- Historic Sites
The Siege Of Vicksburg
June 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 4
One cistern I had to give up to the soldiers, who swarm about like hungry animals seeking something to devour. Poor fellows! My heart bleeds for them. They have nothing but spoiled, greasy bacon, and bread made of musty peaflour, and but little of that. The sick ones can’t bolt it. They come into the kitchen when Martha puts the pan of cornbread in the stove, and beg for the bowl she mixes it in. They shake up the scrapings with water, put in their bacon, and boil the mixture into a kind of soup, which is easier to swallow than pea-bread. When I happen in, they look so ashamed of their poor clothes. I know we saved the lives of two by giving a few meals. …
The churches are a great resort for those who own no caves. People fancy they are not shelled so much, and they are substantial, and the pews good to sleep in.
This period of the siege saw a night fare, the work of arsonists, in the city’s business district. The perpetrators were persons angered by the merchants engaged in profiteering. Citizen Edward Gregory said that the blaze swept out of control:
There was nothing to do except to remove the articles of value from the houses within its range. A great crowd collected, notwithstanding the concentration of the mortar fire; and yet there were no remembered casualties. The whole block was burned, of course; and the wonder is, only one.
“A state of siege,” Gregory asserted elsewhere in his narrative,
fulfils … all that is involved in the suspension of civilization. Its influences survive; its appliances vanish. … Home was a den shared with others, perhaps with strangers. … That people had to wait on themselves was a matter of course. … There was no [regular] business, no mails … no hotels or places of congregation and discourse, no passage of vehicles, no social pastimes. …
In this state of suspended animation, it is really wonderful how people continued to drag out their endurance from one hopeless day to another. Perhaps the very vigilance they had to exercise against the shells … kept the besieged alive. Every day, too, somebody would start or speed a new story of deliverance [by an army] from without that stirred up, although for a fitful season only, the hearts bowed down by deep despair. Now it was E. Kirby Smith, and now Joe Johnston, who was at the gates.
The faith that something would and must be done to save the city was desperately clung to. … It probably never had deep roots in the reason of the generals, the men in the lines, or the people. But at such times men do not reason. … Powerless to resist the tide of events, their only refuge is in the indulgence of a desperate hope, whose alternative is despair and madness.
Actually, for a time Vicksburg’s hope was not altogether a vain one. Joe Johnston, who had gathered a small army east of the Big Black River, considered several plans for rescuing the situation. About June 20 General Grant received information that led him to believe Johnston was preparing to attack him from the rear:
I immediately ordered Sherman to the command of all the forces [stretching] from Haines’ Bluff to the Big Black River. This amounted … to quite half the troops about Vicksburg. … We were now looking west, besieging Pemberton, while we were also looking east to defend ourselves against an expected siege by Johnston. But … we were strongly fortified. … Johnston evidently took in the situation, and wisely, I think, abstained from making an assault on us because it would simply have inflicted loss on both sides without accomplishing any result.
In the meantime, Grant added, “the work of … pushing forward our position nearer to the enemy had been steadily progressing.” At one spot the Federals, preparing to lay an explosive charge, succeeded in digging under the Confederate fortifications. Grant went on:
The enemy had countermined, but did not succeed in reaching our mine. … Our sap [i.e., mining trench] ran close up to the outside of the enemy’s parapet. … The soldiers of the two sides occasionally conversed pleasantly across this barrier. Sometimes they exchanged the hard bread of the Union soldiers for the tobacco of the Confederates. At other times the enemy threw over hand grenades, and often our men, catching them in their hands, returned them.
The story of the mine was told by a Union correspondent, James C. Fitzpatrick. Writing on June 25, he reported:
This morning the work was completed, an immense quantity of gunpowder was stored in the cavity prepared to receive it, and the fuse train was laid. At noon the different regiments … selected to make the assault upon the breach when it should have been effected, were marshalled in long lines upon the near slopes of the hills immediately confronting the doomed rebel fortifications. … The rebels seemed to discover that some movement was on foot, for … their sharpshooters kept up an incessant fire from the whole line of their works.