Bragg’s Engineers

A lot of attention has been paid to Rosecrans’ engineering assets during the campaign. After all, the move on Chattanooga was likely to demand much from the engineers in the Army of the Cumberland, from bridging the Tennessee and rebuilding railroads to establishing the supply depots Rosecrans envisioned at Stevenson, Bridgeport and ultimately in Chattanooga proper.

The Army of Tennessee had to operate in this same rugged and difficult country. Bragg needed engineers no less than did Rosecrans. Compared to the information to be found on the Union Pioneers and the 1st Michigan Engineers and Mechanics, however, details on how the Confederate engineering corps operated are sketchy.

On August 1st, 1863, various company-sized units of pioneers within Bragg’s army were consolidated into the 3rd Confederate Engineer Regiment, nominally of eight companies (A-H.) I say nominally, because in fact the 3rd Regiment embraced troops all across the Western Theater, and not all the companies served together.

The nucleus of this unit was a battalion of five companies formed in the spring of 1863, under the command of Steven Presstman. Each of the divisions of the Army of Tennessee at that time detached men with the requisite skills to form a pioneer company. In August, they were re-designated as the 3rd Engineers.

Presstman’s original companies were:

A, commanded by Richard C. McCalla (Buckner’s Department of East Tennessee)

B, commanded by Henry M. Pharr, (Cheatham’s Division)

C, commanded by A. W. Gloster, (Stewart’s Division)

F, commanded by W. A. Ramsey (Cleburne’s Division)

G, commanded by Robert L. Cobb (Withers’ – subsequently Hindman’s – Division)

He was augmented by

D, commanded by Edmund Winston, (formerly known as Winston’s Sappers and Miners) This unit was apparently first formed in 1861, in Tennessee. Later they were also assigned to Buckner’s command.

H, commanded by A. W. Clarkson. (formerly Clarkson’s Sappers and Miners) This unit first served in the trans-Mississippi, and was captured at Arkansas Post. When exchanged Clarkson’s men joined the Army of Tennessee, though a considerable number of men who were never captured remain behind in the Trans-Mississippi, and served with other units in that department.

Company E, commanded by William T. Hart, never served with the regiment. It was stationed in Western and Southwest Virginia, and took part in the Shenandoah Valley campaigns. It seems to have been included only for administrative purposes.

Captain Gloster’s Company C was re-designated as Bragg’s Pontoniers. According to Jim Ogden, Chief historian at Chickamauga-Chattanooga National Military Park, the Army of Tennessee had a sizable pontoon train, large enough to span the Tennessee river twice. In July, 1863, as Bragg retreated out of Middle Tennessee, they erected bridges at Battle Creek and at Kelly’s Ferry. Later all the pontoons were towed upstream to Chattanooga.

After the battle of Chickamauga, when Longstreet proposed crossing the Tennessee north of Chattanooga in an effort to outflank Rosecrans and force him to abandon the city, Historian Thomas L. Connelly pointed out that this was impossible because Bragg had no pontoons. Connelly was not entirely correct – Bragg did manage to save his bridge train when he abandoned Chattanooga back in early September. He shipped south on the railroad to Cartersville Georgia, seventy miles south. The problem lay in bringing the pontoons back north in time enough to implement Longstreet’s scheme. That was simply not possible, given the state of the railroads and Bragg’s other transportation problems. For all practical purposes then, Connelly was right: Bragg had no pontoons, at least that he could deploy any time soon.

During the campaign, the rest of the 3rd Engineers worked on most of the earthworks that defended Chattanooga and worked on improving the railroad. Company B burned the rail bridge at Running Water Gorge before Chattanooga fell. They re-planked the railroad bridge over the Oustanaula at Resaca, and both dug and manned the earthworks erected there in mid-September when it appeared that Crittenden’s XXI Corps might be marching south from Ringgold. On September 17th, they started work on repairing the bridges south of Ringgold (burned by Forrest on September 11) in order to re-open the rail line past Catoosa Platform.

Other companies of the 3rd were present on the battlefield during September 19 and 20, for they spent their time repairing and improving Reed’s and Alexander’s Bridges – both were important lifelines for the army, to their supply columns stationed on the other side of West Chickamauga Creek.

The Union engineers contributed hugely to Rosecrans’ campaign. Their bridges were critical to the Army of the Cumberland’s success. They built forts, blockhouses, and steamboats. The Elk River Bridge was built so quickly and so efficiently that the army high command were astounded at the rapidity of the construction. Plaudit upon Plaudit seems to come their way.

The Confederate engineers, by contrast, get little notice. The fortifications they built at Chattanooga were put to good use – by the Yankees. The Pontoons contributed nothing to Bragg’s plans. It took weeks to rebuild three small bridges across Chickamauga Creek in order just to extend the rail line two miles from Catoosa to downtown Ringgold. Their story is obscure, largely, I suspect, through no fault of their own.

Between the 1st Michigan and the three pioneer battalions, Rosecrans could probably count on 2-3,000 engineering troops at any given time. The few records that survive to document the strength of the 3rd Confederate Engineers, by contrast, suggest that they never numbered more than a few hundred men, far less than the engineers in blue.

There are few resources available to enlighten us on the role of these troops. Captain McCalla’s correspondence to his wife survives at Auburn University, and a few years back George C. Kundahl produced a biography of John Morris Wampler, another Confederate Engineer in the Army of Tennessee prior to the Chickamauga campaign. This paucity of sources stands in stark contrast to the Union side of the equation. The 1st Michigan, for example, has a huge number: When doing research at the University of Michigan alone I remember seeing twenty or thirty collections.

There may come a time when I have to take a closer look at these men, largely forgotten by history…

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4 Responses to “Bragg’s Engineers”

  1. mpmusic30646 Says:

    We just found out that my great-great grandfather was in the 3rd, Company C, with Captain Gloster. He was an “artificer” who served with this group until they surrendered at Catawba River, South Carolina, May 5, 1865. My ancestor, Kinchen Milton Strickland, was a carpenter who had gone to California in the early 1850s as a miner. Obviously, these were valuable skills as a member of the Engineering Corps. We do have a few documents about his service, but would love to learn more.

  2. Joseph Knight Says:

    My great-great-great-grandfather, William Nowlin, served in the 3rd Reg’t Engineer Troops. He joined Co. H of the 18th Texas Cavalry in early 1862 and was then transferred to a Capt. A.W. Clarkson’s company of “sappers and miners” in July 1862 as a Mechanic. This company seems to have been attached to Deshler’s Texas Brigade and was captured along with it at Arkansas Post. After it’s release, it went with the brigade to the Army of Tennessee and was attached to the 3rd Confederate Engineers as Co. H, and served with the AoT for the rest of the war. Nowlin was with the company in Tennessee as late as the summer of 1863, after that no further record.

    I, for one, would really like to learn more about the role Confederate Engineer Troops played in the Army of Tennessee. Thanks for posting this research, and I look forward to reading more.

    • JoanneS728 Says:

      Joseph, My 3x’s great grandfather was in Co. H with yours. The sappers and miners. He was Robert Beard. Twice, he was captured and taken to Camp Douglas in Chicago and is believed to have died there… Still doing research. This was a good post on the history of the regiment.

  3. Steven Wampler Says:

    I have an ancestor, Gr-Gr Grandfather Leonard W Hutton in the 3rd Engineer. He ended up being wounded at the Battle of Droop Mountain.

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