This post is based on a talk I gave at the Old Court House Museum in Vicksburg on January 8, 2011. The Vicksburg National Military Park and the Old Court House Museum hosted the event, which was in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the secession of Mississippi.
A Terrible Storm Will Overwhelm Us: Secession Sentiment in Vicksburg, Mississippi
Vicksburg was incorporated in 1825 with a population of about 180. From these modest beginnings, the city prospered and grew, and by 1860 Vicksburg had become the leading commercial center in Mississippi. It was also the second largest city in the state, with a free white population of 4,580. Only Natchez was larger, and at the rate Vicksburg was growing, city officials were hopeful it might take the top spot by the time of the next census in 1870.
Vicksburg’s rise had been fueled by the development of the cotton industry in Mississippi, and by the advances in steam engine technology that offered farmers an economical means of getting their crops to market using railroads and steamboats. By the 1830s, steamers were making regular stops at Vicksburg, and in 1840 the Vicksburg and Jackson Railroad linked the Hill City to the state capitol. The line proved to be an immediate success, reducing the cost of transporting cotton from Jackson to Vicksburg from 4.00 per bale to 1.00 per bale. By 1853, 98,000 bales of cotton were being shipped to the city annually.
In 1860 the Magnolia State produced 1,202,507 bales, making it the leading cotton grower in the nation. What made this cotton empire possible were thousands upon thousands of African American slaves, toiling in the fields year after year. Vicksburg itself had a large population of slaves, 1,176 according to the 1850 U.S. Census.
The United States had had slavery since its founding, and the growing debate over the future of the “peculiar institution” in the first half of the 19th century was to impact the lives of the citizens of Vicksburg. One of the first major national disagreements over slavery came in 1820, just one year after Newit Vick laid out the initial lots of what would become the city of Vicksburg.
In 1820 the United States Congress passed a piece of legislation that came to be known as the Missouri Compromise. It was an effort to preserve the balance of power between free states and slave states by admitting the Missouri Territory to the Union as a slave state, and the Maine Territory as a free state, thus keeping the number of free and slave states equal at 12 each.
It was hoped that the Missouri Compromise would settle the debate over slavery in the United States, but American statesman Thomas Jefferson wrote that the Missouri Compromise had “like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once the knell of the Union – it is hushed indeed for the moment, but this is a reprieve only.” His words proved to be prophetic, as the Missouri Compromise was simply the opening skirmish in what would become an increasingly bitter debate between North & South over the future of slavery in the years leading up to the Civil War.
In the wake of the Missouri Compromise, the furor over slavery died down for a time, only to be reignited when the acquisition of territory in the War with Mexico brought the issue to the forefront of American politics once again.
Eventually a compromise was worked out that came to be known as the Compromise of 1850. Some of the major provisions were: 1. California would enter the Union as a free state, and the rest of the lands obtained from Mexico would be organized without any restrictions on slavery. 2. Slave trading was outlawed in Washington, D.C., but slavery itself was still legal there. 3. Congress passed a tough new fugitive slave law to help slave-owners get back runaway slaves who had fled to the North.
Jefferson Davis, who lived just south of Vicksburg at Davis Bend, was serving in the
United States Senate at the time, and he forcefully denounced the Compromise of 1850 stating: “I here assert that never will I take less than the Missouri compromise line extended to the Pacific Ocean, with the specific recognition of the right to hold slaves in the territory below that line; and that before such territories are admitted into the Union of states, slaves may be taken there from any of the United States at the option of their owners. I can never consent to give additional power to a majority to commit further aggressions upon the minority in this Union…”
Many Mississippians agreed with Davis and were angered by the passage of the Compromise of 1850, believing that it would upset the balance between free and slave states. Mississippi Governor John Quitman, a strong supporter of the right to secession, asked the legislature to call for a convention in Jackson, hoping it would take the state out of the Union. There was still strong support for staying in the Union among a majority of Mississippians, however, and nowhere was this support stronger than in Vicksburg. Local citizens realized that secession was a serious threat to the commerce that was the city’s lifeblood, and acted accordingly. They sent two pro-Union delegates to the convention, William H. Johnson and William A. Lake.
In November 1851 the Special Convention met in Jackson, and the delegates voted to remain in the Union and comply with the Compromise of 1850. They passed a resolution stating: “That, in the opinion of this Convention, the people of Mississippi, in a spirit of conciliation and compromise, have maturely considered the action of Congress…and whilst they do not entirely approve, will abide by it as a permanent adjustment of this sectional controversy, so long as the same in all its features shall be faithfully adhered to and enforced.”
Rather than settle anything, the rancor over slavery grew in the 1850s as the issue of slavery refused to go away. The Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, the Dred Scott Decision in 1857, and John Brown’s Raid in 1859 all kept the issue of slavery at the forefront of national politics, and widened the division between North and South.
John Brown made his raid on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, in October 1859, hoping to start a slave rebellion. The raid failed, and Brown was captured, tried, and hung by the state of Virginia for treason. John Brown’s raid confirmed the worst fears of many Mississippians about Northern determination to end slavery, particularly after some Northerners applauded Brown’s efforts. In the wake of the raid the Mississippi legislature appropriated $150,000 to arm the volunteer militia in the state, and enacted legislation to reorganize the organization to make it more effective.
In Vicksburg, the city already had two well-organized militia companies, the Volunteer Southrons and the Vicksburg Sharpshooters. On October 19, 1859, one day after John Brown’s raid had ended, Captain L.C. Moore, commander of the Volunteer Southrons, met with his men and “impressed upon the Company the importance of keeping up a military organization and that every member should use his influence to induce new men to join.”
It was apparent to many that the state was moving ever closer to secession, and the final straw that pushed Mississippi over the edge was the election of Republican Abraham Lincoln in 1860. The Republican Party advocated no expansion of slavery into the territories, and this was enough to make most Mississippians hate Lincoln with a passion.
One of the key factors in Lincoln’s election was the split in the Democratic Party. In April 1860 the Democratic National Convention met in Charleston, South Carolina, but when the convention voted to deny the Southern demand for a slavery guarantee, the southern delegates, including Mississippi, withdrew from the convention. In the end, Northern and Southern Democrats had separate conventions and nominated separate candidates for president. The Southern wing nominated John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, and the northern wing nominated Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois. There was also a third candidate, John Bell of Tennessee, who was nominated by the Constitutional Union Party, a group made up of moderates who hoped to avoid war by making no mention of the slavery issue and electing a compromise candidate that both Northerners and Southerners could agree on.
Jefferson Davis publicly supported Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge for
president, stating “Our party alone, of those now seeking popular support, recognizes the equality of the right of the south to the common territories, and pledges there to give Federal protection to the property of our citizens by all the constitutional powers of the Federal arm. Can a Southern man hesitate under such circumstances as to which of the tickets he will adopt?”
Breckinridge did indeed go on to win Mississippi in a convincing fashion, with 40,464 votes to 25,335 for Constitutional Union Party candidate John Bell, and 3,636 for Northern Democrat Stephen A. Douglas.
In Warren County, however, the result was different. Reflecting the conservative, pro-Union views of the majority, John Bell won with 816 votes, to only 580 for John C. Breckinridge, and 85 for Stephen A. Douglas. Abraham Lincoln received no votes in Warren County, or anywhere else in Mississippi for that matter. His name was not on the ballot.
In the wake of Lincoln’s election, the majority of Vicksburg’s citizens remained staunchly in favor of staying in the Union. Historian Michael Ballard wrote: “Many residents refused to budge on the question of separation until they no longer has a choice. They had a much more realistic view of what war would mean than did the fire-eating secessionists that increasingly dominated Mississippi. The town’s ties with the North – especially the river connection with the Midwest – fear of war stemming from property and personal hazard, genuine love for the Union, and strong partisan political feelings which made the conservatives distrust the demagogic, secession-inclined Democrats were the forces which worked to hold the city apart from most of the state.”
One voice calling for calm in the wake of Lincoln’s election was that of Marmaduke Shannon, editor of the Vicksburg Daily Whig. In an editorial he wrote, “We call upon the people…now that the issue is made, to choose under which banner they will serve – disunion, with all its attendant horrors of rapine, murder and civil war, or Union with the guarantees of the Constitution to protect us, and one-half of the people of the North to sympathize and aid us in maintaining our rights.”
Another staunch Union supporter was James Shirley, a northern-born businessman who had lived in Warren County for decades. In a letter to his brother in New Hampshire Shirley wrote: “I believe we in the county of Warren and city of Vicksburg are twenty to one in favor of the Union. Our Governor, who is not unlike Don Quixote, and fully as brave, with a few Sancho Pansas, is ready and willing to tear this little, no-account, dirty Union to tatters, yet I think the sober second thought of the people, when the naked question of secession is submitted to them, will set at rest this ranting, ruinous disunion question.
Shirley went on to explain how fears of secession were affecting Vicksburg’s business community: “In view of an impending crisis, banks are curtailing their discounts – drawing in their circulation; merchants refuse to accept; commerce has experienced a sensible change; money has become scarce; capitalists have withdrawn their funds; all kinds of property has depreciated in value and [unless] the present dark and gloomy clouds which now hang over the South so portentous, pass away soon, a terrible storm will overwhelm us.”
Secession Sentiment in Vicksburg
It was clear in the wake of Lincoln’s election that the majority of Vicksburg/Warren residents were opposed to immediate secession, and favored working out the slavery issue from within the Union. They felt secession should be reserved as a measure of last resort, to be forced on them only if the North refused to compromise, and even then it was best done in conjunction with the other Southern states.
There was, however, a vocal minority in Vicksburg that favored immediate secession, and they were prone to quick and at times violent action. On December 8 the Vicksburg Sun reported, “Our city is getting to be a rather hot place for those who are prone to side with the North against the South. It has been but a very short time since a man was tarred and feathered here on account of his expressing too much confidence in Abe Lincoln.”
Many Vicksburg citizens saw Lincoln as the root of all their troubles, and vented their
anger at the new president. In April 1861 Dr. Richard Pryor put an ad in the Vicksburg Evening Citizen, offering a $100,000 reward. He stated, “I will give the above reward for the head of Abraham Lincoln. If taken alive, or 50,000 if taken dead and delivered to me at Vicksburg in time for me to hand it over to President Davis, by the 4th of July, next.”
Not to be outdone, Vicksburg merchants Edmund McGarr and William Fairchild clipped out Pryor’s reward ad and sent it to President Lincoln, along with the following note: “Enclosed you will find $100,000 for your miserable traitorous head. The amount is for alive you mental and moral wretch, but nevertheless, the undersigned will readily increase the amount to $1,000,000.”
Vicksburg’s Pro-Union sentiments left it increasingly isolated in the state, as the majority of Mississippians clearly favored immediate secession. On December 8, 1860, William C. Smedes, one of Vicksburg’s most successful attorneys and a member of the state legislature, wrote to Henry J. Raymond, editor of the New York Times that, “This state is in a blaze of passion & is determined on instant & separate secession. Nothing earthly in my opinion can stop it, unless South Carolina fails to take that fatal step, or, & this is a mere possibility, unless the present Congress passes satisfactory amendments by a 2/3 vote before the action of the convention. I was a member of the state legislature, and there were not ten men in it who did not favor immediate state secession; & I was the only one I believe who looked to the possibility of a settlement in the Union.”
Mississippi Secedes from the Union
In November 1860, the Mississippi legislature called for the election of delegates to a convention to be held in Jackson on January 7, 1861, to decide if the state would secede from the Union.
Vicksburgers could see the handwriting on the wall, but influential leaders in the city made one last attempt to try and persuade their fellow Mississippians that secession was not in the best interests of the state. 66 prominent citizens of Vicksburg called for a Union Mass Meeting, saying that “The Union men of Mississippi ought to meet together, not as partisans, and not because they voted for one or the other candidates, but as citizens of the same country. Bound to a common destiny…If we must be involved in a common ruin, let us meet it manfully. But a bright destiny awaits the country if the People will assemble and take wise and prudent counsel together.” The meeting was held on November 29, 1860, and was very well attended, but in the end it had no impact on those Mississippians who were hell-bent on secession from the Union.
On December 20, 1860, Mississippi held the election for delegates to the state secession convention. True to its majority, Warren County elected two Pro-Union men, Walker Brooke and Thomas A. Marshall, to be its delegates to the convention. They garnered 561 votes to only 173 for the candidates advocating secession.
At the convention, Brooke introduced several measures to try and stall a vote on secession, but when these efforts failed, he reluctantly voted in favor of secession. Thomas A. Marshall, however, voted against secession, but did sign the secession ordinance once secession was an accomplished fact.
The convention passed the ordinance of secession on January 9, 1861, by a vote of 84 – 15 in favor of the motion.
Vicksburg’s Reaction to Secession
Once secession was an accomplished fact, most Vicksburgers quickly reconciled themselves to the fact, and their strong sense of duty to their state asserted itself. Marmaduke Shannon, who had argued so forcefully for staying in the Union on the pages of his newspaper, probably summed up what many felt when he wrote: “It is enough for us to know that Mississippi, our state, our government has taken its position. We, too take our position by its side.”
With a grim certainty that war with the North was inevitable, the people of Vicksburg began preparing for the conflict. The city council appropriated $5,000 for local defense, and within a short amount of time four new companies of volunteer soldiers had been raised to join the two that already existed.
While the majority of Vicksburgers made their peace with the idea of secession, some were not able to let go of their allegiance to the Union. Northern-born James Shirley and his family remained staunch supporters of the Union, regardless of the consequences. Shortly after his death in 1863, his hometown New Hampshire newspaper reported, “There was no necessity for him to make himself obnoxious by openly denouncing his seceding neighbors, and while he was known to be a Union man, he was never molested by the enemies of the Union. His age, his proverbial prudence, and courteous bearing were his self defense.”
While Shirley himself may not have been molested for his pro-Union views, the family did have to hustle the oldest son, Frederick Shirley, North to Indiana because he “declared his opinions too boldly and defiantly to remain long in Vicksburg in safety.”
Another vocal supporter of the Union was Vicksburg lawyer Armistead Burwell, who had
campaigned for John Bell and the Constitutional Union Party during the 1860 elections. Burwell remained such a staunch Unionist after secession that he was arrested in September 1861. When finally released, he fled North, not to return to Vicksburg until the town was in Union hands after the siege.
There was one other group in Vicksburg that certainly had members with pro-Union views, Vicksburg’s African-American slave community. Matilda Anderson wrote: “all the colored people, myself included, wanted the Union cause to win, because in that event we all would be free.” Vicksburg hack driver Henry Banks stated that he “knew the Yankees would whip” the South, and longed for the day when “We could go where, when, and how we pleased, and our children would no longer be sold and that negro trading would be played out. I was a slave and had no vote, [nonetheless] I was for the Union cause all the time.”
Slaves in Vicksburg had to be very careful about voicing such pro-Union sentiments, for if the wrong person overheard them, the consequences could be severe. Laborer Joseph McFields was whipped for making the mistake of telling a fellow slave that he would “eat with the Yankees yet,” in the presence of his owner.
After Mississippi seceded, the white citizens of Vicksburg formed “vigilance committees” to root out and punish the disloyal, including slaves. As another slave noted, “it wouldn’t do” to say anything favorable about the Yankees when local whites were around.
Soon after Mississippi seceded, Vicksburg newspapers began to fill with ads for patriotic badges and pins so that the people could proudly display their allegiance to the South. James Swords, editor of the Vicksburg Evening Citizen, created a badge with the slogan “Southern Rights – For This We Fight,” and advised in his paper “It would be well if all of our citizens were provided with one of these badges, wearing it on the lapel of the coat. We would then know when we met a friend, and it would be well to furnish strangers with one of these badges, on taking the oath of allegiance to the Southern Confederacy.”
James’ declaration that badges were needed to prove one’s loyalty pointed to a growing paranoia that Union forces might make an attack on the city. Such paranoia was fed by newspaper reports, such as the one that said a boatload of abolitionists were headed down the Mississippi River in the steamboat Silver Wave to attack Southern cities.
In response to such alarmist articles, Mississippi Governor John J. Pettus ordered an artillery company from Jackson to take two pieces of artillery to Vicksburg. The artillery was placed on a hill overlooking the Mississippi River, while local militia companies began digging fortifications nearby. Their job was to challenge all steamboats passing Vicksburg and force them to put into the landing and be inspected to make sure they were not full of abolitionists bent on destruction.
On January 12, 1861, the guns were fired for the first time at the steamboat A.O. Tyler, whose Captain, John Collier, had not received the word that he needed to submit to an inspection. After a shot was fired across his bow, he put into the landing, and after being searched, was allowed to go on his way. This was quite possibly the first shot fired in the Western half of the Confederacy.
A few weeks later James Swords wrote this warning in the Vicksburg Evening Citizen to any Northerners who traveled the Mississippi: “Steamboatmen who follow a legitimate business, and who have manhood enough to attend to their own business, without carrying into our midst the weapons of destruction, wherewith to murder our citizens and destroy our young Confederacy, will ever be allowed, without let or hindrance, to navigate the free waters of the Mississippi.”
Mississippi did not remain an independent state for long – on February 8, 1861, she joined the Confederate States of America. The next day the provisional Confederate Congress elected Jefferson Davis the first president of the Confederacy. On February 9, 1861, he arrived at Vicksburg by steamboat from his home at Davis Bend, south of the city. Before leaving by train to take up his new office, he gave a brief speech to the assembled crowd that came to see him off. He told them, “Attached to the Union of our fathers, by every sentiment and feeling of my heart, I have ever struggled earnestly to maintain it…For the last ten years particularly I have devoted my efforts to that grand and patriotic purpose. We have failed. You and I have resolved that our safety and honor required us to dissolve our connection with the United States. I hope that our separation may be peaceful. But, whether it be so or not, I am ready, as I have always been, to redeem my pledges to you and the South by shedding every drop of my blood in your cause.”
Vicksburgers would pay a heavy price in blood and treasure because of secession – over 2,500 of her sons would fight in the Confederate armies, many of whom were killed or wounded. The citizens themselves would suffer through Union bombardment in 1862, a 47-day siege in 1863, and then remain occupied by the enemy for the remainder of the war after the city fell on July 4, 1863.
The majority of townspeople had done all they could to avoid secession; but in the end they were swept up by events beyond their control, and the best they could do was try to survive the whirlwind of war and violence that engulfed them all.