Roebling was born in 1837 in Saxonburg, Pennsylvania. He received an engineering education in the 1850s and enlisted at the outbreak of the Civil War. Wishing for more action, Roebling resigned from his initial unit and enlisted in a New York regiment. He became an invaluable engineer, eventually serving on the staff of V Corps commander, Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren.
Roebling served in many of the major battles in which the Army of the Potomac fought. When Grant and Lee maneuvered to Petersburg in the summer of 1864, the construction of earthworks rose to a new level and Roebling's engineering expertise came into good use in laying out massive and ever-lengthening lines of trenches, artillery redoubts, and forts. These formidable earthworks brought about a new style of warfare that would be replicated on the European battlefields of World War I.
Originally named Roebling's Redoubt, it was soon changed to honor fallen Gen. John Sedgwick, who had been killed at Spotsylvania. Fort Sedgwick was located south of Petersburg along the Jerusalem Plank Road. The fort was well armed. Along with the infantry soldiers stationed there, it also was equipped with eighteen artillery emplacements and an additional four-gun redan. Fort Sedgwick was constructed by soldiers in both the II and V Corps. It remained an active fortification until the Confederate lines were broken on April 2, 1865.
Opposite of Fort Sedgwick stood Confederate Fort Mahone, which was known as Fort Damnation by the soldiers stationed in it. Fort Hell and Fort Damnation were appropriate monikers for such terrible places. Mud holes when it rained, and ovens in the Petersburg summer, the earthworks were dangerous due to snipers on both sides and infestations of lice, flies, and fleas that pestered the soldiers to no end.
After the war, Roebling assisted his father John in the construction of the suspension bridge that traversed the Ohio River connecting Covington, Kentucky, with Cincinnati, Ohio and which was completed in 1866. The father-son team began work on the famed Brooklyn Bridge about two years later. During the construction,which took 14 years, John Roebling died and Washington took over the business and saw the New York landmark though to completion. And although Fort Sedgwick was long ago leveled and paved over in Petersburg, the Brooklyn Bridge still stands as a nineteenth century engineering marvel and a testament to Roebling's skills.
Fort Sedgwick and Brooklyn Bridge images courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Washington Roebling image in the public domain.