Chickasaw Bayou (10)

December 29 – Another Option Arises

BG George Morgan, conducting a reconnaissance on December 28th, discovered what he believed to be an undefended portion of the Confederate line. He was determined to bridge the Bayou at this point and assault the enemy from the center. To bridge the bayou he called upon Patterson’s Kentucky Engineer Company, a unit that had served him well during the Cumberland Gap campaign. The mission was approved by Sherman, who was undoubtedly looking for anyway to break the stalemate at the bayou. The stream at the crossing point was only 80 feet wide but Patterson was forced to explain that an improvised bridge would have to be constructed. Under normal circumstances a stream of this width could be easily spanned by three or four boats but unfortunately in the haste to load their equipment for the departure from Memphis the balks, or stringers, for the bridge decking had been left behind. Instead, Patterson proposed to bring his eight available boats to the bayou and lash them together side by side to form the bulk of the span. The entrance and exit ramps over the steep banks could be fabricated from nearby trees. The missing balks and decking could be produced in the same fashion. Patterson asked for two hours to complete the task. This of course assumed that the area was indeed free of the enemy. Morgan set the plan in motion.

The operation got off to a bad start when Patterson mistook a small stream for the proposed crossing site in the dark. The wrong stream was bridged. Learning of the error BG Morgan ordered Patterson to take up the span and join him at the correct site. It was not until daylight that that the bridge material was reloaded. After a struggle to bring the available material to the site through the heavy undergrowth the work was begun. Unfortunately, the enemy had not neglected the area in question. No sooner had the first boat been pushed into the water the bridge site came under artillery attack. Both sides rushed infantry to the area. Col. Thomas Bennett’s 69th Indiana scrambled to the river front. They opened a suppressing fire on the enemy artillerymen to cover the engineers. Across the bayou Gen. S. D. Lee, responding to artillery fire from an unexpected sector of his line pushed the 29th Louisiana and 42nd Georgia into the fray. The site, intended to be an unopposed crossing raged into action. Eventually Morgan moved Thayer’s brigade into the fight intent on forcing a crossing, but this was dependent on the construction of the bridge.

In the early afternoon, under cover of the massed infantry and artillery Patterson’s men, aided by a detail from the 114th Ohio, rushed forward. The party managed to place and deck only one pontoon before Confederate artillery fire drove them from the work. Embittered soldiers from the 42nd Ohio recalled the incident this way;

“Every effort was made to lay the bridge under a heavy fire from the enemy’s artillery and sharpshooters but the boats were heavy, the enemy shells sunk two of them, and the bridge would not span the bayou. By this accident, which a competent pontoon train would have obviated, this brigade was kept out of the attack.”

The severity of the enemy response caused Morgan to have second thoughts. He suspended the operation while he went to consult with Sherman. Ultimately the two men decided to scrap the plan altogether. Patterson’s men again moved forward, but this time to recover their equipment. Thinking that the appearance of the engineers presaged another attempt to cross Lee pounded the area with artillery. The few pontoons that had been put into the water were finally hauled away, two very badly damaged. The third option was finished. After three days of frustrating effort the Federal forces had still not crossed the bayou.

Chickasaw Bayou (Campaign Series)





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