On this blog I write all the time about Mississippi’s soldiers;, but not so much about the civilian experience during the war. In writing about the great battles, and brilliant maneuvers, and tragic stories of men cut down in the heat of battle it’s easy to overlook the wives, and children, and aged parents of those soldiers. But these same civilians often found their homes on the front line of the war, and they learned firsthand how hard the hand of war could be.
This letter, written by an unidentified lady in Port Gibson, Mississippi, was published in the DAILY CONSTITUTIONALIST of Augusta, Georgia, on August 13, 1864. It provides an intimate glimpse at a side of the war that is not very glamorous; when civilians became targets, and were purposely made to suffer.
Yankee Warfare in Mississippi
We have been permitted to make some extracts from a letter, written by a lady, near Port Gibson, Miss., to her son, an officer on duty here. It gives a terrible account of their condition in that section of the country, subjected to all the horrors of constant incursions by the enemy. Port Gibson is eight miles from the Mississippi river, and thirty-eight miles south of Vicksburg:
July 21, 1864
You[r] last letter was received twenty days after it was written. I was glad you had heard from your prisoner brothers – we can hear nothing – all communication is stopped. The gunboat at Grand Gulf has over a hundred letters, and will not let us have them, nor will they send any for us. I fear the boys are suffering; you must write them often. You speak of the 4th of July. On that day a severe battle was fought out here, at Mr. Coleman’s, and at the same time we could hear, all day, the booming of cannon around Clinton and the Big Black. The 4th of July is the Yankee carnaval [sic] of blood. On the 7th, we had a fight here in town. Several Yankees were killed.
[Editor’s note: The engagement on July 4th of which the writer speaks involved a Union raiding force of 2,000 men, which included the 48th and 52nd United States Colored Infantry. This raid was designed to tie down all of the Confederate forces in the area and prevent them from being used against another Union raiding party that was advancing on Jackson at the same time. On July 4th a Confederate force of 400 men led by Colonel Robert C. Wood, Jr., attacked the Union force near Coleman’s Plantation, south of Port Gibson. The initial Confederate attack was repulsed, but the Rebels regrouped and attacked again as the Federals retreated to their transports on the Mississippi river. They were unable to significantly impede their march, however, and the Union soldiers safely boarded their boats and left, their mission a complete success.]
On the 14th inst., however, we were completely surprised. The enemy came in on three roads from Jackson – cavalry and infantry – two large brigades being negroes. I can hardly write. I am heartsick. We suffered nothing when Grant’s army went through, in comparison to what we have this time. They camped here, just at Parkers,’ Gen. Ellett'[s] headquarters at Parkers’ and Gen. Slocum’s in town. All the first day they were in the yard, killing and cooking my chickens, and everything else they could seize – fruits, corn, and so on. Winfield got frightened and ran to the woods. I have no one with me but Mrs. Merrifield’s two little boys, and they sat and cried most all the time.
I asked twenty officers for a guard, but could not get one till night. I sat up the whole night in great anxiety, fearful for Winfield, as the child had foolishly ran off with your gun, and the negroes told me they had taken him – but he escaped. At daylight the guard left, and we soon heard the drum of the infantry coming down the road, and all negroes at that. I begged of the guard to stay, he promised to return, but as great a villian [sic] as the rest, he only returned when the negroes came to rob and plunder. They stacked arms in our lane, and then the chickens and other fowls, then broke upon the smoke-house, took every mouthful of meat, all the lard they could, turning the rest on the floor, pouring the vinegar over that and then threw a box of lime over it all, took the soap and the salt and all the tools, broke open the cottage, cut the cloth out of the loom, broke everything belonging to it, all the spinning wheels, all the milk crocks, all the jars, everything in the cottage – then for the house.
I had locked it up and had gone to the front gate to try and beseech some officer to stop them. Little Merrifield came and said the parlor was full of them. I ran in and implored them to go out, but was rudely pushed aside, and they ran from room to room, like fiends, all over the house, taking everything they wanted. Up-stairs was full of them; I dared not to go up there. They stripped every bed. Then to your sister’s room, broke open five trunks and all the bureau and stand drawers. They had a great time getting your box of papers open; they thought they had it all in that box. But as the Lord would have it, about this time our own gallant soldiers made their appearance, and such a scampering then, – The infantry all started for the river, but the cavalry met and fought us just above here. – Seven Yankees were killed, and they fled through our corn fields, our men only about ten minutes behind them. The Yankees were in line of battle for three hours between our house and Magruders, but unfortunately only a few of our men had come up. They had followed all the way from Jackson.
[Editor’s Note: The Federals that the writer spoke of on July 14 were part of an infantry and cavalry expedition from Memphis that came down by river and landed at Vicksburg on July 7, 1864. The Federals left Vicksburg on July 10 and marched east to the Big Black River. Over the next few days they rode from Edwards to Auburn to Utica, arriving on July 12. On the 13th they reached Rocky Springs and on the 14th they rode into Port Gibson. Colonel Joseph Karge, commander of a cavalry detachment on the expedition, wrote that on July 14, “This command, being in the rear, was attacked after the infantry and the rest of the cavalry had taken up the march. After a sharp fight of an hour’s duration the enemy were driven off. They hung on our rear, however, during the march, but were repulsed in each attack.”
They have left, our men watching their movements; no telling how soon they will be back – the Lord grant never, but I am thankful it is no worse. Here is war, war, the horrors of war.
Many negroes left, as the Yankees had a large wagon train to take them. I thought at one time all the balance of ours would go, but none left except old Mose. We are all in confusion. – On Saturday, the 16th, after they had left here, we were with nothing in the world to cook for breakfast. Lans (negro man) borrowed some meal, killed a pig, and went and got up the cows and calves we had turned out to save, and we have commenced to live again. All the stores in town were robbed, and both drug stores destroyed. Others have suffered much, but not so much in their houses as we. Be thankful your wife is not in Yankee clutches. God grant you may never be in their power. They have taken all your books here, all the bed clothes, the meat corn, lard, salt, vinegar, silk dresses, linen, china vases, pincushions, muslin dresses, five trunks of clothes, window curtains, breastpin, silver candlesticks, cups, plates, buckets, pots, tools, chickens, geese, turkeys, ducks, pigs, horses, bee gums, parlor ornaments, and I know not what. Write to your brothers in prison.
[Editor’s Comment: I can only imagine the effect that letters such as this one would have had on the Mississippi soldiers that were serving in the Army of Tennessee and the Army of Northern Virginia. Finding out that Federal troops had passed close to their homes, and not knowing what had happened to their families must have been hell. I can certainly understand why many soldiers took “French leave,” or just outright deserted, in order to check on the welfare of their families back home.]