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 28: Ransom’s Approach
Farther south of Ewing’s Approach, in the area of operations of the XVII Corps commanded by Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson, was Ransom’s Approach. Named in honor of Brig. Gen. Thomas E. G. Ransom, commander of the corps’ Sixth Division, the approach began in the North Fork of Glass Bayou bottom, below present-day Tour Stop 4 in Vicksburg National Military Park. It was one of the few Federal approaches not directed against the forts that guarded the road entry points into Vicksburg.
Ransom was a native of Norwich, Vermont, born November 29, 1834. His father, Col. Truman B. Ransom, was killed in the Battle of Chapultepec during the Mexican War when his son was only 14 years old. Young Ransom went on to graduate from Norwich University in 1851 – of which his father once served as president – then moved to Illinois where he worked as a civil engineer and surveyor for the Illinois Central Railroad. At the outbreak of hostilities between the states he raised a company of troops that became Company E, 11th Illinois Infantry, and was elected its captain. Within a year he rose to command of the regiment, and on November 9, 1862, was promoted to brigadier general. Ransom proved fearless in battle and was wounded four times. One contemporary wrote of him: “other men shine but Ransom blazes!” That opinion was shared by the likes of Grant, Sherman, and McPherson.
On June 15, 1863, Ransom tasked Capt. Albert M. Powell to sink an approach toward that stretch of the Confederate line held by the 37th Mississippi Infantry. The corps’ chief engineer, Capt. Andrew Hickenlooper, stressed the importance of this approach, noting that a breakthrough at that point was vital. Ascending the ridge to the west, the sappers worked behind the shelter of an earth-filled gabion (the steepness of the slope made this a Herculean effort), and piled the spoil on either side to shield themselves from Southern sharpshooters. Despite this precaution, Confederate marksmen took a frightful toll of Union lives. To afford greater protection to his men, Ransom detailed sharpshooters from the 17th Wisconsin to provide covering fire. These men, mostly Menominee Indians from the North Woods, covered themselves with leaves and brush as camouflage. Their accurate fire pinned the enemy behind their works and enabled Powell’s fatigue party to eventually get within a few yards of the Confederate fortifications.
After visiting the approach in person on June 25, Ransom directed that an advanced battery be placed at the top of the escarpment fronting the Confederate works. The assignment was given to the men of Battery F, 2nd Illinois Light Artillery, commanded by Capt. John Wesley Powell. Powell, who had lost an arm at Shiloh, would go on to great fame as an explorer by becoming the first man of European descent to successfully navigate the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River. Powell Point at Grand Canyon National Park is named in his honor. The cannoneers dismantled two 12-pounders and dragged the various components across the hollow and up the steep slope to a position prepared for them. Once reassembled, the guns hammered away at the city’s earthen fortifications.
Despite their success in reaching the Confederate fortifications, the terrain proved unfavorable to mining. Ransom’s men spent the remainder of the siege widening the approach in preparation for an attack until Vicksburg surrendered on July 4.