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Posted 6/22/2017

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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 24: Blasted to Freedom

As Capt. Andrew Hickenlooper, chief engineer of the Union XVII Corps, directed his miners in drifting another gallery under what remained of the Third Louisiana Redan, Maj. Samuel Lockett, the chief engineer of the Confederate Army of Vicksburg, arrived on site to assess the situation. 

He recommended a thunder keg – a barrel filled with 500 pounds of black powder – be rolled over the parapet. Explosion of the thunder keg would pulverize the soil in front of the redan and prevent further digging by the Federals. (When loess soil is pulverized it becomes like loose sand.) So the Confederates rolled out a thunder keg that went off with a tremendous bang. Unfortunately for the Southerners, the sappers worked much farther underground and the petard had no impact on the Union tunnel.

In desperation the Confederates once again resorted to sinking a countermine. Rather than risk additional, irreplaceable soldiers, they pressed eight black men into service who labored on the countershaft under the command of a white corporal. On July 1, a second mine--packed with 1,800 pounds of black powder, was detonated by the Federals. Seven of the men were killed instantly. One, however, a man named Abraham, was blown into the air and landed behind Union lines. 

A Northern soldier recalled, “One Negro was thrown 150 feet, lighting on his head and shoulders, scarcely hurting him.”  

Unscathed by the explosion, Abraham was helped to his feet by men in blue, one of whom had the audacity to ask, “How high did you go?” 

The stunned man replied, “About three miles.”

Abraham became an instant celebrity. For the few remaining days of the siege, some enterprising Union soldiers set up a tent and charged an admission for their curious comrades to meet America’s first man in space.

The detonation of the second mine was not followed up by an infantry assault—it was not necessary. On June 30, Grant had been appraised by his chief engineer that all of the Union approaches were within 120 yards of the Confederate lines, with some as close as five yards away. Thus, given just a few more days of digging all 13 approaches would be completed at which time 13 mines could be charged and detonated simultaneously. 

This was the moment that he and his soldiers had been working toward throughout the siege. Grant initiated plans to widen the approaches to permit the passage of infantry and artillery to the front, planks and sandbags were readied to throw across the ditches fronting the city’s defenses, and troops were shifted into position for the attack he scheduled to launch on July 6. 

All his preparations, however, were rendered useless as within 48 hours of the July 1 explosion, white flags appeared along the lines and Generals Pemberton and Grant met one another between the lines to discuss the surrender of Vicksburg.

But before the final hours of the siege are detailed, there were other engineers in Union blue and Confederate gray who, along with Hickenlooper and Lockett, played prominent roles in the siege and defense of Vicksburg. Sadly, many of these men and the service they rendered have been lost to history. If but a fleeting reference, their stories must also be told.