Chapter 2: The Siege Begins
It has always seemed to me that we came very near being too late getting to our position on that evening of the 17th. We were the first troops to begin skirmishing, and if we had been a half hour later, the Federals could have walked into our works unopposed; and had they been advised of the actual situation, they would undoubtedly have done so.
Some of our troops on the immediate right of our regiment were in bad shape on this
evening; they did not like to face the rifle fire of the enemy, and when he brought up some cannon and began to throw grape and canister, they broke and ran down the hill. The officers got them back with some difficulty, but their heart was not in the work and they seemed more anxious to protect themselves from danger than to fight.
About this time a Yankee skirmisher was hit by some of us, and raised the most awful yell I ever heard in my life; this seemed to put them in good humor, they began to laugh and crack jokes, their line was reformed and their fire became rapid and steady. I mention this incident merely to show what an important effect a slight circumstance may sometimes have on the morale of troops in action. We continued skirmishing from this position, not attempting to advance and the Yanks not attempting to push us, till night came on. There was some desultory firing during the night, but nothing to amount to anything, and just about daylight we retired to our breast-works, and took up the position held by us throughout the siege.
The morning of May 18th 1863 dawned clear and beautiful. Not a cloud obscured the sky; the air was soft, balmy and redolent of wild flowers; and as the sun arose, the dewdrops on the grass sparkled in his rays like myriads of diamonds. The mocking birds were filling the air with melody, and the little wrens, tom-tits, and thrushes were tittering with gladness, and they built their nests or sought their food, all unconscious of the terrible tragedy impending. It was a typical May morning, cool and pleasant, bright and lovely; all nature seemed restful and glad, and man alone was out of harmony with the peaceful scene.
The Federals like ourselves, were badly fatigued with constant marching and fighting, and knowing that they now had us completely hemmed in, were in no hurry to move on the morning of the 18th, and it was ten o’clock before they began the advance in our front. The first movement was made by a thin line of skirmishers or scouts accompanied by mounted officers with field glasses, who scanned our lines, noted their general contour, and selected and marked positions for their artillery. The forward movement stopped on the brow of the ridge across the valley from our works, and distant about three quarters of a mile, and pretty soon afterwards we could see their artillery approaching at a gallop to take position.
Up to this time no firing had occurred, but our batteries now opened on the flying artillery with some effect. Men and horses were killed and some of their guns disabled and could not be brought into position; the most of them however soon reached the stations assigned them, and were throwing shells at us in return.
During this day they brought very few troops besides artillery to the firing line, as there was no shelter for them; but the next morning when it was light enough for us to see, we found they had during the night erected a solid line of entrenchments, which were now full of men, who very soon began to pop at us with their rifles. They had also during the night, brought up all their remaining field batteries and had them well protected by earth works. As soon as it was light enough, they began to shell our lines, and the fire was kept up incessantly as long as daylight lasted.
At first, our batteries replied briskly, but it soon became apparent that the Yanks were greatly superior both in number of guns and weight of metal, and after an hour or two when they had gotten the range, it became dangerous for one of our guns to show her muzzle through and embrasure; and as there was no real necessity for our guns to fire, they reserved their ammunition for emergencies and were rolled back out of danger. After the first two days, our cannon fired very little except when a charge was on, when they would be brought to the front and belch grape and canister regardless of consequences.
Our command was located about a half a mile due north of the city cemetery, at the head of a ravine running north from the eastern boundary of the cemetery as then laid out. On the preceding page, I have made a diagram which shows the position of our company and partly of the regiment, and which will serve to illustrate some incidents I propose to mention.
By glancing at this line, it will be observed that the portion of the line occupied by the company, deviates sharply from the general direction of the breast-works, which was east and west, and points almost directly to the northwest. This was a grave error in the construction of the works, as this point was plainly commanded by one on the opposing ridge where the Federals afterwards located a gun. I cannot account for this error, except on the hypothesis that the field marks of the engineer had been moved or obliterated before the trench was dug. Whatever may have been its occasion, the error was a fatal one for us and resulted in the death of three good men.
The space occupied by Company “I” extended from A to B enclosed in red marks. The left of the company rested near the redoubt D, which was occupied by two guns of Wofford’s Battery. By drawing a line from point C, to the point G, marked Federal gun, it will be seen that this gun commanded the line lengthwise, or in military phraseology, enfiladed it. This gun was a three-inch rifle, of great power and accuracy and was evidently handled by expert gunners.
We did not observe it till the afternoon of the second day of the siege, when it began to fire in our direction. The first few shots seemed to be directed at the redoubt to our left, but presently a shell struck on the parapet about the center of our company, showing that they had realized the insecurity of our position. The second shot struck just at the point C, but a little too low, and bounded over the works doing no injury; the third came on the same line just high enough to graze the top of the ditch, and coming inside, killed Alexander, Rayner, and Huddleston.
Editor’s note: Martin had this to say about Siah Alexander – From Lauderdale County, enlisted at Meridian, formerly of the 14th Mississippi. Killed by a cannon shot during the siege of Vicksburg. He was the next man to my left in the trenches, and was standing in a stooping position with his face to the front, engaged in digging out a more comfortable seat, while I was sitting down with my back to the embankment reading a book. My legs were crossed, the open book resting on my knee, and held open by my left hand. The shot after tearing away Alexander’s back and cutting him nearly in two, passed over my knee, near enough to scorch the back of my hand, and killed two men on my left. I had many narrow escapes from death during the war, but never one that impressed me so forcibly as this. In thinking over the situation afterwards, I could never understand how it was that I escaped, except that it was by the direct interposition of God for some wise purpose of his own.
Aaron Raynor – From New Ireland, enlisted at Union. Aaron was a son-in-law of George Doole, a near neighbor of ours during my boyhood and I knew him well. He was a good man and did his duty faithfully as a soldier, but his heart was never in it; he was always trying to get a furlough or get off on sick leave, and was what we termed in those days a ‘croaker,’ or a person who took a pessimistic view of the war. he was killed at Vicksburg during the siege, by the cannon shot that also killed Si Alexander and Coon Huddleston, both his legs being cut off below the knees. It is a singular fact, that although Alexander’s back was torn off and he was almost cut in twain, yet he survived for two hours, while Raynor died in thirty minutes.
Coon Huddleston – An erratic, crack-brained kind of a fellow, but honest, kind hearted and as brave as a lion. He was not quarrelsome, but if he thought he was being imposed on, would fight any number of men, singly or collectively. He was killed during the siege of Vicksburg by the same cannon shot that killed Si Alexander. The shot struck Coon on the right knee, entirely carrying away the kneecap and leaving the lower part of the leg dangling. his leg was amputated above the knee and he was rapidly recovering when Erysipelas set in and he died twenty-four hours afterwards. Coon was a witty kind of a fellow and often got off good things. On one occasion he was having a heated discussion with one of the boys about something, when the other fellow told Coon he was a fool. Coon promptly responded, ‘Yes I think you and I are both fools, I for the want of money and you for the want of sense.’
Captain Watts was ill at the time, and Lieutenant Burgess being absent in the city, I was in command of the company. I at once reported the facts to the Colonel, who directed me to remove the men to the ravine at the point marked F, which I did, and we remained there till night. As soon as it was dark, we came up and built a traverse across the end of the ditch to prevent the shells from coming in, but the next morning finding it was hardly high enough, we got some cotton bales and placed on top of it.
Editor’s note: Martin had this to say about Captain Jubal Watts – Captain Watts was in some respects peculiar, being straight laced in his opinions, with strong prejudices and somewhat inclined to intolerance; he was however unswervingly honest, faithful to his friends and loyal to his convictions. He was intensely devoted to the south and her cause and the last I heard of him some years since, was still wholly un-reconstructed. He always took great interest in my welfare, and it is a pleasure to acknowledge many benefits at his hands.
Timothy T. Burgess – Of Morton, Scott County Mississippi, was in many respects the best man I ever saw. He was poorly educated and a complete novice in the ways of the world; and as a result, was continually being imposed on, overreached and beaten by sharpers, whose methods he did not understand and could never learn. This did not seem to affect him seriously however; his large hearted charity and sweetness of disposition were proof against such annoyances, and I have often heard him speak cheerfully and dispassionately of indignities that would have made an ordinary man furious. He was the comrade and personal friend of every man in the company, entered into their joys and sorrows, and looked after their welfare in sickness and in health.
We soon found this to be a mistake; about the second shot the Yanks made, [they] knocked one of the bales down in the trench on the men and nearly crushed some of them to death. After a few more shots, a shell struck just on top [of] one of the bales, cut the ropes and exploding, set the cotton afire; as soon as the ropes were severed, the bale bulged out and began to burn rapidly. Bill West and myself first tried to put it out by pouring water on it from canteens, but soon found it wouldn’t do and so we rolled it off down the hill and were ordered back into the ravine. We afterwards built up the traverse so as to make us perfectly secure from this gun, but continued to occupy the ravine in the day-time, going up to the works only at night.
Editor’s note: Martin had this to say about William West – From Lauderdale County, enlisted at Meridian in the spring of 1862. He was a man of fine character and brave to a fault; he served through the war without a wound. Some years after the war he emigrated to Texas, and passing through Brandon stopped to see me. I have never heard from him since.
At the base of the bluff where the ravine ended, we dug out a square place in the shape of a house, which we covered with heavy logs and three or four feet of dirt, making a refuge which was almost perfectly secure. We called this a “Bomb Proof.” The protection ditch leading from the works to the bomb proof was deep enough to shelter us from bullets while passing to and fro. Ditches of this kind were made at intervals all along our lines, to enable the men to pass to the rear into the ravines, where there was no danger except from stray shells and spent balls; but these dangers were not by any means to be despised, as many men were killed and wounded while passing through.
After we had built our bomb proof, we had very little to do. We would sleep in the trenches, but as soon as daylight appeared would return to our refuge and stay there the remainder of the day, engaged in such occupations as came to hand, mostly playing cards or drafts. Fortunately there was but little rain, and our cave was dry and comfortable; if the weather had been rainy and damp, it would have been very disagreeable as well as unhealthy.
During the siege, the health of the men was fairly good. There were some fevers and diarrhea, (somehow soldiers nearly always seem to have the diarrhea) but nothing that could be considered serious till the siege had been underway for some three weeks when the Diphtheria broke out and raged with some violence; P. G. Keene died of it.
Editor’s note: Martin had this to say about P. G. Keene – From Tallashee, enlisted at Union and died at Vicksburg during the siege, of Diphtheria. Keene was a good man, but rather eccentric in manner. He was left an orphan and entirely destitute when very young, and when almost on the verge of starvation, was adopted by one of the tribes of Indians of the Choctaw Nation, with whom he remained till he was grown to manhood. He then left these friends in need, married a white lady and settled down among the whites. He was an intelligent man and spoke English perfectly, but he had the accent, abrupt manner, and morose disposition of the Indians.
Another disease that caused considerable mortality during the siege was Erysipelas. It attacked wounded men, sometimes when they were almost well, and nearly always proved fatal. I am of the opinion that it was nothing but a form of blood poisoning, resulting from lack of proper cleanliness and disinfection.
The hospitals for our command were located on the bayou just south of the cemetery, and as they wagon yards and commissary were also in the same locality, there was a great deal of passing back and forth. This was attended with a good deal of danger, as missiles were continually dropping in the cemetery, not only from our front, but from the eastern part of the lines also. Many casualties occurred here.
One night a lot of us were going down to the yards, among others Priestly Taylor, when a piece of shell struck the heel of Taylor’s shoe, tripping him up and landing him right on top of his head. We all thought him killed, and were much surprised when he jumped up laughing. He sustained no injury further than the loss of his shoe heel.
Editor’s note: Martin had this to say about Priestly Taylor – From Lauderdale County, enlisted at Meridian. Was with us till after the siege of Vicksburg and in parole camp at Enterprise, from which place he deserted when the command left for Mobile. When Sherman was approaching Meridian in the winter of 1863, our command was ordered up to reinforce Johnston, and while there, Taylor was brought to our camp by the commandant of the post at Meridian, having been captured in the country near there. The commandant offered to turn him over to me provided I would guarantee his future good conduct; I talked with Taylor and he made all sorts of pledges, begging that I would not allow him to be court-martialed for desertion. I finally agreed to take him and become responsible for him, and he paid me by deserting again that night.
End of Chapter 2