Wednesday, July 24, 2013

150 years since Vicksburg’s surrender


Imagine dirt crumbling down upon your head, smothering you, as bombs scream overhead and you wonder where your next meal will be or who will be dead by morning. And you are not a soldier - yet you’re in the middle of war.
Old Courthouse in downtown Vicksburg
This was a taste of what life was like for a civilian in Vicksburg, Miss. during the city’s 47-day siege before its fall to Union Major General Ulysses S. Grant on July 4, 1863. There were no supplies going into Confederate lines and the civilians could not get out.
Union forces held the river and surrounding area, but the Confederates fought on and eventually were overcome by disease, fatigue and had to resort to eating mules, rats and leather to survive. The women, children and slaves were forced to leave their homes and bunker in roughly constructed caves out of the hillsides.
In an interview about Vicksburg, bestselling historical novelist Jeff Shaara said that: “one of the tragedies of Vicksburg is that the civilians who typically during the Civil War are allowed to get out of the way, at Vicksburg, they’re not. At Vicksburg, they’re right there. And so the citizens of the town suffer the same privations as their soldiers.”
The Surrender Ceremony (I'm in background) (NPS Photo)
Shaara continued: “And they can’t live in their homes, because the Union army is shelling the town constantly, and so they have to go out and dig holes in the ground, and they’re living literally in caves. They’re trying to make something of home of that. They take dishes with them and linens, and so forth. But it’s still living in a hole in the ground. They run out of food, and so they’re starving as badly as their soldiers are starving. But then you have Lucy Spence, this 19-year-old girl, naïve, proper, as are most young girls during this era. By the end of this story, she is neither naïve nor proper. She’s had her hands in the worst filth imaginable in caring, volunteering as a nurse at the makeshift hospital. And it’s a story that rarely is told, but it’s a big part of the Vicksburg story.”

I had the unique opportunity to portray one of these women, who were stranded in Vicksburg during the siege. I, along with a few other ladies, dressed in period 1863 dress and spoke to tourists at the Vicksburg National Military Park about life in the caves as well as in general during the era. I was there as part of the Company A 19th Louisiana Vance Guards Volunteer C.S.A. Infantry Re-Enactment Unit (out of Shreveport, Alexandria and Baton Rouge).
A friend and me during living history
There were visitors from across the world in town for the 150th anniversary of Vicksburg’s siege and surrender. We spoke to citizens of Norway, Italy, England and Germany and fellow U.S. citizens from Maryland to Illinois to Texas to California and everywhere in between. It was quite a fascinating and memorable experience as a whole - especially what I got to do on the Fourth of July.
The Living History Section at VNMP (NPS Photo)
On July 4th, I was part of the 150th anniversary Surrender Ceremony at the Old Courthouse Museum in downtown Vicksburg. The steps of this courthouse were the exact location that 150 years ago Confederate Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton finalized the surrender to Grant marking a major victory for the Union with nearly full control of the Mississippi River. (They would have full control days later after the fall of Port Hudson.)
Two cute visitors who asked us questions about the 1860s
The program included the Confederate “First National” flag lowered from the cupola of the Courthouse just as it was on that day in 1863 and the current U.S. flag raised. The victory at Vicksburg marked the tearing of the South in two and was a huge turning point of the war along with the simultaneous campaign at Gettysburg failing for the Confederacy as well on that same day.
President Abraham Lincoln famously stated regarding Vicksburg’s fall: “The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea.” Lincoln even stated years earlier that: “See what a lot of land those fellows hold, of which Vicksburg is the key…The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket.” He knew that Vicksburg had to fall and some historians even argue that Vicksburg’s surrender was more vital to the outcome of the Civil War than Gettysburg.
The rest of my re-enacting weekend held living history activities outside at the fortification by the visitor’s center of the Vicksburg National Military Park, including the re-enactment of Confederate troops being patrolled. One day, I even got patrolled as a nurse. The whole weekend provided an unforgettable experience and one that has also now placed me in history as well.

2 comments:

  1. Great post! I had ancestors who participated in all of the 'American' wars and wish they had kept journals of what they went through ... something hard for us to imagine.

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    1. That would be awesome, Carole! Thanks for stopping in and commenting! :)

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