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Posted 8/19/2016

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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 Two: Gibraltar of the Confederacy

Early in 1862, Union land and naval forces moved with a vengeance from two directions in a massive converging attack to wrestle control of the lower Mississippi River from the Confederates. Driving south from Cairo, Illinois, Federal forces—including the first ironclad gunboats launched in the Western Hemisphere, seized Forts Henry and Donelson on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, respectively, and opened pathways of invasion to the Deep South. Continuing the drive, Union forces gained victory at Shiloh in April, Corinth in May, and having forced the surrender of Island No. 10, seized Memphis in June. In the Battle of Memphis--the only fleet action of the Civil War, the Confederate River Defense Fleet was destroyed, which opened the river south to Vicksburg.

Moving upriver from the Gulf of Mexico were the ships of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron commanded by Flag Officer David Glasgow Farragut. His ships bombarded and passed Forts Jackson and St. Philip on April 24 and compelled the surrender of New Orleans. (The Crescent City was the largest city in the Confederacy and boasted a wartime population of 160,000 souls.) Continuing upriver, Baton Rouge fell to the Federals on May 8, Natchez, Mississippi, four days later, and the flotilla steamed on toward Vicksburg.

Knowing that it was only a matter of time before war in all its horror centered on Vicksburg, residents of Mississippi’s second-largest city braced themselves. Hundreds even fled the city and sought shelter in the state’s interior. Mrs. Anne Broidrick noted of those who remained behind, that the people “walked the streets aimlessly, as one does when troubled, with bowed heads and saddened mien.”

“It was like the slaying of the first born of Egypt,” she observed. “Sorrow was in every house.”

As the Union pincers slowly closed along the river, the terror-stricken residents soon took heart as Confederate authorities decided to fortify the “Hill City”—as Vicksburg is known. The city’s strategic significance greatly increased after the fall of New Orleans and Memphis, as Vicksburg then became the northernmost point below Memphis where the bluffs met the river. (Confederate president, Jefferson Davis, long a resident of Warren County, referred to Vicksburg as “the nail head that held the South’s two halves together.”) Nestled along the east bank of the Mississippi River and built along bluffs that tower almost 300-feet above a horseshoe-shaped bend of the river, Vicksburg’s geographical location made it ideal for defense. Equally important, rail lines that connected Vicksburg to Jackson and, via Jackson, points elsewhere in the Confederacy, enabled the shipment of heavy ordnance to the “Hill City.” But would the guns arrive and could they be mounted in time to meet the approaching threat?

To the great relief of its citizenry train loads of soldiers clad in butternut and gray poured into Vicksburg and began construction of batteries to command the great river. Confederate engineers and artillerists worked feverishly to convert the city into a powerful bastion and it was not long before Vicksburg became known as the “Gibraltar of the Confederacy.” As the approaching Federals were to discover, Vicksburg would prove a tough nut to crack.

Installment #2:
Confederate President Jefferson Davis: Confederate president Jefferson Davis, longtime resident of Warren County, referred to Vicksburg as the “nail head that held the South’s two halves together.” (USACE photo by Mike W. Petersen)

Flag Officers David Glasgow Farragut: After initial success at New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Natchez, Flag Officer David Glasgow Farragut led the ships of his West Gulf Blockading Squadron upriver to Vicksburg, but was unable to compel the city’s surrender. (USACE photo by Mike W. Petersen)

Union ironclads in action: Joining Farragut at Vicksburg were the ironclad gunboats of the Western Flotilla fresh from their victory at Memphis. But even with these revolutionary warships, the U.S. Navy met with dismal failure at Vicksburg in the summer of 1862. (Library of Congress)

ERDC historical USACE Winschel