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Posted 9/30/2016

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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 Seven: Grant Advances South

As Vicksburg’s citizens held a day of “Humiliation, Fasting and Prayer to Almighty God that Vicksburg may be spared from the Hand of the Destroyer,” the Destroyer approached.

The Destroyer to whom they referred was Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman, whose Union Expeditionary Force was moving downriver toward Vicksburg. This movement was part of a two-prong offensive launched by Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant on November 3, 1862. Grant, who commanded the Union Army of the Tennessee, divided his force for the drive on Vicksburg. As planned, one column, under Grant’s personal command, marched south from La Grange and Grand Junction, Tennessee, into north Mississippi. This movement was intended to draw the attention of Confederate forces responsible for the defense of the Vicksburg-Jackson area into the northern portion of the state where the soldiers in butternut and gray could be pinned while the other portion of his army, under Sherman’s command, took advantage of Union naval superiority on the inland waters and moved rapidly down river from Memphis and seized Vicksburg.

It was an excellent plan on paper, but no sooner had the march started than the rainy season began. Heavy rains turned the roads into ribbons of mud and the soldiers in blue were forced to corduroy roads and build bridges practically each step of the way. Such activity slowed the column considerably, but the movement achieved the desired result as Confederate troops rushed northward to meet the threat. The Confederates were under the command of Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton who had recently been placed in charge of the Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana with headquarters in Jackson.

Although initial contact was made along the Coldwater River, Pemberton decided to conduct his defense along the Tallahatchie River, farther to the south, and directed his troops to dig in. Working under the direction of Chief Engineer Samuel Lockett, the Confederates and large numbers of slaves constructed a formidable line of defense along the south bank of the river. Pemberton’s force, however, was compelled to abandon this line when Union cavalry and infantry crossed the Mississippi River from Helena, Arkansas, and threatened its lines of supply and communications by attempting to destroy railroad bridges that spanned the Yalobusha River at Grenada.

By December 6, Pemberton’s soldiers were constructing a new line of defense on the high ground overlooking the Yalobusha River at Grenada. This was an even more formidable line and, as the river was in flood, brought Grant’s column to a halt. (Two of the forts that remain are on Corps property overlooking Grenada Lake.) For the next two weeks the opposing forces were eyeball to eyeball on either side of the river. During this time, Confederate cavalry discovered that Grant’s advance base of supply at Holly Springs was vulnerable, and Pemberton directed his horsemen to destroy it.

Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn, a native of Port Gibson, Mississippi, was ordered to lead the raid. His 3,500 troopers swung into their saddles in the predawn darkness of December 18, moved out the Graysport Road (a historic trace of this road is also on Corps property), and crossed the river. Two days later they caught the Federals at Holly Springs still asleep in their tents and destroyed the huge base of supplies which compelled Grant to abandon his campaign and fall back to Memphis.

That same day, December 20, Sherman’s force, unaware of the disaster that befell Grant, embarked at Memphis and began its thrust down the Mississippi toward Vicksburg.

Engineers at Vicksburg ERDC historical USACE Winschel