Monday, July 02, 2007

The Town That Forgot the Fourth of July

Taking a quick glance at the Fourth of July events scheduled in the Vicksburg, Mississippi area it looks like any other town. The Clarion Ledger has an entire webpage full of events…..ballooning, gospel music, fireworks… and The Vicksburg Post mentions:

A nine-day schedule of events for Vicksburg’s Fourth of July was announced, ranging from a concert by a Beatles tribute band to the city’s annual fireworks extravaganza.

It has not always been so.

Following their part in the Civil War the city of Vicksburg basically ignored our nation’s birth for several decades and many citizens just simply refused to celebrate it in any shape or form.

To understand why we need to take a look at the Mississippi River and the part it played in the events of the war. The river cut the Confederacy in two. Control of the southern portion of the river was necessary to give easy communication access back and forth between the eastern and western portions of the Confederate States of America. Not only was the river important economically to the South it was also important to the North, and they wanted to regain control.

Many cities along the river---New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Natchez fell easy enough to the Union forces. Vicksburg was different. Vickburg had been termed the Gibralter of the Mississippi River since it was located on 200 foot bluffs that stretched for three miles overlooking a horseshoe bend in the river. Its strategic importance was not lost on Union leaders. Abraham Lincoln called Vicksburg the key, and the war could not be brought to an end without the key in the Union’s pocket.

In May, 1862, David Farragut’s advance ships arrived off the shores of Vicksburg and requested the town’s surrender. The military commander, James Autrey, exclaimed, “No, Mississippians do not know and refuse to learn how to surrender to an enemy.” A few days later Farragut, the future hero of Mobile Bay, was turned away from Vicksburg by a Confederate ironclad. Farragut was simply unprepared to put up any kind of fight.

Finally Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant gave a try at Vicksburg in May, 1863.. He also failed on his first two attempts. On May 19th under Grant’s command, William T. Sherman led his troops in a movement against Confederate forces. Thinking it would go well for them this action cost the Union approximately 1,000 men.

Grant planned more carefully for an attack on May 22nd. This time the entire army took part. Though Grant’s men broke through Confederate lines several times the city did not fall. Union efforts resulted in 4,000 Union dead. It was at this point Grant decided to wait the Confederates out. They along with the citizens of of Vicksburg were hemmed in on all sides by the Union forces.

The seige was off to a horrifying start almost from the get-go when Grant allowed his casualites to lie on the battlefield. They quickly became bloated and blackened in the hot sun. One Confederate soldier remarked, “The Yanks are trying to smell us out of Vicksburg.” Finally, Lt. General John C. Pemberton, the Confederate commander, sent a note to Grant asking him to bury his dead. A truce for two and half hours was granted for this to happen. During this time there was much movement across the lines of battle and much conversation between the Blue and the Gray. Coffee and other necessary items were traded, and mixed card games struck up.

Once the signal was given, however, everyone returned to their proper places, and the seige continued. Over two hundred cannons, guns of the fleet, boats that housed mortars, guns on the Louisana side of the river, and sharpshooters rained fire on Vicksburg night and day.

The seige would last forty-seven days.

In communication with Pemberton, Joseph E. Johnston, the overall commander of Confederate forces in Mississippi, ordered him to withdraw from Vicksburg, but Pemberton did not think he could do so without sacrificing all of his men. Johnson’s had a plan to attack Grant in order to allow Pemberton a chance to escape, but in the end he finally decided it would not be of any benefit and Pemberton found himself surrounded and under seige.

Pemberton’s men were now trapped with inedible food and little munitions. It did not take long for scurvy, malaria, dysentary, and diarrhea to invade the ranks of the Rebels.
It was said that the city was so tightly guarded on all sides by the Union soldiers that even a cat could not escape.

At times the situation inside the town became a contest between citizen and soldier for what little food remained. One man for a time stayed up all night in his garden to keep the soldiers from stealing what little food he had left for his family. Later on speculators would hoarde items in order to get the highest price as the sieged continued.

Citizens were forced to find refuge in caves once their homes were deemed no longer safe from the constant Union bombardment. Some caves were only as large as a fireplace while others could hold as many as 200 people. Larger caves were reinforced with wooden supports, but due to the constant shelling a few did cave in. Many of the caves were dug by slave labor, but a few sources report they were paid sometimes $30 or more depending on the size.

Mark Twain in his book Life on the Mississippi advised, “Sometimes the caves were desperately crowded, and always hot and close. Sometimes a cave would have twenty or twenty-five people packed in it; no turning room for anybody; air so foul, sometimes you couldn’t have made a candle burn in it. A child was born in one of those caves one night. Think of that, why it was like having it born in a trunk.”

The citizens of Vicksburg attempted and more or less succeeded in living as normally as they could under the most impossible circumstances. Some of the larger caves contained rugs, pictures, and pieces of furniture.

Social classes still managed to separate themselves even in the dirt. Many of the town’s elite had their own area of caves that were nicknamed Sky Parlor. There are even stories of a band or two playing in and around some of these “nicer” caves.

It could be very dangerous though and citizens were terrorized minute by minute. Life on the Mississippi, by Mark Twain tells of two citizens who met on the street and shook hands. A shell hit and one of the men suddenly had a hand holding his but the body that belonged to the hand was no longer there. Amazingly less than a dozen citizens were killed. Approximately thirty-six were injured. Many of the town’s ladies and children learned how to sidestep the bombs as they walked the streets to get from one area of town to another.

Union forces stationed on the river had a clear view of the bluffs that they nicknamed Prarie Dog Village because of the constant popping up of heads from the approximately 500 caves.

In a 1976 Time Magazine article Lance Morrow states, “In the seige caves of Vicksburg…Americans were spectacularly shorn of innocence.”

We are able to find out what many citizens were thinking and feeling during this time because many ladies maintained diaries and journals even while living in the caves.

Emma Balfour wrote of the early fighting: “I was up in my room sewing and praying in my heart . . . when Nancy [her servant girl] rushed up, actually pale . . . .” Nancy warned of the falling shells, which sent people “rushing into caves.”

“Just as we got in, several . . . [shells] exploded. . . just over our heads, and at the same time two riders were killed in the valley. . . . As all this rushed over me and the sense of suffocation from being underground, the certainty that there was no way of escape, that we were hemmed in, caged:--for one moment my heart seemed to stand still. Nearly all the families in town spent the night in their caves.”

In the same article Mary Loughborough relates:

On one occasion, I was reading in safety, I imagined, when the unmistakable whirring of Parrott shells told us that the battery we so much feared had opened from the entrenchments. I ran to the entrance to call the servants in; and immediately after they entered, a shell struck the earth a few feet from the entrance, burying itself without exploding. I ran to the little dressing room, and could hear them striking around us on all sides. One fell near the cave entrance, and a servant boy grabbed it and threw it outside; it never exploded. And so the weary days went on . . . when we could not tell in what terrible form death might come to us before the sun went down.”

Once the food ran out the citizens and soldiers resorted to eating mule meat, dogs, and even boiled shoe leather. Some accounts tell of skinned rats being offered in the markets for sale.

The Daily Citizen, the local newspaper, continued to be printed during the siege. When the paper ran out they began to print on used wall paper. Two days before the citizens of Vickburg would hear their ordeal was over the paper’s editors published a comical news item regarding Grant:

[T]he great Ulysses—the Yankee Generalissimo, surnamed Grant—has expressed his intention of dining in Vicksburg on Saturday next, and celebrating the 4th of July by a grand dinner and so forth. When asked if he would invite Gen. Jo Johnston to join he said. 'No! for fear there will be a row at the table.' Ulysses must get into the city before he dines in it. The way to cook rabbit is 'first catch the rabbit.' &c.

At least they were keeping their sense of humor. Unfortunately, the Confederate soldiers had nothing left to give by the point. Pemberton polled his men. They indicated they were still in the fight, but Pemberton knew physically they could not continue. Their bodies were broken.

On July 3, 1863 General Pemberton and General Grant met to discuss the unconditional surrender----Because Grant did not want to stretch his own resources he allowed the 30,000 Confederate troops to be paroled instead of inprisoned. One source states the Confederate Army of Vicksburg simply evaporated.

It was on the Fourth of July, 1863 that Vicksburg citizens were finally free to return to the ruins or what was left of their homes. As they wearily trudged home the joyful Union troops were also in the same streets proudly parading their victory as well as celebrating the news that the Union had also had a huge victory at Gettysburg.

Later when the Union had a chance to view the paper Grant was able to have a response to The Daily Citizen inserted in a following edition:

Two days bring about great changes, The banner of the Union floats over Vicksburg, Gen. Grant has 'caught the rabbit;' he has dined in Vicksburg, and he did bring his dinner with him. The 'Citizen' lives to see it. For the last time it appears on 'Wall-paper.' No more will it eulogize the luxury of mule-meat and fricasseed kitten—urge Southern warriors to such diet never-more.

It is no wonder to me why the citizens of Vicksburg were turned off by the Fourth. In his book Triumph and Defeat: The Vicksburg Campaign, Terrence J. Winschel states the people of Vicksburg were more adversely impacted by the war than any other people of any other city. Vicksburg inhabitants were civilian prisoners in a dungeon of fire and destruction.”

Some sources state the people of Vicksburg did not begin to celebrate the Fourth again openly until after World War II. General Eisenhower visited the town in the late 40s on the Fourth and a parade was given for him.

Today when you visit Vicksburg there is no evidence of the caves, but the bluffs are there, and if you know about what happened there you can’t help but attempt to picture those bluffs full of caves, bombs, and destruction.

There will be a fireworks display on the fourth in Vicksburg, but I would imagine there will be a few people there who remember their ancestors on the Fourth and the terrible period of time when they burrowed into the bluffs.


The Tour Marm said...

I use to conduct tours to Vicksburg and was told about that.

I wonder how they celebrated on that same rainy July 4th in Gettysburg?

Lovely post.

Mrs. Bluebird said...

Wonderful post. I've always thought the story of the civilians in Vicksburg was one of the most interesting ones of The War.

EHT said...

Tour Marm, I guess that Gettsburg question could be a whole other post.:)

Thanks, Mrs. Bluebird. I enjoyed working on it, and I enjoy teaching it even more.