Sunrise on Sunday, 3 May 1863 found a new and odd looking crossing of the 5 food deep south fork of Bayou Pierre - a 166 foot long by 12 foot wide floating raft bridge. It had been constructed - 20 yards upstream from the old suspension bridge at Askamalla ford - from the fences, pig sties, stable enclosures and sidewalks of Port Gibson, Mississippi. It was an amazing structure requiring constant repair, but over the next week it would endure the passage of nearly 45,000 Federal soldiers, their cannon, wagons and cavalry. Such herculean effort was deserving of a Julius Caesar to praise its construction. Instead it received a mere footnote in the history of Captain Patterson's Kentucky Company of Mechanics and Engineers - a regiment despite its name - ably assisted in this effort by work teams from the 78th Ohio Volunteer Regiment.
The 78th (above, in Zanesville) was an example of how the war was evolving into something larger. The regiment had been formed in October of 1861 at Camp Gilbert on the outskirts of Zanesville, Ohio. Unlike the 90 day provincial and insular regiments formed in the heady rush before the battle of First Battle of Bull Run, these men were drawn from all over the state, and had enlisted for 3 years. But their Colonel, 42 year old Mortimer Dormer Leggett, was an amateur soldier - being a lawyer and superintendent of the Zanesville public schools before the war.
The self described "Jayhawkers" had fought at Fort Donaldson and had lost a man killed and 8 wounded on the second day of Shiloh. They had participated in the siege of Corinth, Mississippi, and the assault on Chickasaw Bayou. They stormed the trenches at Fort Hindman, and helped dig the failed Lake Providence Canal. They had come to Mississippi as part of the 2nd Brigade, under General John A. Logan's 3rd Division, XVII Corps. And they were practical enough to know that building a floating bridge was just part of their job as soldiers.
Bursting the cork at Port Gibson, Grant now had two roads to choose from. To Grant's left the road ran west for three miles before crossing the mainstream of Bayou Pierre on a second suspension bridge. The road then forked. A turn south would lead to the fortress of Grand Gulf. But follow the road north across the Big Black River and a traveler would reach Warrenton and Vicksburg beyond. This crossing was protected by Colonel Cockerel with just 3 battle weary Mississippi regiments and 6 cannon.
Or Grant might choose to advance for 8 miles northwest up the road to his right, which crossed the north fork of Bayou Pierre on a third suspension bridge. Continuing north this road led to Willow Springs and yet another fork, guarded by the remnants of Colonel Garott's Alabama brigade. The left turning here lead northwest to cross the Big Black river at Harkinson's Ferry, before reaching the village of Mount Vernon and then Warrenton. Take the right fork and you would trend northeast through Cayuga and Auburn before crossing 14 mile Mile Creek and reaching Raymond - and beyond, the state capital of Jackson, Mississippi.
Lieutenant General Pemberton (above), now in Vicksburg, might have sent troops from the city to bolster the defenses along Bayou Pierre. But the Pennsylvanian in gray was painfully aware that Grant's XVth Corps, under General William Tecumseh Sherman, with most of the Federal gunboats for artillery support, was still poised at Miliken's bend, less than a day's sailing time north of Vicksburg. Pemberton dare not strip the cities' defenses else the aggressive Sherman launch a coup de main. Besides, it was not in Pemberton's nature to rush to the battlefield.
Instead, the overall he remained in the city, strengthening trench lines around Vicksburg while allowing General Loring (above) to assemble all troops recalled from northern and central Mississippi along the Big Black River. What Pemberton and Loring both needed now was time.
And it seemed he might get it. At Millikin's bend General Sherman was suddenly cautious. Separated from his friend Grant, the ginger headed Ohioian (above) was looking at the 70 mile long tattered cordoryed road to Hard Times Landing. It had almost been destroyed by the 30,000 men who had already marched down it. And should his own corps make that passage "Cump" must leap his 15,000 men across the Old Man River and into the yawning abyss of central Mississippi, where the entire Federal army might be cutoff and devoured. No wonder then that Sherman was worried. On 29 April, just before Grant crossed the Mississippi, he wrote his wife that "...when they take Grand Gulf they (will) have the elephant by the tail." But Grant had no intention of stopping or even waiting.
Grant's ordered Sherman, ""I wish you to collect a train of 120 wagons . . . and send them to Grand Gulf; and there load them with rations, as follows: One hundred thousand pounds of bacon, the balance coffee, sugar, salt and hard bread . . . The enemy is badly beaten, greatly demoralized, and exhausted of ammunition. The road to Vicksburg is open. All we want now are men, ammunition, and hard bread. We can subsist our horses on the country, and obtain considerable supplies for our troops." Sherman set to work fulfilling his orders, but he was convinced Grant's plan was leading the army into disaster.
The first division of the McClernand's XIII Corps to cross the floating bridge over the south fork of Bayou Pierre that Saturday morning, 3 May 1863, was the 12th, commanded by the humorless patrician, 42 year old Hoosier, Brigadier General Alvin Peterson Hovey.
Hovey had an undeserved reputation as a populist, and a history as a pro-union Democrat. Both of these traits convinced Republicans to make him a Colonel. Hovey was then transformed into a radical Republican once he was confronted with the ugly reality of slavery, and the realization that his political future depended on his support of the war. He assured a superior, "I want all the cotton burned north and south....I want all the women and children, especially of rebels, reduced to starvation and want." A modicum of military skill and conspicuous bravery at Shiloh convinced Grant to promote Hovey and give him a division. Once across the bridge, the 12th division turned left, toward Grand Gulf.
The second division across the bridge was the 10th, commanded by the short - both physically and in patience - was the cranky 48 year old career cavalryman, Brigadier General Andrew Jackson Smith (above). The irascible Smith had never commanded infantry before the civil war, but he was immensely popular with both his superiors and his troops, because he rarely complained, had little time for pomp or speeches, and because he shared his soldier's hardships. He was also dependably and reliably professional, later becoming Grant's "go-to" officer whenever a crises arose. And in an ocean of political generals,. as far as anyone knew, General Andrew Jackson Smith had no strong personal political opinions, at all.
Cyrus Hussey (above), on the other hand, was a man with plenty of opinions. A rigid and judgmental 24 year old Quaker school teacher, Cyrus opposed slavery on religious grounds. He enlisted in the 48th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment in 1861, as a sergeant, but by spring of 1863, Cyrus was the Colonel. He was a respected officer even by the many who did not like him. For relaxation, he did algebra and diagrammed sentences, or just complained in letters to his wife about the moral failings of his superiors. Once Cyrus had chosen a side, he never wavered in his beliefs. Falling in love with an Episcopalian, Rebecca Hodson, Cyrus married her in December of 1859, even though he was immediately disowned by his own congregation. But it was about the only rebellious thing he ever did,
The 48th Ohio crossed the south fork about 9:30 that Saturday morning. As they marched through the now open, rolling Mississippi countryside, Cyrus heard what he thought was cannon firing off toward Grand Gulf. In fact it was General Bowen setting off the ammunition he could not escape with, as he evacuated the forts overlooking the river. Grant heard the same sound in Port Gibson and knew immediately what it meant. The Rebels had no intention of fighting to hold onto the Bayou Pierre line, and were retreating all the way back to the Big Black River. The deep thunder of the exploding Confederate munitions meant he would soon have that elephant by the tail, and Sherman's Corps could now cut short their voyage down the river, and disembark at Grand Gulf.
Shortly after noon General Smith's division arrived to find the third suspension bridge over the north fork of Bayou Pierre burning, like the other two. But upon inspection 25 year old engineer Lieutenant Colonel James Harrison Wilson was able to report that although the rebels had set fire to the wooden roadbed, even it had not burned completely. The iron cables - actually iron chains held together by rope - and the iron towers they draped from, had suffered no significant damage. By early evening the Kentucky Engineers and Mechanics were at work repairing the damage. And at the first light of dawn, Sunday 4 May, 1863, the 10th Division would be able to cross the Bayou, and advance on Willow Springs.
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