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 One: The Spinal Column of America
Biographer Lloyd Lewis fittingly portrayed the Mississippi River as “the spinal column of America.” As did most Americans of the mid-nineteenth century, Lewis recognized it as being “the symbol of geographic unity,” and referred to the great river as “the trunk of the American tree, with limbs and branches reaching to the Alleghenies, the Canadian border, the Rocky Mountains.”
Indeed, the river was then, as it remains to this date, the single most important economic feature of the continent—the very lifeblood of America. One contemporary wrote emphatically that “The Valley of the Mississippi is America.”
Upon the secession of the Southern states the river was closed to unfettered navigation, which threatened to strangle Northern commercial interests. With the advent of civil war President Abraham Lincoln assembled his civil and military leaders to discuss strategy to open the Mississippi River and end what he termed a “rebellion” in the Southern states. While seated around a large table examining a map of the nation, Lincoln made a wide sweeping gesture with his hand then placed his finger on the map and said, “See what a lot of land these fellows hold, of which Vicksburg is the key. The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket.”
It was the president’s contention that, “We can take all the northern ports of the Confederacy [meaning on the inland waters], and they can defy us from Vicksburg. It means hog and hominy without limit, fresh troops from all the states of the far South, and a cotton country in which they can raise the staple without interference.” Lincoln went on to assure his listeners: “I am acquainted with that region and know what I am talking about, and, as valuable as New Orleans will be to us, Vicksburg will be more so.”
These powerful statements by the sixteenth president were no exaggeration. Confederate cannons mounted along the bluffs that commanded the Mississippi at Vicksburg were trained on the river, denying that important avenue of commerce to northern shipping. It was imperative for the administration in Washington to regain control of the lower Mississippi River to enable the rich agriculture produce of the Northwest in particular to reach world markets. To do so, Union land and naval forces would have to silence the powerful Confederate batteries at Vicksburg.
The campaign waged for control of the Mississippi River that culminated in the fall of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863, was the largest and most-complex operation of the Civil War. It was also, perhaps, the most decisive campaign of the war as it opened the river to unfettered navigation. Union victory at Vicksburg also split the Confederacy in two, severed major Confederate supply and communications lines, achieved a major objective of the Anaconda Plan—overall grand Union strategy, and effectively sealed the doom of the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia.
In the next installment: As Union land and naval forces converged to take control of the river, engineers reinforce Vicksburg to become “the Gibraltar of the Confederacy.”