, Smoke and Flame

The sounds of pick and shovel coming from underground were maddening to the Confederate soldiers who manned in Third Louisiana Redan. For weeks the men had watched almost helplessly as Union fatigue parties excavated an approach that zig-zagged up to their works. Now the enemy sappers were carving out rooms directly under their position for the purpose of planting a mine to destroy the fort and gain entrance to Vicksburg. 

In a desperate attempt to prevent the inevitable, the Confederates sank a countermine in hope of locating and destroying the tunnel before a mine could be charged or detonated. At the bottom of the countermine the air was stifling. Yet the Southerners could make out the conversations of the Union sappers digging opposite them. But sounds travel differently below ground than they do on the surface, and although the Confederates could hear conversations, they could not tell from what direction or distance the sounds were coming. 

On the morning of June 25, the digging opposite them stopped, which meant only one thing—the mine had been completed.

Throughout the morning hours the defenders of Vicksburg threw up a dirt wall across the gorge of the redan and pulled most of the men inside the fort back behind its shelter. In preparation for what was about to transpire along this portion of the line, the only available Confederate reinforcements were moved into position behind the redan, and the men in gray steeled themselves for battle.

The hours slowly passed as the men in blue carried forward sacks of powder that weighed 25 pounds each and charged the mine with 2,200 pounds of black powder. Fuses were secured from the navy and detonation was set for 3 o’clock that afternoon. As final preparations were made to fire the mine, troops of the XVII Corps were readied for the attack and Grant arrived on the scene to witness the explosion. At the designated time the fuse was lit and the trail of sparks disappeared into the inky darkness of the tunnel. Tension ran high in both the Union and Confederate lines as 3:00 p.m. came and went, but there was no explosion. Nervous soldiers wondered if “volunteers” would be ordered into the tunnel to investigate the cause of the delay as the clock passed 3:25, and still all was quiet.

Suddenly at 3:28 the ground began to swell, there was a muffled thud, then a loud explosion as dirt and flame rose to the very heavens. One soldier who awaited the order to advance recalled that the column of dirt was “mingled with flashes of fire and clouds of smoke, through which could occasionally be caught glimpses of dark objects—men, carriages, shelters, and so on.” 

The explosion hurled men, mules, and artillery pieces skyward and the apex of the redan was pulverized. In its place was a crater more than 40 feet wide and 12 feet deep.

Before the dirt settled, Captain Hickenlooper and his pioneers charged into the crater to clear the way for the infantrymen who surged down the Jackson Road in a densely packed column. While the engineer and his men cleared away debris, the 45th Illinois raced forward and Color Sgt. Henry Taylor planted the Stars and Stripes upon the enemy works. 

Scores of Union soldiers poured into the crater determined to exploit the breach in the Confederate works, while Southern soldiers responded to the emergency with equal determination to block their advance into Vicksburg. For 26 hours the battle raged in unabated fury as clubbed muskets and bayonets were freely used by the soldiers of both armies. Grant sent in one fresh regiment after another trying to punch his way into Vicksburg, but to no avail. The great gamble failed and the Union commander was compelled to recall his troops. 

Undaunted by the failure, the chief engineer of the XVII Corps immediately began construction of another gallery under what remained of the fort.