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America's Civil War: Digging to Victory at Vicksburg

Originally published by America's Civil War magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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Perched on a steep bluff that loomed over the eastern bank of the Mississippi River at a sharp bend in that watercourse, the city of Vicksburg sat high and defiant above the brown water that flowed to the Gulf of Mexico. In the spring of 1863, however, Major General Ulysses S. Grant's Army of the Tennessee was sprawled across the rough ground that ringed the landward side of the city, which was defended by 20,000 Confederates under Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton. To reach Vicksburg, the Yankees had executed a brilliant campaign during which they won five battles, seized the Mississippi state capital at Jackson, captured more than 6,000 Rebels, killed and wounded as many more, and ravaged the Mississippi countryside virtually unchecked. The Union forces had arrived outside Vicksburg on May 18. With Federal confidence soaring, Grant ordered assaults on May 19 and 22, but the Confederates handily turned back both attacks.

While the land approach to Vicksburg presented many problems, a riverborne Union assault on the city was also out of the question because Southern batteries on the bluff commanded the horseshoe bend in the Mississippi above the town. On May 23, Grant decided, as he put it, to 'out-camp the enemy and dig into Vicksburg. That would be no easy undertaking. Numerous deep ravines cut the high ground on the landward side of Vicksburg, and the slopes of the hills surrounding the town were so sharp and covered with fallen timber that an unarmed man would have the greatest difficulty climbing them, let alone a soldier under fire, burdened with the gear of war. The only level areas were at the deep bottoms of the ravines, where the Confederates had littered the ground with more fallen trees.

An 1862 Union attempt to capture Vicksburg had spurred the Confederates to reinforce the town's natural defensive position with a series of well-placed earthworks. Artillery batteries were planted on high points of the dividing ridges between the ravines. Shallow, 4-foot-wide trenches and rifle pits were dug to connect the forts and form a continuous defensive line. In a few places, the Confederates reinforced the gun emplacements with wooden stockade walls. Salients, protrusions of the line that gave the Confederates better fields of fire, had been built, and in front of several of them the Southerners had placed 2-to 8-foot-long sharpened stakes in the ground on an angle facing the enemy and woven telegraph wire among the protrusions to trip attackers.

The Southerners also had the advantage of interior lines, so they had shorter distances over which to shuttle troops to threatened points. This, coupled with the difficult terrain, helped offset the Union army's superior numbers. Grant also had to use some of his troops to guard the rear of his investing forces and keep an eye out for troops sent from the east by General Joseph E. Johnston. Additionally, the Army of the Tennessee's generals fretted that a siege might be protracted by bad weather or by an outbreak of disease. The quicker the Union army entered Vicksburg, the better.

The Confederate works around Vicksburg roughly resembled an ax, with the Mississippi River forming the handle and the blade of the ax head facing east. Major General William Tecumseh Sherman's XV Corps was arrayed across the northern edge of the ax head. Major General James B. McPherson's XVII Corps linked with Sherman's troops near a point where the lines turned south and the Rebels had erected a strong work known as the Stockade Redan. The Federals had fruitlessly attacked that strongpoint on May 19 and 22. The Jackson Road ran through the middle of McPherson's lines, and the Rebels had erected another redan on a narrow ridge that commanded the road as it entered the Confederate works. That work was called the 3rd Louisiana Redan after the regiment that manned it. South of McPherson's corps, the XIII Corps under Maj. Gen. John A. McClernand paralleled the Confederate works until his troops reached a wide marsh near the river.

Grant had only a few engineering officers to lay out the Union lines around the Confederate stronghold. That handful of men instructed the Union troops who built the earthworks. Pioneer companies, supplied with axes and digging implements, were assigned to begin work on the trenches and saps, but there were too few of them. The pioneer companies hired former slaves liberated during the campaign to provide additional labor. The freedmen were paid $10 a month, and they did their work with gusto. Additional details were culled from infantrymen who were assigned to work in the trenches. An Iowan reported: Every man in the investing line became an army engineer. Day and night the soldiers worked at digging narrow, zigzag approaches to the rebel works. One of the Federal engineering officers involved in the siege commented: Whether a battery was to be constructed by men who had never built one before, a sap-roller made by those who had never heard the name, or a ship's gun-carriage to be built, it was done, and, after a few trials, was well done.

Although the Union diggers were enthusiastic at the start of the siege, the novelty of sweaty digging soon wore off, and efficiency dropped. The neophyte sappers particularly disliked working at night in front of the Confederate works armed with only a pick or shovel. Even well-disciplined units were not able to advance the saps as effectively as the pioneers and their African-American cohorts.

Still, according to one of the Yankees, Every day the regiments, foot by foot, yard by yard, approached near the frowning, strong-armed rebel works. The soldiers burrowed like gophers and beavers — a spade in one hand and a musket in the other. In the evening, the diggers were relieved by a night crew, and when the day crew returned the next morning, they found that entrenchments had appeared as if by magic, in a single night.

While the diggers shoveled and picked at the Mississippi soil, Union sharpshooters kept the Confederates pinned down. According to a Yankee in the trenches: Forty-two days and forty-two nights the singular siege went on, and they were bold Rebels who dared to show their heads in all that time above the parapets of their forts, or over the sand bags of which they made little breastworks outside the ditch.

The ceaseless roar of gunfire was heard around the clock. At night, remembered an Iowan, batteries of artillery often joined in the midnight chorus, while the shells from the gunboats rose into the air like burning comets and fell into the devoted city. It was a wonderful spectacle.

To attack strategic points, such as the 3rd Louisiana Redan next to the Jackson Road, the Federals needed to dig saps wide enough for four men to march abreast. Messengers traveled between the main saps through narrow trenches known as bayous. The work on a trench line usually began at night. The Union diggers were placed about 5 feet apart, and each man was equipped with a pick, a shovel and a wicker basket. A worker dug a rifle pit for himself, and then he burrowed over to the man next to him. The wicker basket was hoisted to the enemy side of the trench and filled with dirt to deflect Minié bullets and shrapnel. At daybreak, new workers came in who widened and reinforced the trench. In addition to the gabions (cylinders of wicker filled with dirt and stones), fascines (bundles of tightly bound sticks) were used to add strength and protection to the topsides of the trenches.

To construct the large number of gabions needed for the works, the Union troops scavenged the area around Vicksburg for grapevines to weave into the cylinders, but the vines proved to be too heavy to use. The region's abundant cane, however, was discovered to be excellent for gabions and fascines. Union troops became experts at crushing the joints of the cane and weaving it between the stakes that formed the frame for the gabion.

The Confederates were certainly aware of the Union efforts, and had more than 130 cannons within their lines at Vicksburg that they could have used against the Federal entrenchers. Yankee marksmen, however, particularly targeted Rebel artillerymen, and the infrequent Confederate shelling failed to materially damage the advancing trenches. On June 15, Lieutenant Peter Haines, the energetic and observant chief engineer of McClernand's XIII Corps, reported: This morning the enemy opened one gun from the work on the right, to test the strength of the parapet. They did no damage whatever, their shells passing through the parapet, scarcely leaving a trace in it of their passage. After the siege, some Confederate officers cited the lack of ammunition for their failure to use artillery effectively against the sappers, but thousands of rounds of artillery ammunition were captured in the city.

After a trench had been started, the Union troops used large sap rollers constructed of cane and other materials to protect the diggers as they worked at the head of the trenches. The rollers were 5 feet in diameter and about 10 feet wide — light enough to be moved forward with relative ease by several men but still impervious to Minié bullets. Sap rollers of solid cane offered excellent protection, but they were too heavy to maneuver. Union troops improvised lighter sap rollers by tying fascines around a gabion, but they usually collapsed under their own weight when sappers attempted to move them. To give the bundle more support, some sap rollers were made with an inner core of cotton bales.

Lieutenant Haines designed a sturdy sap roller that contained a core of two well-braced barrels that he placed head to head with fascines secured around their exteriors. Haines then tied smaller cane bundles between the fascines. Telegraph wire was wrapped around the exterior to hold everything together.

Soft lead bullets could do no damage to Haines' rollers, so some Confederates stuffed cotton soaked with turpentine in the hollow of their Minié bullets. On a few occasions, those flaming bullets started fires that destroyed rollers.

As the Union saps edged toward the Confederate works, sharpshooters on both sides were given more opportunities to pick off enemy soldiers. In the Union lines opposite the 3rd Louisiana Redan was 2nd Lt. Henry C. Foster of the 22nd Indiana Infantry, a celebrated marksman who wore a distinctive cap of raccoon fur that earned him the nickname Coonskin. Foster would load up with provisions and creep close to the Confederate lines at night, where he would construct a burrow with a peep-hole in it close to the enemy lines. He would stay in his hole for several days at a time, sniping at the Rebels. Coonskin took things a step further when he used railroad ties from the destroyed Jackson & Vicksburg Railroad to construct a tower that gave him a clearer view inside the enemy lines. Using the tower as a sheltered firing platform, Coonskin became a terror to the Confederates.

Despite the deadly atmosphere of the siege and the promise of more violence to come, the pickets of the opposing armies could also be friendly. An Iowa Yankee remarked: The rifle pits of the two armies were now so close that the pickets talked with each other and nightly traded tobacco for coffee. At some places in the lines, the Rebel pickets and the Union guards for the working parties were within 10 yards of each other, and the sentinels agreed not to fire on each other at night. Such a bargain allowed the foes to spend a little time swapping stories and trading for minor necessities. Toward morning, the Union pickets often called out a warning: Going to shoot, Johnny.

In one incredible instance, the two lines of sentinels were so close that the uneven ground caused them to be intermixed. To lessen the confusion, officers from both sides met to discuss how to untangle the mess and where their respective troops should be placed. After the positions of each side were established, the picket lines were peacefully rearranged.

As the network of Union trenches around Vicksburg grew, the style of work the bluecoats performed began to vary. Reveting, protection on the outside of the parapets, and gun platforms depended upon the materials at hand. Although textbook gabions, fascines and plank platforms were common, other areas of the trenches were shored up with rough boards, rails and cotton bales. Gun platforms were made of boards and timber liberated from a nearby house, barn or cotton-gin house. Detached shutters, collars made of wood and sandbags were also used to reinforce the openings around the Union cannons.

Rebel sharpshooters taught the Yankees to keep their heads well below the top of the revetments, but that did not prevent the Union officers from surveying their progress. Late in the siege, Lieutenant Haines reported: I made a novel reconnaissance of the enemy's ditch this morning, by means of a mirror attached to a pole, being raised above the sap-roller, and a little to the rear, and then inclined forward. A perfect view of the ditch was by this means obtained. At times when the sharpshooting was particularly heavy, the sappers who were working close to the enemy lines considered it too dangerous to revet the trenches. At those dangerous stretches, the work parties dug down a few extra feet to create 6-foot-high walls. When the trenches were near enough for the Confederate defenders to lob hand grenades on the workers, pioneers more hardened to the dangerous work replaced the riflemen.

The Confederate works were too high for even strong-armed Union soldiers to toss grenades over them. To compensate for that inequity, Yankee troops improvised wooden mortars for 6- and 12-pounder shells, which were very effective from 100 to 150 yards.

Eventually, the Union saps reached a point so close to the Confederate works that they were exposed to a constant rain of hand grenades, shells and other explosives from the enemy lines, forcing the Yankees to tunnel underground in order to place explosives beneath the Confederate lines. On June 22, Captain Andrew Hickenlooper, chief engineer of the XVII Army Corps, reported on the digging that had been edging toward the 3rd Louisiana Redan: We reached the rebel fort to-day at 10 o'clock with main trench, and cleared away a place to commence mining operations. Experienced considerable annoyance to-day from rebel hand-grenades thrown among the workmen.

Hickenlooper collected all the XVII Corps men who had previously worked in mines and organized 36 of the strongest and most experienced miners into work parties. On the night of June 22, the miners in the first detail were issued drills, short-handled picks and shovels and set to work.

The dense soil of the Vicksburg region served as an advantage for the Yankee sappers. The compact earth made lining the mining galleries with supports unnecessary, and the troops were able to dig toward the 3rd Louisiana Redan, which the Federals referred to as Fort Hill, with ease. Within two days, the Union miners had burrowed a tunnel 3 feet wide, 4 feet high and 40 feet long. Satisfied that they were somewhere beneath the Confederate works, the Yankee miners began work on branch mines.

The farther they dug, the darker their mine became. The cramped miners also began to detect the deep, dull sound of picks and shovels at work that indicated the Rebels were digging a countermine. It seemed to be above and to the left of a Union gallery. As they worked in the dark, stifling underground chamber that lacked room for a man to stand, the Yankee diggers were petrified that a Rebel sapper might collapse the wall, roof or floor at any moment.

The miners were also worried when the sounds of Confederate countermining stopped. The Federal troops were left to wonder if the enemy chamber had been completed, and if so, if it was filled with powder. Would they disappear in a horrific explosion? On the night of June 24, the Yankee miners were so frightened by such possibilities that they quit work. In the morning, the men were persuaded to return to the mine, and they quickly rushed the completion of the galleries. They deposited 500 pounds of powder each into three different branch mines and 700 pounds in another chamber, for a total of 2,200 pounds of explosive. Fuses were arranged to explode all the charges at the same instant, and the powder chambers were sealed with cross-timbers, sandbags and other materials to concentrate the force of the explosion in the direction of the Rebel works.

By midday on June 25, the miners had completed their work and the Union forces prepared for the attack. Yankee artillery opened an intense barrage on the enemy works, and all along the line, sharpshooters kept Rebel soldiers pinned in place. Just before 4 p.m., the mine was detonated.

The explosion blasted a crater 35 feet wide by 12 feet deep and carried away a section of the 3rd Louisiana Redan, but did not destroy the cannon platforms of the Confederate fort. A soldier in the 3rd Louisiana recalled: Suddenly the earth under our feet gave a convulsive shudder and with a muffled roar a mighty column of earth men poles spades and guns arose many feet in the air. About fifty lives were blotted out in that instant.

The 45th Illinois led the Union surge into the opening in an attempt to finally gain an advantage. As the Yankees filled the gap created by the explosion, timbers were thrown up to provide works for the Union sharpshooters. The Rebels wheeled an artillery piece into place, opened fire at close range, shattered the protective timbers and showered the Union marksmen with deadly splinters that killed and wounded more men than the sharpshooters had shot. The Yankees quickly removed the timbers.

The working party of one regiment charged into the opening, and another regiment deployed as sharpshooters on the east flank. Some of the Yankees scaled the walls of the crater only to discover that the Rebels had constructed a parapet across the back of the redan, which put the Southerners in an excellent position to blunt the Union assault. The steep walls of the crater coupled with the newly constructed parapet gave the Confederates an advantage that they quickly exploited. Brigadier General Mortimer D. Leggett of the XVII Army Corps reported: Hand-grenades were then freely used by the enemy, which made sad havoc amongst my men, for, being in the crater of the exploded mine, the sides of which were covered by the men, scarcely a grenade was thrown without doing damage, and in most instances horribly mangling those they happened to strike. Some brave Rebels were using blankets to catch Union grenades, then heaving the unexploded devices back at their attackers trapped in the crater.

A Union work party began to prepare gun emplacements and to dig rifle pits to protect the section of the line that the Federals had gained. The Confederates rolled 6- and 12-pounder shells into the crater to harass the pioneers as they worked. Even so, by dark, a line of rifle pits had been completed across the center of the crater. During the night, the Yankees clung to their precarious positions amid the continual explosion of Rebel grenades and artillery shells.

The Northerners continued their work the following day, strengthening their entrenchments and constructing two gun emplacements in the crater. In addition, the Yankee pioneers began a covered gallery to protect the opening of a new mine that they hoped to dig under the Confederate lines. The timber over the gallery provided excellent protection against the Rebel hand grenades, but the Southerners adapted well to the situation, preparing a special weapon against the wooden entrance to this new mine. A barrel containing 125 pounds of gunpowder was rolled over the Union parapet and into the Union sap. When the 15-second fuse ignited the powder, the explosion ripped through the works, sending fragments of fascines, gabions and pieces of timber flying through the air. The pioneers, however, resolutely continued to work on the new mine that ran northwest under the 3rd Louisiana Redan.

Continuing their desperate efforts to stop the Federals from tunneling under their lines, the Confederates frantically dug and exploded smaller countermines. But those efforts all failed. On July 1, a second Yankee explosion ripped into the 3rd Louisiana Redan. A Confederate officer described the damage: The charge must have been enormous, as the crater made was at least 20 feet deep, 30 feet across in one direction and 50 in another. The earth upheaved was thrown many yards around, but little of it falling back into the crater. The faces of the redan were almost completely destroyed, and the blast destroyed part of the parapet that the Confederates had built across its open end. Although the Confederate works had been breached, the Union troops, remembering the bloodbath of June 25, made no attempt to assault the Rebels, who immediately set to work to repair the damage.

Notwithstanding the Rebel pluck at resurrecting their blasted lines, the explosions against the 3rd Louisiana Redan, plus similar progress at the Stockade Redan at the northeast corner of the Southern works and at other points along the line, pushed the Confederate works closer to the breaking point. At some places, Yankee regiments were within five yards of the enemy's line.

Orders soon filtered out to Union commands to widen the main saps so that troops in a column of fours, four men marching abreast, could easily pass through them. Some of the trenches were even widened to an extent that artillery could be pulled through. Planks, sandbags and other materials were gathered to protect the blue-clad soldiers as they passed over the rough ground during an attack on the Confederate works. The relentless Union sappers went to work on a new set of mining galleries. Again, they could hear the countermining by the Confederates, but the Yankees continued preparing to explode mines that would rip holes in the Rebel works at the start of a new general assault on the defenses of Vicksburg.

On July 3, Union sappers had nearly completed their work in the dark tunnels when the word was passed down the line that the Rebels had asked for surrender terms. Later that day, Generals Grant and Pemberton met under a tree a short distance from the devastated 3rd Louisiana Redan. Later, after an exchange of terms, Pemberton agreed to surrender Vicksburg.

The siege had lasted from May 22 to July 4. Some Union officers believed that time was too long. They explained, We might have been as ready for an assault two or three weeks earlier, if there had been a sufficient supply of engineer officers to watch that no time was lost or useless work done; to see that every shovelful of earth thrown brought us nearer to the end, and personally to push and constantly supervise the special works to which they were assigned.

Regardless of the time it took, after Grant realized that assaults were futile, he stuck to his decision to out-camp his foes. Using hundreds of men, he managed to construct an intricate system of earthworks that leveraged Pemberton's Confederates out of Vicksburg. The crucial Union victory, which allowed the Mississippi River, as President Abraham Lincoln put it, to flow unvexed to the sea, and split the Confederacy in two, was accomplished with picks and shovels as much as by muskets and cannons.



This article was written by Michael Morgan and originally appeared in the July 2003 issue of America's Civil War.

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