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The Merchant's Son1
FATHER had a store here in Vicksburg, but the war ruined him. He was getting to be an old man when the war began, and after two years of it he had to quit. That was true of dozens of other merchants. They couldn’t get goods, and a great many of their customers had left town to go to places twenty, thirty, and forty miles distant where they thought they would be safer.
There was an increasing stringency in merchandise from the time that intercourse with the North ceased. Very soon our coast was blockaded, and then our lack of manufactories became a serious matter. The supplies brought in by blockade runners were scanty in amount and high in price. Clothing of all descriptions, dress-goods, millinery, and shoes were very scarce. So were tinware and crockery and other household utensils. Not much flour was to be had, and no raisins or dates, and seldom any oranges, lemons, or bananas, We were cut off from all kinds of oil and light. Kerosene had come into common use here, and when that was no longer to be had we got out our candle molds and made candles. Some made dipped candles.
No one who wasn’t here can realize the privations we went through. We made coffee out of crusts of bread that we toasted brown and ground up, and we made it out of burnt sugar. Rye coffee was quite a drink, and there was sweet potato coffee, which was better than nothing at all. I've drank many a cup of it and was glad to get it; and I've put many a dab of butter in my coffee instead of milk, because milk was so scarce. Lots of people who ordinarily would have used considerable flour ate corn bread for months and months and months, Pies and cakes and things of that kind were a luxury. At our house we made pound cake by mixing a little flour with cornmeal, adding butter, eggs, and sugar, and cooking it in a round tin dish.
Most of our young men joined the army. One crack company of them left here one hundred and fifty strong, When that company returned it numbered only twenty-eight.
For a long time we had large numbers of Confederate troops in or about the city. They were not a desirable element in the community. Soldiers never are, even in times of peace. Environment is more important than heredity in determining a man's character. You cut a man off from his family and home surroundings, and he is not in his proper element. With the natural restraints gone man returns to his brute instincts. An army is a big drain on the region where it is quartered or through which it moves, whether it consists of friends or enemies. And the meeting of troops in battle is hell for them, and it is hell for the people living there.
When Vicksburg became a center of military activity troops occupied the courthouse and were in tents and hastily-built barracks all around town. Marauders always abound among soldiers, and though the officers tried to control their men and prevent lawlessness, that was impossible. Our orchards were raided and our chickens taken. The soldiers were up to every deviltry you can think of. They would come into a store, get hold of the end of a ball of twine, then go outside and pull the twine till they had all there was in the ball. Another favorite joke was to unscrew a nut from the wheel of a buggy that was standing on the street. They put the nut into the buggy, and when the unsuspecting owner got in and drove away the wheel would come off.
Grant arrived in this vicinity in January, 1863, to attempt the task of capturing the city. The Mississippi made a great bend opposite Vicksburg, and he tried to dig a canal across the peninsula, which was only a mile wide, so that vessels could go up and down the river without coming in range of the city guns. But after six weeks of the hardest kind of work a flood drowned many of his horses and forced the men to fly for their lives. He made other unsuccessful experiments, and there was a general demand in the North for his dismissal. At length he sent his army below Vicksburg by a route west of the river, and on the night of April 16th three supply boats, protected by Admiral Porter's ironclads, set out to run past the eight miles of batteries here. All the vessels were damaged, but with the exception of one transport that was burned they got away down the river. A week later another supply fleet ran past the batteries.
The army met the boats twenty-five miles south of here, crossed the river, and after a succession of fierce battles arrived on the heights around the city on May 18th. They assaulted the works the next day, and again three days later, but gained no advantage of consequence and lost many lives. Then they settled down to starve us out, and Porter's fleet bombarded the place incessantly.
Many of the streets were cut through hills, and there were clay banks on either side of them. These clay banks offered an opportunity for making caves to shelter us from the missiles that the enemy was hurling into the place. So there was much burrowing in the earth, and many of us spent a large portion of our time in the underground domiciles which we made.
My home was on a hill in the better residence section, and we dug a cave just outside of the yard in the bank by the public road. We made the roof out of railroad iron and crossties. The iron rails supported the crossties, which were laid close together, and the crossties were covered with dirt. The cave was as large as a fair-sized room and high enough so a person could stand up. There was a board floor and we had mattresses and pillows in there, and several chairs, including one rocking-chair. We kept candles in the cave to furnish light. Its greatest lack was perhaps in the matter of ventilation, and the atmosphere was stifling to some extent. Often we slept in the cave, but we rarely stayed in it during the daytime unless there was a hot bombardment.
We were n't afraid of the big shells. They went over the town, and we'd see them at night like shooting stars, As a matter of fact the bombarding was all of it more spectacular than dangerous. The Yankees could have shelled Vicksburg till hell froze over, or the termination of all time, and not have captured the place. But think of all we had to contend with — our lack of food and the shabby equipment of our troops. I never have understood why so much credit was given to General Grant for capturing the city.
We were on the verge of starvation. There were no delicacies even for the wounded, and the surgeons didn’t have chloroform half the time. Many of the garrison and the citizens perished from sickness and exhaustion.
So on July 3d, about the middle of the morning, white flags were unfurled on the parapet of our fortifications, and the cannon ceased to roar. Grant and the Confederate commander, Pemberton, met that afternoon and arranged the terms of surrender, and the next day the Union troops took possession of the city.
I recall that the Confederate prisoners were driven barefoot through the streets. That looked rather rough to us, but I believe the North thought the Union prisoners who fell into Southern hands during the war were hardly treated, too. Probably it was about six of one and half a dozen of the other.
What hurt us worst in connection with the war was the aftermath — the days of reconstruction. Many of the soldiers came home to a standing chimney. There was no house, no fences, no slaves, no anything to do with; but there was a wife and children to be supported. Perhaps the man had never worked in his life — didn’t know how — that was the tragedy.
___________1 He was a white-haired, serious man of affairs, of New England ancestry, but ardently Southern in his point of view. We sat and chatted one morning in his upstairs office on the main business street of the city.