Sunday, May 19, 2013

Civil War Sunday - The Women in the Caves

I first became interested in the Civil War because of a drawing in a textbook.  I don't know how old I was - it may have been 5th grade.

The drawing was of women living in a cave, trying to cook their dinner, in the middle of a naval bombardment.  It fascinated me.  I had to know more.

When we think of the Civil War we think of blue against gray, of battles, of naval engagements, of the glory of battle.  The truth, of course, is far different.  The Civil War was brutal for most of its participants.  Soldiers weren't the only ones to suffer, either.  The 150th anniversary of extreme suffering by a civilian population caught in the cross fire of war is about to begin.

On April 30, 1863,  General Grant and his Union Army of the Tennessee crossed over the Mississippi River into Mississippi, a Confederate state.  This long, mighty river, still a major route of transporting goods in our country, was of strategic importance to both the United States and the Confederate States of America.  It was urgent, for both sides in this war, to maintain control of the Mississippi River.

Five major battles in 17 days resulted, with the Federals winning all five.  The Confederate troops were pushed back, after the last of these battles, Big Black River on May 17, 1863, to the city of Vicksburg, on the banks of the Mississippi River.

The Confederate commander, Lt. General John C. Pemberton, ordered civilians out of the city, but many refused to go.

Late on May 18, Grant and his troops arrived at the city.  Grant decided to attack Vicksburg, feeling the demoralized Confederate troops would soon surrender.

He was wrong.

Grant made two attacks, on May 19 (150 years ago today) and May 22.  His troops were repelled.

General Grant decided to lay siege to Vicksburg.  In the bluffs I remember from the drawing in my elementary school textbook, the civilians dug caves into the yellow clay soil - easy to dig, but firm enough not to collapse.  Some six weeks of terror followed, as some 22,000 shells rained down on the city and its citizens while they awaited reinforcements.  Food became scarce, which is the point of any siege.

Some of these civilians wrote letters and diaries, including Emma Balfour.  It is grim reading.

On the evening of July 3, Lt. General John Pemberton made the decision to surrender Vicksburg. His men were weak with hunger and relief hadn't been able to reach his army.   On July 4, 1863, Vicksburg surrendered.  July 4 is Independence Day in our country.  In a year of peace, there would have been parades, patriotic speeches, and fireworks.  In a year of war.....

Their memory of suffering was so strong that Vicksburg refused to celebrate Independence Day until 1945.  They do celebrate it today.

And then the civilian casualties (some 20 dead, officially) faded into history.  As for Pemberton and Grant:

Lt. General Pemberton was labeled a traitor for surrendering to the Federals. He died, in Philadelphia, in 1881. (and, no, he did not invent Coca-Cola. That was a different John Pemberton.)

General Grant - went on to other victories, eventually becoming the General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States, and, after the war, became President of the United States.  And yes, he is entombed in Grant's Tomb.

Are you descended from any of the civilians of Vicksburg, or have you ever visited? I never have, and I hope to do so one day.

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