Jefferson Davis remarked after the fall of Vicksburg “The clouds are truly dark over us,” and I believe this is a most apt description of the impact the fall of Vicksburg had on the war. Through the photographs that follow I will try to transport the viewer to that “Spirit land of Shadows” and walk the streets of wartime Vicksburg. All of the photographs in this tour are from the collections of the Old Court House Museum.
Vicksburg Circa 1860 This photograph is one of the earliest known views of the Hill City. Founded by the Reverend Newit Vick in 1819 and incorporated in 1825, by 1860 Vicksburg was a major transportation hub that catered to steamboats and the railroad. Boats left daily providing connections to the major towns in the Mississippi River Valley, and rail service linked the city with Monroe, Louisiana to the west and Jackson, Mississippi to the east. In 1860 Vicksburg had a population of 4600 and was the second largest city in the state after Natchez. The rugged hills of Vicksburg made the city a natural defensive point on the Mississippi River. One Union soldier on seeing the terrain for the first time wrote his sister, “Tis the opinion of all that Vicksburg is the strongest fortified place in the Confederacy.”
Corner of Washington & Clay Streets, Circa 1864 Note the Washington Gallery Banner upstairs over William Tillman’s Saddle Shop – it was one of many photographic establishments operating in Vicksburg during the Union occupation of the city. Photography was invented by Frenchman Louis Daguerre in 1839, and his invention spread very quickly to America. The earliest documented photographer in Vicksburg was a Mr. Gibbs who owned “Gibbs Sky-Light Gallery” on Washington Street in 1849.
Trick Image by Vicksburg Photographer Henry J. Herrick, Circa 1860. Among the photographers who came to Vicksburg was Canadian Henry J. Herrick in 1854. When the war started Herrick closed his shop and joined a local unit, the Warren Dragoons, as a First Lieutenant. Most of the local photographers in Vicksburg joined the army like Herrick, or were forced to close because of the scarcity of supplies; thus photographs of the city during the time it was held by the Confederacy are almost non-existent. But with the surrender of the city on July 4, 1863, a number of photographers entered the city with the victorious Union army. These men made their living by providing their art to both soldiers and civilians alike, and they contributed to a rich visual legacy of life in Vicksburg during the occupation.
View of Vicksburg taken from the top of the Court House looking to the southwest. In the distance with the tall spire is St. Paul’s Catholic Church, and just opposite on the lofty prominence was the home Sky Parlor Hill, known for it’s wonderful view. During the siege citizens went there at night to watch the Union shells in flight over the city. Watching the action from Sky Parlor Hill was exciting, but it could also be dangerous:
The other day while standing on Sky Parlor Hill a shell exploded and pieces struck in the flagstone near the steps. This was from a machine. Then a parrot shell from the eastern side passed over us and into Washington Street – between them a shot from a gunboat missed the batteries and struck the hill just below where we were standing – at the moment there was firing all around us – a complete circle from the fortifications above all around to those below and from the river.
Mrs. Emma Balfour
Vicksburg A City Under Siege
Four Mile Bridge on the Southern Railroad, four miles east of Vicksburg, circa 1864. Note the Union soldiers camped on the far side of the bridge.
West of Vicksburg a small railroad line began at Monroe, Louisiana and terminated on the banks of the Mississippi River. From there passengers and freight were brought into the city on ferries, transferred to railroad cars and sent to points east. Vicksburg was the funnel through which men and supplies flowed from the Trans-Mississippi into the eastern Confederacy.
The Marine Hospital Battery at Vicksburg, taken after the siege. Located in the southern part of the city, this battery was one of the most powerful in the river defenses, mounting three 42-pounder smoothbores, two 32-pounder smoothbores, and two 32-pounder rifles.
To maintain control of the Mississippi River in front of Vicksburg, the Confederates built a series of artillery positions along the Vicksburg waterfront. Mounting 37 heavy guns and stretching for over three miles in length, the Confederate River Batteries made certain that any Union vessel attempting to pass Vicksburg would have to run through a gauntlet of fire.
Steamboats docked at Vicksburg, circa 1866. As long as the Confederacy controlled Vicksburg , they could deny use of the Mississippi River to Northern shipping.
Steamboatmen who follow a legitimate business, and who have manhood enough to attend to their own business, without carrying into our midst the weapons of destruction, wherewith to murder our citizens and destroy our young Confederacy, will ever be allowed, without let or hindrance, to navigate the free waters of the Mississippi…
Vicksburg Evening Citizen, January 31, 1861
Mr. Tom Lewis standing in front of a cave on Grove Street, Circa 1890’s. To escape the hail of iron being thrown into the city during the siege, citizens dug caves into the sides of the hills for shelter. The caves did their job very well – during the siege less than 20 civilians were killed by the bombardment. The cave was an excavation in the earth the size of a large room, high enough for the tallest person to stand perfectly erect, provided with comfortable seats, and altogether quite a large and habitable abode (compared with some of the caves in the city) were it not for the dampness and the constant contact with the soft earthy walls.
One of the most unique homes in Vicksburg – The Castle, circa 1863. Note the Union soldiers camped on the lawn. Constructed in the early 1850’s by Thomas Robbins, the Castle was one of the most interesting homes in Vicksburg. Built like a real castle, the home boasted a moat and was surrounded by an Osage Orange Hedge. In 1859 the home was sold to Armistead Burwell, an outspoken Unionist. Burwell was an outcast in Vicksburg because of his views and once wrote a friend, “I dare not go any place in the interior (would be hung or imprisoned if I did). Despite his allegiance to the United States, after the siege the Federals destroyed Burwell’s home and built an artillery battery on the site, known appropriately enough as the Castle Battery.
The Castle Battery was part of the Union defenses of Vicksburg built after the siege to protect the garrison from Rebel attack. Note the pile of artillery carriages in the foreground.
The Shirley House, circa 1863. Known to the troops as the White House, the Shirley home is the only wartime structure in the Vicksburg Military Park. Behind the house is the camp of the 45th Illinois Infantry. Owned by James and Adeline Shirley, before the couple bought the home it was described in the Vicksburg Weekly Whig as “a most desirable residence in a healthy location.” During the siege the home was in anything but a healthy location; the house was located directly in front of the Confederate fortifications and would have been burned by the Rebels if not for the fact Mrs. Shirley refused to leave the residence. The stubborn lady remained in the house with her young son until Union soldiers persuaded her to leave three days after the siege started.
Those three days must have been a time of great distress to my mother, and I think she never entirely recovered from the strain caused by the war. She has told me that she and the two house servants sat most of the time in the chimney corner, where the bullets might not strike them.
Alice Shirley and the Story of Wexford Lodge
View of China Street showing the Washington Hotel, circa 1876. During the siege the building was pressed into service as a hospital. Reverend William Lovelace Foster, Chaplain of the 35th Mississippi Infantry, spent time in the Washington Hotel ministering to sick and wounded soldiers. He wrote of the hotel, It was comparatively secure from those troublesome mortar shells – for the most of them passed over & it was too far from our lines to be disturbed by firing from that direction. Dr. Whitfield with several assistants attended to the invalids. All the rooms were soon crowded with the sick & dying – Some in bunks & some upon the floor. Everything was conducted as well as possible but O the horrors of a hospital!
A Double-Banded Brooke Rifle in the Vicksburg river defenses, taken after the siege. There were two Brooke Rifles in the river batteries, a 6.4 inch gun in the appropriately named Brooke Battery, located in the southern part of the city, and a 7 inch gun in Battery Five in the northern part of town. The Brooke Rifle was invented by Confederate naval officer John M. Brooke, and were produced in two locations: Tredegar Foundry in Richmond, Virginia, and the Confederate Naval Ordnance Works in Selma, Alabama. The fire from the 7-inch Brooke, manned by cannoneers of the 1st Tennessee Heavy Artillery, played an important role in helping to sink the U.S.S. Cincinnati.
The U.S.S. Cincinnati, sunk at Vicksburg on May 27, 1863. After the siege the Federals raised the ship and put it back into service. The U.S.S. Cincinnati was ordered on May 27, 1863, to try and neutralize the Wyman’s Hill and Water Batteries in the northern part of the Confederate river defenses. Soon after coming in range of the Rebel artillery the ship was struck below the waterline by a 128-pound bolt fired from a 7-inch Brooke Rifle. The ship tried to withdraw upriver to safety, but was struck repeatedly by the Confederate guns and sank, with a loss of five killed, fourteen wounded, and fifteen missing.
The Willis-Cowan Home, circa 1850’s. This house was John C. Pemberton’s Headquarters during the siege. There are no known wartime photographs of the structure. During a heavy shelling on May 30, 1863, Pemberton’s Headquarters was struck several times by Federal shells. Mrs. Emma Balfour, who lived next door, noted in her diary: I never saw anything like it. People were running in every direction to find a place of safety. The shells fell literally like hail. Mrs. Willis’ House was struck twice and two horses in front of her door were killed. General Pemberton and his staff had to quit it. It was in this house that General Pemberton met with his generals on the evening of July 3, 1863, and made the decision to surrender Vicksburg the next day.
The Warren County Jail on the corner of Grove and Cherry Streets in Vicksburg, Circa 1864. Captured Union soldiers were confined in the courtyard of the jail during the siege. During the occupation period, the Federals kept Confederate soldiers and civilians in the jail. Horace Fulkerson, a Confederate Cotton Agent, was captured in October 1864 and sent to the Vicksburg Jail. He recorded his description of the inmates in his memoirs: The prisoners numbered some three hundred, representing Federal and Confederate soldiers and civilians, common thieves, highway robbers, murderers, blockade runners – in fact every class of criminals known to the calendar of crime. There were in the crowd young men and old men, boys, a few white women, and a number of negroes. It was indeed a grand medley of humanity with dark secrets locked up in many a breast.
Battery Sherman, one of the Union Fortifications defending Vicksburg after the siege, circa 1864. After Vicksburg surrendered, General Grant ordered that all of the ditches and approaches used by the Union Army during the siege be filled in so that they could not be used by an attacker against the city. In the winter of 1863-1864, a new defensive line was dug, much shorter than the first, only five miles in length that could be held by a small garrison. Battery Sherman was one of the artillery emplacements along this new line, located on the Jackson Road entrance to the city.
Captured Confederate Artillery at Vicksburg, Circa 1864. When Vicksburg fell, the Federals took possession of a huge amount of Confederate Artillery, consisting of 50 smoothbore field guns, 31 rifled field guns, 22 howitzers, 46 smoothbore siege guns, 21 rifled siege guns, 1 siege howitzer, and a 10-inch mortar for a grand total of 172 artillery pieces of all types.
Captured Confederate Ordnance at Vicksburg, Circa 1864. Along with the artillery, the Federals captured 38,000 artillery projectiles, 58,000 pounds of powder, and 4,800 artillery cartridges. In 1864 a reporter from the Vicksburg Daily Herald toured the Federal Ordnance Department and wrote, “We then visited the yard in which are piled over one hundred thousand cannon balls, shot and shell, of different kinds.”
Union Soldiers on the lawn of the Warren County Courthouse after the siege. Note the cupola support column on top of the clock tower with a large chunk removed by a shell fragment. On July 4, 1863, the victorious Union Army marched into Vicksburg, and the United States flag was raised over the courthouse. Having to surrender was bad enough, but doing it on Independence Day made things worse for the citizens, and they didn’t forget the pain of surrender. The city did not celebrate the holiday again for 82 years – July 4, 1945, at the end of World War II was the next official celebration in Vicksburg. We suppose it is well enough to remind the absent-minded reader the Fourth of July puts in an appearance this morning, the day on which the Continental Congress at Philadelphia adopted the Declaration of Independence…In old times it was customary to celebrate the day with considerable pomp and spread-eagle vaporing; but now, in this unfortunate section where the great natural rights of safety, life, liberty, and property have been almost swept away by our bayonet rulers, but few are found to do the occasion reverence. Vicksburg Herald, July 4, 1872
Unidentified gathering on the courthouse lawn, circa 1865. On seeing the United States flag flying over the courthouse, Unionist Dora Miller wrote, “Now I feel once more at home in mine own country.” More typical was the reaction of Alice Shannon, who wrote to her sister that she could see “that hateful flag flying from the Court House Hill.”
Union Soldiers at Brierfield, Jefferson Davis’ home south of Vicksburg, Circa 1864. Note the sign the soldiers erected over the front door, “The House Jeff Built.” According to a newspaper account, there was another sign over the back door saying, “Exit Traitor.” The “Jeff Place” is also a very fine plantation. The residence has not been injured, except the door locks and one or two marble mantels broken up, apparently for trophies. The Jeff furniture has been removed, but the rooms are still furnished with furniture brought here. Vicksburg Daily Herald, 6 July 1864