(My friend and assistant on the Haunted Vicksburg Ghost Tour, Marie, discovered the Bamboo Forest here in Vicksburg recently this inspired me to repost this blog from last winter)
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.
John C. Pemberton: Part 2
by Morgan Gates,
Owner Historic Vicksburg Tours, Owner Haunted Vicksburg Tours, Author, Blogger, & Historian
In our last episode: John has followed his heart south, and become embroiled in the nation’s most tragic conflict. Thinking himself among friends, he finds himself betrayed on every side and fighting for his very survival against a relentless and overwhelming foe. Can he survive? Will Pattie still be waiting for him? Let’s find out…
Okay, sorry I couldn’t resist!
Last time, we learned that John C. Pemberton was a good solid soldier, a man with a good deal of military experience, a clean record and he had a good deal of opportunity to learn from the best. He was generally well liked by his superiors. Yet history remembers him as one of the biggest losers of the war. So, what happened?
Criticisms of Pemberton included lack of combat experience, too much reliance on “councils of war”, and a failure to act decisively to counter Grant’s moves toward Vicksburg. So, let’s break these down.
Combat experience: If you mean leading large units in traditional battles using the Napoleonic tactics that were the rule of the day in the early to mid-nineteenth century, then yes, you are correct. But you must remember that the same can be said for almost all of his contemporaries. Since the end of the Mexican-American War, 14 years before, the United States had seen no such action, and those who had done so, for the most part, were gone or too old to lead another war. Grant had seen some small unit action, but had not made the high-level decisions of a senior officer in Mexico. Pemberton, as an adjutant, had looked over the shoulders of those who had. He had also seen small scale action in Florida, against the Seminoles, before the war in Mexico, and was a member of the Utah Expedition against the Mormons in 1857. Pemberton often served as a staff member to those who were in command and as such he was in an excellent position as an “apprentice” of sorts and thus was no stranger to the demands of high level command.
Grant had no pre-Civil War command experience! He had resigned his Captains Commission in 1853, shortly after receiving it, and returned to civilian life. Prior to Vicksburg, Grant had experienced a baptism of fire in 1862 with a decisive win at Fort Donaldson, and a bloody nail biter at Shiloh. It could, however, be strongly argued that, in both cases, luck played a much larger role in these victories than skill, but as Napoleon once said “I would rather have a general who was lucky than a good one”
Councils of war: These are seen by some a sign of lack of confidence. This may in part be true, several of his recent experiences would have been enough to rock any man’s confidence. On the other hand, the same could have been said of Grant after Shiloh, as he sat with no duties as another man led his army. Grant even contemplated resigning again, but Sherman talked him out of it. On the other hand, one of the tenants of good leadership is to hire good people and let them do their jobs, and even the Bible endorses the concept of listening to wise council in Proverbs 12:15.
Failure to act decisively: Other criticisms leveled against Pemberton have to do with his failure to stop Grant’s crossing of the Mississippi on April 30/May 1, and his subsequent, and unprecedented, 19th century Blitzkrieg approach to Vicksburg. The reply to this is that Pemberton did not have the man power, the reconnaissance (cavalry) or the transportation assets, to counter Grant’s movements and he knew it! His pleas for the return of his cavalry (from Tennessee where Johnson had ordered it), and reinforcements fell on deaf ears.
Pemberton’s performance at the Battle of Champion Hill is perhaps his most damming failure and a debacle it was, but as with most really great disasters, a whole series of failures occurred in quick succession. Contradictory directions from his President and his immediate commander. A break down in chain of command that delayed his move from Bovina due to inadequate supplies. Not to mention, a lack of good reconnaissance, due to lack of sufficient cavalry. Top this off with Loring’s insubordination and ultimate abandonment of the Army of Mississippi upon the retreat, had left Pemberton badly shaken before during and after the battle. Still, he managed to extract the army back to Vicksburg.
Once besieged, there was little he, or anyone else, could do but hold on and wait for help to arrive. The ultimate failure of Johnson to act decisively was Vicksburg’s, Pemberton’s, and, ultimately, the Confederacy’s doom. The political fallout from the loss of Vicksburg is compounded by a lingering prejudice among the people of the south against Pemberton’s northern birth and he becomes the scapegoat for the loss in the minds of many. Post War, Johnson attempts to deflect any tarnish from his own reputation by blaming the loss on Pemberton in his memoirs, rubbing salt into the wound so to speak.
Pemberton, by all objective standards, was a good, solid military man, who understood the military world of the day (pre-war). At any other point in history, he would have been remembered as a successful, if not imaginative, career officer. He lived, however, in a time when the rules of war were being torn up and rewritten. His opponent was considered to be very unmilitary in bearing and actions by many of his contemporaries. He did, however, have a good bit of experience in things not working as planned and coping on the fly, and in the chaotic world of the Civil War, this proved to be a positive asset.
He fell into Pattie’s arms, his spirit broken, his reputation in tatters, she softly whispered “I love you no matter what comes!” Together, they turned to face an uncertain future!
Saving the Wall!
By Morgan Gates, Historic Vicksburg Tours & Haunted Vicksburg Tours
The dominant feature, in the oldest picture we have of Vicksburg, is the structure we now call the Old Courthouse Museum. Construction was begun in 1858, by the Weldon Brothers and a team of one hundred enslaved, but highly skilled, laborers. It was practically brand new when the Mississippi Succession Ordinance was read from its steps and Confederate Generals watched the Union fleet from its clock tower. As the shells began falling in earnest on Vicksburg, the courthouse became a target for Union gunners. To save it, Union prisoners were housed in the courtroom to shield the building from utter destruction. When the city surrendered, on July 4th 1863, U.S. Grant reviewed his troops from the western side of the bluff, on which the courthouse was built. At that early date, this quintessential Vicksburg Landmark stood on a ragged, unimproved bluff. Left alone, the forces of the elements would have eventually done what the Union had not accomplished: bringing down the courthouse!
In the post war period, the city rebounded quickly from the War and actually became richer than it was before the War. Sometime in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the war damage to the courthouse was repaired. The ragged edges of the bluff were terraced and landscaped, and a formidable retaining wall was constructed to stabilize the hill.
As Vicksburg/Warren County grew, the need for a larger courthouse was felt and, in 1940, this Antebellum beauty was replaced as a working courthouse by a newer, more modern structure across the street. This reminder of a bygone era once again faced destruction by short-sighted elected officials who sought to demolish it. Eva W. Davis saved it by turning it into the Old Courthouse Museum!
But today, the building again faces destruction and the forces of time and nature are the culprits this time. The retaining wall that stabilizes the hill on which the museum sits is crumbling and the Museum does not have the funding to make extensive repairs. The Museum does not accept state or federal funding (and is thus largely shielded from the current forces that seem intent upon erasing our history). It operates entirely on admission fees and private donations. The Old Courthouse depends on you and me, and history lovers everywhere, to keep its doors open!
We are asking you and other lovers of history to pitch in and make a contribution to help save the wall, and thus save a vital part of our history!
No donation is too small! Please help! All donations will go to repairing the retaining wall! Thank you! Click the link below to donate!
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Becoming John C. Pemberton
by Morgan Gates, Haunted Vicksburg, Historic Vicksburg, author & speaker
Sometime last summer, my friend Cory Rickrode, asked me to portray Lt. General John C. Pemberton for Vicksburg’s first annual Breakfast with the Generals, which took place on July 4th 2017. This was something I had never considered doing before, but it sounded like fun, so I said, "Why not!"
I am a historian and a storyteller but I had not, at that time at least, done much reenacting. I have portrayed Dr. William Balfour, host of the annual Confederate Ball, a fund raiser put on by the Old Courthouse Museum each December, for several years but that is a small rather one-dimensional role. To do the role of General Pemberton justice, I had to attempt to crawl inside Pemberton’s head. Fortunately, I have had previous experience crawling inside heads--I am a retired public-school principal who spent much of his career trying to figure out what made troubled children tick. Also, I had a good role model in Dr. Curt Fields, of Memphis, who has been portraying U. S. Grant for years. So, I dug in and started studying the Defender of Vicksburg!
The first thing I discovered is that there is not a great deal of information out there about Pemberton. Losers don’t make as good a story as winners I suppose. The second thing I discovered is that Pemberton, at the time, got a really bad rap! The superficial “picture” of the commander of Vicksburg is that he was (A) incompetent or (B) if not incompetent, then, at least, in way over his head! I am now convinced that neither allegation is true, let’s explore this some more over the next several posts, shall we?
Pemberton and Grant were in many ways very different men but they also had very many things in common. Then again, don’t we all?
First the commonalities:
Both were born in the north; Pemberton in Pennsylvania and Grant in Ohio. Both were West Pointers. Both struggled in some subjects and excelled in others. Both had graduated just below the half way point in their respective classes. Both had aspired to be engineers but wound up serving in other branches of the Army. Both served in Mexico in the same division and they had met during that earlier war. Both had “Seen the Elephant”. Both had served in far-flung frontier outposts and detested them. Both had fallen in love and married girls with southern roots.
Pemberton was from and upper-class Philadelphia family, Grant middle class small town Ohio. Pemberton embraced life at West-Point and was quite social, and very much a lady’s man. Grant less so, and somewhat kept to himself. Pemberton did well in language but struggled with math. Grant was just the opposite. Pemberton, after West Point, was assigned to the Artillery Grant to Infantry. Pemberton, who was older, spent many years in postings in the south and grew quite fond of the people of the south. Grant spent much less time in the south. In Mexico, Pemberton attained the brevet rank of Major. Grant was a brevet Lieutenant. Pemberton served in the U.S. Army right up to the day he resigned his commission to join the Confederacy. Grant resigned his commission in 1853 and spent a number of years in civilian life – rather unsuccessfully-- before rejoining after the Civil War began.
The two men really had a lot more in common that than we might at first realize, and up until the spring of 1863, John C. Pemberton had, in most aspects, been the much more successful of the two! To put it in modern terms, if you had no prior knowledge of either man and their resumes (ca.1862) were placed on your desk, you would have very likely hired John C. Pemberton, and consigned Ulysses S. Grant’s to “File 13”! So where did it go wrong for General Pemberton? Let’s talk more next time……………