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 27: Ewing’s Approach
The main Federal effort along Graveyard Road was Ewing’s Approach, directed against Stockade Redan and named in honor of Brig. Gen. Hugh Ewing, a brigade commander who was one of three brothers to attain the rank of general during the Civil War. The other brothers were Thomas, Jr. and Charles. The three were sons of Senator Thomas Ewing, Sr., of Ohio, who, during the course of his illustrious political career also served as Secretary of the Treasury and was the first Secretary of the Interior. Senator Ewing adopted a neighbor’s boy named Tecumseh Sherman – to whom he gave the Christian surname William, who went on to become one of the nation’s best-known soldiers. William married the senator’s daughter, Ellen, and thus was both foster brother and brother-in-law to the three Ewing generals.
Ground was broken for Ewing’s Approach on May 23. It was initially intended to provide a covered way to the firing line established by the Federals--following their repulse the previous day, on a ridge 100 yards east of Stockade Redan. Once the firing line had been reached, however, orders were issued to push the approach forward. Working in shifts of 50 men each, soldiers of the 35th Missouri Infantry toiled away under cover of darkness and by June 20 were within 20 yards of the redan.
The Confederates were virtually powerless to stop the Federals. As a sortie even under cover of darkness would be extremely dangerous, the Southerners decided to convert the ditch fronting Stockade Redan into a trench by adding a firing step. The firing of the men in the trench proved of little annoyance to the sappers who pushed forward relentlessly.
In a desperate effort to retard the enemy’s efforts, Confederate engineers planted “thunder barrels” and loaded shells in front of the redan. This Civil War version of booby traps had little effect. Of greater impact was when soldiers from Arkansas infiltrated the area between the lines and lobbed grenades (6- and 12-pound shells with short fuses) into the Union saps. The Federals, however, quickly took steps to ensure this performance was not repeated.
Due to the obstructions placed by the men in gray, Union sappers working under the direction of Capt. William Kossak started digging two trenches off the head of the approach, one to the right and the other to the left. To forestall the Federals from excavating a gallery,
Confederate soldiers planted two small mines of their own that, when detonated on June 26, pulverized the soil fronting the redan which made it like digging into sand. Undaunted by this development, Union engineers decided simply to bypass the area and opened a sap that veered off downhill on a right oblique from the main approach.
Excavating a gallery that stretched more than 90 feet, the sappers found it necessary to bore air holes to provide adequate ventilation. They also made a large opening at the end of this gallery to dump dirt. Having ascertained that the gallery extended beyond the pulverized dirt, Kossak turned his efforts 90 degrees and pushed the gallery uphill toward the north face of Stockade Redan. By the morning of July 4, the Union fatigue party had dug an additional 70 feet and drifted the sap under Graveyard Road. These men were in the process of hollowing out room to receive 2,000 pounds of black powder when white flags signaled the end of the siege.