Where Have all the Plantations Gone?
By Morgan Gates, Historic &Haunted Vicksburg
I was in the Old Depot Museum the other day and a lady from Texas was in the museum. She asked one of the docents if there were any plantations nearby. The docent, knowing that I conduct city tours, referred the question to me. I listed a number of beautiful tour homes in Vicksburg, but told her, “No – there are no plantations left in Vicksburg/Warren County." Our Texas visitor was looking for an “attraction” that was representative of the Old South, of course, and there a few of those around, but not here.
In the strictest sense of the word, there are still working plantations in this county. A plantation, you see, is simply a large farm, and there are plenty of those still around and some still use the word “plantation” in their name. I knew however that she was not looking for the latest John Deere 4wd tractor, or high tech combine harvesters, huge chicken barns or even long rows of soybeans and corn, all of which can be found just a short drive outside the city.
Once upon a time Warren County was once teaming with the traditional cotton plantations of the old south. In fact, most of the community names and quite a few of the county roads are named thus because they once were part of or went to a plantation. I live on a road named Mount Alban because it went to a plantation of the same name. I used to go hunting in a part of this county named Oak Ridge. You guessed it: a plantation. So just what did happen to the plantations of the Vicksburg/Warren County area particularly and the Old South in general?
Many people who had been plantation owners were ruined by the War. The planter economy, much like the modern business world, was heavily debt dependent. The tools and materials of cotton production were bought on credit and paid off at harvest. While demand for cotton boomed and the land was at peace, this worked, most of the time. Planters did go bust however, even in the antebellum period.
The war of course interrupted the steady market for cotton. The Union burned plantations, confiscated cotton, and freed the labor force. Still, not every plantation burned and the demand for cotton remained high after the war. In fact, the area around Vicksburg became a Union enclave after the siege and cotton production quickly resumed. You see cotton was 60% of the AMERICAN economy before the war! The North needed cotton, so much they were willing to make a deal: The citizens of Vicksburg that were willing to sign the loyalty oath could go right back to the cotton trade where they had made all their money before the war.
Not everything was “hunky dory” post siege of course. Some of the plantation owners were still fighting in the war or had been killed, but the Union was happy to bring unscrupulous carpet baggers down to take over their interest, so still, the economy began rolling again.
The problem was the labor force: Who was going to do the planting and picking? The Union thought hiring the former slaves –freedmen-- was the answer, but many freedmen didn’t want to go back to the fields. (Can you blame them?) Some did go back as contract laborers, often to be swindled by unscrupulous carpet baggers. Contract labor turned out to be a less than ideal situation. North of Vicksburg, in the years following the war, efforts were made to recruit both Chinese and Italian immigrants to pick cotton, but this did not work out either. The solution became renting the land out in manageable parcels to small farmers without land of their own. Freedmen or poor white famers would rent a 40 or 50 acre plots, and grow enough cotton to support their families. The rent was paid and supplies purchased with cotton after the harvest. This effectively redistributed the wealth. The plantation owner (former Confederate or former Northerner) still made a crop and was still a wealthy man; although, not as wealthy as the antebellum planter. The smaller farmer also had a marketable crop but not the wealth of the planter. The small farmer did business with local merchants, where the antebellum planter did business with New Orleans.
The merchants of Vicksburg became the wealthy magnates of the post war south. They were the ones doing business with New Orleans now and building the post war mansions. (For an excellent example of post-war elegance, visit the Baer House Inn !)
The Cotton Kingdom did manage to briefly reestablish itself post war, but never with the wealth and grandeur of its antebellum glory days. Land was sold off to pay taxes. The army worm appeared on the scene in the late 19th century, Great Britain began cultivating cotton in India, and in the early 20th century, the appearance of the boll weevil dethroned king cotton. By the 1930’s, to quote the band Alabama, “somebody told us Wall Street fell, but we were so poor we couldn’t tell!” The next thirty years changed not only the South, but the whole country. The Great Depression, World War II, and the Civil Rights movement, created the world we live in today.
The post WW II era saw the rise of industrialization and urban migration, share cropping quickly died out with the rise of mechanization, and the “planters” of today grow a tremendous variety of crops from pine trees to sweet potatoes. You can of course still see vast fields of cotton as you drive down U.S. 61, or many other southern highway, but you are just as likely to see, corn or soybeans or even winter wheat.
So, what happened to the plantations? Life happened!
Vicksburg as a Pilgrimage Site?
By Morgan Gates, Historic & Haunted Vicksburg
Well , first of all, let me categorically state that we are not literally comparing Vicksburg to Mecca, Jerusalem, or any other Holy site!
Meshea and I write our blogs separately. I never know exactly what she is going to write about and she never knows what I am going to write about. Heck, most times, I don’t know what I am going to write about until it starts flowing. This is one of those occasions!
Last week when Meshea compared Vicksburg and Mecca, I laughed when I first read it. Then I fired off a comment to her saying, “I don’t know-- maybe we could get people to come to Vicksburg and gather around the Old Courthouse and whistle Dixie?” (Islamic Pilgrims gather around the Kaaba Stone and pray in Mecca in case you didn’t know). When she revisited the phrase this week it started me thinking maybe she had a point!
I grew up with the word Pilgrimage meaning viewing beautiful old homes. I am a member of the Baptist Church, the most UN-Liturgical of all the Christian Churches, so the religious meaning was pretty much lost on me. Meshea is Catholic, putting her at the other end of the Christian spectrum. (Yes, we have some interesting religious discussions as well). Yet this world is full of religions and many people “worship” things that are not at all supernatural (money, cars, sports, to name a few) so let’s take another look at that comparison. Merriam Webster’s fourth definition of religion seems to strike close to what we are talking about:
Definition of religion #4 (from Merriam Webster online)
4: a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith
Definition of pilgrimage
1: a journey of a pilgrim; especially: one to a shrine or a sacred place
No matter what the politically correct crowd of today thinks, the Civil War was about much more than slavery. The vast majority of Southerners were not slave owners--that was the realm of the moneyed elite. The ordinary man saw himself as protecting home and hearth, just as we would today if our homes and families were threatened. The people of the South, during the Civil War, thought they were on the right side of the argument. You can read it in their own words, over and over again. In their opinion, the Southern people were quietly minding their own business when they were brutally attacked by a cruel pillaging Army of blue clad Visigoths that killed and burned their away across the peaceful verdant land, destroying farms and families and a way of life. Eighteen percent of the fighting age men of the South died in the war--a way of life ended forever.
For the next decade, the South was under military occupation (Just like post WW2 Germany and Japan). The South went from being the richest to the poorest part of the country, from being the envy of the north to being the butt of its jokes.
The people of the South picked up the pieces, buried their dead, and began to put their lives back together. They reinvented themselves, but what of the memories of the dead children, husbands and fathers, not to mention the way of life, that were sacrificed to this failed war for independence? --They lost! Forget them! -- Of course not! Just as we today do not forget our war dead, the people of the South did not either. They set up their own cemeteries and memorial days and remembered their own heroes--they were no less noble because they failed. The narrative of the “Lost Cause” was born, often called the “Myth” of the Lost Cause by the P.C. crowd (I wonder if they will call the USA the “Myth of the Land of the Free” when they finally bring us down?)
As time passes, it is human nature for our reverence for honored civilizations and figures from the past to take on larger than life status. Rome fell in 476 A.D. and it still influences us today. The reputed wisdom of Ben Franklin has pushed right up there with Socrates since his time! Elvis has become a demi-god to his devotees. So, in a way, Meshea is right: A Southern Pilgrimage is, in a way, akin to a religious pilgrimage. To walk among these restored relics of a bygone era is in fact a religious experience. If the Lost Cause has become a quasi-religion, then certainly brave Vicksburg was the tragic hero of this tale of woe-- the Hector to Grant’s Achilles, where the cause was really lost! So, come and walk among our temples to the cult of The Lost Cause. You will be glad you did.
Below images are linked to www.VicksburgPilgrimage.com for complete info on tour options, pricing, dates, times, etc.
by Meshea Crysup, Founder RHV
& VP Vicksburg Civil War Roundtable
As you gathered in Part 1 of this blog series, Vicksburg vs. Mecca kept coming to mind every time I heard the word “pilgrimage”. However, the rest of “The South” embraced the concept long ago, so I became determined to ditch my previous preconceptions about the term. Once I did that, wow…
Vicksburg—“The South” in general—is the PERFECT place for a “Pilgrimage”! The entire town is on hallowed ground!
The Vicksburg National Military Park contains a good deal of the “battlefield”, but like most similar places, the “battlefield” was actually the whole town and then some. Just coming to stand where brave souls who loved their country, on both sides, fought and died, is reason enough to embark on a Vicksburg Pilgrimage! You will be moved, inspired, renewed, and gain perspective and understanding of this nation’s great—and at times tragic—history. But there is more still!
The old homes stand as testament to a time when life was formality and grandeur were the norm. They are definitely worth seeing! Not just the tour homes, but also the ones that are Bed & Breakfasts now and/or restaurants.
Great, historic figures have called Vicksburg “home”. Some were famous, some were not—but they are all very interesting to learn about. Most of moved on to their final rest, but a few… Well, I am not exactly sure what I think about such things, but the Haunted Vicksburg Ghost Walk is very popular for some reason!
The Mighty Mississippi always leaves one in awe, but when seen taken in from the bluffs of Vicksburg—well there is nothing else like it!
We also have beautiful flowers, trees, landscapes—many at their peak for Vicksburg Spring Pilgrimage!
We also have performances honoring the past but worthy of the time of those with modern sensibilities as well! Reenactors “in character”, live Blues bands and artists, local theater productions, just to name a few!
Now that I have taken a fresh look at the notion, I am convinced “Pilgrimage” is indeed a very appropriate term for any trip that involves history. Not just religious history, or history as solemn as the Civil War: Music, architecture, culture, and yes, the Civil War, are all excellent reasons to "pilgrimage to" Vicksburg, anytime. We hope you can join us for our special “Pilgrimage” dates, however, to maximize on tour opportunities. If you cannot, or if you just run out of time before taking it all in, you are always welcome to visit Vicksburg and join us, literally, in Rediscovering Historic Vicksburg!
Below is Vicksburg Spring Pilgrimage info from our website as well as the website link and other event links! See the homes, take some historical and haunted tours, listen to some Blues, have a great meal, take in a play... Come Rediscover Historic Vicksburg! (Click on pictures to be taken to the websites or fb pages.)
Matthew Phelps, Hard Luck Pioneer by Morgan Gates
The part of the world I call home, Warren County Mississippi --the County in which Vicksburg is located-- has been in existence since 1809. That of course is a mere political classification, for mankind has called this area home long before that. Native Americans have lived here for at least 12,000 years. First as archaic hunter gatherers, then in increasingly organized “nations” culminating in the Mississippians who lived here when Hernando DeSoto became the first European to see the Mississippi River around 1540. European diseases left behind by the early explorers ended the Mississippian Period before the next European visitor, Robert LaSalle, visited in 1682.
The French establish an outpost along the Yazoo River—the northern boundary of the county-- as early as 1698. This outpost named Fort St. Pierre existed until it was abandoned after an Indian massacre in 1729. After the French and Indian War ended in 1763 the British took over all French possessions in the New World. This area became British West Florida. On the west side of the River the land belonged to Spain which also controlled New Orleans. The British took over the old French Fort Rosalie (now within the city of Natchez, but Natchez as a city did not yet exist) rebuilt it and started encouraging British subjects to populate this new colony of British West Florida. The original 13 colonies are by now becoming somewhat crowded. The best lands of the coastal plains have long been occupied, newer immigrants from Britain or others seeking to better themselves had already begun to slip over the Appalachians in search of new lands, angering the Indians and causing them the join the French in the recently concluded hostilities. To pacify the Native Americans Britain banned any further settlement west of those mountains, as an alternative they offered free land in the new West Florida Colony. Enter Matthew Phelps!
Matthew Phelps lead a hard luck life it seemed but this early pioneer of what would become Warren County, pushed ahead nonetheless. Born in Connecticut, he was orphaned at age eight, and spent the rest of his childhood making the rounds of various relatives. His father had left him a small estate, a house and £150 but by the time he married at age twenty his relatives had mostly spent it all the money. He sold the house and moved to Norfolk VA. and there opened a store, doing well enough to support his family for a while, but as the family grew his fortunes declined. After speaking to several people planning a move to the new West Florida Colony, he traveled to the area alone to stake his claim before returning for his family. By the time, he returned trouble was beginning to brew in the lead up to the Revolution and he decided to not risk the trip, initially he headed toward Vermont, but changed his mind before arriving and instead booked passage to West Florida (Mississippi). Travel up river was a long and arduous journey before the steamboat and as they were ascending the Mississippi river his wife and baby died of fever. Even further up the river the boat capsized in a whirlpool and his two sons drown. He arrived at his stake on the Big Black River -then called by its Choctaw name Loosa Chitto alone and penniless. Matthew Phelps was no quitter however he is quoted as saying “something about the precariousness of life brings out the honor in the human character” he borrowed livestock, seeds and tools from neighbors and produced enough surplus to pay by his debt after the first season. Misfortune is not through with Matthew however by 1778 the American Revolution had come to West Florida. James Willing’s Raid, the British Blockade of New Orleans and finally Spanish intervention, made life along the Loosa Chitto untenable. Phelps gave up his freehold, joined the Army and left the raw frontier behind. After the war he returned to Vermont and remarried. Here the story of our hard luck pioneer ended, apparently, his luck changed for the better, for in 1802, “Captain” Phelps published a memoir of his life and adventures along the Loosa Chitto. A testimony to the strength of character required to be a pioneer in the early days of life along the Mississippi.
Information for this article came from Becoming Southern by Christopher Morris Oxford University Press 1995.
A Particularly Bad Idea
by Morgan Gates, Historic & Haunted Vicksburg
Vicksburg has experienced more artillery bombardment than any other city on the North American continent. The U.S. Navy launched hundreds of shells into the city throughout the spring and summer of 1862. The three-day battle at Chickasaw Bayou contributed even more to the accumulating total. Then the siege began. From May 18th to the cease fire on the afternoon of July 3rd, a virtual cast iron rain fell on the city, from both the U.S. Navy and the Union Army. A Confederate soldier camped on the banks of the Pearl River, 40 miles east of Vicksburg, recorded in his diary that he could hear the bombardment of the city. A commenter on my blog site told me that people in Winston County Mississippi, 100 miles away, could hear it as well! Most of these shells were of the exploding variety and they did their dirty work with varying amounts of success, but in some cases, the fuses did not work as intended, and a shell that was supposed to explode at a predetermined point in the sky, instead buried itself deep in the ground. With the passage of time the wind and rain erased all surface evidence of its existence.
The war ended and slowly things began to return to normal. Tennant farming “share-cropping” replaced the slave labor of the antebellum days and the big plantation owners became “landlords” collecting the rent in cotton. Thousands of new small farms, 40 acres and a mule, sprung up across the land. The cycle of the seasons continued –sowing, cultivation, harvest—much as it had for the last 12,000 years. Relics of the war worked their way to the surface from time to time. Ragged fragments of cast iron, from the huge mortar shells or solid shot, designed to punch holes in buildings or men, were harmless enough, and more than one family had a “family cannon ball” or two around the house gathering dust on a shelf, or acting as a doorstop. Occasionally an unexploded shell would turn up! Dud shells were, and still are, potentially very dangerous. The black powder mix in these shells is composed of charcoal, sulfur, and saltpeter (potassium nitrate) all occur naturally in nature. Combined in the right proportions they make an explosive mixture, that can be ignited with a tiny spark. When wet, they are inert, but they don’t break down with age, so as soon as they dry, they are again deadly, whether they are five years old or 154 years old. The old timers knew the difference. They were fairly easy to identify, and they did not keep the exploding ones around. There was no bomb squad to call in those days, so the best practice was to carefully rebury them in a safe area (far from your house or field) or to drop them in a river or stream, so they would remain forever wet and harmless.
There is an old story oft repeated in this area of a farmer, that was perhaps “not the sharpest tack in the box”, who plowed up a particularly well preserved example of a “Parrot” shell (a long narrow shell fired from a rifled cannon) and decided to make good use of his prize by using it as an andiron in his fireplace. OOPS! That’s right it was not a solid shot, but an exploding shell! Well it being plowing time he got away with it for several months, but the first cool day of fall when he kindled a fire in the hearth, BOOM!
The story ends there, no mention is made of the farmer’s fate, I like to think that he survived, battered and bruised perhaps, but wiser for his effort! For it is said that sometimes God watches over babies and fools!
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I thought I understood what a "pilgrimage" was...
noun: pilgrimage; plural noun: pilgrimages
1. a pilgrim's journey.
synonyms:religious journey, religious expedition, hajj, crusade, mission
"an annual pilgrimage to the Holy City"
Pilgrimage...Southern-style, of Course!
One of the first things Vicksburg Civil War Roundtable President, Corey Rickrode, brought up when we met was helping with “Pilgrimage”. I did not “jump all over that” because, frankly, I had no idea what he was talking about! While touting the historic significance of Vicksburg to the world with more enthusiasm than some wish to endure is “my thing”, even I was at a loss as to how I could sell the notion of Vicksburg as a “pilgrimage destination”. We are not Mecca!
So, you guessed it: I asked Morgan Gates, my “Partner-in-Time”, and Kim Steen, Realtor Extraordinaire, and they explained that Pilgrimage, in the sense Corey was speaking of, refers to when local historic homes are opened up for people to see, visit, etc. I remember telling them, still at a loss for the usage of such a “solemn” term as “Pilgrimage”, that where I came from, we called that “historic home tours”.
I did end up helping with Vicksburg Fall Pilgrimage, but honestly I was still wondering why we were not calling it “Vicksburg Fall Tour of Homes”. My concern, at least in large part, was unfounded. Apparently, nearly every town in the Antebellum South has a “Pilgrimage” or two a year. Everyone “down here” knew exactly what we meant by “Vicksburg Fall Pilgrimage”.
I am currently helping with Vicksburg Spring Pilgrimage. My contribution is to do as much social media blitzing for them as I can. Basically I spread the word on facebook and twitter about the dates, the homes involved, and that details, tour options, pricing, etc. are available at the website www.VicksburgPilgrimage.com .
Over the next few blog posts, I am going to discuss what I am Rediscovering about Historic Vicksburg while getting ready for Vicksburg Spring Pilgrimage. I am also going to share with you how my thinking has evolved and why I now firmly believe Vicksburg is the PERFECT place for a “pilgrimage”—in every sense of the word!
I would also love to hear your Vicksburg Pilgrimage stories, if you remember them from the past. I would also love to see pictures from your "pilgrimages of old"!
If you have not experienced Vicksburg Pilgrimage—or Vicksburg itself—spring is a great time to do so! ~Meshea (email@example.com)
Fighting on The Wrong Side! By Morgan Gates
Everybody knows the basic premise of the Civil War, the North versus the South, everybody north of the Mason-Dixon Line is Union/Yankee everybody south of the line is Confederate/Rebel, right? Wrong! I am afraid it is a bit more complicated than that. Remember the 2016 Mathew McConoughey movie The Free State of Jones about the group of Confederate deserters that form a resistance movement against the Confederate Government? That’s based (loosely) on real events that occurred right here in Mississippi. Less well advertised today is the fact that both southern Illinois and Indiana had active secessionist movements! Yep! History, just like people who make it, can get complicated. So, let’s take a couple of relatively well know Civil War Generals as case studies, in this complexity of both history and the men who made it. Both of these men have several things in common. Both men were West Point trained career soldiers, both began their careers as artillery officers, both had credible reputations as soldiers, prior to the Civil War, both men had encounters with U S Grant, that altered the arcs of their career, both men had family difficulties because of their loyalty. and both men had a connection with Vicksburg.
Our first Civil War General is, of course, John C. Pemberton, the defender of Vicksburg. Pemberton was born in Philadelphia Pennsylvania of a prominent Philadelphia family. Pemberton graduated from West Point in 1833 and was assigned to an artillery unit. He served in the Seminole Wars, and in the Mexican-American War where he received a brevet Captain’s rank for gallant conduct. After the Mexican-American War he married a woman from Virginia and served in various posts around the south. He became acquainted with the southern people and when war came he decided to throw his hat in with them. He was a competent if not spectacular Confederate officer, but could never overcome lingering suspicions about his loyalty. After a stubborn defense of Vicksburg for six and a half weeks in the face of an opponent vastly superior in number, armament and resources, he is able to negotiate generous surrender terms for his beleaguered men by surrendering on Independence Day. Instead of being honored for holding out so long against overwhelming odds, he becomes the scapegoat for the loss of the “Key to the River”. Some, due to his northern birth, immediately assume that he sold Vicksburg out. Pemberton will bravely soldier on until the end of the war but, the loss of Vicksburg cements lack of loyalty in many minds and he is blamed for the loss. His reputation will never recover.
Our second General is George Thomas, the Rock of Chickamauga. Thomas was born of a slave holding family in Virginia. In 1831 as a teenager his family had to hide out in the woods during Nat Turner’s 1831 Slave Rebellion. This rampage which resulted in the murder of as many as 65 slave owners inspired widespread fear of insurrection among most, but young George took away a different lesson. After the rebellion was crushed, he became convinced that slavery was a vile institution.
Thomas was appointed to West Point at a young age and he graduated in 1840, and he also served in an artillery unit in the Seminole Wars and in the Mexican American War. When Virginia seceded from the Union, Thomas decided to stay loyal to the Union even though many of his southern born peers were going over to the Confederacy. It was said that when George refused to come south, his sisters marked his name from the family bible and began telling people he had died. Thomas was a solid if not flamboyant officer, and rose steadily in rank, but was often passed over because of suspicion of his loyalty due to his Southern birth, it was said that when considering promotions, the oft repeated refrain was “Let the Virginian wait”.
After the bloody battle at Shiloh in the Spring of 1862, General Henry Halleck, angry at his upstart subordinate U.S. Grant, reorganized the Army of The Tennessee, taking Grant off the battle line and effectively pigeonholed him, by assigning him no duties. Much of Grant’s former command was reassigned to Thomas. Though no fault of Thomas’ many historians think that Grant never forgot that insult and Thomas’ later career suffered as a result. Thomas’ stubborn defense at Chickamauga, effectively holding the line and winning the day for the Union, should have finally put to rest his loyalty issues. If not, certainly bold action at Chattanooga would have but it is not until his bloody repulse of Hood at Nashville that he finally promoted to Major General. His comment on finally receiving top rank was “while better late than never—I earned this at Chickamauga”. He continued to serve in the U.S. Army post war and continued to have to defend his reputation, in fact he actually died while on duty in San Francisco, in the act of writing a response to an article criticizing his war time actions. Post war George Thomas’ brother Nathan lived in Vicksburg and he visited him here (see my blog post Collateral Damage). Can we take any lessons from this? If we can then they may be: #1 When the going gets tough is may be best to stick with your family. and #2 Don’t make U.S. Grant angry!
Better late than Never? by Morgan Gates
Ever have one of those mornings when everything is going wrong? The alarm didn’t go off, you grab coffee and burnt toast and rush out to your car, only to discover you (wife, teenager, brother-in-law, insert your usual suspects here) has left the car on empty and you now must stop for gas. You get behind the school bus, there is a wreck on the highway and traffic is backed up etc. etc. You finally get to work and there stands the boss! You sheepishly say better late than never! It happens to everyone once in a while and if, you are like me, it embarrassing and you strive not to let it happen again. Some people however don’t seem to share our sense of urgency. To them what we perceive as a must do goal, does not seem that important. Often it seems these “I’ll get to it eventually people, cause more frustration than actual damage”, often but not always. In truth, these frustrations are not unique to our modern world, they have happened throughout history. In the Vicksburg Campaign our man with the “better late than never” attitude was General Joseph E. Johnson!
I sure anyone reading this blog is enough of a history buff to understand that the Campaign ended with a 47-day siege of Vicksburg. From May 19th to July 4th the city was surrounded and bombarded from land and water. Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy had lived in Vicksburg before the War and understood the importance of Vicksburg to the Southern cause. Davis had ordered Lt. General John C. Pemberton to hold the city at all cost. The problem was that Pemberton was not just in charge of Vicksburg but the entire state of Mississippi and eastern Louisiana as well, and was desperately short of the manpower, firepower and supplies to properly defend such a vast area. After his forces failed to counter Grant’s river crossing thirty miles south of Vicksburg, he moved his headquarters from the state capital at Jackson to the fortress city. Grant’s daring and unconventional tactics thwarted Pemberton’s efforts to stop his approach and finally Pemberton had to go to his fallback positon inside the bulwarks of the Gibraltar of the south. Pemberton, ever the good soldier had steadily reported his status to his superiors, Joseph E Johnson in Tennessee and President Davis in Richmond Virginia. Realizing that Pemberton will need rescue, Davis orders Johnson to Jackson Mississippi and starts curry combing the Confederacy for spare troops to create the “Army of the Relief”. Johnson’s failure to come to Vicksburg’s aid is a subject of debate among historians to this day.
Union General U. S. Grant had excellent intelligence, in the form of sympathetic southern railroad men and telegraph operators organized by Grenville Dodge (fun fact: Dodge City of Old West fame was named for him). He knew where Johnson was and knew he had a swelling army, and he made plans accordingly. Grant was being supplied via the Mississippi River, a supply line the Rebels could not challenge. Union General Henry Halleck, Chief General of the Union Army at the time was no fan of Grant, but despite his misgivings he realized that, the frumpy little general that not follow the rules, was on the verge of capturing “The Key” to the Mississippi River, and he sent Grant the reinforcements he requested. The Union forces surrounding the city more than doubled as the siege progressed, almost half of those men were facing EAST! In a ring of fortifications – that was called the exterior Line- stretching from the Yazoo River to the Big Black that rivaled the Confederate works in front of Vicksburg.
Johnson seemed ambivalent about Vicksburg. Almost as soon as he had gotten off the train at Jackson, he telegraphed Davis that “he was too late”, Pemberton who had orders from the president himself to hold Vicksburg, was badgered by Johnson to abandon the city and save his army. Once besieged Pemberton constantly (as long as he can get messages out at least) implored Johnson to come. Johnson in his return messages lead Pemberton to believe that he was indeed coming and never actually admitted he was not until after communications had been cut off. Both the Confederate Secretary of War and President Davis were constantly urging Johnson to move. Yet he sat comfortably ensconced in the little town of Canton Mississippi until the city was near capitulation. Johnson finally moved toward Vicksburg at the end of June, he arrived at the Big Black River –15 miles east of the besieged city-- on July 1st only to find his path blocked by the Union Exterior Line, other than a few cavalry probes Johnson never even crossed the Big Black! By mid-day July 3rd Pemberton has begun surrender negotiations. Grant had by this time detached Sherman - his pit bull - from his 15th corps duties and placed him over a sizable “Army of Maneuver” when Grant gave the command “sic ‘em” Sherman chased Johnson first to Jackson and then out of the state.
Why Joe delayed so long is an open subject to this day, and Johnson does have his admirers and defenders, including Grant and Sherman, I however, am not one of them. Some of his defenders point out that the concept of fixed defenses has today been proven faulty and Joe saw this “ahead of his time”! To me that is an inadequate defense considering the loss of Vicksburg effectively cut the South in half. The most generous excuse I can give him is he perhaps was suffering from what is today know as PTSD, he had nearly died of wounds received in front of Richmond early in the War. On the low side, theories advanced by some include:
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Rediscovering Historic Vicksburg:
Making “New” History
by Meshea Crysup, Rediscovering Historic Vicksburg
Preserving and remembering history is certainly an important and worthy pursuit in life, especially in a town as rich in history as Vicksburg. LIVING, however, is not a static or reflective action—it is dynamic. Rediscovering History and BUILDING UPON it—that is what keeps a community relevant, vibrant, fresh, and growing.
As previously shared, I was excited to move to Vicksburg, a town of such historic significance. I am now very proud and honored to be a part of the process of helping local people, people around our country, and even around the world, Rediscover Historic Vicksburg. However, it is not just about “seeing” historic places or “hearing” historic stories. Almost daily, there is something new in the historic air here in Vicksburg!
Historic homes are becoming more and more utilized, and the “Bed & Breakfast” is not just for sleeping and eating anymore! You may experience dinner theater productions, a book signing, a meeting (such as Vicksburg Civil War Roundtable), a music video production, a mini-shopping-mall featuring local artists and merchants, a “Breakfast with the Generals (Civil War, of course)… Frankly, I am not sure what they will come up with next, but I cannot wait to find out!
The historic homes or buildings that are now places to eat are also places to listen to music, sing karaoke, hold a meeting or party, or attend a wine, beer, or cocktail tasting. You may also attend a Blue’s Luncheon with local food being served and local musicians entertaining you. You may be greeted, given information, conducted on a tour, or even entertained with stories by someone “in character”—perhaps even a general or a general’s wife!
In Vicksburg, we are dining on rooftops of historic buildings (10 South), while watching the sunset, a Mardi Gras parade, a local homecoming parade, or listening to music…and more!
We also have places such as the Warren County Old Court House Museum which is not just a place to tour or purchase souvenirs! You can also attend a Christmas Ball that commemorates and re-enacts the beginning of the Siege of Vicksburg or you can experience a “Night at the Museum” or a flea market!
During a weekend in Vicksburg, you can take a tour--Historic, Haunted, or both!—enjoy learning about our local history and perhaps discover a local spirit that is just not ready to leave. You can choose to visit a home that is always open for tours, or you might come during Vicksburg Pilgrimage for even more home tour options! You can experience authentic Blues, “eat, drink, and be merry”, and never have to venture out of the historic part of town!
Whatever you chose to do, we believe you will want to return again and again, because, the deeper we delve into our history, the more ways we are finding to share it! Ironically, while Rediscovering Historic Vicksburg, new memories are being made, new traditions are being born, and “new” history is being made!
Mr. President Your Bear is Ready!
by Morgan Gates, Historic & Haunted Vicksburg
Vicksburg is no stranger to the men who have held the highest office in the land. Quite a few presidents of the United States have walked our streets, and, if you add to the list future and former presidents, it is even more lengthy. Andrew Jackson and Zachery Taylor were a few of the earliest. It is very likely that Abraham Lincoln did so as well while on one of his flatboat trips downriver in his youth. Ulysses S. Grant “of course”, William McKinley, and Dwight Eisenhower. In that list of incredible men of impressive credentials, my personal favorite is Theodore Roosevelt.
Teddy Roosevelt was the 26th president of the United States. He was the quintessential American male specimen. Tough but fair, he hated corruption and stood up for the common man. He was a graduate of Harvard and a published author, but he was also a cowboy who owned and worked on cattle ranches. He was an amateur boxer and police commissioner of New York City –so if you ever wondered why Tom Selleck on “Blue Bloods” has T.R. ‘s portrait on the wall, that’s why. Although he never served in the Navy, he was considered an authority on Naval issues. He wrote The Naval War of 1812 which was considered a seminal work in that field. He served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy under William McKinley. He gained fame in the Spanish-American War with his group of volunteers, known as the Rough Riders, and their charge up San Juan Hill! Retuning to politics he was elected Governor of New York where his straight-shooting reformist attitudes alienated the political insiders of the day and they sought a way to get rid of him. They decided to sideline him by making him Vice President of the United States (a prestigious but powerless position), but in 1901, an assassin’s bullet catapulted him into the Presidency. He loved America and was instrumental in putting us on the road toward becoming a world power. He created the U.S.’s first world class Navy during his administration. He also started digging the Panama Canal and created many new National Parks. But all work and no play makes Teddy a dull boy, so when T.R. had some time off, he loved to hunt. This passion brought him to Vicksburg in 1902.
In 1902, Teddy Roosevelt disembarked the Steamboat “Belle of the Bends” at the Vicksburg waterfront. He had come to Mississippi at the invitation of the Mississippi’s Governor, Andrew Longino. Their destination was Onward Plantation, about 25 miles north of Vicksburg. When the distinguished party reached that spot, they were introduced to their guide for the hunt. Only the best would do for the President’s hunt. Their guide was probably the most accomplished bear hunter in North America. This man had killed more bear than Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone combined. His name was Holt Collier.
Holt Collier was a native Mississippian, born in 1846, as a slave. At an early age, Holt’s master had put him in charge of his hunting dogs and later gave him responsibility for keeping the slave population of the plantation well fed with meat. He killed his first bear at 10 years old. During the Civil war, he fought as a Confederate Cavalryman (Yes Virginia, there were Black Confederates--I hope I didn’t burst any bubbles with that statement). After the war, he went west and worked as a Cowboy for short time before returning to Mississippi. By the time he guided for the President, he was 56.
During the hunt, everybody in the party had received a chance to shoot a Bear except T.R. so Holt rode out alone one evening with just his hunting dogs. The dogs soon picked up the scent and the chase was on. Dogs used to hunt dangerous game, like bear, are trained to surround the animal and keep it in place by lunging and retreating just out of the bears reach, thus keeping it in place until the hunters arrive. Just as Holt rides up, the bear gets lucky and catches one of the dogs with its massive paw, killing it instantly. Angry at the loss of his dog, Holt jumps from his saddle and clubs the bear senseless, lassos it, and ties it to a tree. Moments later, he brings the President up and there is the bear, still dazed and confused and tied to a tree. "Here is you bear Mr. President shoot it!"
Roosevelt, the consummate sportsman, of course refuses to shoot the helpless bear.
The press corps, which even in those days followed the President everywhere, soon flashes the story across the nation. A political cartoonist up North redraws the scene, but not with an angry male bear, but with a cute little cub tied to a tree. A toy maker in New York gets the idea to make a stuffed bear and calls it a “Teddy Bear”!
To think it all started right here in Vicksburg!
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That Shifty Old River by Morgan Gates
I do appreciate all the interest that my last post (A Tale of Two Cannon) has generated. I would like to thank all those who want to help me “find” Whistling Dick. It has also occurred to me that many people do not appreciate the complex dynamics of the Mississippi River.
Most people in the world have a river somewhere in their lives. Perhaps it is a quiet little waterway suitable for swimming and fishing, or perhaps it is a busy industrial waterway. Man, has lived alongside and made use of rivers from the very beginning. In America’s earliest days’ cities grew up along the rivers, they powered the mills and acted as highways of commerce. We also know that even the most sedate water way can unleash destructive energy in the form of floods. We don’t really think much about them otherwise, they’ve always been there and if you’ve seen one you have pretty much seen them all, right!
WRONG! Unless you, like me have grown up practically on the banks of Old Man River, you don’t know my River! The Mississippi, or at least the lower Mississippi, should almost be in a class by itself, Mega River perhaps –Ok, Ok, it could share it with the Amazon and maybe the Nile—but no more! Even the upper Mississippi, which by all rights ought to be considered a separate river, can’t compare. All rivers, are dynamic, and ever changing creatures (that’s right creatures) that are in most senses of the word alive. They move, reproduce, eat, and they have very different personalities. The river you threw a fishing line into on Sunday will not be the same river you cross on your way to work Monday morning. We look at the mountains and the forest and know that, in at least the brief span of our individual lives they will change very little, and we sometimes make the mistake that rivers do likewise but that is wrong. The water you looked at yesterday is gone -- and the river of today is a new one. Now in your mind’s eye replace your placid little fishing river with the Mississippi!
On an average day at Vicksburg 4.5 million gallons of water per second flow past Vicksburg! To put that in perspective that is 53 Olympic sized swimming pools per second and that’s just its water! In its currents the Mississippi suspends, and ultimately discharges, 470, 000 cubic feet of soil per second (that’s at the mouth so just a little less here). That’s a lot of dirt, to put that into perspective, it took the Colorado River something on the order of 6 million years to cut the Grand Canyon. If we could make the Mississippi suddenly dump all its suspended sediment it would be enough soil to fill up the Grand Canyon in just over a year*! If on its most basic level a river is a ditch with water running through it, then the Mississippi is that but with its own fleet of backhoes and dump trucks! Bottom line the Mississippi River can move, if it decides it doesn’t like the neighborhood it can leave**! It has done so on many occasions to towns along its course, like Rodney and Grand Gulf and Vicksburg!-- Wait! Vicksburg! Yes Vicksburg.
Many people who visit Vicksburg go down to Levee Street to see our beautiful flood wall murals, and when they venture beyond the flood gates they are surprised that the Mississippi is so “small” directly in front of old Vicksburg. The reason of course is, the body of water beyond the flood wall IS NOT THE MISSISSIPPI, it is the Yazoo Diversion Canal. Now wait you say, I thought Vicksburg was a Mississippi River Town? I respond, it is! What, now I’m confused you say. Don’t worry let me explain.
When the Reverend Newitt Vick laid out Vicksburg it was indeed “on” the Mississippi River. The original city was only about eight blocks square, and it was located entirely on a large “meander bend” in the Mississippi that came down from the north turned and flowed almost due north again until it reached a line of bluffs the early settlers called The Walnut Hills, it then turned 180 degrees due south and continued to the sea, this left a point of land—a peninsula—known as DeSoto point directly across the River form the city . The River was still there during the siege but then in April 1876 the River took a walk. The trip was not an overnight decision, but once it made up its mind it completed the trip pretty much overnight. The current in the River had been eating away at the base of DeSoto point for years. During the War Grant, had attempted to deliberately cause the River to shift by digging a canal across the base of the peninsula but Old Man River would have none of that nonsense. When the River did shift, it did so almost a mile to the north of Grant’s Canal. The Mississippi’s backhoes had dug a new channel in one night, and the people of Vicksburg woke up the next morning to discover the River had abandoned them –it was not a surprise, they knew it was coming, but they couldn’t stop it. The old channel without the current immediately started silting in—the River’s dump trucks! A river city without a river is in real danger of extinction, the city fathers immediately purchased land two miles south of the city limits and established a new river port but the outside bend of the Mississippi is the worst place for a port facility because of the strong currents. What was really needed was a navigable body of water back in front of the old city. That was accomplished about 26 years later when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers diverted the Yazoo, a navigable tributary of the Mississippi, from its natural course into a canal that diverted it into the old bed of the Mississippi, and thus saved Vicksburg. The city migrated south toward the Mississippi throughout the Nineteenth and into the Twentieth Century and now once again fronts on the Mississippi. Vicksburg is today a city of two rivers the Yazoo on the north and the Mississippi, once again, on the south. Today the Corps of Engineers does an admirable job of taming the Rivers wanderlust, at least so far—cross your finger that the river doesn’t get too restless in the future, because the River is getting really tired of New Orleans lately.
So back to the opening paragraph, and those brave individuals that want to help me go look for the lost cannon. It could be anywhere along a 4 mile stretch of River and/or land it could be over 100 feet down under a swamp or even parts of the modern city of Vicksburg. Or it could be buried 30 or 40 feet down in the river bed under the modern bend in the, River some of the most dangerous currents in the world! So, thank you for you offers my friends, but I think I’ll pass.
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Photo Google Earth Screen Shot of Vicksburg and its two rivers
*If you are a hydrological engineer, don’t start splitting hairs with me if my hasty math is a little off, I’m making a point.
** All rivers can do this but the Mississippi does it so much better!
A Tale of Two Cannon by Morgan Gates
On a hill in southern Vicksburg sits and a formidable piece of artillery, it is a British 7.5 inch Blakely rifled cannon, that was once a part of Vicksburg’s defensive arsenal. This tremendous gun’s breech was banded with wrought iron to strengthen it, it’s cast iron barrel was 124 inches long and it was able to loft a 150-pound shell. It was affectionally known to its crews as the “Widow Blakely” as she was the only one of her kind in Vicksburg.
The Civil War has been called the first modern war, for so many things that personify modern war first appeared on the stage in this bloody conflict. Speed of transportation, and communication, had made great leaps forward, as had the range accuracy and power of the weapons. A 12 pounder Napoleon fieldpiece can put a hole in modern an armored personnel carrier of the modern era (it has been done with replica of those guns). A three-inch ordinance rifle –another fieldpiece—could put all its rounds in 30’’ circle at a mile, the 30-pound Parrot Rifle (the American equivalent of the Blakely) could throw a shell four miles. Don’t let the name fool you this was no meek old lady “The Widow” was a widow maker!
On the night of April 22 1863 as additional transports made a second run past the guns of Vicksburg. A shell prematurely detonated in the Widow’s barrel blowing the last two feet off. The Confederates chiseled the ragged breech smooth, and the Widow Blakely continued to give good service, through the end of the siege; although, at a slightly shorter range.
Enter our second gun, the more mysterious of the two, “Whistling Dick” was a rifled banded 18 pounder by all accounts. This in itself is curious, in that 18 pounder is not a common designation for Civil War era cannon. The old prewar standards for smooth bore cannon were 6, 12, 24, 32 etc. Rifled cannon, a new invention in the 1860’s, complicated the field even more. They were sometimes referred to by their bore diameter 3”,9”, 11” other times by weight of projectile 10#, 20#, 64# etc. finally, to totally confuse things, smooth bores were converted to rifles. I suspect “Whistling Dick” was one of the latter. The gun’s name came from the peculiar whistling sound its shells made as they flew through the air. If you think about it this gun must have made a truly unique sound, for there were hundreds of shells whizzing through the skies around Vicksburg at that time. A certain mythos grew up around Whistling Dick, some claimed it was the gun that sank the Ironclad USS Cincinnati, and when the Union Army at last marched into Vicksburg, they began to search among the many surrendered Confederate cannon for this particular gun. When they finally located the gun, they sent it north as a souvenir, it sat on the Campus of U.S. Military Academy at West Point for over 90 years, and then one day they sent it back to Vicksburg. For you see they did not have the right gun, the gun that sat on the West Point Campus for over nine decades was not “Whistling Dick” it was “The Widow Blakely” they had the wrong gun. What became of the notorious noisy cannon, the night before the surrender, the gun crew quietly rowed the gun out on to the moonless darkness of the Mississippi and tipped it over the side into the deepest part of the main channel. Once safely back ashore they made a solemn vow to never tell a soul. They would surrender, but Whistling Dick never would. Finally, many decades later the last survivor revealed the truth on his death bed.
Today the Widow Blakely frowns once more from the heights ready to protect Vicksburg once more if it is ever attacked by a hostile towboat, or river excursion passenger liner, and what of Whistling Dick? His whereabouts are unknown to this day. The last unbowed Confederate still lurks somewhere in the murky depths.
One Panther’s Bad Day by Morgan Gates
The old panther crept quietly along the limb of the huge old oak tree, he was hungry he hadn’t made a significant kill in several days. His world was changing in ways he didn’t understand. He was getting old and he knew it. Younger more aggressive panthers had begun moving into his range, and his hunting grounds were not as large as they once were. This was the balance of nature and on some level, he understood this. Once he had been the young aggressive male, he vaguely remembered the day when he had killed the old cat that used to dominate this range of forest, but he was not that far along yet he still had plenty of fight left in him, and he would likely hold most of his range for several more summers before he was vanquished. His real problem was that the woods themselves were changing, great openings had suddenly appeared in several places around the forest. Last summer he could travel from one end of his range to the other without touching the ground except when he pounced down from above on a young deer or turkey. Game had always been so abundant, deer, turkey, bear, racoon, and possum as well, although he rarely bothered with racoon and possum, unless he was just bored and looking for something to play with, the adult bears were too big and dangerous, but every once in a while, he thought of snatching a young cub and quickly retreating to a high tree -- it would have been quite a challenge. Right now, he would be willing to try just about anything.
It was the noisy one’s fault, they looked like the forest people that occasionally wandered through his range but they did not act or smell like them. He did not bother the forest people and they did not bother him, they did not stay long in his forest and they were really a little too big for him anyway. The noisy ones were the problem, they were cutting down the trees and hunting the deer and turkey with their thundering sticks, and making it harder for him to find a good meal. The noisy ones were too big just as the big deer and bear were, but some of their young were just about the right size. He had been watching the small herd of young ones for several minutes now, biding his time. The adults were far away in the clearing, he had never tasted their flesh, but he was hungry, hungrier than he ever remembered being. Just then a young male broke from the herd and ran out ahead a short distance, the panther made his move. In a blur of motion, he leapt from the tree. He struck at the young male’s throat as was his habit, he sought to crush the windpipe with his mighty jaws and suffocate the creature in the way of his kind. But this was no deer, the throat was short and stubby and the creature’s limbs lashed and flailed about in a way no young deer could, and the herd, it did not silently scatter away as a deer herd would. They made horrible screeching noises and ran toward the adults in the clearing! He began dragging his prey way but had to stop and slash at its limbs that kept flailing at his face. His bite had been clumsy and not well placed, the creature did not quickly lose consciousness, he was unfamiliar with this new prey but he would do better next time. Loud noises came from the clearing, what was this bellowing sound? Then he remembered, he had heard it before, the noisy ones used this sound to call their dogs in from a hunt. He slowed to look back, the prey was nearly still now, soon he heard the sound of the dogs. He knew the dogs, they were like the wolves, they hunted on the ground. The noisy ones used them to run down the deer, if they caught him on the ground they could hurt him, he started looking for a way to get his kill up in the tree. He climbed atop a fallen log dragging his prey. The dogs were closing fast and he could hear the noisy ones running behind them. What sort of prey was this? They were like the bears they defended their young, fear gripped his heart, as hungry as he was he released his grasp on the prey and leap into a tree.
Rebecca, and the other ladies looked up from their quilting as she heard the children screaming and running toward them. The men were out in the field rolling logs in, to build their cabin. Here on the frontier the settlers helped each other out. The new Mississippi Territory was fertile land with great promise. But before corn and cotton could be planted, the primeval forest had to be cleared and proper shelter had to be constructed. For the wilderness was dangerous land full of wild animals, and potentially hostile Indians. ----A big yellow dog jumped out of a tree and dragged John Bedford away, the children cried. Rebecca knew in an instant that this was no dog but a deadly panther, they had heard its unearthly cry in the woods for the last several evenings. She snatched up her husband’s hunting horn and blew and alarm. The men and dogs converged on the camp, in moments. The men experienced woodsmen and hunters all, quickly picked up the trail and they soon found young John Bedford in a pile of leaves covered in blood. Tears welled in the eyes of the father as he lifted the still and bloody body from the forest floor. Then he heard the child draw a ragged breath, John Bedford was somehow still alive. They rushed the child back to the camp where the women cared for him. As the men and dogs went in pursuit of the killer cat, and before the sun had set the hungry panther was dead!
John Bedford had been quite possibly the luckiest, five-year-old boy in the Mississippi Territory that day, his wounds were largely superficial, he would survive, and grow to manhood, as all little boys should do. Lucky indeed, for the cat’s jaws should have closed on his windpipe like a vise quickly bringing unconsciousness and death, yet the cat had almost missed its mark! One of his fangs actually penetrated the boy’s windpipe, effectively performing a tracheotomy, and allowing in just enough air that the boy survived. That old cat was just having a really bad day it seemed, or perhaps God was just not yet through with young John Bedford, he still had work to do it seems. At least that is what I like to think! For you see the little boy was John Bedford Gates my fourth great-grandfather, and if that cat’s aim had been better I would have never been born.
The basic facts of this story was taken out of " A History of Simpson County" By Bee King Compiled by Frances B. Krechel. She gave credit to Collins Gates for telling her the story. He was a grandson of John Bedford Gates.
Momma was in town visiting.
My friend, real estate agent-extraordinaire, Kim Steen, and I were trying to make sure she had a great time.
And it was October—PERFECT!
Rediscovering Historic Vicksburg:
Haunted Vicksburg’s Walking Tour
By Meshea Crysup, RHV
I had lived in Vicksburg nearly two years and had yet to take any type of historic tours when I joined Vicksburg Civil War Roundtable and met Morgan Gates. It was quickly apparent that he was not just a guide at the military park—he was a “storyteller” in every sense of the word. I was not surprised, therefore, when I found out that he ran Historic Vicksburg as well as Haunted Vicksburg, which are both tour-based businesses. Once we concluded we wanted to take a “haunted tour”, I knew just who to contact!
Morgan and I did exchange a couple of emails or texts, but basically, I just went to his website, www.hauntedvicksburg.com , read about the tour options, and we picked one! We opted for the walking tour, but there was also a riding tour option. We were able to pay for the tour online using a debit or credit card. I simply kept a screenshot of the confirmation, “just in case”.
We met up with behind the Old Court House Museum at the appointed time. Morgan, his wife, Gwen, and another guide were waiting for us. Before long, our group showed itself to be much larger than I had expected. In addition to our forty-five, it just so happened that a local paranormal group was joining us also! Exciting indeed!
Morgan introduced himself, told us a bit about what to expect, and introduced the paranormal leader and crew. They had gadgets that were used to detect ghosts! Morgan had a small PA system so we could all hear him. I was not sure about the paranormal gadgets, but Morgan was very visible and could be heard well by all of us.
Morgan led the way around the streets and sidewalks of Historic—and Haunted?—Vicksburg, taking time to make sure everyone kept up and heard the stories. He was also happy to answer questions. As large as the group was, I do not think anyone felt like they were being left out or left behind. The tour lasted about an hour and a half. Just as Momma (Seventy years old), Kim (I am not saying!), and I (Fifty-one years old, with Fibromyalgia) were starting to get tired, it was wrapping up. We all three felt it was “just the right” length and we certainly got our money’s worth!
Morgan is constantly seeking out new haunted tales to keep the tour fresh, but some of the stories and places are just too good for him to drop, so I am not going to let any “black-cats-out-of-the-bag”. I will say, however, that the stories were indeed filled with the “unusual and bizarre”, entertaining, and interesting. Doubly so if you were as interested in Vicksburg’s history as you were its ghosts!
While the paranormal group was very excited about all the “readings and sounds” on their gadgets, I, personally, did not see or hear a ghost. Momma, Kim, and I did have a very good time. In fact, I plan to take the tour again! I am not alone in this however. Frequently Haunted Vicksburg has return business. Do not just take my word, or go by the fact that I, as well as many others, want to take the tour more than once. If you check out the usual travel sites online, you will find that Haunted Vicksburg’s tour is consistently the highest rated tour in Vicksburg! It is certainly one of the most exciting ways to Rediscover Historic--Haunted?—Vicksburg!
A Tip of the Hat to Old Starkville by Morgan Gates
My wife and I just returned from a little winter vacation. A few days in Savannah Georgia, yes, I eat, drink, and sleep history even on vacation. The first leg of the trip took us to Starkville Mississippi to drop off the fur baby -- a sixty pound Pitt/Dane mix that thinks he is my lap dog -- with my daughter. Of course, we made time to visit with her and her young man for a couple of hours, dinner at a nice restaurant a late movie, we then spent the night in her spare bedroom and were up and off to an early start the next morning. Starkville is home to Mississippi State University (Go Dawgs) and has a surprising number of amenities for such a small city because of this. We ate breakfast at an excellent local diner on main street the next morning and as we made our way to the highway, my lovely wife asked me if anything of historical significance had occurred in Starkville – she’s good like that, she knows the best way to get me talking is to ask me a history question. I replied not much, it was originally known as Boardtown, but the name was changed to Starkville in honor of a Revolutionary War hero, the University’s first president had been a former Civil War General, Oh and Grierson’s Raid had passed through Starkville. About that time, we passed the historical marker for the raid in front of the local Walgreen’s Pharmacy. That’s when it hit me, here we were one hundred and sixty-seven road miles from home and we were looking at a marker related to Vicksburg! Grierson’s Raid, ordered by U.S. Grant, was part of the Vicksburg Campaign! ---- You were beginning to wonder how I was going to bring this back around to Vicksburg weren’t you?
At the beginning of the Civil War the Confederacy owned the cavalry field, Southern Gentlemen were born and bred to the saddle, and most Southern Cavalrymen brought their own horses to the war. The Confederate Cavalry Generals – J.E.B. Stewart, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Earl Van Dorn, etc. – were legends in their own time. But the Union boys were good at playing “catch-up”! Colonel Benjamin Grierson, was not “born to the saddle” this former music teacher did not even like horses before the War, but apparently, he had overcome that shortcoming by April of 1863.
In April of 1863 Grant is moving his men down the West side of the Mississippi through the thick swamps of Northeast Louisiana. It is a slow process and it will take almost a month to move the army between Milliken’s Bend and Disharoon a distance of about 40 miles “as the crow flies” plenty of time for Pemberton to mass his army to oppose the planned crossing. Had Pemberton done so it would have been a bloody mess – think Omaha Beach, 81 years too soon! Grant has numbers but Pemberton has Geography, so Grant uses his numerical superiority to appear to be everywhere at once, by launching diversionary operations to keep Pemberton off balance and guessing as to his true intentions. The most audacious of these diversions was Grierson’s Raid.
On April 17th 1863, the day after the U.S. Navy ran the guns of Vicksburg, Grierson left LaGrange Tennessee at the head of a column of 1700 horse soldiers and several pieces of light artillery. For the next 16 days, they rode rough shod over lightly defended eastern Mississippi destroying railroads and tearing down telegraph wires and generally raising hell. The raid was largely successful because it faced no serious opposition, the bulk of Pemberton’s cavalry and his star horseman Nathan Bedford Forrest had been ordered to Tennessee by Pemberton’s superiors and infantry could not move quickly enough to counter a fast-moving horseman. Grierson rode into Union occupied Baton Rouge on May 2nd with only minimal casualties. --- but let’s get back to that marker in front of the Walgreen’s – On April 21st Grierson’s men rode into the little village and captured a wagon load of hats that they believed were destined for the Confederate Army. They promptly distributed the hats to the local slaves, and left town in a cloud of dust riding south. The next day the local newspaper castigated the men of Starkville for allowing this to happen. – I’m not really sure what the editor though they could have done to stop it. The Editorial concludes with the statement:
“All we can say is that we now have the best hatted slaves in the Confederacy!”
Pulled Pork Turneth Away Wrath By Morgan Gates
History is perhaps the most aptly named subject, for what is it but a collection of stories His -stories and Her-stories all glued to together in a shimmering web of time and place. Some are heroic, others tragic, or romantic, or scary, or funny, but we all have stories. A few of us have stories that will long outlast us, but for most of us our stories will not long survive our demise. Occasionally those of us who like to dumpster dive the past come across one of these discarded gems. I came across a couple of good stories lately while researching the 46th Mississippi Infantry in which my great great grandfather served.
Private Abner James Wilkes served in the 46th Mississippi Infantry alongside F.P. Gates, my ancestor, although in a different company. He was from Blountsville a small community that is today, the town of Prentiss about 75 miles southeast of Vicksburg and about 35 miles from the community of my Great-great grandfather. Some times after the war he wrote a brief account of his wartime experiences. Entitled A Short History of My Life in The Late War Between the North and The South about 1957 it was transcribed. Abner Wilkes was a master of brevity apparently for the account of three years of war including almost every major campaign in the western theater only takes up about twenty typed, double spaced pages. There are however several adventures worth retelling here.
After the fall of Atlanta as the Southern army is moving north toward Tennessee rations are short, it seems they always were among the Confederate Army. Abner and his friend Kit decide to do a bit of foraging. They slipped away from camp one evening and soon located a young pig, killed it dressed it and started back to camp. Here we must pause in our narrative to explain a few nuances of the time and place of this instant. This young pig was not a wild animal but the property of a southern farmer. A valuable commodity destined to stock the famers larder, or be sold for cash to purchase necessities of life. Neither food nor hard currency were as easily come by in those days as they are now. Livestock theft was a serious offence, in fact the infamous Hatfield & McCoy feud was allegedly begun by an incident just such as this. Nor were these two men Sherman’s Bummers, who so liberally liberated the provisions and property of southern civilians during the war. These were southern boys, and they had just committed a serious breach of military regulations, exigencies of the day being what they may. They tried of course to move as carefully as possible back to camp, but stealth is not easily accomplished with 100 or so of pounds of fresh pork slung over your shoulder. Just as they made it back to camp they were caught red handed, literally since this was a fresh kill, by the Brigade Commander General C.W. Sears. Who shouts out “Halt you Johnnies and give account of yourselves” hearing out their story General Sears’ next words must have been both puzzling and terrifying. He told them to return to their camp but to appear at his tent that night at 9 p.m. at which time he intended to have them shot. Their sole consolation was that at least they would die with full bellies. The Confederate army at this time is desperately short of all the necessities of life so the two “dead men walking” eat their final meal on a plate of freshly peeled pine bark. Once properly satiated, the two men discover they still have a good bit of meat left and Wilkes has a bright Idea, he piles another bark plate high with fresh pulled pork, slips over to the General’s tent and sets the still steaming plate on Sear’s table, then quietly retreats to the shadows to watch. The old man turns to see the mouthwatering treat, and partakes with gusto, thus becoming an accessory after the fact. The appointed hour of execution comes and goes without event and Abner Wilkes and his partner in crime will live to fight another day. In his brief memoir, Wilkes sums up the event by stating “so my friends if you ever find yourself about to be shot, just find yourself some fat pork and all will be alright”! But where you might ask is justice for the poor farmer deprived of his property, well we will just write that one off as another sacrifice in the cause of the noble south!
Information for the above article was extracted from a document in the files of the Old Courthouse Museum in Vicksburg MS. The document is a typed copy of a hand-written manuscript written by Abner Wilkes who served in the 46th MS infantry during the Civil War and passed on to his heirs. It was typed in the format in which saw it around 1957, by Retired Rear Admiral Ivan E. Bass.
by Meshea Crysup
Co-founder Rediscovering Historic Vicksburg
Note: Hubby does not like it when I use him in my stories,
so just let this be our little secret, please. ;-)
Last night, I was very disappointed because I did not get to go to Vicksburg Civil War Roundtable’s first meeting after Christmas break. Curt Fields/General Grant was our speaker and I had been looking forward to meeting him for months. But Hubby and I have both had “the crud”: coughing, blowing our noses, feeling like crap, etc. for going on two weeks now, and we just were not up to getting out.
I say, “we” optimistically, because I have not gotten him as onboard with Rediscovering Historic Vicksburg as I am--yet.
In fact, last night, at just two minutes before time for Roundtable to start, I glanced at the time and said, “I really wanted to go.”
Hubby replied, “So this guy is there portraying General Grant?”
I replied, “Yes…” knowing full-well what was coming next.
“Well, I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed that.”
I sighed, then patiently said, “Roundtable isn’t about refighting the Civil War. It is about learning HISTORY. It is not a North/South thing.”
If Hubby is anything, he is predictable. He is also from New Orleans. I am--not.
“Well you just don’t understand. You didn’t lose the war.”
To be clear, this is just Hubby’s sense of humor. We have had this discussion many times and we actually mostly agree about the Civil War, but what fun is that? Obligingly, and with a smirk, I replied as I had many times before, “No one “won”. It was American against American. America lost.” He had gotten the desired “rise” out of me; the discussion was over. Plus, it was time to take another round of meds.
The next day, however, still not feeling well enough to get out, I replayed the scene in my head. Along with it came many recent memories:
What a unique time in American History—in World History—to be Rediscovering Historic Vicksburg!
As I do so, I am not a “damned Yankee” as Hubby, lovingly—I think—calls me. I do not do so identifying myself by my politics, race, gender, socio-economic group, or religion. I am Rediscovering Historic Vicksburg as an American. And yes, as I discussed in my last post, Vicksburg fascinates and attracts visitors from all over the world, but we do have American visitors as well. I am especially proud, given the list of issues above, when I see them, whether as individuals, families, groups on buses or riding bikes. I understand what Al meant—and I agree with him that in a very real sense that as a nation, we are still fighting the war—but not when we are Rediscovering Historic Vicksburg. When we are Rediscovering our history, anywhere, we are on the road to finally winning, once-and-for-all! I do not see North or South, Blue or Gray. I do not see race, gender, socio-economical group, or religion. When I see others from our nation come to Rediscover Historic Vicksburg, I see an American!
In fact, not to be political, but just patriotic, I am starting my own “hashtag”. I hope you will join me! Maybe we will inspire others not to just Rediscover Historic Vicksburg! Perhaps we can lead the way and, as a nation, we will Rediscover Historic America!
Family Reunion By Morgan Gates
Historian: (Noun) a person who researches, studies, and writes about the past, and is regarded as an authority on it.
I am a historian and I live in one of the most historically and culturally diverse parts of the United States. When most people think historian, they picture the university professor wearing a tweed sport coat, pipe in hand, eternally posed on the back dustjacket of a glossy book in the clearance bin at the local Barnes and Noble. Or perhaps a name etched in fading gold-leaf on the cover of some musty old scholarly tome. Buried deep in the stacks of some imposing old library, another dry scholarly book that reads like the “begat sections of the Bible”. That is not me! I sent my tweed jacket to the Salvation Army, a long time ago, and I have never been a fan of tobacco in any form or fashion. I have some books in the pipeline, and I may have a picture on the dustjacket at some point, but that remains to be seen. You see I believe that history is a living breathing thing, the story of who we are. History must be not just written but written well so that the story has life and will be remembered and retold and not just be filed away in some dusty archive, to be forgotten once more. This blog is an effort to do just that, to pull out the old dusty stories, first written down long ago, blow the dust off them and retell them for a more modern audience.
I also believe oral history is an important and often neglected part of the human experience, so you are likely to find me walking a historic battlefield relating a story of some long-forgotten hero, to fellow history lovers. Oral history may in fact be our most endangered cultural custom. It was our first way of remembering the past. Long before the first Mesopotamian scholar figured out how to “draw sound” by making imprints in wet clay, the old men sat around the fire at night and told stories of the past. Yet nobody listens to grandpa and grandma anymore, nuclear families dissolve and extended families scatter, the tribal elders move to Florida or they are shut away in nursing homes as obsolete relics of a bygone era, and YouTube and Facebook occupy their niche with inane babblings and fake news, and we lose our connections with the past. My own family is no exception.
I’ve often been asked when conducting a tour, what is your personal history, and here I fall short. My pat answer is that “ I am guilty of knowing everybody’s history but my own”. You see history can be a two edged sword, at least your own can. There is no pain in blowing off the dust of someone else’s history, but there can be within one’s own family… I was pretty sure there was no grand old antebellum mansion with my family’s name on it in my past. My parents were hard working blue collar middle class folk. My mother’s father was a sharecropper and my father who lived in town was also from a family of modest means. My father however was from a broken family. His parents had divorced when he was a child, and he had little contact with his natural father, and no desire to know of him. I only met the man once when I was very young, and he died in 1972, long before I was old enough to be interested in family history. --I reserve judgment on my grandfather, I never knew his side of the story and my grandmother could be a difficult woman, perhaps there was good reason, perhaps not -- That link in the family chain was broken.
I did not grow up in the computer age, I was already a grown man when the first personal computer was introduced, it would be many more years before I heard of ancestry.com, by that time more important things occupied my thought. Women, college, career pretty much in that order. My love of history led me to a career in education, and I did teach American and World History for a number of years, but soon the financial reality of marriage and family lead me out of the classroom and into more lucrative but less satisfying administrative work. As I wound down my career in the educational system a number of years ago, I began to return to my one true (professional) love—History, but by this time my parents had both passed and I figured that door had closed. Enter my friend Michael Logue, I first met him when he took over operation of my Historic & Haunted Vicksburg website. He had recently concluded a career in the computer realm, he too is a lover of history and we often work together in that field now. Michael; however, has a skill set that I do not, genealogy. When I learned of his skills in this area, I toyed with the idea of having him see what he could find, again a thought that simmered on the back burner for quite some time. A couple of weeks ago, I learned that he was teaching a four-week genealogy workshop, business is slow this time of year the time was ripe, I signed up.
I went to the class the first night with quite modest expectations. I had scrapped together a few names and birth/death dates, and I hoped by the end of the class to know if I had a relative that fought in the Civil War, I am after all a Civil War historian, and where if I was lucky. Michael took my scraggly “Charlie Brown Christmas Tree of a family tree” and in a few minutes, he had it bearing fruit! First, I met my estranged paternal grandfather, where he had lived what he did for a living, he was a veteran of WWI. Then my great grandfather, he lived about 90 miles from where I do. A simple farmer but he owned his own land and was mortgage free, he raised a large family, including a set of twins, my daughters are twins. Then to me the biggest plum, my great-great-grandfather. Franklin Plumber Gates! F.P. Gates was a private in the Confederate army 46th Mississippi Infantry. A veteran of the Vicksburg Campaign, engaged at the Battles of Chickasaw Bayou, Port Gibson, the assault on Stockade Redans on May 19th & 22nd and of course maned the trenches during the siege. Oh, the stories this man had to tell. I saw his signature on the parole document and yesterday I walked the section of trenches where he was stationed. I have a picture of his tombstone and one day in the not too distant future I will visit that grave. Just to introduce myself.
The Strange experience of William Selkrig
by Morgan Gates, Historic & Haunted Vicksburg
It is January 1778, and we are going to visit the farm of William Selkrig.
In the winter of 1778 The American Revolution is ongoing and George Washington’s Army is encamped at Valley Forge, but that is over 1000 miles away “again, as the crow flies” and likely three times that far following the rivers. As far as William is concerned it might as well be on the other side of the world, but all that is about to change for him.
Selkrig is a simple man, a pioneer in the truest sense of the word. He has a plot of fertile land, he has industriously cleared it and built himself a simple cabin. William is no squatter however; he has come by his land honestly. He has a land grant signed by the governor of the colony of British West Florida in far off Pensacola and he is not sitting idly in front of his fire this winter day, he is out working on his land. As he looks up from his work he sees a flatboat rounding the bend. -- Flatboats, were not unheard of on the Mississippi at this early date, but not terribly common either. There were old French settlements far upstream and squatters in search of land had been pushing west of the mountains for many years, but likely it was not and everyday occurrence -- William did not get many visitors, his farm was about sixty river miles above Natchez, and while there were small settlements much closer, traveling upriver was a daunting task in his day. The local Indians would stop by to trade, or pilfer, from time to time, but that was about it. He expects a shouted halloo at best as the vessel drifts by with the current. Instead the flatboat puts ashore and a ragtag band of armed men disembark and take William prisoner, the American Revolution has just come south!
The flatboat is “technically” a Continental warship named The Rattletrap and the armed men are Captain James Willing and his company of Continental Soldiers. They are enroute to New Orleans where they hope to gain material support for the cause from the Spanish authorities. Along the way, they are attacking “Tory” farms. Forget the textbook pictures of the crisp blue coats and tricorn hats though, this is a ragged bunch of frontier ner do wells and Willing, who really does have a Continental commission and was a former resident of the area, is likely less the patriot than the profiteer. As The Rattletrap make its way south, the pickings were not as easy. Many of the British settlers are former military men and in a skirmish somewhere north of Natchez, Willing is captured, and his little expedition ingloriously comes to an end. Selkrig free once more, makes his way back to his remote farm. During his absence, however, the Indians have plundered his cabin, he stays for a while but he no longer feels safe this far from civilization. William abandons his farm and moves south closer to Natchez and help.
Things are about to start changing in this little corner of the world. Within twenty years it will pass out of British control to the Spanish and then to the fledgling United States. Once in American hands settlers will begin to flood in. William Selkrig will live to see this happen but he will lose title to his land grant in the transition.
The area where William’s farm was located was on a point of land formed by a large bend in the river known as Three Islands to the British, in the early days of American settlement of Warren County (in which Vicksburg is located) this same bend came to be known as Palmyra – named for a biblical city built by King Solomon – as the cotton boom began much of the land was purchased by a wealthy planter who soon became one of the wealthiest men in Mississippi. He in turn split off a sizable portion and gave it to his baby brother, who had just returned from military service. The little brother would use the proceeds of this fertile land to begin a promising political career, after he had built his own residence there of course. This residence, while much plainer than the antebellum mansions of Natchez and Vicksburg, was much finer than William Selkrig’s modest cabin. This new residence was named Brierfield, the home of Jefferson Davis, and the older brother was Joseph Davis, whose plantation Hurricane was right next door. War once again visits this bend in the river 84 years later when the US Navy burns Hurricane on its way to Vicksburg. Brierfield survives but post war it is converted into an experimental freedman’s colony, which eventually fails and in 1867 the restless Mississippi shifts in its course and “Davis Bend” becomes “Davis Island”. In 1931 Brierfield burned to the ground.
Today the spot where Brierfield once stood, while still part of the state of Mississippi is on the Louisiana side of the Mississippi River. A few brick pillars, are all that remain of Davis’ home. A few metal farm buildings and a grass air strip for crop dusters nearby reminds that we are in the 21st century and not the 18th, but not much else. As for Selkrig’s cabin, nothing remains to mark its spot, nothing… nothing but the land, the trees and the river that is!
*any amount of frozen precipitation, of sufficient quantity, to be easily visible to the naked eye.
--Picture by Google Earth
Rediscovering Historic Vicksburg:
Where Does One Start?
by Meshea Crysup
Hubby and I were sitting in a local restaurant yesterday. Behind him, there was a young couple, enthuastically chatting away, but I could not understand a word they were saying. It may have been French or German—I could not hear them plainly and I only speak English, so I do not know. What I do know is that this is more common than one might expect in Vicksburg, MS. Foreign tourists are fascinated by our rich Civil War History. In fact, while the latest statistics I could find stated that Vicksburg National Military Battlefield has between 532,444 and one million visitors a year, what it did not say, nor could I find statistics for, is that a good deal of them will not be from this country. Shocked? I can tell you I was, but I have seen first-hand, it is true. For me, this begs the question:
“How do people from all over the world know about Vicksburg?”
Frankly, I am still working on that one. One thing for sure, however, is that whether from this country or halfway around the world, they all seem to know where to start their visit here: The Vicksburg National Military Park.
Granted, this might not be the ideal starting point for every tourist, but if it is your first trip to Vicksburg and its role in Civil War history is at least part of why you are visiting, it is a logical and obvious choice. You can visit their website to learn details such as cost, hours of operation, tour options, etc., and I will provide the link below.
The one thing that most surprised me and that I feel strongly you should know is the amount of time one should plan on spending in the park.
Of course, it will vary depending upon how deeply you want to delved into all of the monuments and information available, but be prepared: the drive through the park is not a short one! With minimal stops, picture taking, and plaque reading, and depending upon the traffic in the park, you will be at least an hour. This type of visit will provide you only a glimpse into what the park holds. Truthfully, I believe I could spend a week there and not take in all the history Vicksburg National Military Park contains.
There is certainly more to see and do in Vicksburg and we are working quite diligently to add to the options available in order to appeal to everyone. After all, while a family may all have an interest in history, the kiddos might not want to spend as much time in the park. In fact, mom and dad would probably enjoy something else as well, such as a great dinner followed by a fun night of listening to Blues! In fact, wherever you start your time in Vicksburg you really cannot go wrong!
~Meshea Crysup, Co-founder Rediscovering Historic Vicksburg
Website and Phone Number for the Vicksburg National Military Park
Old Rodney: part 2 By Morgan Gates
The extinct town of Rodney was still very much alive during the Civil War. While no major fights occurred there the town was not left completely unscathed. After the fall of Vicksburg, its close proximity to so large a concentration of enemy forces meant it could not remain untouched. At one point a Regiment of bluecoats responding to rumors of Confederate troops in the area, ransacked every house in town. On another occasion a Yankee cavalry raiding party disembarked at its port and dashed through town on its way inland. The Yankees were captured by Confederates well inland. But the most interesting event of the war in Rodney, started from the most innocent of beginnings.
In the late summer of 1863 the pastor of the Presbyterian church in the little community of Red Lick not too far from Rodney, found his welcome wearing thin. The idea that the nation was uniformly divided along the Mason-Dixon line is largely a myth. ---Pemberton the commander of the Confederates that defended Vicksburg so gallantly was from Pennsylvania, the Naval Commander that had shelled the city so mercilessly was from Tennessee--- The Reverend Baker was a Union Man, again not an unheard situation, but an unpopular one. Regular transportation north, however, was not easily come by in the early years of the war. When Vicksburg fell in the summer of 1863 commercial steamboat traffic resumed on the Mississippi. Reverend Baker soon made his way to Rodney to arrange transportation upriver. Reverend Baker found no northbound paddle wheelers docked at Rodney, there was however a Union gunboat floating nearby, and Acting Master E.H. Fentress of the USS Rattler invited Reverend Baker to be his guest as he awaited a northbound steamer.
The Rattler was and aptly named vessel, small enough to be quick yet still packing a potent punch, she was what was known as a “Tinclad” in navy parlance. She began her life as the Florence Miller, an ordinary sternwheel built for river commerce, but the navy had stripped away unnecessary weight, reinforced her wooden structure, covered her vitals with an inch of iron and mounted six heavy guns, two heavy 24 pounder smooth bores and two 30 pounder Parrot rifles. Compared to the heavy ironclads like the Cairo, or the Benton she was a bantamweight but she could outrun anything she couldn’t outfight and outfight anything she couldn’t outrun. Once the Confederate river forts had been pounded into submission, the tinclads performed yeoman service patrolling the river.
While the Reverend Baker enjoyed Fentress’ hospitality, Reverend Robert Price, the pastor of the Presbyterian Church at Rodney, invited his fellow man of the cloth to preach one final service in Mississippi, and Baker graciously accepted. Perhaps hoping return the hospitality of Acting Master Fentress, Baker invited him and some of his crew to attend the service. Fentress and 18 crew members accepted. Here we must pause and wonder what Fentress was thinking! The river was back in Union hands but there were no Union garrisons between Vicksburg and Natchez and the war was far from over. Still Rodney was small and the Rattler floated nearby, and so On Sunday Morning September 13 1863, Fentress went to church. They say that there are no secrets in small towns, and sure enough, Lt. Allen of the Confederate Cavalry with about 30 men decided to show up as well. A small skirmish in which 15-20 shots were fired ensued –amazingly nobody was killed or seriously wounded-- and Fentress and most of his party were captured. As soon as word reached the Rattler the gunboat began shelling the town, one of the shells struck the church, but Lt. Allen and his prisoners were safely out of range by that time. The remainder of the Rattler’s crew threated to burn the town, until Lt. Allen promised to hang the prisoners if they did. The Rattler steamed away to Natchez to report the incident and Captain Fentress and his righteous crew got to enjoy a little southern hospitality at Libby Prison in Richmond VA until October 1864. The Rattler continued to patrol the river until the end of December 1864 when she was sunk by a snag during a heavy gale. Of Reverend Baker’s fate, we don’t know, but we can likely assume, that much chagrined, he caught the next steamer headed north to Yankee land, turning his back on the land of cotton, and hoping “his old times there WILL be forgotten” but not if we can help it.
Look away..look away…look away…Dixie Land!
In the Bamboo Forest
by Morgan Gates
Today I stood in the middle of a bamboo forest and listened to the wind in these giant reeds. The sound was that of a bamboo wind chime, just like those sold in the gardening stores, you know the ones that say made in China! The sound was the same yet different, larger grander, but not really louder. The sound was around me it came from above and behind, and in front, and either side! Perhaps it even came from inside? The sound was soft and melodic and hypnotic, it soothed and caressed me, in a way no words can truly describe. Perhaps this is the reason the Orient has been such an inspired place throughout history, a place of philosophy and art, for the wind in the reeds whispered them to sleep each night.
I did not come out to visit the forest today, I was on another mission to explore an old cemetery nearby. The old cemetery is off a dead-end road. It seems there is always something interesting at the end of a dead-end road. We are such a road bound society, that we almost never venture beyond the road. A dead-end sign might as well read “Here thar be Dragons”! Indeed, where the road ends the forest begins. The Bamboo Forest is no secret, I have known about it for years, in fact I often drive right by it. I have never before taken the time to step off the pavement and walk into it. Today however, as a low winter sun hung in a bright blue sky and a cool winter wind chased a few high thin clouds across the sky, I walked past the road closed sign, past the pavements end and stepped off the edge of the world. This is not a typical southern “canebrake” as described by Faulkner, this is true Chinese Bamboo. It is not a big forest as are the vast hardwood and pine forest that cover much of my home state, it is only about an acre or two, but it is an acre or two plopped down from the other side of the world.
Of course, I know its history, that is what I do, I always know the history, and if I don’t I’ll find out! The Bamboo Forest is old at least 160 years old, the man responsible for it died before the Civil War began. The shafts are enormous compared to southern cane, more than 3 inches in diameter, I wear an extra-large glove but my fingers will not close around it. It was not deliberately planted; its origin was an accident. This land once belonged to a man named William W. Williamson –no I’m not kidding, that was really his name, perhaps his parents weren’t very imaginative. Mr. Williamson loved cock fighting – roosters, get your mind out of the gutter – and the best fighting roosters came from China. The fighting cocks arrived in bamboo cages, Mr. Williamson, just like a kid on Christmas morning ripped the cages apart to obtain his prize within and carelessly tossed the bamboo gift wrapping on the ground. The fertile soils and warm rains of the south did the rest, and today I Rediscovered a part of Historic Vicksburg.
The Vicksburg Bed and Breakfast Association is a group of local history-related businesses that are coordinating their efforts to improve and enhance the experience of each person who visits Vicksburg, MS.
Imagine a town so charming that a president of the United States owned property there and planned to make it his retirement home. Imagine a town that was home to one of the great technological innovators of his day. Imagine a town that was well known for its sophistication and culture, a place regularly visited by important people, a place well known for its expositions, where public concerts were common. A place of faith that was home to beautiful churches and was a strong supporter of a nearby college, that still operates to this day. A place that almost became the capital of one of the wealthiest states of the United States, it fell short by three votes. Now imagine that this town no longer exists!
I have just described for you the old town of Rodney. Rodney lay about 40 miles “as the crow flies” south of Vicksburg. The area was named Petit Gulf –little gulf—by the French who were the first European settlers of this region. The area was first settled when General Phineas Lyman led and expedition from New England about 1774. Lyman, a colonial officer had fought with distinction in the recently concluded French and Indian War and was rewarded with a sizable land grant in the new British West Florida colony. Captain Matthew Phelps, a member of that expedition describes the area a firm rock on the east bank extending about a mile inland. The wooded bluffs are high and very broken but the soil is rich and several plantations have been established there. Firm rock along the lower Mississippi is somewhat rare and this made the area very attractive as a settlement. During the American Revolution, the area is annexed by Spain, the land comes into possession of a man named Thomas Calvit via a Spanish land grant, there he establishes the Town of Rodney in 1828. Although apparently, there was a sizable unincorporated settlement there before this, that went by the name Petit Gulf, for when the French naturalist Charles Lesueur sketched the area in 1828 he described a village with 20 buildings of both one and two stories.
The town was named for Thomas Rodney -- a territorial judge that had been involved in legal actions involving the ill-fated Arron Burr expedition. By the 1850’s there were many stores, a bank, a newspaper, and the area was noted for its county fairs, which exhibited some of the finest livestock in the lower Mississippi Valley, and the trophies awarded were made of silver. The congregation of the Presbyterian church donated 1000 silver dollars, to be made into a bell for the church tower. Exact population figures are hard to find, but from the number of stores and the size of the remaining structures, there may have been 1000-1200 people living and doing business in or around the small town.
The town was a strong supporter of Oakland College in fact the minister of the Rodney Presbyterian Church became the college’s first president. Today that school lives on in the form of Alcorn State University. Such notables as Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson visited the town. Zachary Taylor who was one of the most famous men of his day was so impressed with the town that he bought a large plantation named Cypress Grove nearby, selling properties in both Mississippi and Louisiana to do so. Taylor was living at Cypress Grove when he was elected President. Another nearby plantation, Laurel Hill, was owned by Dr. Rush Nutt. I know you have never heard of Dr. Nutt today but think of him as the Steve Jobs of his day, an innovator in agriculture just as Jobs innovated in technology. He encouraged soil conservation, made improvements to the cotton gin and developed a strain of cotton that put Mississippi on the map at a time when cotton was 60% of the economy of the whole country. His son Haller was the builder of Longwood, the famous unfinished mansion of Natchez.
So, what happened, the same thing that happened to small towns across America when the interstates came through, it was bypassed! Shortly after the Civil War the current of the Mississippi began to shift as it was wont to do in those days, and a sandbar began to form in front of Rodney and continued to grow as the current shifted west, today the town site is almost two miles from the Mississippi. Still the town might have limped on in a diminished state if not for a mighty one two hammer blow in the form of a terrible fire in 1869. The officers of the steamer Richmond described the scene:
The whole village was wrapped in a mantle of flames and as at two o'clock in the morning our boat glided swiftly down along the other shore, the scene was grand beyond description, lit up as it was by the lurid lights from burning buildings, mingled with the moon's pale beams
Another blow came from Yellow Fever in the late 19th century, and when the Rail Road chose to go through the town of Fayette 12 miles to the South East it effectively nailed the coffin lid shut on a once thriving town. Even the Presbyterian church shut its door in 1923 when the congregation dwindled to sixteen. In 1930 the governor of Mississippi signed the death certificate of Rodney when he officially pulled the town charter.
The Presbyterian and the Baptist church still stand, though bereft of any congregation. The Baptist will not last much longer, flood waters damaged it in in 2011, the remnants of an old wooden store stand nearby. A few houses and trailers dot the landscape some of them also abandoned by the looks of it. The sole structure that has any long-term prospects is the Catholic Church for it was disassembled and moved to Grand Gulf State Park a number of years ago, but it too is just a ghost another spirit of a time long ago, another inhabitant of Mississippi’s Ghost towns and Graveyards.
So, last weekend was one of those vacation days, and the “better half” and I decided to go exploring. This part of the South is a treasure trove of hidden gems if you love history, and I feel sure you do if you are reading this blog. We decided to find Hopewell Cemetery, the oldest –still identifiable--graveyard in the county. I had heard of this graveyard for years but had never actually visited it. I knew it was maintained by the Warren County Historical Society of which I am a member. I asked directions and discovered that it is right behind a modern elementary school, so off we went. A few miles west on a modern Interstate highway, then a number of miles further down a modern state highway---made a couple of wrong turns, what’s the fun of exploring if you don’t make a few wrong turns?—then down the “right” country road. I drove around behind the school and then took a slight left turn. Exiting the truck, I walked between the towering forest giants and the ancient tombstones, then I crested the ridge and stepped into the past…
The forest opened up and I stood on the top of a ridge looking across the broad valley in the direction of the Mighty Mississippi. Suddenly I was no longer in the 21st. century less though than 50 yards from blacktop. I was a settler of the early 19th century laying eyes on this fertile valley for the first time, seeing the promise of a new country, where a man’s success depended on his own industry and not a noble name.
Perhaps I am a veteran of the Revolution awarded a land grand in lieu of unpaid wages, his stone is nearby. My fellow settlers and I will found a church here, and name it Hopewell, for this is a land of hope. Here we will pray to our God for all to be well, for life is hard on the frontier, and the death angel is always close by. Nearby a tombstone depicts a mother weeping for a lost child. The stones are worn with age and weather, some have been broken by falling trees, but still they speak to us across the years. Not every stone here is ornate. Not far away, a simple marker is obviously homemade. Over sixty years old, it is crudely cast from cement with the name and date etched by hand. A land of plenty and poverty that is the enigma that is the South.
The Church is gone; the small riverport town it served is gone as well.
I turn and walk back to my truck. My wife was already beside it waiting. She does not realize that it is in fact a time machine which, in a moment, will carry us a few miles and almost 200 years into the future…
…To see a slide show of my visit to Old Hopewell visit my Facebook page
Historic and Haunted Vicksburg …