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 6: Staying the Hand of the Destroyer
The soldiers of the Vicksburg garrison and thousands of slaves pressed into service from local plantations labored on the rear line of defense around Vicksburg throughout the fall of 1862. While the fatigue parties worked under Chief Engineer Lockett’s supervision, Maj. Gen. Martin L. Smith, commander of the military district that encompassed Vicksburg, sought to extend the Confederate defense line north and south of the fortress city.
Born in Danby, New York, in 1819, Smith graduated from West Point as a member of the celebrated class of 1842, standing 16th out of 56 cadets who were commissioned. (This class furnished nine generals to the Confederacy and 13 to the Union armies during the Civil War.) Smith was commissioned into the topographical engineers and, with the exception of his service during the Mexican War, spent almost his entire pre-Civil War career in the South. In 1846 he married a Southern girl and settled in Georgia. His family ties, feelings, and interests compelled his resignation in 1861 and he offered his sword to the Confederacy in the service of which he quickly rose to major general.
As an engineer, he had a keen appreciation for geography and terrain. In order to protect the Mississippi Delta - a vast and fertile area from which the army defending Vicksburg drew food supplies - and the important Confederate Navy Yard at Yazoo City, from Federal incursion, Smith ordered Lockett to lay out a line of defense that extended north along the Walnut Hills from the city. This line was anchored at Haynes’ and Snyder’s Bluffs, overlooking the Yazoo River, and a raft obstruction blocked the channel to Federal warships. The Confederates also placed torpedoes, what we call mines today, in the channel. (These “infernal machines,” as they were referred to by Union sailors, would be responsible for sinking the ironclad USS Cairo on Dec. 12, 1862. Raised and restored, Cairo is now on display at Vicksburg National Military Park.) Additional defenses were also constructed south of the city, anchored on the Mississippi River at Warrenton.
All these fortifications were completed by the onset of winter. But without adequate numbers of cannon or troops to man the line, Vicksburg remained vulnerable. The sense of vulnerability fueled the fears of those in the city as, by year’s end, Federal forces were again in motion toward Vicksburg.
In response to this developing threat, President Jefferson Davis, accompanied by Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, arrived in Vicksburg on Dec. 19, 1862. The president was impressed by the strength of the city’s defenses and believed they could never be taken. Johnston, on the other hand, declared the line of earthworks to be nothing but an elaborate trap and warned that certain disaster await the army that manned Vicksburg’s defenses.
Davis’ visit was short and his pledge to send additional heavy guns to Vicksburg failed to assuage the fears of those who lived in the “Hill City,” while Johnston’s sharp military instincts only provided the citizens with ominous prophecy. The mayor and board of alderman at least took a more pragmatic step and passed a resolution that called for a day of “Humiliation, Fasting and Prayer to Almighty God that Vicksburg may be spared from the Hand of the Destroyer.”
The Destroyer was at that very moment on his way to Vicksburg.