Civilians in the Siege of Vicksburg: Living in Caves, Eating Rats

Vicksburg, Mississippi, situated on a high bluff that allowed the big guns placed there by the Confederates to interdict Union navigation of the Mississippi River, was considered by both North and South as a major key to victory in the Civil War. The Confederates had it; but U. S. Grant, at the head of a formidable Union army, wanted it, and was coming to take it if he could.

Even though every attempt Grant had made so far to achieve that objective had failed, nobody really expected him to give up. So, civilians were warned that a siege was a distinct possibility they should either prepare themselves to withstand, or they should get out before the storm broke.

That was the warning Dora Miller recorded in her diary on March 20, 1863. Miller was a thoroughly pro-Union woman living with her lawyer husband in Vicksburg. Her diary entry notes that in view of expected military operations against the city, non-combatants were being ordered by authorities to “leave or prepare accordingly.”

Two months later, the storm of war did break over Vicksburg. Landing his troops at a point below Vicksburg and on the same side of the Mississippi River, General Grant fought a brilliant series of battles against Confederate Lt. General John C. Pemberton, who was responsible for defending the town. Badly beaten, Pemberton’s army was forced into the defenses of Vicksburg where, by May 18, Grant had them bottled up and under siege.

Now those civilians who had chosen to remain in their Vicksburg homes, as well as the slave population that had no choice in the matter, began to experience the harsh reality of life in a besieged city.

Residents quickly found themselves confronted with two major threats. First was the fact that no further supplies of food, clean water, and medicine could be expected in Vicksburg while the siege lasted. Although the army had accumulated some supplies of these items in the city in anticipation of a possible siege, those stockpiles were necessarily for the sustenance of soldiers. Civilians would basically be on their own.

It didn’t take long for the shortages of basic necessities to be felt. Dora Miller was soon lamenting in her diary, “I think all the dogs and cats must be killed, or starved, we don’t see any more pitiful animals prowling around.”

The reality was more stark than she imagined. Many of those former pets eventually showed up, not under the dinner table to be fed scraps, but on the table as meager meals for families pushed by hunger to the edge of desperation.

One story, told by Richard Wheeler in his book, The Siege of Vicksburg, shows just how bad it got. A mother wrote of the day when her little girl was sick, and a soldier gave her a bluejay he had caught for her to play with. After playing with the bird for a while, the child lost interest. She probably never knew that the next time she encountered that little bluejay was in the watery soup she had for dinner that evening.

Dora Miller seems never to have quite gotten to that point. She wrote in her diary,

“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.”

But by July 3, the day before the city finally surrendered, Miller noted that her servant Martha “says rats are hanging dressed in the market for sale with mule meat – there is nothing else.” It was said that when the rats were properly fried, they tasted like squirrel.

The stockpiles stored up for the army proved to be entirely inadequate for a long siege, and the soldiers, too, were pushed to the brink of starvation. Rather than the military supplying the civilians, it often worked the other way around. To Dora Miller the starving soldiers were “like hungry animals seeking something to devour.” She goes on,

“Poor fellows! My heart bleeds for them. They have nothing but spoiled, greasy bacon, and bread made of musty pea-flour, and but little of that. The sick ones can’t bolt it. They come into the kitchen when Martha puts the pan of corn-bread in the stove, and beg for the bowl she mixed 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.”

Ultimately it was the looming specter of starvation that led to the final capitulation of the city.

But there was another, more immediate danger that made the siege of Vicksburg a time of dread for soldiers and civilians alike.

In their determination to force the surrender of the town, General Grant’s forces subjected Vicksburg to constant bombardment every day during the seven weeks of the siege. And the shells couldn’t distinguish between soldiers and civilians.

At first the advent of the Union army on land, and especially the gunboats on the river, was seen as something of a spectacle. But that changed quickly when the firing started. Lucy McRae, the young daughter of a Vicksburg merchant, described some residents’ reaction to the first shells lobbed into the city:

“One bright afternoon, men, women and children could be seen seeking the hill-tops with spyglasses, as from the heights could be seen a black object slowly approaching along the river. Suddenly a shell came rattling over as if to say ‘Here I am!’ … Another shell, and still another, and the hills began to be deserted.”

Still, residents professed that they would not be intimidated by the shelling. Dora Miller overheard a woman make this defiant speech to one of the Confederate officers:

“It is such folly for them to waste their ammunition like that. How can they ever take a town that has such advantages for defense and protection as this? We’ll just burrow into these hills and let them batter away as hard as they please.”

And burrow they did.

The civilian population quickly learned to respect the destructive power of the missiles that were poured relentlessly into the city. Lida Lord, daughter of an Episcopal minister, recalls her family’s first introduction to the reality of being on the receiving end of a bombardment:

“Before sunset a bombshell burst into the very center of the dining room … crushing the well-spread table like an eggshell, and making a great yawning hole in the floor, into which disappeared supper, china, furniture… and our stock of butter and eggs.”

It soon became apparent to residents that even their basements offered little protection against the devastation an exploding shell could cause. So every family that had the means to do so began to dig themselves caves in the sides of hills to serve as (hopefully) bomb-proof shelters.

More accurately, they usually had their slaves or hired workers do the digging for them. According to David Martin in his book, Vicksburg Campaign: April 1862 – July 1863, cave making became a thriving business, with black laborers offering to do the excavations for $30 to $50 each. Opportunistic capitalists even became cave realtors, either selling the dug-outs outright, or leasing them for $15 a month.

Caves came in all shapes and sizes, from the most basic single-family space to some large enough to shelter up to 200 people.

Some well-to-do families tried to make their caves as home-like as possible, complete with closets, shelving, and carpets. Patricia Caldwell, author of ‘I’se So ‘Fraid God’s Killed Too’: The Children Of Vicksburg, tells of some of the better equipped caves that had furniture and books, along with the family’s household goods.

An example of one of the more elaborate cave sites was reported by Lida Lord:

“The cave ran about twenty feet underground and communicated at right angles with a wing which opened on the front of the hill, giving us a free circulation of air. At the door was an arbor of branches, in which, on a pine table, we dined when shelling permitted. Near it were a dug-out fireplace and an open-air kitchen, with table, pans, etc.”

A major drawback with even this well-appointed cave was that the Lords shared it, as was common, with eight other families (including servants), making for extremely crowded conditions. There was one night when there were 65 other people lodged in the cave, “packed in, black and white,” Lida Lord remembered, “like sardines in a box.”

And those were not the only inhabitants. Lida recalls, “We were almost eaten up by mosquitoes, and were in hourly dread of snakes. The vines and thickets were full of them, and a large rattlesnake was found one morning under a mattress on which some of us had slept all night.”

The protection and privacy provided by even the best caves was far from adequate. Once a shell exploded so close to the Lords’ cave that it caused a landslide that buried little Lucy McRae alive. Even as Dr. Lord, himself injured, was successfully digging the bloody but still living child out of the dirt, a baby boy was being born in another part of the cave.

Dora Miller recalled that many of those who did not have caves found refuge in churches. It was thought that places of worship were less targeted for shelling. Besides, the buildings were well built and the pews good to sleep on.

Still, there was no place in the besieged city that was really safe. According to the U. S. Army’s Staff Ride Handbook for The Vicksburg Campaign, the Union Army and Navy hurled a total of 16,000 artillery rounds into the city during the 47 days of the siege. About a dozen civilians were killed, including several children, and there were something less than 50 wounded.

At the beginning of the siege, not only the residents of Vicksburg, but the vast majority of people throughout the Confederacy were totally confident that the city would be able to hold out. General Joseph E. Johnston had been charged by Confederate President Jefferson Davis with assembling an army to come to the relief of the city. Johnston’s arrival with a force that would annihilate Grant and keep Vicksburg in Confederate hands was expected every day almost to the end.

But, of course, that didn’t happen. The Confederacy simply could not provide enough soldiers to allow Johnston to even challenge Grant’s far stronger army. Despite pleas from the government in Richmond that he strike a blow to relieve the besieged city, Johnston refused to waste his men in a foredoomed attack on a dug-in enemy that outnumbered him significantly.

Not knowing of Johnston’s plight, the Confederate citizens of Vicksburg lived in daily hope that he would soon arrive to deliver them from the Yankees.

On the 4th of July, 1863, those hopes were cruelly disappointed. That morning General Pemberton, the Confederate commander, surrendered his famished army and the city to General Grant. After 47 days of defiance in the face of starvation and constant shelling, Vicksburg residents watched as Union soldiers marched into their town as conquerors.

And they never forgot that day.

The memory of the humiliation of that 4th of July in 1863 would stay with Vicksburg residents for almost a century and a half. The next 81 years would pass with no official acknowledgement of Independence Day by the city. It would not be until 1945, amid the patriotic fervor that surrounded the nation’s victory in World War II, that Vicksburg would finally once again celebrate the 4th of July. But even then, the memories of 1863 were so painful that the observance wasn’t called a 4th of July or Independence Day celebration, but rather a “Carnival of the Confederacy.”

Even as late as 1997 a check of the city’s events calendar showed that Vicksburg had not planned any official Independence Day observance.

But now, Vicksburg seems finally to be getting past the trauma suffered by its citizens in 1863. The 4th of July is back on the community’s calendar!

A local newspaper, the Vicksburg Post, reports that in 2013, the 150th anniversary of the city’s capitulation and reincorporation into the Union, “Tourists and locals alike crowded downtown Vicksburg…not only to celebrate the Fourth of July, but to commemorate the sesquicentennial anniversary of the end of the Siege of Vicksburg.” There were fireworks, band concerts, and American flags decorating a large number of both businesses and residences in the town. Vicksburg celebrated the 4th of July in style!

It’s taken a long time, but the wounds inflicted by the siege of Vicksburg finally seem to be healing.

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