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 Thirteen: “A Vast Sheet of Water”
Capt. William F. Patterson’s Kentucky Company of Engineers and Mechanics completed a bridge over Roundaway Bayou on the morning of April 2, 1863, and Col. Thomas Bennett’s task force crossed the span. But knowing that Confederate cavalry was in the vicinity, the ever-cautious colonel did not push his command and directed the men to go into bivouac on Josiah Stansbrough’s Joan Planation, only three and a half miles south of Richmond.
That same day, additional troops of the Union XIII Corps left Milliken’s Bend and quickly caught up with Bennett’s command. Dissatisfied with Bennett’s performance, Brig. Gen. Peter Osterhaus, commander of the Ninth Division of XIII Corps, organized a strike force of his own. On April 4, Osterhaus, accompanied by corps commander John McClernand, pressed the advance fifteen miles farther south to Pointe Clear, the plantation home of Pliney Smith, where the Federals established an advanced staging area only two miles north of New Carthage.
As the area between Pointe Clear and New Carthage was inundated by flood water from the Mississippi River, it was necessary to march farther south. The Federals resumed the advance on April 21, moving westward along the road that skirted Bayou Vidal and headed toward Judge John Perkins’ Somerset Plantation. It took the Federals five days to reach Somerset as Union engineers and fatigue parties had to corduroy roads and build bridges practically each step of the way. Bayou Vidal alone, which snaked its way back and forth across the line of march, had to be bridged at three different locations. “Most of the way led through a vast sheet of water,” recalled one soldier.
The process of corduroying roads was both labor intensive and time consuming, but was necessary to prevent soldiers from sinking to their knees and wagons to their axles. Fatigue parties felled large numbers of trees. The trunks were then limbed and placed side by side. Dirt was piled and packed several inches deep atop the logs which provided a firm surface over which the men could march and the wagons roll.
Much to their dismay, there was not enough dry land at Somerset for a staging area. Thus, the Federal column was forced to swing around Lake St. Joseph to Hard Times Landing on the Mississippi River, above and opposite Grand Gulf. This route required Union engineers to bridge Holt’s Bayou and Bayou DuRossett, both of which were bridged in one day, requiring spans of 80 feet and 120 feet respectively. The line of march continued past the many beautiful plantation homes that graced the west bank of Lake St. Joseph. (Winter Quarters, the plantation of home of Dr. Haller Nutt, is the only one still standing).
The march was without incident until the troops were brought to a halt midway around the lake as they neared Phelps Bayou. Not only was the bridge across the stream a smoldering ruin, but Confederates were sighted on the opposite bank. More formidable an obstacle, however, was the main body of Major Harrison’s 400-man Confederate force, formed in line of battle just beyond Clark Bayou in the distance, support by four guns. Union artillery was ordered to the front and quickly roared into action, which drove away the horsemen in gray.
It took Federal engineers two days to bridge the bayous with spans of 120 feet and 130 feet, respectively. The long blue column crossed the bridges on April 28. The next day General Grant was able to concentrate more than 20,000 soldiers at Hard Times and was poised for a strike across the Mississippi River. Such a massive and rapid concentration of force was made possible by the engineers and pioneers in blue who labor tirelessly in support of this movement.
“The achievement is one of the most remarkable occurring in the annals of war, and justly ranks among the highest examples of military energy and perseverance,” Maj. Gen. John A. McClernand, commander of the XIII Corps, boasted in his report of their contributions.