War, history and Southern charm

Monday, October 01, 2007

It has happened in other wars. While men met the enemy on the battlefield, women at home wrote letters, diaries, and journals, often including insightful accounts of wartime living.

On a recent visit to Vicksburg, Miss., I discovered a city with a strong sense of history and old Southern charm.

In museums and monuments it recalls a past for which it’s famous, the Civil War assault by Major General Ulysses Grant’s Army, the siege of the city, and Confederate surrender of July 4. 1863. And, yes, some of its women wrote their personal stories. Desperate to protect their children and trying to maintain a semblance of family life that was being torn asunder, they faced enormous challenges.

War in all its horror had come to their doorstep.

"The abnormal became normal," said Gordon Cotton, curator emeritus of the Old Courthouse Museum, an antebellum structure that offers visitors a walk through history. "During the siege there was constant shelling day and night. It became routine. My people lived here then."

Mary Loughborough from Missouri followed her husband, a Confederate officer, to Vicksburg, where she and her young daughter were trapped during the siege. Her book, "My Cave Life in Vicksburg" presents an eye-witness account of what ordinary citizens endured.

Caves were hurriedly dug in the hillside, as townspeople fled the danger of artillery projectiles falling on homes and city streets. As Union forces bombarded the city, civilian casualties were bound to happen.

"In one sad instance, a mother ran through the streets with her small daughter, seeking safety, when the child’s arm was shot off. I have a picture of the child," Cotton explained.

As I walked down those sunny streets, I tried to picture the scene when women and children ran for cover from showers of shot and shell in their own hometown. It’s difficult to imagine.

Though caves were considered a safer refuge, there was always the possibility of collapse because of artillery damage.

Loughborough wrote of a woman who put her child to sleep in a cave near hers. Shortly, a mortar shell fell on the earth above the child and crushed her. "I heard the most heartrending screams and moans," the author wrote.

Her book detailed the anguish of another night: "Terror stricken, we remained crouched in the cave, while shell after shell followed each other in quick succession." She prayed and prepared for sudden death.

Other Confederate women left accounts of bitter wartime experiences, sometimes as informative as today’s news reports. Occasionally, memoirs were published. Many remained unknown for years. Not the least of these writers was Vicksburg resident Emma Balfour, wife of a physician. In diaries and letters she described the turmoil she witnessed. Her home, built about 1835, still stands.

After 47 grueling days, the siege ended. Confederate Lt. General John C. Pemberton surrendered the city.

True to tradition, folks I met in Vicksburg were pleasant and polite. A number of bed and breakfasts and hotels offer comfort and hospitality. If you like shops, as I do, you’ll find those, too. Books, maps, replicas of "Napoleon cannons," soldiers’ caps (Union and Confederate), bullets, and numerous other items await the shopper.

History buff or not, you’re drawn to the historic sites of Vicksburg. Some of its women took pen in hand and recorded for posterity the events of that time in American history when this great nation was at war with itself. According to Gordon Cotton, a lady who was his distant kin wrote in 1900: "It’s forty years later, but it’s still like a hideous nightmare." Regardless of what side you were on.

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