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 Three: Cannons over Vicksburg
The post commander at Vicksburg was Lt. Col. James L. Autry. Although a Tennessee native, he was raised in Holly Springs, Mississippi, and had practiced law with the venerable L.Q.C. Lamar before civil war tore the nation asunder. With the opening of hostilities between the states, Autry was elected lieutenant colonel of the 9th Mississippi Infantry. He was later given command of the 27th Mississippi Infantry and directed to Vicksburg with instructions to fortify the city as quickly as possible.
Aiding Autry in this task was Capt. David B. Harris of the Confederate engineers. Harris, who was born in Virginia and graduated seventh in his class from the United States Military Academy in 1833, had resigned his commission two years after graduation to work on canals and railroads. In 1845 he purchased a farm, Woodville, in Goochland County, and became a tobacco farmer. With the advent of civil war he was commissioned a captain in the Confederate engineers and was assigned to the staff of Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard. He planned the Confederate defenses at Centerville, Virginia, and along the Mississippi River at Fort Pillow and Island No. 10 before being sent to Vicksburg.
Working under Harris’ direction, fatigue parties worked feverishly to throw up seven batteries for the defense of Vicksburg. Five of the batteries were located south of the city and two north of town. The works below Vicksburg mounted 13 guns: two 10-inch columbiads, eight rifled 32-pounders, two 42-pounder smoothbores, and one 10-inch mortar. Five guns were emplaced north of the city (three 8-inch columbiads, one rifled 32-pounder, and one rifled 18-pounder—the famous “Whistling Dick.”) These batteries were powerful and formidable, and completed not a moment too soon.
On May 18, the vanguard of the Federal flotilla arrived below Vicksburg and Commander S. Phillips Lee (a distant relative of Confederate general Robert E. Lee) made demand for the city’s surrender. Autry replied, “I have to say that Mississippians don’t know, and refuse to learn, how to surrender to an enemy. If Commodore [David Glasgow] Farragut or Brigadier General [Benjamin F.] Butler can teach them, let them come and try.” About 5 p.m. on May 20, the gunboat Oneida opened fire upon the city—the first hostile shot fired against Vicksburg.
Throughout the hot summer of 1862 both sides fired away at one another but suffered or inflicted little damage. Due to the restrictions of the gunports, the large naval guns could not be elevated to draw an effective fire upon the Confederate batteries. Conversely, the Southern guns, mounted behind thick parapets of earth could not be depressed sufficiently to accurately fire at the gunboats. By late July, with his crews suffering from wide-spread sickness and his ships faced with rapidly falling water that threatened to strand his vessels, Farragut realized he could not compel the surrender of Vicksburg based solely on he might of his naval guns and withdrew to safer, deeper water below Baton Rouge.
One resident of Vicksburg boasted with glee, “What will they say in the North now about opening the Mississippi River; huzzah for Vicksburg,” but added “9 groans for New Orleans.” Such jubilation would be short-lived. For although the city had withstood its first test under fire, more terrifying ordeals were in store for the citizens of Vicksburg and their gallant defenders.