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 Eight: Sherman’s assault at Chickasaw Bayou
News of Grant’s defeat spread as wildfire throughout Vicksburg and was greeted with greater excitement than was President Davis, who had arrived in the “Hill City” on December 19, accompanied by Gen. Joseph E. Johnston. A feeling of relief and joy swept across the city and gave cause for thanksgiving as the citizens prepared to celebrate Christmas.
In recognition of yet another victory, Dr. William Balfour and his wife, Emma, hosted a gala ball on Christmas Eve at their home on the corner of Cherry and Crawford Streets. Maj. Gen. Martin L. Smith, the district commander, and the officers of the Vicksburg garrison attended. Donned in their dress uniforms, the officers danced the night away with the belles of Vicksburg, unaware that Sherman’s force was moving downriver and rapidly approaching Vicksburg. Fortunately, as the sounds of music and dancing wafted from the Balfour house, at Lake Providence, Louisiana, upriver from Vicksburg, two Confederate telegraph operators were startled when a young black girl burst into their station and told them that “there were boats on the river, lots of boats.” She urged them to “come see.”
Out on the water, which glistened in the moonlight, were large, dark shapes that the two men made out to be Union gunboats and transports—81 in number, loaded to the gunwales with troops heading south toward the unsuspecting city of Vicksburg. They rushed back to their station and sent a warning message racing over the wires to the small hamlet of De Soto, opposite Vicksburg, where it was received by Phillip Fall.
Although the night was dark and stormy, and the river “was very rough,” Fall jumped into a skiff and “in the face of certain death” rowed across the river. He raced up the hill and reached the Balfour house covered in mud and out of breath. When he informed General Smith of the dire situation, the district commander declared, “This ball is at an end; the enemy are coming down the river, all non-combatants must leave the city.”
At daybreak, Christmas morning, Smith called the garrison to arms and placed them in the formidable defenses along the River road (present-day North Washington Street) at the base of the Walnut Hills north of town. The position selected by Confederate engineers was naturally strong and throughout most of its length was fronted by water barriers. To further impede the Federals, a dense obstruction of felled trees, known as abatis, was established by the Confederates that would channel Union soldiers into “kill zones.”
On December 26, Sherman’s force ascended the Yazoo River and came ashore near the mouth of Chickasaw Bayou. After reconnoitering, Sherman deployed his troops and artillery. He told his subordinates that “we will lose 5,000 men before we take Vicksburg, and may as well lose them here as anywhere else.” The main assault was made on December 29. Despite the bravery displayed by his men, Sherman’s attack was quickly, easily, and bloodily repulsed. In reporting the action, the Union general wrote, “I reached Vicksburg at the time appointed, landed, assaulted, and failed.”
Confederate engineers were largely responsible for the Southern victory at Chickasaw Bayou. Their selection of the Walnut Hills and construction of the formidable defenses that guarded northern approaches to Vicksburg compelled the Federals to find another route to pocket the key to victory.