For decades, Vicksburg, Mississippi did not celebrate July 4. In 1945, as part of a wave of patriotism washing across the country, they held a “Carnival of the Confederacy.” That celebration lasted a couple of years. Then in 1947, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower spoke in Vicksburg on July 4. And still, July 4 remained a subdued holiday in Vicksburg, through the late 1990’s.
On July 4, 1863, Confederate Gen. John C. Pemberton surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. For 47 days, the small city of 5,000 endured the Yankee siege. Although reduced to eating rats and mules, the Confederates believed they could have held out another week. But, Gen. Pemberton, a native of Pennsylvania, believed Gen. Grant would offer better terms on July 4. Although from the North, Pemberton had sided with the Confederacy during the war. His two younger brothers both served in the Union army. But, the career US Army officer had married a woman from Virginia and had spent much of his career in the south.
The soldiers on both sides suffered during the siege. But, it was devastating for the civilians. Much of the town is situated atop hills and bluffs overlooking the Mississippi river. Vicksburg was a thriving river port before the war. The union army was dug in, in the low lying areas surrounding the town. So, as they were shooting up hill, it was inevitable that the town bore the brunt of shot and shell.
Mary Longborough, a resident of Vicksburg, kept a diary that was later published as My Cave Life in Vicksburg. Her eyewitness accounts attest to many poignant incidents that occurred during the siege of the city:
One afternoon, amid the rush and explosion of the shells, cries and screams arose—the screams of women amid the shrieks of the falling shells. The servant boy, George…found that a negro man had been buried alive within a cave, he being alone at that time. Workmen were instantly set to deliver him, if possible; but when found, the unfortunate man had evidently been dead some little time. His wife and relations were distressed beyond measure, and filled the air with their cries and groans.”
The families pitched tents in the ravines for protection. One family and their Negro servant (to use the contemporary term) pitched a tent a few hundred yards from their house in one such ravine. In the morning, as young Lucy McRae woke, she watched as a spent artillery ball rolled into their tent. She screamed. Her mother shouted to Rice, the negro servant, to take down the tent. The mother, the various children and Rice dashed to a wooden bridge to get back to town. Rice dropped the tent. The mother dropped the basket with their meager provisions. They tried to stay beneath a dirt embankment. Jumping behind trees, fences, diving into trenches, shells exploding over their heads. The children were crying, the mother praying. They finally approached the Glass Bayou bridge, indicating the edge of town. A mortar shell landed on the far end of the bridge. Mother shouted, “run!” The children all ran to their cave, where they felt safer. Finding their home later, they saw it had been struck several times, but remained intact. A minie ball had creased William’s, the father of Lucy, whiskers while he sat in the hallway of the house, but he was otherwise unhurt. This was day 34 of the siege.
That was the siege for the civilians. Today, the Vicksburg July 4 celebration is larger celebration, but these sorts of memories endure.
See a picture of the cave homes here.
A.A. Hoehling, Vicksburg: 47 Days of Siege (Penn.: Stackpole Books 1996), p. 193-195.