by Karen Rubin
I was standing on the Vicksburg National Military Park battlefield the very day in April 2011 that marked the beginning of the Civil War Sesquicentennial – the 150th anniversary of the first shots fired at Fort Sumter.
Vicksburg’s own Sesquicentennial would not be for another two years; indeed, it is just getting underway now, with special events in Vicksburg, at the Vicksburg National Military Park, and in towns that all played a part in the Vicksburg Campaign like Jackson, Raymond, Port Gibson, from April through November, 2013.
Before coming to Vicksburg, Mississippi, I thought of it as a single, sensational battle, like Gettysburg or Shiloh.
But being here, I realize that Vicksburg was a massive campaign over several months and multiple battles waged through the region – in fact, Vicksburg was the longest, most complex of the war, and filled with drama. And it did not just take place on a battlefield. Most dramatic to me was learning that the city itself was under siege for 47 days, with women and children forced to live in caves as cannon fire from Union gunboats below exploded overhead.
Vicksburg, a natural fortress that commanded control of the Mississippi River from bluffs 300 feet high, was considered crucial to both sides of the war.
Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who is from Vicksburg area, called it the “nail” that held the two halves of the South together; President Lincoln called Vicksburg the “key” to a Union victory.
The campaign is filled with drama: visualize 17,000 Union soldiers secretly crossing the Mississippi River – the largest amphibious operation in American military history until the Allied invasion of Normandy during World War II; the soldiers marching four abreast into the night, a line 15 miles long, confronting the Confederates at midnight at a farmhouse outside Port Gibson; Union gunboats slipping through the gauntlet below Vicksburg’s fortress-like defenses, taking advantage of a ball underway in the city; in 1862, the Union ironclad USS Cairo, becomes the first in history to be sunk by an electrically detonated mine (the restoration of the gunboat is one of the most incredible exhibits on view at Vicksburg National Military Park).
Most dramatic of all, is the 47-day siege of the city, in which the civilians – women and children mainly – had to live in caves dug into the bluffs; a baby born in a cave during the siege was named William Siege Green (the Duff Green Mansion can be visited).
To really understand the Vicksburg Campaign, you should start your travels outside of Vicksburg, outside the Vicksburg National Military Park, and retrace the steps of General Ulysses S Grant and his 17,000 troops.
Only then do you realize how audacious, how daring, how risky this whole enterprise was, and how much luck played a role. I begin to wonder whether the latent sympathies of many of Warren County for the Union (Warren County voted to stay in the Union), might not have played a part, because deception was a key part of Grant’s plan and at critical times, it would not have been hard to send ahead a scout to alert the Confederate Generals where Grant’s forces were. Instead of sending out the alarm, farmers provided Grant with a map.
I think of the slave who crossed the river to tell Grant, “There are no soldiers at Bruinsburg,” giving the Union General the best place to cross the Mississippi from Louisiana (an audacious route). And I think of a fortuitous height of the river which enabled Grant’s forces to be ferried further inland than they could have otherwise.
We embark on our Civil War Heritage Trail from the Southern Cultural Heritage Foundation in downtown Vicksburg, being guided by Parker Hills of Battle Focus (www.battlefocus.com), a retired Brigadier General with an extraordinary command of the military strategy, who tells us the story of the Vicksburg campaign as our bus rolls through the same places. It is thrilling, and illuminating, to put the events into context.
Amazingly, because the area is still largely rural, it is not much changed – you can visualize as he tells the story:
Military strategists still study the Vicksburg Campaign, he tells us, but Grant was more than a military strategist, he understood “the Big Picture,” which included the politics of war.
“Follow the money,” he says – the flow of commerce from the Midwest, the merchants, manufacturers and farmers who needed to get their goods to the Gulf of Mexico ports. They couldn’t do it because a big chunk of the river in the South still has guns; it stops civilian commerce.”
The Midwest was strangling economically, and in early 1863, there were rumblings about joining the South: Copperhead Democrats who opposed Lincoln were gaining seats in the Congress and state houses, building up to the 1864 election.
This was important because troops came from the state (the US did not have a standing army, which is the basis for the Second Amendment).
Lincoln needed the support of the Midwestern states, and he needed to get the port at Vicksburg open.
Knowing his plan was audacious, Grant went so far as to deliberately withhold his plans for battle – sending a message by a slow boat, so that another General who had ambitions to challenge Lincoln in 1864, would not be able to take credit, nor stop him. He is being pressured to return to Memphis, but he wants to take Vicksburg, and he realizes this will require a combination of land and water assault.
The risk that Grant was taking was extraordinary. “He would be out of communication with his superiors in Washington, who no doubt would be severely troubled that one of their main armies had disappeared from view. Grant would have to live off the land, maneuver in hostile territory — likely against superior numbers — and hope for the best. It was a terrible risk, and his own trusted subordinate, General William Sherman, was against the plan, but Grant felt he had no other option,” write Brooke C. Stoddard and Daniel P. Murphy, Ph.D.
From January – March, 1863, Grant attempted to bypass the city of Vicksburg by building a canal that would divert the Mississippi River away from the city, so the boats could get through without being shot at. He abandons the plan on March 27.
He calls upon Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter to undertake a suicidal mission: to slip his gunboats through the Vicksburg gauntlet so that the boats would be south of the city and in position to ferry his men across from Louisiana.
On April 16, while Grant’s army marched south through Louisiana, Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter prepares to run by the Vicksburg batteries.
In the dead of night, Porter sends his gunboats drifting downriver with their engines muffled and lights extinguished – the Ironclads move at 6 knots, the Mississippi river at 4 knots for a total of 10 knots – once they get to a certain point, there is no going back.
“As the boats rounded De Soto Point, they were spotted by Confederate lookouts who spread the alarm,” the National Park Service site relates. “Bales of cotton soaked in turpentine and barrels of tar lining the shore, were set on fire by the Southerners to illuminate the river. Although each vessel was hit repeatedly, Porter’s fleet successfully fought its way past the Confederate batteries losing only one transport, and headed downriver to the rendezvous with Grant on the Louisiana shore south of Vicksburg.”
Grand Gulf Military Park
Grand Gulf Military Park, a state park, which today marks the beginning of 50-mile Grand Gulf Scenic Byway, is actually a ghost town of buildings and artifacts set amid farmland and woods that make it easy to visualize what it was like 150 years ago.
Today, you experience Grand Gulf as a kind of a ghost town – which makes it all the more interesting and makes it easy to visualize the events of so long ago. It has an excellent Civil War exhibit with wonderful artifacts.
Here, Grant would have loaded 150 wagons – all the wagons they could steal – with 7000 pounds of supplies.
I am amazed to learn that even in the heat of these grizzly battles, Grant almost always has a family member with him – his wife is almost kidnapped; at Vicksburg, he has his 12-year old son, Frederick, with him.
“Grant knows he has a weakness for drinking,” Hills says. “He drinks when he is lonely or bored, so he always keeps a family member with him.”
Confederate General Van Dorn, most famous for his success using guerrilla tactics, heard that Grant’s wife was there and sent guerrillas to try to capture her three times. She got out the night before from Holly Springs with her young son on lap, in a box car.
“It was Grant’s intention to force a crossing of the river at Grand Gulf, and move on ‘Fortress Vicksburg’ from the south. For five hours on April 29, the Union fleet bombarded the Grand Gulf defenses in an attempt to silence the Confederate guns and prepare the way for a landing. The fleet, however, sustained heavy damage and failed to achieve its objective. Admiral Porter declared, ‘Grand Gulf is the strongest place on the Mississippi.’
“Not wishing to have his transports loaded with troops attempt a landing in the face of enemy fire, Grant disembarked his command and continued the march south along the levee.
The battle at Grand Gulf was a Southern victory, but their success would be short-lived.
General Grant quickly developed a second plan and moved his men overland through Louisiana to a point below Grand Gulf.
Secret Crossing at Bruinsburg
There was no bridge across the Mississippi – Grant had to use gunboats to transport 500 men at a time.
“The landing was made unopposed and, as the men came ashore, a band aboard the U.S.S. Benton struck up “The Red, White, and Blue.” The Hoosiers were quickly followed by the remainder of the XIII Union Army Corps and portions of the XVII Corps — 17,000 men.
“This landing was the largest amphibious operation in American military history until the Allied invasion of Normandy during World War II. Elements of the Union army pushed inland and took possession of the bluffs, thereby securing the landing area. By late afternoon of April 30, 17,000 soldiers were ashore and the march inland began.
“It’s like D-Day without a single shot,” Hills tells us.
The landing downstream from Grand Gulf gave the Union General the foothold he needed to move on Vicksburg.
Ruins of Windsor
We come to Windsor Plantation, now known as the Ruins of Windsor – a magnificent, haunting sight. Twenty-three iconic columns are all that remains of what was once one of the grandest homes in the region.
“Moving away from the landing area at Bruinsburg, the Federal soldiers rested and ate their crackers in the shade of the trees on Windsor Plantation. Late that afternoon the decision was made to push on that night by a forced march in hopes of surprising the Confederates and preventing them from destroying the bridges over Bayou Pierre.”
When Grant came here with his men, this was a grand house on a 2600-acre plantation, built at a cost of $175,000 ($4.5 million in today’s dollars) in 1861 by slave labor. The owner, Smith Coffee Daniell II only lived in the house a few weeks before he died at the age of 34. Mrs. Daniell is said to have been cordial to the Union soldiers; Grant’s forces camp in her cornfield.
Though it is easy to presume that the mansion was burned in the Civil War, it actually survived the war Grant is said to have felt it “too beautiful to burn.” and it was used as a hospital. After the war, Windsor was used for social gatherings – Mark Twain stayed here.
But on February 17 1890, a guest carelessly tossed lighted cigar ignited a fire that burned the house down. All that’s left today are 23 columns of the 29 columns, looking eerie.
“The Union columns resumed their advance at 5:30 p.m., but instead of taking the Bruinsburg Road — the most direct road from the landing area to Port Gibson — Grant’s columns swung onto the Rodney Road, passing Bethel Church and marching through the night toward Port Gibson. It is April 30, 1863.”
We drive past the Bethel Presbyterian Church. The congregation of the Bethel Presbyterian Church was organized in 1826. The building, that we see today, was built in the mid 1840s.
We travel by bus over the same road Grant’s troops would have taken to come upon the Shaifer House, just outside Port Gibson, stuck out in the woods even today and the road not much better than the dirt road that Grant’s troops marched on. Apparently, because Mississippi is largely agrarian, these historic roads have been saved from development.
It’s hard enough road by bus in the daylight, I try to imagine what it was like being a soldier, carrying 40 lbs of gear, now hiking uphill in the dark at a fast march.
We finally come to a modest white farmhouse tucked into the woods.
The first shot of The Battle of Port Gibson was fired here, at the Shaifer House on May 1, 1863.
“Shortly after midnight the crash of musketry shattered the stillness as the Federals stumbled upon Confederate outposts near the A. K. Shaifer house. Union troops immediately deployed for battle, and their artillery, which soon arrived, roared into action. A spirited skirmish ensued which lasted until 3 a.m.”
Later, we meet Libby Holllingsworth, whose great great grandfather built house. She still has the portrait from the house that day which was struck by a bullet.
She tells us that her great grandfather went to prison but when he came back said. “We were wrong, it never should have happened,”
“Reconciliation started with my great grandfather,” she says.
We arrive at Port Gibson, where Grant’s soldiers would have come on May 1, 1863 – desperately hungry because they exhausted their rations. They ransacked the town, took books from the library (the paper served as toilet paper). But the town Grant said “was too beautiful to burn.” It is still gracious and beautiful – even cinematic.
The battle of Port Gibson on May 1 cost Grant 131 killed, 719 wounded, and 25 missing out of 23,000 men engaged. This victory not only secured his position on Mississippi soil, but enabled him to launch his campaign deeper into the interior of the state. Union victory at Port Gibson forced the Confederate evacuation of Grand Gulf and would ultimately result in the fall of Vicksburg, according to the NPS notes.
We stop in Port Gibson to visit the First Presbyterian Church, built in 1860, famous today for its Gold Hand reaching to heaven, and inside, chandeliers from the steamboat, the Robert E. Lee.
What particularly interests me is that across from the church is the Gemiluth Chaset Synagogue –built 1891 in a Moorish style, the oldest synagogue in Mississippi, and listed on the National Register.
Grant’s strategy is to draw out the Confederates from Vicksburg, where they had had 30,000 troops, force the Confederates to spread out. His plan works, though it is not clear why the Confederates did not reinforce their troops.
We continue on to the field where the Battle of Raymond was waged.
Local citizens have raised enough money to buy back the battlefield and bring back 22 cannons, lined up just as they were. It is extraordinary to have an actual field preserved in this way. It is astonishing to realize how close the Union and Confederate forces would have been.
On our way into the city of Raymond, we pass the Confederate Cemetery – neat rows of headstones.
In Raymond, we see something that I find one of the astonishments that was actually common during the Civil War: Raymond Courthouse is across the street from the Episcopal church. Both became hospitals – one for Union soldiers, the other for Confederates, and the ladies of Raymond cared for them all.
There are still bloodstains on the floor of the church, and considerable resentment today of how the Union soldiers seemed intent to demolish Episcopal churches, the religion of the Southern aristocracy.
There were several other battles still to come before Grant finally gets to Vicksburg: Jackson (May 14), Champion Hill (May 16), Big Black River Bridge (May 17).
There’s another stop to make before you go to the Vicksburg National Military Park: Cedar Hill Cemetery, where the Confederate dead are buried. The graves are maintained by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
Known as “Soldiers’ Rest,” the plot in Cedar Hill Cemetery is the final resting place for 5,000 Confederate soldiers, as well as Old Douglas, a camel who was the mascot of the 43d Mississippi Infantry, killed by Union sharpshooters and eaten by the ravenous Confederates.
Later, we will visit the Vicksburg National Military Park and the national cemetery, one of the biggest, where 17,000 Union soldiers are interred, of which 13,000 are listed simply as “Unknown.”
Vicksburg, Vicksburg National Military Park (www.nps.gov/vick/index.htm), and surrounding areas including Raymond and Port Gibson are all marking the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War and the Vicksburg Campaign this year with special events.
Vicksburg Convention & Visitors Bureau, 1010 Levee Street, Suite 2B, Vicksburg, MS 39181, 800-221-3536 or 601-636-9421, www.visitvicksburg.com, Facebook: www.facebook.com/visitvicksburg, Twitter: @VisitVicksburg.
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