Have You Seen the Elephant?
By Morgan Gates
Historic and Haunted Vicksburg
While this is not a truly Vicksburg-specific term, you can be quite sure that by the end of the Civil War everybody in and anywhere near Vicksburg had “Seen the Elephant”. Now quite a few of our readers know exactly what I mean by this, but, for the benefit of those who do not, allow me to elaborate.
Anybody who has seen “The King and I” knows that the King of Siam (later known as Burma and now Myanmar) did indeed offer the President of the United States a stock of Elephants, but Old Abe did in fact politely decline. A bit less well known is that the Confederate President, Jefferson Davis, had in the past experimented with exotic animals. When he was the U.S. Secretary of War, under President Franklin Pierce, he had imported a number of Dromedary Camels from Arabia to help explore the desert southwest, and at least one survivor of that herd was at Vicksburg (blog for another day). Did Davis instead receive the rejected shipment? Unfortunately, no he did not. It might be fun to have imagined Grant's advance up the Rodney Road, in the wee hours of May 1st, being met by a column of War Elephants though. But no, there were no war elephants on either side, I’m afraid. The pachyderm witnessed by so many during the late unpleasantness was of a more metaphorical kind. To “See the Elephant” was a 19th century euphuism for seeing combat.
By 1861, the Revolution, was in the history books, the War of 1812--except for Jackson’s heroic victory in New Orleans-- was also too far away in time and place to have much impact. Only the short and glorious Mexican-American War was part of living memory of that time. Both sides were absolutely sure this war--the Civil War-- would also be short and glorious. Young men on each side were eager to dangle their toes in this pool of bloody glory and perhaps to come back with their own “Red Badge of Courage” and, more importantly, with bragging rights of their own. They had no idea of the tidal wave of blood that would wash over their generation. In these early days of the war, this euphuism seems almost innocent and naïve to us with the 20/20 hindsight of history.
No one is quite sure where the term comes from, and it seems to have been around for a long time by the Civil War, but one popular American story to explain the phrase is this:
There once was an old farmer who lived outside a small city. He had lived on his farm his entire life, and he made a good living selling his produce in the nearby city. The farmer was a fine old man, but, he had never had the opportunity to travel and see much of the world, so to satisfied his curiosity he read extensively. Whenever he went to the city to sell his goods, he would always come home with several new books and he would spend the long winter evenings traveling in his mind to faraway places. He had become quite fascinated with the elephant. The old farmer knew all about horses and cows and pigs and chickens, and the animals of the surrounding forests, but he found the enormous pachyderm hard to imagine.
One day, the old farmer was heading into town with a load of produce for the local market. His farm wagon was piled high with the fruits of his labors. Unknown to him, the circus was coming to the small city that day. As he neared the city, he rounded a bend in the road and came face to face with the circus parade being lead, of course, by the circus elephants. The famers old horse panicked at the sight and bolted from the road. The wagon over turned, the old farmer was tossed into the brambles, and all his produce was scattered and ruined. Some bystanders rushed to his aid. He emerged from the brambles battered and bleeding but with a huge smile on his face! The bystanders eagerly asked him if he was alright and he exclaimed, “Oh yes, I am just fine for I have seen the elephant”!
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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