The Caves of Vicksburg By Morgan Gates
If you do much reading about the Vicksburg Campaign you will eventually come across a reference to “the caves” that the population retreated into to survive the forty seven day bombardment of the city. It is an item of immense curiosity to visitors to the city and I am often asked; where are the caves? The short answer is, there are no caves. What! You reply, I have read references to them and have seen pictures, but again the short, and brutally correct, answer is; there are no caves in Vicksburg! That concludes or blog entry for today thanks for reading….
You knew I wasn’t going to leave it at that, though didn’t you? Cause what fun is a short answer? My wife sometimes asks me if I can explain something in 25 words or less… the answer is usually no!
A cave by definition is a: large underground chamber of natural origin! Caves typically occur in rock strata, most often in limestone and are usually formed by the action of water over millions of years. Caves can also be formed along sea coasts by the action of waves and by lava in volcanically active areas. None of these geological processes apply to Vicksburg. No active volcanos anywhere in this region. We are almost 200 miles from the sea and the hills of Vicksburg are not made of rock!
Anyone who has visited Vicksburg has been impressed by the ruggedness of the terrain surrounding the city. Our hills are not mountains, not even close, their peaks are measured in hundreds of feet not thousands, it is the steepness of the slopes that is so mind boggling, if you were to hike through the forest—say on the “Al Scheller Nature Trail” that winds through the Vicksburg National Military Park you might encounter a decline of 60 degrees and then be confronted by an even steeper upward slope where a rope has been tied off to a tree at the top to help you ascend. In fact 90 degree slopes are not uncommon. Even more impressive is these slopes are made of dirt!
What? Dirt you say? Everybody knows dirt will not hold a 90-degree cut.
And you are right, most of the time. Most soil types will begin to slide at any angle above 45 degrees. But not loess soils. Loess is a very fine wind borne particle, deposited by a series of ancient dust storms as the last ice age was ending. It is very light, very fine, and very irregular in shape; therefore, it sort of locks together like a giant jigsaw puzzle. It will erode in the rain quite readily and some of the steeper bluff faces were caused by erosion but it is also quite fertile so vegetation grows thickly and protects it. The bluffs today were formed by the actions of the wind and water. The caves of Vicksburg however were not.
In the spring of 1862 when Flag Officer David Farragut first began dropping shells on Vicksburg from the river. A large community bomb shelter adequate for about 200 people had been dug into the bluffs near Glass Bayou and some citizens sheltered there but in the long term it was simply easier to largely evacuate the portion of the city closest to the river. Farragut’s big guns had only limited elevation and they did not have the range to fly much farther that the first line of ridges on which the city was built. Many people simply moved in with friends and relatives living east of Vicksburg.
The following spring -1863- Union Major General U.S. Grant swung east of the city and closed off the eastern escape route. Meanwhile Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter’s fleet towed seven mortar barges to Vicksburg, and parked them just out of the range of the Confederate guns, soon they began lobbing 220 pound exploding shells on a high trajectory into the city. Unlike the direct fire artillery of the day, these tremendous shells dropped almost straight down from high altitude. This time no part of Vicksburg was safe and the people sought shelter underground. Here again geography came to the aid of Vicksburg, the steepness of the bluffs meant the citizens of the town did not have to dig down but straight back into the bluffs. Soon almost every steep bluff face in and around Vicksburg was riddled with holes. Digging these holes became a thriving cottage industry and the wealthy citizens of Vicksburg began to buy sell and trade these expedient shelters.
The use of earthen shelters against “bombs” –exploding artillery shells—dates back to at least 1833, but they were commonly called a “bomb proof” in military circles. The word “bomb shelter” is not used until about 1895. So, what did the civilians of Vicksburg in 1863 call their bomb proofs? Emma Balfour, the noted diarist of the Siege, reports that at one point Confederate Lt. General Pemberton asked her if she had provided herself with a “rathole” but this was perhaps a too indelicate a term for a polite Victorian society. The bomb shelters of Civil War Vicksburg were commonly called “caves” after the natural formations they so closely resembled. By the time, Vicksburg surrendered it was so covered up with holes the Union occupiers of the city said it resembled nothing so much as a large prairie dog town!
After July 4th 1863 Vicksburg settled down to a relatively peaceful if not pleasant military occupation. Martial law was declared, and first Grant then a whole parade of Union Generals ruled over the city. Cotton production resumed, now supporting the Union economy, and life returns to a modicum of normalcy. The economy starts humming and people are anxious to put the nightmare behind them. Many caves within the city limits are filled in during the occupation, as the city grew others fell to progress, by the turn of the 20th century most of them were gone. Somewhere around 1900 a cave collapsed and killed several children, this prompted a city ordinance that required the remaining caves within the city limits to be eliminated. When I was growing up there were only two surviving examples and they were in remote and largely inaccessible areas. One of those succumbed to the elements a decade or more ago, and after a couple of particularly rainy winters I heard rumors that the last one had fallen in. So, a couple of winters back while the poison Ivy and kudzu was still dormant I went exploring and confirmed that it too had fallen in, so I can say with confidence “There are no caves (left) in Vicksburg”!
P.S. (award yourself a brownie point if you know what PS means by the way) if you Google Vicksburg’s Caves one of the first pictures you will see is the ridge behind the Shirly House during the war. The shelters pictured there are not caves they are “Shebangs” but that’s a blog for another day!
*Before someone asks in the comments, due possible liability issues and respect for private property I will not disclose the location of the ruins of this cave!