Before the Seven Days – Advance to the Chickahominy Part 14

The Grapevine Bridge
Many thousands of engineer projects were accomplished during the Civil War. Structures of all types, bridges, roads, and fortifications were constructed in every theater but none can claim the importance of the Grapevine Bridge. While other projects were used to initiate action (Fredericksburg, Chattanooga…), to besiege the enemy (Vicksburg, Petersburg,…), to move armies to battle (Gettysburg, Mine Run, …) or to escape poor tactical situations (Champion Hill) it can be argued that no other work actually changed the outcome of a battle like the Grapevine Bridge. The bridge differed from the other crossings over the Chickahominy River in that it was constructed, not assembled like a pontoon bridge, it was not built on the remains of a previous structure, and it was not built by engineers.

The story of the bridge begins on May 26th. MG Edwin Sumner, commanding II Corps of the Army of the Potomac, summoned COL Edward Cross to his headquarters. Sumner needed a bridge and realizing the lack of available engineer assets, the Engineer Brigade and Engineer Battalion being tasked out on other crossings, assigned the 5th New Hampshire Infantry to “pioneer duty” for the purpose of constructing a crossing in his front. The selection of the 5th was probably not random. The regiment had demonstrated ample ability with the axe during the siege of Yorktown. Under the supervision of BG Woodbury, of the Engineer Brigade, they built a tower “which was forty feet square at the base, and one hundred feet high, with a floor every ten feet, all constructed of logs, notched and interlocked, so as to give immense strength.” On Wednesday, May 28th the order to begin construction of the bridge was issued and Cross was taken to the proposed sight by a staff officer.

The location was the site of a failed attempt by the 1st Minnesota to bridge the river. The Minnesotans had created an abutment on the northern shore by cutting away the ten foot high bank but had given up the enterprise when the swampy ground proved incapable of supporting even the slightest weight. Cross would not be deterred and put his men to work. The crossing would actually consist of three bridges interconnected by corduroy road. The main channel of the stream (50′ wide) was bridged by felling two large trees across the width and then limbing them. The butts were secured to the stumps by vines and then these stringers were decked with alternating layers of logs, also laced into place with vines, to form a roadway. The material was cut from the nearby forest and floated or carried to the site by details. The men working in the water were often waist to armpit deep in the murky brown stream.

On the second day of construction details from the 64th New York and the Irish Brigade were sent to expedite the work. When asked what else could be done to further the work Cross responded that a barrel of whiskey would go a long way toward fortifying the men in the water. A barrel of whiskey was delivered and the head smashed in with an axe. Cross appointed himself guardian and distributor of the much sought after beverage. His troops, wise to the Colonel, developed their own methods of securing a ration. Intended for the men in the water the log carriers figured they deserved a share as well and soon realized if they arrived soaking wet at the barrel they would be issued a tin cup full. One private on the log crew reported that it was not long before they were jumping into “the deepest place we could find” and then walking wet “with great nonchalance” to the barrel to take their drink.

The other sections of the bridge were built by constructing cribs of “heavy timber – log house fashion – ten or twelve feet high, every 20 to 25 feet. These were sunk into the water, in some places two cribs were required, to act as piers for heavy stringers. The fifteen foot roadway was formed by placing other logs “closely, side by side ” to act as flooring. When the final layer of decking was laid “logs were put at the edges” to prevent the wheels of passing wagons and artillery from accidentally rolling off. The approaches and connecting roads were corduroyed and the 1200 foot long structure finished in two days. The bridge contained “two hundred thousand cubic feet of logs” and was built by about 1000 men without the aid of mechanical devises of any kind. The structure survived the torrents of rain that washed out several other bridges and allowed II Corps to go to the aid of Keyes and Heintzelman on the far shore.

Before the Seven Days (Campaign Series)





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