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The Engineers at Vicksburg Part 14: Preparing for a Union crossing

U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center, Historian
Published Dec. 16, 2016
Brig. Gen. John S. Bowen commanded Confederate forces at Grand Gulf. Fiery and aggressive, he proved to be Pemberton’s finest division commander. Bowen contracted dysentery during the siege of Vicksburg, and died a few days after the city surrendered.

Brig. Gen. John S. Bowen commanded Confederate forces at Grand Gulf. Fiery and aggressive, he proved to be Pemberton’s finest division commander. Bowen contracted dysentery during the siege of Vicksburg, and died a few days after the city surrendered.

Rear Adm. David Dixon Porter led Union gunboats in a fiery run through the blockade at Vicksburg the night of April 16, 1863. The Union boats were headed south to support an attempted crossing at Grand Gulf.

Rear Adm. David Dixon Porter led Union gunboats in a fiery run through the blockade at Vicksburg the night of April 16, 1863. The Union boats were headed south to support an attempted crossing at Grand Gulf.

Two forts connected by a covered way guarded the landing at Grand Gulf: Forts Cobun and Wade, as seen in this detail of a U.S. Geological Survey map drawn in 1864. The full map is available from the Library of Congress: https://www.loc.gov/resource/g4042m.cw0270000/

Two forts connected by a covered way guarded the landing at Grand Gulf: Forts Cobun and Wade, as seen in this detail of a U.S. Geological Survey map drawn in 1864. The full map is available from the Library of Congress: https://www.loc.gov/resource/g4042m.cw0270000/

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 14: Preparing for a Union crossing

The massive movement of men and material by Maj. Gen Ulysses S. Grant had been discovered by roving Confederate cavalry led by Maj. Isaac Harrison of Louisiana. Hardly had the movement begun before Harrison notified higher authority on both sides of the Mississippi River and continued to shadow the Federal advance southward from Milliken’s Bend to Hard Times Landing.

Among those notified was Brig. Gen. John S. Bowen whose small division of Missourians and Arkansans was stationed at Grand Gulf, 25 miles below Vicksburg. A native of Bowen’s Creek, Georgia, Bowen graduated from West Point in 1853, standing 13th in a class of 51 cadets. Although he resigned his commission three years later and worked as an architect in St. Louis, he remained active in the Missouri militia. At the outbreak of hostilities between the states, he organized the 1st Missouri (C.S.) Infantry and was appointed its colonel. A veteran of many hard-fought fields including Shiloh, where he was wounded, Bowen inspired men by his personal bravery and gallant conduct. Fiery, aggressive and hard-hitting, he proved the perfect choice for command at Grand Gulf.

Bowen acted instinctively when rumors of the Federal movement were confirmed. On April 4, he sent Col. Francis Cockrell across the river to reinforce Harrison’s troopers and make contact with the enemy. Cockrell sent frequent and accurate reports to Bowen, who notified departmental headquarters in Jackson of the developing threat and braced himself to meet the Union onslaught should it be aimed at Grand Gulf. But with the passage of the Vicksburg batteries by Union gunboats on the night of April 16, Cockrell was recalled lest his command be cut off. Despite now being in the dark as to the enemy’s movement, Bowen was convinced that Grant’s soldiers were heading his way and prepared accordingly.

Fortunately for Bowen, Maj. Samuel Lockett, the army’s chief engineer, aided by Lt. George Donellan, had erected strong defenses on the high ground overlooking Grand Gulf.  The Confederate engineers had once again taken advantage of a naturally strong position, and made Grand Gulf a formidable bastion through the construction of field fortifications. Situated 40 feet above the river and dug into the side of Point of Rocks (at the confluence of the Big Black and Mississippi Rivers) was Fort Cobun.

Protected by a parapet nearly 40 feet thick, the fort contained four guns manned by Company A, 1st Louisiana Heavy Artillery. A double line of rifle-pits and a covered way led south from Cobun three-quarters of a mile to Fort Wade. Referred to as the lower fort, Fort Wade was erected behind town on a shelf 20 feet above the muddy Mississippi. Fort Wade contained four large guns and several light field pieces--to thwart landing attempts, that were manned by the skilled artillerists of Capt. Henry Guibor’s and Col. William Wade’s Missouri batteries.   

Confident in the strength of these fortifications, Bowen was determined to check the powerful force that appeared on the Louisiana shore at Hard Times Landing--located opposite and just upstream from his batteries. On April 28, Bowen watched in awe from his command post atop Point of Rocks as the Federal invasion armada prepared for action. He informed department commander Pemberton of these dramatic developments and requested “that every man and gun that can be spared from other points be sent here.” His plea, however, was largely ignored and Bowen was left to his own devices for the defense of Grand Gulf.

Early the next morning the Union armada steamed into action.


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