One hundred and fifty one years ago today, the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi, surrendered to General Grant. One has to really hunt to find out what happened to the city immediately after that. It’s surprisingly difficult to find a general reference for the city during the Civil War and in the early days of Reconstruction. Here’s what I’ve learned from Enclave: Vicksburg and her Plantations, 1863-1870 by James T. Currie (University Press of Mississippi, Jackson. 1980). All quotes below are from this source.
Mr. Currie describes Vicksburg before the war this way:
Halfway between Memphis and New Orleans, the Yazoo River, having drained one-fourth of Mississippi, empties into the Mississippi River from the east. North of the mouth of the Yazoo and west of the Mississippi the land stretches flatly away for miles. Where these two rivers converge, though, a line of bluffs – composed of an almost impossibly fine, closely packed, wind-blown dust called loess – rises a nearly vertical 250 feet. it is here, where the bluffs meet the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers, that Vicksburg is located.
Ever-growing chances for commercial success in Vicksburg in the years immediately preceding the Civil War made the city one where the wealthiest citizens were not planters but men who owned the great retail businesses, the warehouses for cotton storage, and the manufacturing establishments. Vicksburg had a pre-War economy more diversified than that of any other city in the state. Unlike Natchez, which depended primarily on agriculture, or Holly Springs, whose livelihood was much more tied to manufacturing, Vicksburg’s economic success was based on a combination of these enterprises.
The extent to which Vicksburg’s slaves were used as industrial workers is hard to determine…Important as commerce and manufacturing were for the city, however, Vicksburg existed how and where it did because of agriculture; and agriculture in antebellum Mississippi meant cotton produced by black slaves…
Then the war happened. Vicksburg was now the Gibraltar of the Confederacy and Grant besieged the city in 1863. That siege has become one of the most well-known events in American history. Its contestants are remembered today in the US National Cemetery at Vicksburg.
After Vicksburg fell on July 4, 1863, most of her citizens chose to remain instead of fleeing to the Confederacy. Ironically, thousands more people moved in from surrounding areas, taxing the already overburdened and damaged city.
Social stability didn’t come easy. Because of the long siege, establishing loyalty was a difficult process, with Federal commanders having to banish or imprison southern sympathizers of both sexes during the city’s almost two-year occupation. Too, the city’s infrastructure was badly damaged during the siege and its citizens and tens of thousands of military defenders, now prisoners of the United States, had suffered hunger and malnutrition before the city was captured.
In gaining control of the strategic port city, US authorities also had assumed responsibility for feeding and caring for all those people. They also had to somehow control the inflation and rampant profiteering that had taken hold in Vicksburg. Property prices soared, too; this especially hurt black refugees.
African Americans in Vicksburg
Back in the fall of 1862, as more and more slaves fled plantations to join “Massah Lincoln’s army,” General Grant had put chaplain John Eaton in charge of black refugee matters. Now Eaton had to help an estimated 30,000 black men, women, and children. He did what he could, and his most notable success was achieved by setting up wood yards at four sites on islands near Vicksburg, where the freedmen contributed lumber to the Union cause while earning, all told, $125,000 by September 1864.
Conditions were often appalling, but help arrived from Northern missionary groups and associations. However, more recently freed slaves kept trickling into Vicksburg, eight thousand of them just with Sherman when he returned there. It wasn’t until February 1864 (during a record-breaking cold winter) that conditions for freedmen and other black refugees improved. Contraband hospitals were set up and more schools opened. Those ex-slaves who could worked in service industries (everything from blacksmithing to hair dressing), but unemployment was high. Prejudice in the US military authority made unemployed black people in Vicksburg vulnerable to deportation (whites were only banished for disloyalty). Blacks also had an 8 p.m. curfew in Vicksburg. White Vicksburg citizens often encouraged blacks to move into rural areas, where the land could supposedly support them. (It didn’t always work out that way. See a future post for discussions of rural Reconstruction life for black and white Americans.)
The return of civil government in Vicksburg
The commanders in charge of Vicksburg after its fall were successively generals Grant, Sherman, James McPherson, Henry Slocum, and finally Napoleon J.T. Dana, who was in charge for most of the occupation.
Vicksburg’s former authorities “faded away” during the occupation. No one took their place for two years. Dana hired some citizens but relied mostly on Army officers. He used threats, banishment and other threats (and carried through on them), as well as price and rent controls to handle many of the immediate problems. The US Treasury also took over abandoned and confiscated properties, renting them out at lower prices than privately owned properties. Dana absolished local criminal courts and provost marshal courts tried civilian crimes until May 1865, when the US judge advocate marshal decided this was illegal. The provost marshal, however, continued to arrest and jail civilians as well as soldiers, though under what laws (state, Federal, or just the commander’s wishes) was sometimes unclear.
City authorities used prisoners to dispose of rubble left over from the shelling, and the military set up a tax to pay for the restoration of gas street lighting. Sanitation measures were enforced, and the caves were ordered filled by May 1865 (though not all were). However, this all took time. Debris piles and the now-abandoned refuge caves were excellent places for disease vectors to grow. A measles outbreak in June 1864 killed many people in Vicksburg, particularly the elderly. A month later, yellow fever broke out, and the Federals closed public water cisterns. Then smallpox hit the city in the spring of 1865, mostly affecting the freedmen in town.
Business restarted in Vicksburg with much confusion. General Grant was against any trade at all in conquered Southern areas, arguing that it would hurt the US war effort, but he was overruled by Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase. The Treasury set up a permit system. In theory, no one could operate a business without one, but in practice it was abused. Too, there was a lot of illegal cotton trading going on, thanks to what Mr. Currie calls “Northern greed and Southern desperation.” This went on to such an extent that it may have prolonged the war by a full year, even though US army officers were often behind it.
Per our source, James Currie:
Even before the Civil War Vicksburg had not been a sleepy little river town, but had combined the characteristics of a community on the edge of the frontier: growing, amoral, and unbridled. It now added roles as refugee haven, military enclave, and jumping-off point for adventurers who sought fortune in the aftermath of war. For those persons who had an had an adequate income and were not lacking life’s necessities, occupied Vicksburg was not an altogether unpleasant place in which to pass a year or two as an Army officer or would-be businessman or financier.
The native population of the city apparently accepted quite readily the increasingly frenetic pace of life in Vicksburg…
Besides theaters, baseball, races, bars, restaurants, and circuses, there were also many schools open. Black children and adults, as well as some whites, went to those run by Northern missionaries (who also brought material aid to relieve the plight of recently freed but impoverished Afro-Americans). Whites who could afford it, though, sent their children to private schools out of racism and an unwillingness to accept the current form of political correctness in the Yankee-run schools.
Civilian government returned to Vicksburg in July 1865 with the election of a mayor and city council. They set up a fee system for funding such necessities as street repairs, law and order (though General Slocum did not relinquish control of the jail), fire protection, and public health and welfare. (There was no such thing as public education yet.) Local government soon became corrupt enough to be known as the “Vicksburg ring.” Taxpayer reform movements finally straightened out the worst of this in the 18a70s.
The Bank of Vicksburg opened in November 1866, while the local branch of the freedmen’s Savings and Trust Company received more deposits than any other branch in the nation. Saw mills and other businesses also started up in 1866, but cotton once more became the major economic support. Road and rail service to Vicksburg wasn’t all that great immediately after the war, but by July 1865 some 16,000 bales of cotton were shipped off the city’s wharves.
Today, rail and highways, as well as its port, keep Vicksburg thriving. And as always, the Big Muddy just keeps rolling on by…