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 17: The Logistician and the Architect
As the rugged soldiers of the Union Army of the Tennessee battled their way from Port Gibson to Jackson, then westward over Champion Hill to the Big Black River Bridge, engineers in blue helped to maintain the tenuous supply line in Louisiana on which Grant’s men depended for food and ammunition to sustain their drive in Mississippi.
That supply line ran 63 miles south from Milliken’s Bend to Hard Times. The line was long and the bridges that had been built of makeshift materials were strained to the limit by the steady roll of wagons. As such, the line was vulnerable and Grant detailed a full division to guard his line of supply and communications.
As a young lieutenant, Grant had served as a quartermaster during the Mexican War. The experience he gained in Mexico proved invaluable. Almost twenty years later, now an army commander, Grant demonstrated that he was a master of logistics. Once the bulk of his army had crossed the great river and was in Mississippi, he directed that a new road be opened to shorten that supply line. On May 3, Grant directed Brig. Gen. Jeremiah Sullivan to “give special attention to … shorten the land transportation from above Vicksburg [Milliken’s Bend] to the steamers below.”
Engineers in blue were called upon to construct a new road that stretched from Young’s Point to Bowers’ Landing, on the Louisiana shore below Warrenton. This would shorten the distance that rations and ammunition must be hauled to only eight miles. It would also free up the infantrymen guarding the supply line whose service was needed elsewhere, and establish both terminals under the protection of U.S. naval forces.
The task was assigned to Capt. William L. B. Jenney, who served as chief engineer of Sherman’s XV Corps. The Massachusetts native had no prior military service before the Civil War. Rather, his life’s experience had been as a civil engineer and architect. As a young man Jenney entered the Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard University, but later transferred to the prestigious Ecole Centrale des Arts et Manufactures in Paris where he studied with Gustave Eiffel—future architect of the Eiffel Tower. (In the aftermath of war, Jenney also went on to great fame as “the father of the American skyscraper.”)
To his dismay, Jenney realized that the entire eight mile route had to be bridged or corduroyed, as in many places the water was two feet deep. Work on the road began May 10 as a regiment of troops and detachment of pioneers labored under Jenney’s direction. The following day, Maj. William Tweeddale arrived with three companies of Bissell’s Engineer Regiment of the West to assist in opening the road. Thanks to the strenuous efforts of these men, wagons were able to roll over the road by 10 a.m. on May 12.
With his line of supply and communications now more firmly secured, Grant was able rivet his attention on the enemy before him. By May 17 he had driven Confederate forces from Champion Hill, near Edwards Station, to the banks of the Big Black River. But as the bridges had been fired by the retreating Confederates, Grant once again called on his engineers to keep going the momentum of his drive. With luck, the Union commander might still destroy the shattered remnants of the Army of Vicksburg before it reached the shelter of the city’s formidable defenses.