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 Eleven: “I can’t spare this man; he fights.”
One final “experiment” was initiated by the Federals in March 1863 that was primarily a naval operation. Known as the Steele’s Bayou Expedition, Federal gunboats pushed through a chain of waterways in the lower Delta in hope of turning the Confederate positions at Haynes’ and Snyder’s Bluffs.
The expedition almost ended in disaster for the Federals as Confederates blocked their advance near Rolling Fork by felling trees across the channel. The Southerners then felled trees across the stream behind the gunboats, trapping the Union vessels in Deer Creek. But before the Confederates could capture or ensure destruction of the fleet, Union infantry under Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s command arrived and disaster was averted. The obstructions behind the fleet were removed and the gunboats returned to the safety of the Mississippi River.
Frustration and death thus plagued Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and the Union Army of the Tennessee throughout the winter of 1862-1863 as he maneuvered to seize the fortress city of Vicksburg. The Confederate citadel remained defiant and, thanks largely to the engineers in gray, seemed impervious to capture by Union land and naval forces. The only result of his operations thus far was an ever-lengthening casualties list. The northern press ridiculed Grant and clamored for his removal. Even members of the Cabinet urged President Lincoln to find a new commander for his Western army. The president, however, answered those critical of Grant by saying, “I can’t spare this man; he fights. I’ll try him a little longer.”
At 41 years of age, “Sam” Grant was at a crossroads in his military career. An 1843 graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point and veteran of the Mexican War, he was no stranger to adversity. Having battled his way to national prominence at Belmont, Missouri, Fort Donelson and Shiloh, Tennessee, he struggled with rumor and innuendo about his drinking to establish a reputation of respectability. Cognizant of the criticism swirling around him in both military and political circles, Grant appeared stoic, but confided the torment he felt to his wife Julia. Determined to persevere, he ignored the critics and remained focused on his objective—Vicksburg. After months of frustration and failure, Grant examined his options.
Three options were discussed at Army headquarters. The first was to fall back to Memphis and try the overland route once again. The second was to launch a direct amphibious assault across the Mississippi River and storm the Vicksburg stronghold. And the third option was to march the army southward down the Louisiana side of the great river, search for a favorable crossing point below Vicksburg, and transfer the field of operations to the area south and east of the “Hill City.” Although his subordinates urged a return to Memphis to rest and refit, in Grant’s mind there was only one viable option.
In characteristic fashion and with grim determination, Grant boldly opted for the march south through Louisiana. Historian Edwin C. Bearss writes of Grant’s decision: “Failure in this venture would entail little less than total destruction [of his army]. If it succeeded, however, the gains would be complete and decisive.”
On March 29, 1863, Grant directed his men to open a road from Milliken’s Bend to New Carthage on the Mississippi River below Vicksburg. In this opening phase of the campaign that led Grant to Vicksburg, and eventually to Appomattox, Union engineers would be called upon to perform feats of valor and skill not known before in the annals of American military history.