The Doomed City: A Reminiscence of Jackson, Mississippi

I found the following reminiscence by a member of the 14th Mississippi Infantry in The Clarion (Jackson, Mississippi), October 13, 1881. It’s a very interesting account of the time the regiment spent in the capital city of Mississippi while serving on provost duty:

JACKSON, EIGHTEEN YEARS AGO

Eighteen years ago, this writer marched up Capitol street to the tune of ‘The Bold Soger Boy,’ played by the band of the

Photograph of Capitol Street in Jackson, Circa 1870 - Mississippi Department of Archives & History

Photograph of Capitol Street in Jackson, Circa 1870 – Mississippi Department of Archives & History

14th Mississippi Infantry. Two decades of time begin at length to clothe with a weird and fascinating interest the grand old days when gray columns marched and counter-marched, and men laughed at fate, and slept under the booming of cannon. And ex-soldiers, who were rollicking youngsters then, carelessly treading the weary march, or watching, lynx-eyed and silent, on the lonely vidette post, begin now to realize that they were then passing through the great epoch of their lives, and participating in events of mighty import.

We had campaigned in East Tennessee, wintered in Kentucky, surrendered at Fort Donelson, spent seven months in prison, and been exchanged at Vicksburg. Afterwards we had retreated before Grant from Cold Water, until Van Dorn turned him back by striking his commissary department at Holly Springs. Then came a lull in military operations in this quarter, and the 14th, by some hook or crook, got ordered to Jackson on provost duty. We reported to Brigadier General John Adams, commanding the 4th military district, whose head-quarters were up-stairs in the old brick building opposite the south side of Capitol square.

We went into camp in the old field west of the depot, where we remained five or six months doing provost duty in town

Photo of the Bowman House Hotel, Circa 1860

Photo of the Bowman House Hotel, Circa 1860 – Mississippi Department of Archives & History

and on the railroads, and had, in the language of that day, ‘a regular stavin’ time.’ Jackson was then the head-quarters of everything military and civil in this department, outside of Vicksburg. Army teamsters swore at their mules, and their wagons sunk to the hubs in the muddy streets. Quartermasters, commissaries, paymasters, and a hoard of gamblers with bogus passes in their pockets, thronged the sidewalks. The old Bowman House was a favorite resort of the latter, and here many of the members of the 14th were accustomed to deposit their Confederate stamps and return to camp in the dark hours of the night, sadder but not much wiser men. In the basement was a large billiard room with bar attached, and in the third story faro-banks drove a thriving business.

The Confederate House, near the depot, was constantly thronged, and hotels, restaurants and eating houses of every description had a regular boom of business. The impecunious officers and men of the 14th while on duty down town, used to patronize the eating house of a little Dutch woman – I have forgotten her name – down near the guard house at the foot of State street. For one dollar she gave biscuit, beef-steak, eggs and ‘genuine’ coffee. The more aristocratic officers, and those more fortunate in the mysterious games of keno and faro, took breakfast at Angelo’s. This old guard house at the foot of State street was an institution of the times. It was an old brick building on the east side, and was the receptacle of prisoners of every hue and nationality; Jew and Gentile, black and white, civil and military, all found temporary shelter and protection beneath its friendly roof. It was a kind of wayside hotel for Yankee prisoners in transit to the interior, and a safe refuge for refactory Confederates awaiting the action of court-martial. The ‘blue and gray’ met here on common ground, and shook hands across a tray of corn bread and blue beef.

Federal Troops Burning the Confederate House Hotel on May 15, 1863 - Harper's Weekly, June 20, 1863

Federal Troops Burning the Confederate House Hotel on May 15, 1863 – Harper’s Weekly, June 20, 1863

There was a broad-shouldered six foot, young Kentuckian, a splendid specimen of manhood, under sentence of death. He had murdered the major of his regiment in cold blood, deserted to the enemy, and been recaptured. One night, two weeks before the day of execution, he managed to get off his chains, and when detected, backed himself in the corner, and defied the guard with a heavy piece of iron, that he had gotten hold of by some means. He was overpowered after a desperate struggle, and two weeks later, defiant still, he tore his shirt collar, and bared his breast to the volley of musketry that sent him to eternity. One man amongst this motley crowd of prisoners wore a black stove-pipe hat, called in army parlance a ‘camp kettle;’ and he had been frequently importuned by the other prisoners to ‘come down out of it.’ He finally attempted to escape annoyance and effect his release by civil process; and one morning, the officer of the guard was served with a writ of habeas corpus. It was a mass of unintelligible jargon to him, and not knowing what better to do, after a careful perusal, he burned the papers, and locked up the civil officer who served them.

One of the most noted characters in this department was a private of Company F., known in almost every command by

Illustration of Civil War Foragers - Harper's Weekly, April 1, 1865

Illustration of Civil War Foragers – Harper’s Weekly, April 1, 1865

the euphonious sobriquet of ‘Beauregard Bill;’ though his baptismal name, if he had ever gone through a process of that nature, was Bill Mitchell. His ubiquitous propensities obtained for him a widespread acquaintance, and his admirable qualities as a forager were appreciated by all. While the army made a direct march of twenty-five miles, Bill foraged for five miles on either flank, and came into camp at night loaded down with fresh pork, canteens of sorghum and twists of half-cured tobacco, called with a kind of sardonic humor, ‘stingy green.’ Love was an emotion not found in Bill’s composition, and he parted with his stock only for money. He always got around the officer of the guard by a plausible story, a piece of fresh pork, or a canteen of sorghum or Louisiana rum. He was an old Mexican war soldier, and around the camp-fires, recited many a chapter of history not laid down in the books. He was as notorious amongst the soldiers as any general officer in the division; and he, doubtless, has a vivid recollection of every den and haunt in Jackson, and every road and by path for twenty miles around. I have introduced his name here, for the purpose of informing his surviving comrades, that he lives now a few miles from Yazoo City. He is a member of the Baptist church; drives a lonesome and shadowy mule, and is as calm and placid under a deed of trust, as when in the old days he converted himself into a walking saloon and peddled pine-top whiskey at one dollar a ‘jigger.’

All the churches were in full blast and well attended. One Sunday morning I dropped into one of them, but I cannot now recall the name nor face of the preacher, neither his text nor sermon. The church was crowded from door to pulpit, and my eyes were busy with the strange faces and varied costumes. There were officers in bright uniforms, with red, blue and buff trimmings, and others with threadbare coats buttoned to the chin to hide their faded calico shirts; privates, with well brushed brogans; civilians, in broadcloth and home-made jeans; ladies, in elegant Parisian costumes, and others in homespun dresses, with velvet cloaks and kid gloves. Antique bonnets had been withdrawn from long retirement, and forced into active service, and even sun-bonnets shaded delicately tinted cheeks and modest eyes that drooped under the soothing influences of inspiration. I had, only a few hours before, returned from a short leave of absence, and just before boarding the cars at Meridian, I had seen a telegram containing some details of the battle of Corinth, and amongst others the death of Col. Robt. McLain, of the 37th Mississippi Regiment.

Looking over the congregation I saw Col. McLain’s daughter, who was visiting at the time, relatives in Jackson. Mail and

Battle Flag of the 37th Mississippi Infantry

Battle Flag of the 37th Mississippi Infantry

telegraphic communications were uncertain in those days and correctly surmising that she was ignorant of the death of her father, I tried to avoid her on leaving the church, but was intercepted at the gate with an eager demand for news of the battle. With the truth on the end of my tongue, I looked into her blue eyes, and there, under the very shadow of the sanctuary, I told her a monster lie. She invited me to dinner, and it was a terrible temptation; my pockets were empty and I was down flat on army rations with pay-day a long way in the future. But I refused, and walked slowly away to camp, mournful for two reasons; I had missed a good dinner, and I knew that before the sun went down, the girl’s fresh young heart would be crushed by the harsh tidings my lips had refused to utter.

Our boys were the recipients of much kindness at the hands of the people of Jackson, and doubtless they remember that period as a luminous spot in the black disk of the war. There were many amusements into which they plunged with a zest, heightened by the knowledge that they could not last; and those were days when men and women grasped eagerly at pleasure with the shadow of death overhead, and threaded the dreamy waltz with the dull roar of distant siege guns booming in their ears. There came a day at length when our carnival was to end. An old copy of the Columbus Republic of that date says: ‘The enemy landed 75,000 men at Grand Gulf, on the 27th April, and approached in the direction of Jackson.’ Grant was uncoiling his ponderous army, and slowly enveloping Vicksburg in its fatal folds.

The 14th was rudely awakened from its dream of inglorious ease; and one fine morning in May, we bade adieu to Jackson, folded our tents, fell into line, and silently marched away. The commissaries, quartermasters, paymasters and army of gamblers, with their military stores and faro-banks, were already domiciled at Meridian; and the State government, with the old Roman Governor, Jno. J. Pettus, at its head, and Jones S. Hamilton, Adjutant General, was temporarily established at Enterprise. Many of the citizens left their homes, and Jackson was abandoned to the torch of the invader. The convicts from the penitentiary were released, formed into a company, and placed under command of Lieut. Trotter; but on the march they ‘vanished in thin air’ like the smoke from Grant’s batteries in the distance.

A mile or two out I paused and looked back, a carriage, filled with pale-faced refugees, dashed by; over the doomed city, a tall column of black smoke was slowly unfolding into a huge umbrella; and a sound, like the distant murmer of the sea, broke on my ear. The ‘bummers’ were getting in their work. We took the road to Canton, where Gen. Johnston attempted to gather a force for the relief of Vicksburg. Eventually the 14th, 15th, 20th and 43d Mississippi Regiments, commanded respectively by Cols. Doss, Farrell, Rora [Rorer] and Lowry, were formed into the first brigade of Loring’s division and placed under command of Gen. John Adams. The brigade remained intact through the Georgia campaign and Hood’s Tennessee campaign, until the battle of Franklin, where Adams, Farrell and Rora [Rorer] were killed, and one-half the brigade withered away before the seething fire from Schofield’s breast-works.

Illustration of Federal Troops Occupying Jackson, Mississippi

Illustration of Federal Troops Occupying Jackson, Mississippi

The field officers in this fatal charge, contrary to their usual custom, remained mounted; and Gen. Adams and his horse, riddled with bullets, went down together within a few feet of the works. Rora [Rorer] fell shot through the heart, but his horse plunged forward and dropped square across the works, his head and fore-feet dangling on the enemy’s side. Farrell was mortally wounded, and died soon after in the hospital. The brigade finished its career amongst the red hills of North Carolina, under command of Gen. Robert Lowry. A feeling of solemn awe steals over us at the awakened memories of those stirring times, and across the long lapse of years, we hear the sharp voices of the Captains, and a sound like the rush of many footsteps.

W., Yazoo City, October, 1881

Unfortunately, the writer of this wonderful little story only identified himself as “W,” from Yazoo City, Mississippi. I would, however, like to speculate as to his identity. In the story he speaks of a most notorious soldier in his regiment, Bill Mitchell of Company F, This is just a personal feeling of mine, but the way the writer talks about Mr. Mitchell, it sounds like he is talking about himself. Also, he does state that Mitchell was from Yazoo City, and the Writer does give his residence as Yazoo City. I checked the service records of the 14th Mississippi Infantry, and sure enough, there was a Private William C. Mitchell who served in Company F, 14th Mississippi Infantry. He enlisted on May 29, 1861, at Corinth, Mississippi, and listed his age as 35 years old. In the article the writer states that he served in the Mexican War, and at 35 years old, he was definitely of the right age to have served in that conflict.

At this time I can’t prove it, but I strongly suspect that William Mitchell was the writer of this article – if I find any information that sheds more light on the identity of the author, I will certainly post it, as he deserves to be remembered.

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