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The Engineers at Vicksburg, Part 16: The Blitzkrieg of the Vicksburg Campaign

U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center, Historian
Published Jan. 28, 2017
A map of the battlefield prepared by Union engineers shows Union and Confederate lines at the outset of the battle at the Big Black River Bridge, May 17, 1963. Destruction of the bridge across the river afforded Gen. Pemberton’s army to pull back to Vicksburg after their defeat.

A map of the battlefield prepared by Union engineers shows Union and Confederate lines at the outset of the battle at the Big Black River Bridge, May 17, 1963. Destruction of the bridge across the river afforded Gen. Pemberton’s army to pull back to Vicksburg after their defeat.

A woodcut from Harper’s Weekly (June 20, 1863 edition) shows the Union assault at the Battle of the Big Black River Bridge that drove the Confederate troops back to Vicksburg and deeply affected Gen. Pemberton’s morale.

A woodcut from Harper’s Weekly (June 20, 1863 edition) shows the Union assault at the Battle of the Big Black River Bridge that drove the Confederate troops back to Vicksburg and deeply affected Gen. Pemberton’s morale.

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 16: The Blitzkrieg of the Vicksburg Campaign

Looking to cross his army at Rodney, Grant was informed that there was a good road ascending the bluffs east of Bruinsburg, midway between Grand Gulf and Rodney. Equally important, there was no enemy presence reported. Elated by this intelligence, Grant seized the opportunity and decided to hurl his army across the river at Bruinsburg.

At daybreak on April 30, the rugged infantrymen of the Union Army of the Tennessee were loaded onto the transports and barges. At 8 a.m. the fleet cast off with steam whistles blowing and signal flags snapping in the breeze. To their great relief the landing was made unopposed and a band aboard the flagship Benton struck up “The Red, White, and Blue” as Grant’s infantrymen jumped ashore. In one of the largest amphibious operations in American military history up to that time, Grant hurled 24,000 men across the river onto Mississippi soil and began the inland campaign to capture Vicksburg.

Over the next seventeen days, in what is often referred to as the blitzkrieg of the Vicksburg campaign, Grant’s forces pushed deep into the interior of Mississippi, met, and overcame Confederate resistance in five actions. On May 1, in a furious battle that raged throughout the day near Port Gibson, Grant’s soldiers drove Bowen’s small command of Confederates from the field. This action not only secured the Federal beachhead at Bruinsburg, but compelled the Confederate evacuation of Grand Gulf. Rather than march directly north to Vicksburg, the Union army turned northeastward to destroy the railroad between Vicksburg and Jackson, which served as the main Confederate line of supply and communications, and isolate the enemy in the “Hill City.” On May 12, Northern soldiers again forced a brigade of Confederates to flee the field near the village of Raymond. Two days later, on May 14, the Federals seized the capital city of Jackson.

Not willing to waste combat troops on occupation, Grant ordered Jackson neutralized military. The torch was freely applied to machine shops and factories, telegraph lines were cut, and railroad tracks destroyed. With Jackson effectively neutralized and Southern reinforcement that were rushing to the area now scattered to the winds, Grant turned west toward his objective—Vicksburg.

Between Jackson and Vicksburg his army encountered Lt. Gen. John Pemberton and three of the five divisions that comprised the Army of Vicksburg. On May 16, in what would become the largest, bloodiest, and most significant action of the campaign, Grant’s and Pemberton’s forces clashed. Pemberton’s army was routed and driven from the field in panic and confusion. The next day,

Confederate forces were again routed in the Battle of Big Black River Bridge and fled toward the fortress city on the Mississippi.
On May 17, as the Confederates fled across the Big Black, the army’s chief engineer, Maj. Samuel Lockett, set fire to the two bridges that spanned the river. The normally placid river was a raging torrent that day, due to heavy rains that fell on May 14. The Lockett’s action prevented Federal pursuit and saved Pemberton’s tired and dispirited men from further harassment as they fell back into Vicksburg. Having set fire to the bridges, Lockett rode toward the west and caught up with his commanding general. The engineer recalled of Pemberton, “He was very much depressed by the events of the last two days, and for some time … rode in silence.” But then the army commander broke the painful silence as he muttered in agony, “Just thirty years ago I began my military career by receiving my appointment to a cadetship at the U. S. Military Academy, and today—the same date—that career is ended in disaster and disgrace.”

It was a disaster and disgrace that would affect and entire nation and its people.


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