- Historic Sites
The Siege Of Vicksburg
June 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 4
Vicksburg hangs on the side of a hill whose name is poetical—the Sky Parlor. … Its soil was light and friable, and yet sufficiently stiff to answer the purpose of excavation. Wherever the passage of a street left the face of the hill exposed, into it and under it the people burrowed, making long ranges and systems of chambers and arches within which the women and young took shelter. In them all the offices of life had to be discharged, except that generally the cooking stove stood near the entrance, opportunity to perform upon it being seized and improved during the shells’ diversions in other quarters. Sometimes the caves were strengthened by pillars and wooden joists, and beds and furniture were crowded in them. … It was rather a point of honor among men not to hide in these places, which were reserved for the women and children.
New caves kept appearing. “Negroes who understood their business,” explains the wife of a Confederate officer, “hired themselves out to dig them, at from thirty to fifty dollars, according to the size.”
Though vulnerable to the heavier shells, the caves at least shielded their occupants from the fragments of the lighter ones. It was difficult, however, to keep the children inside. News of two misfortunes among the young reached the officer’s wife in the course of one day: “A fragment had … struck and broken the arm of a little boy playing near the mouth of his mother’s cave.” And, more tragically:
A young girl, becoming weary in the confinement of the cave, hastily ran to the house in the interval that elapsed between the slowly falling shells. On returning, an explosion sounded near her. One wild scream, and she ran into her mother’s presence, sinking like a wounded dove, the life-blood flowing over the light summer dress in crimson ripples from a death-wound in her side. …
Some of Vicksburg’s residents remained in their houses, taking to their cellars when the shells came close. In this group was the “young lady of New Orleans,” who recorded in her diary:
We are utterly cut off from the world, surrounded by a circle of fire. … The fiery shower of shells goes on day and night. … People do nothing but eat what they can get, sleep when they can, and dodge the shells. … Clothing cannot be washed, or anything else done. …
I think all the dogs and cats must be killed or starved. We don’t see any more pitiful animals prowling around. …
The cellar is so damp and musty the bedding has to be carried out and laid in the sun every day. … The confinement is dreadful. … I don’t know what others do, but we read when I am not scribbling in this. H. [the narrator’s husband] borrowed somewhere a lot of Dickens’s novels, and we reread them by the dim light in the cellar.
When the shelling abates, H. goes to walk about a little or get the “Daily Citizen,” which is still issuing a tiny sheet at twenty-five and fifty cents a copy. It is, of course, but a rehash of speculations which amuses a half hour.
Today [May 28] he heard while out that expert swimmers are crossing the Mississippi on logs at night to bring and carry news. …
I am so tired of corn-bread, which I never liked, that I eat it with tears in my eyes. We are lucky to get a quart of milk daily from a family near who have a cow they hourly expect to be killed. I send five dollars to market each morning, and it buys a small piece of mule meat. Rice and milk is my main food; I can’t eat the mule meat. We boil the rice and eat it cold with milk for supper. Martha [a Negro servant] runs the gauntlet to buy the meat and milk once a day in perfect terror.
The shells seem to have many different names. I hear the soldiers say, “That’s a mortar shell. There goes a Parrott. That’s a rifle shell.” They are all equally terrible.
A pair of chimney-swallows have built in the parlor chimney. The concussion of the house often sends down parts of their nest, which they patiently pick up and reascend with. …
It is our custom in the evening to sit in the front room a little while in the dark … and watch the shells, whose course at night is shown by the fuse. [On June 5] H. was at the window and suddenly sprang up, crying, “Run!” … I started through the back room, H. after me. I was just within the door when the crash came that threw me to the floor. It was the most appalling sensation I’d ever known. … Shaken and deafened, I picked myself up. H. had struck a light to find me. I lighted mine. … The candles were useless in the dense smoke, and it was many minutes before we could see. Then we found the entire side of the room torn out. …
There is one thing I feel especially grateful for, that amid these horrors we have been spared that of suffering for water. The weather has been dry a long time, and we hear of others dipping up the water from ditches and mudholes. This place has two large underground cisterns of good cool water, and every night in my subterranean dressing-room a tub of cold water is the nerve-calmer that sends me to sleep in spite of the roar.