by Karen Rubin
Vicksburg is just about to mark the 150th anniversary of the part this city and region played in the Civil War. The Vicksburg Campaign stretched over months and multiple battlefields culminating with the Siege of Vicksburg, a 47-day ordeal that began, appropriately enough, on what we now mark as Memorial Day, and ended coincidentally enough on July 4th, 1863, with the surrender of General Pemberton to General Ulysses S. Grant.
It was the longest, most complex and arguably crucial campaign of the Civil War.
“Vicksburg is the nail head that holds the South’s two halves together,” said Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, who came from this area, and launched his political career from Vicksburg’s Court House.
“Vicksburg is the key. The war can never be brought to a close until the key is in our pocket,” said President Abraham Lincoln, which is why General Grant sent him a key after Vicksburg’s surrender was secured.
The war could have – should have – ended after the surrender of Vicksburg. That Confederate defeat followed its defeat at Gettysburg and the Confederacy knew it would never win the war. The Union would prevail. But what sort of Union?
The Confederates calculated that the longer the war dragged on, the more likely it would be able to negotiate favorable terms.
Instead, the most lethal war in American History, which took the lives of 625,000 -2% of the entire population, the equivalent of six million Americans today and half of all American soldier deaths in all our wars combined – went on for two more horrendous years.
The recent movie, “Lincoln” brought extraordinary insight into that time, but what was most remarkable for everyone was how similar the political backdrop is today.
Being here in Vicksburg, immersed in the Sesquicentennial where you can see the context, the lay of the land, even sleeping in their homes and visiting the same buildings – you get a better understanding of that time and its connection to our time. You don’t have to believe in ghosts to sense the ghostly presence of the people who have come before.
I have been following several Civil War Heritage trails these past few years, and I can’t get away from feeling a sense of utter tragedy that the War and all its horror could have been, should have been, avoided.
The Civil War was fought over the big issues left unresolved by the Founders – a nation founded on “We the People,” and “all are created equal,” nonetheless enabled slavery and tolerated an ambiguity between federal and states’ rights. And today, it seems, the issues are still unresolved – wounds still not healed – from the Civil War. It is eerie, indeed, to hear again calls for “secession”, “nullification” and “states rights.” States like Texas are again calling for secession, and several like Wyoming have put out the order to shoot federal agents who attempt to enforce federal gun control laws. Even provisions of the 14th amendment are being questioned, and on the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the US Supreme Court heard arguments to overturn provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that specifically targeted the practices of the former Confederacy to prevent blacks from voting.
It is a good thing, an important thing, to visit places like Vicksburg. Walk for a spell in the shoes of those who walked here. Sense the ghostly shadows of soldiers on the battlefields and feel the spirit of those women and children huddled in caves in fear for their lives. In the stories of the people and places, you realize the consequences of policies and politics taken to extreme.
“Wars are started by politicians, not soldiers,” says Parker Hills, who leads Battle Focus tours of the area. but it is the soldiers who fight and die, and, as we see in Vicksburg, the civilians who suffer the deprivations and the terror.
Being here, you realize that in many ways, the wounds of that time seem to have been reopened – more likely they never healed. Much of the discourse is as heated, partisan, bitter and divisive.
The Civil War is still referred to as “The War of Northern Aggression,” as if the South was not the initiator, So you have to remind yourself who fired the first shot at Fort Sumter, who seceded from the Union (rather than take Lincoln’s Grand Plan to wean the South off slavery), who placed the fledgling nation at risk of being overwhelmed by a return of colonial powers like England and France, chomping at the bit to regain their foothold in the New World. And who prolonged the war when it was already clear that victory was lost.
As you travel, you see a subtle glorification of the Noble Cause. At Cedar Grove, a mansion home that survived the siege and is today a bed-and-breakfast inn, a blood stain on the wood floor is enshrined in a case; the cannonball that lodged in a wall, framed.
A Noble Cause?
And the burning question for me is why the war was fought at all. That’s the thought that comes to mind in the brinksmanship and intransigence of today, with threats to take up arms against the government rather than allow an assault weapons ban. We might not be fighting a war to end slavery, but in many ways, these are still struggles over life and death, equality and opportunity.
It was here at Vicksburg that General William Tecumseh Sherman came into his own, and from here that he launched his campaign of terror as he marched to the sea. I think it was here that he realized that the only way the South would surrender was if the civilian population suffered the pain. That was the lesson after 47 days of firing upon the city of Vicksburg, blockading the city from food and supplies, forcing the surrender on July 4th.
Civil war is different from wars among nations, but the American Civil War, I submit, was like no other – Not only was “the enemy” not foreign but the enemy was often a family member, friend, classmate, neighbor or partner. Lincoln and Grant, both from Illinois, both married women from Kentucky slave-holding families; General John Pemberton who commanded the Vicksburg army, was from Philadelphia, a West Point graduate (as was Robert E. Lee), who wound up on the side of the Confederacy because of his wife, Martha Thompson of Norfolk VA.
Union General George Meade’s sister, Elizabeth Ingraham, who married a Virginia planter and moved to Mississippi, became an ardent rebel and lost two sons . During the Vicksburg campaign, her home, Ashwood, became the headquarters for Union Generals John McClernand and James McPherson; she is famous for having kept a diary.
On July 23, 1863, Elizabeth wrote to her brother. “My dear George,” she began, “We have been despoiled of everything, our crops ruined, our home literally gutted, but the Federal soldiers under Gen’l Grant & McClernand, Gen’l McPherson being in my parlor during a portion of the time & to whom I applied personally without effect.
“My sons are dead. Edward murdered at Farmington [MS] after he had surrendered, he’s buried near Corinth. Frank, killed at Chancellorsville on 3rd May, the very day this house was despoiled, is buried on Mary’s Hite, without even a winding sheet, it being one of the barbarous usages of this cruel & unnatural war to strip the dead—God help me.”
Elizabeth Klein, whose husband John Alexander Klein built their Vicksburg mansion home Cedar Grove, was the niece (by marriage) of General William Tecumseh Sherman. She was pregnant during the Vicksburg Siege and General Sherman offered to transport Elizabeth, her mother and children back East until the war was over if Cedar Grove would serve as a hospital. That saved the home (it’s a magnificent bed-and-breakfast today). Elizabeth named the child she bore during the siege William Tecumseh Sherman Klein; her neighbors said the child would be cursed (he was killed at the age of 16 when his friend accidentally shot him).
And then there are the stories of the Vicksburg mansion homes being turned into hospitals – caring for Confederates on the upper floors (probably because they most prone to shelling), and Union soldiers on the lower floors. They would fly a yellow flag to alert the Union gunboats.
General Grant made a decision when he was on the march to Vicksburg, fighting battles along the way, to leave his wounded behind knowing that the local women would care for the Union soldiers. In Raymond, we see two structures across the street from one another – one which was used as a Union hospital and the other for the Confederates. The Union soldiers stayed on for months during their recuperation. Some came back after the war and married their nurse.
And there are these oddities – amidst the horror and carnage, gentility and fellowship. During the siege, General Pemberton called a brief truce in order to bury the dead; the soldiers of the blue and white shared coffee together; two Confederates and two Union soldiers played cards together. And then the truce was over and they went back to murdering each other from a distance of a few yards, and in hand-to-hand combat.
Vicksburg: The South’s Gibraltar
Set on a high bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, the city was a natural fortress; soldiers could pick off any of the boats that came down from the upper Midwest to the Gulf Ports. So Vicksburg was able to strangle shipping from the upper Midwest, which was causing Northern support for Lincoln’s struggle to waiver.
General Grant attempted to take away Vicksburg’s control by ordering the building of a canal, Grant’s Canal , beginning in June, 1862, with the objective to alter the course of the Mississippi to bypass the Confederate guns. But it failed. (It is ironic that in a twist of nature, on April 26, 1876, the day before General Grant’s birthday, no less, the Mississippi shifted direction away from Vicksburg, but the US Army Corps of Engineers managed to construct access on the Yazoo River, so Vicksburg remains a river port.)
General Grant embarked on a different tack that from the beginning to end was audacious, risky and depended as much on luck as planning.
After two months of marching and fighting, Grant’s forces came to Vicksburg, but could not penetrate the defenses. So Grant had another idea – to mount a siege, blockade the city, and force a surrender.
The shelling began on May 26, and went on for 47 days. Families huddled in caves, cannonballs whizzing overhead. The siege of Vicksburg finally ended on July 4, 1863 – the city would not celebrate Independence Day again until after World War II.
The Union’s victory at Vicksburg sealed the Confederacy’s fate, but had the Confederacy prevailed it is very possible that Lincoln would have been forced to negotiate an end to the hostilities by giving in to the South’s demands. That is because, as I learn during this visit, Vicksburg controlled access on the Mississippi to the Gulf ports – the Midwest was cut off and the farmers and manufacturers were pressuring Lincoln to end the war.
And you realize that had Vicksburg gone differently – if the audacity that Grant showed and the risks he took and the luck hadn’t turned his way, Lincoln would have very possibly been forced to negotiate terms favorable to the Confederacy. The ‘Noble Cause’ of preserving the South’s way of life – based on a slave economy and the social structure that convinced one human being they had the right over life and death over another human being – would have continued.
There likely never would have been a 13th Amendment – it would have taken generations more for slavery to die of its own putrefaction. In the meantime, the South would have continued to dominate the Congress, because of its 3/5 rule that counted slaves for the purpose of representation but did not allow them to vote (not unlike the illegal immigrant situation today). And on and on.
These revelations emerge during our visit to Vicksburg – it for such epiphanies that we travel, seeing first-hand, in context is so powerful.
Old Court House Museum
Our first stop on our own Civil War Heritage Trail of the Vicksburg Campaign starts in the heart of Vicksburg, the Old Court House Museum.
The Old Court House Museum-Eva W. Davis Memorial (named for its first curator) is a significant National Historic Landmark with a superb collection that tells Vicksburg’s story and Civil War history.
The building itself has been the scene of major historic events – it is locus as well as witness, and houses the artifacts as well as actual records of the people and events.
Vicksburg was founded by Burwill Vick and became a city in 1826. The Court House was built on land donated by the Vick family on one of the city’s highest hills; 100 highly skilled slave artisans made the brick and erected the magnificent building, with its four porticos and 30-foot tall Ionic columns. The building was completed in 1860 for a cost of $100,000, a monument to the city’s prosperity.
The Court House was where Jefferson Davis, who had a plantation nearby, launched his political career.
The Court House was brand new when the Civil War broke out – and suffered through shellings from the Union gunboats on the river, but suffered only one major hit – you can still see a cannon ball that landed inside.
It was here on July 4, 1863 that the Stars and Bars were lowered and the Stars and Stripes were raised as General U S Grant reviewed his victorious army.
Later on, notable figures such as Zachary Taylor, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt and Booker T. Washington gave speeches from here.
Today the Court House is an outstanding museum that tells the story so well of the city and its people. There is a fascinating display of everyday objects, photos and other artifacts that give you a sense of the community here before the Civil War. It was here that I first learned and began to appreciate that the Vicksburg community was much more diverse than I ever imagined, with a large immigrant community of Jews from Eastern Europe, people from the Middle East, and others. Indeed, this riverport city became prosperous largely because of merchants and banking; the planters, including Jefferson Davis who had a plantation nearby, did very well under the Union. And when it came time to vote for secession, Warren County voted to stay in the Union.
I think about this later, during our visit to the Ruins of Windsor, where Grant sneaked his 17,000 troops across the Mississippi. The locals could have sounded an alarm, sent scouts to alert the Confederates at Vicksburg, 42 miles away; instead, they let the troops rest and provided a map. This suggests to me there was latent sympathy for the Union.
I was fascinated to see the rooms which depicted the life and times of Vicksburg’s early inhabitants – including John Alexander Klein whose homes we visit (Cedar Grove, Annabelle Inn where we stay).
In one small room in the back of the Court House there is an exhibit – almost a shrine – to Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy (until then, I had not realized he was from here). It is a simple exhibit, but absolutely fascinating, that extols the virtues of the man.
The exhibit humanizes Jefferson Davis – who I subsequently learn was released from prison and led a free and normal life until his death in 1889 (another extraordinary aspect of the Civil War, which was alternately one of gentility and humanity and brutality and carnage).
One part of the exhibit in particular, struck me: there is a photo and a description about his relationship to his plantation slaves (which I find is part of the Southern propaganda wherever I travel):
“Every colored man he ever owned loved him,” William Sanford, a former Davis slave, is quoted saying on a card in the display.
Other cards note Jefferson was “Master and friend,” slaves had “free time to earn money,” “families kept together,” “many were taught to read and write.”
Another card notes, “When Davis was president… Mrs. Davis gave money to a former slave, 100 years old, who had been robbed by Yankee soldiers.”
Then there is a photo and description of Jim Limber: “a little black boy in Richmond was rescued by Mrs. Davis from a savagely cruel father. She healed his cuts and bruises and virtually adopted him. When Richmond fell, Jim Limber went with the Davis family only to be taken from them by Union soldiers. Mrs. Davis wrote that he ‘fought like a tiger.’ The President asked a Union officer to look after the child and see to his education But what became of Jim Limber is unknown…He died in the north in 1889 at 81.”
Another story presented is about a loyal slave, named Holt Collier, who was “very educated” and served General Hines. He was 13 years old when the Civil War started and became a Confederate soldier; he killed a Union officer during the occupation of Vicksburg but was acquitted. He went on to lead Teddy Roosevelt on a bear hunt.
I learn of Varina Anne (“Winnie”) Davis, the youngest of the Jeffersons’ six children, born in the White House of the Confederacy in 1864, who was dubbed “The Daughter of the Confederacy.” After the war, she fell in love with the son of a Northern Abolitionist, but they did not marry (possibly because of the outcry); she died while visiting Rhode Island at the age of 34.
The Court House also has a fascinating room containing all the records – property owners, census, yellow fever. (Old Court House Museum- Eva W. Davis Memorial, 1008 Cherry Street, Vicksburg, Mississippi 39183, 601-636-0741 or by e-mail at email@example.com).
At the Court House, finally someone else articulates my confusion over how the South reflects on the Civil War and the contradictions here that are somehow invisible or not acknowledged.
“Civil War communities have a long memory,” Walt Grayson, writer photographer and television personality, tells us. He quotes William Faulkner who said that here in the South, “The past is never dead; not even past.”
“The sense of place is paramount in the South. ‘Where are you from?’ is the question that will be asked of any stranger. It’s not the literal place, but a place of the heart. Southerners – more than any other – fall in love with the places they live,” he says.
What is impressive is that here in Vicksburg, at least, people seem to recognize and acknowledge the inherent contradiction – very possibly reflecting that (dare I say) “liberal” strain that caused Warren County to vote against secession.
Grayson reflects on the South as being “the most American and un-American” of places.
“The South forged Thomas Jefferson who crafted Declaration of Independence and the writers of the Constitution. But the South also is very un-American: institution of slavery; in 1960s, Civil Rights. It is a mix of beautiful and nightmarish.”
Reflecting on the Civil War and the South, he says, “One prism to look through is that the South lost the Civil War. But who lost? While the South lost, Black south was liberated.”
The South is known for myth-making, its tall tales, he says.
General Beauregard, for example, when the Civil War broke out, is purported to have said, “We can wup those Yankees with cornstalks.”
Four years later, huddled in a cave and worse for wear, he said, “Sons of bitches wouldn’t fight with cornstalks!”
Myth envelops the South to its detriment, Grayson says, in a remark that merges past and present.
Here in Vicksburg, they are hoping that the Sesquicentennial will bring people like me, from the North, whose image is shaped by the Civil War and the 1960s civil rights struggles, in order to puncture some of the myths of our own.
Indeed, my visit to Vicksburg is a revelation – plunging into history is sobering, humbling, a kind of reality check. You see yourself more as a link in a chain. You see our problems today as less “special” and “unique” when viewed through the larger prism of history. And I come away with a great appreciation for the people of Vicksburg and Warren County, no more a caricature or stereotype.
And so we begin our personal march along a Civil War Heritage trail that was the Vicksburg Campaign.
Vicksburg, Vicksburg National Military Park (http://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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