Roebling (October 4, 1864)

A view of the fortifications at Petersburg. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

A view of the fortifications at Petersburg. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Anyone who has read David McCullough’s The Great Bridge has encountered the man Theodore Lyman writes about here. Washington A. Roebling was the son of engineer John Roebling, who designed and built revolutionary suspension bridges. After the war the senior Roebling took on this greatest task yet, constructing a bridge from Manhattan to Brooklyn. He died horribly of tetanus (contracted after a boat crushed his foot against a dock on the East River), so his son Washington took over as chief engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge. When Washington’s health failed before he could complete his epic project, his wife Emily–Gouverneur Warren’s younger sister—essentially took over as head engineer in his stead. Roebling had been with Warren on Little Round Top on July 2, 1863 and was instrumental in getting Strong Vincent’s brigade and the 140th New York to defend the position. It had also been Roebling, back on November 30, who brought the message to Meade from Warren announcing that Warren would not attack Lee’s forces at Mine Run.

When I visited Petersburg while writing Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg, I was pleased to see Lyman’s description of redoubt construction from this letter on one of the markers in Fort Stedman.

Washington Augustus Roebling (via Wikipedia).

Washington Augustus Roebling (via Wikipedia).

The General rode along the whole front of the new line and carefully examined it, accompanied by his Staff and by the taciturn Roebling. R. is a character, a major and aide-de-camp and engineer, and factotum to General Warren. He is a son of the German engineer, Roebling, who built the celebrated suspension bridge over the Niagara River. He is a light-haired, blue-eyed man, with a countenance as if all the world were an empty show. He stoops a good deal, when riding has the stirrups so long that the tips of his toes can just touch them, and, as he wears no boots, the bottoms of his pantaloons are always torn and ragged. He goes poking about in the most dangerous places, looking for the position of the enemy, and always with an air of entire indifference. His conversation is curt and not garnished with polite turnings. “What’s that redoubt doing there?” cries General Meade. “Don’t know; didn’t put it there,” replies the laconic one. The Chief growled a little while at the earthwork, but, as that didn’t move it, he rode onward. We passed at a clever time, for, a few minutes after, the Rebel skirmishers made a rush, and drove ours out of a house, and their bullets came over the corner of a field where we had been. Thereat our skirmishers made a counter-rush and drove theirs again away from the house, and our cannon fired and there was a small row generally. Some of our earthworks were really very workmanlike, handsomely sloped in front, and neatly built up with logs in the rear. It is really a handsome sight to get a view of half a mile of uniform parapet, like this, and see the men’s shelter-tents neatly pitched in the pine woods, just in rear, while in front a broad stretch of timber has been “slashed,” to give a good field of fire and break up any body of troops advancing to attack. It is quite interesting, too, to see a redoubt going up. The men work after the manner of bees, each at the duty assigned. The mass throw up earth; the engineer soldiers do the “revetting,” that is, the interior facing of logs. The engineer sergeants run about with tapes and stakes, measuring busily; and the engineer officers look as wise as possible and superintend. . . .

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 240-1. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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