Vicksburg Cave Life
During the spring and summer of 1863, an unrelenting rain of Federal artillery shells drove the civilian inhabitants of Vicksburg into makeshift caves carved into the loess bluffs of the Hill City. In these dark and dank quarters, older men, servants, and women and children lived in constant fear of the descending messengers of death: 220-pound mortar shells, fired at the besieged city by the Union fleet on the Mississippi River to the west; and upwards of 30-pound artillery shells fired by the U.S. Army from the east, north, and south.
Uniquely, the bat-like life of these hardy people will be revisited, up close and personal, during the reenactment of the Vicksburg Campaign this November 5th and 6th. Caves—which will be inhabited much as they were in 1863—have been excavated into the hillside of McPherson Ridge on the Raymond battlefield. The caves will offer the public a firsthand opportunity to see cave life as it would have been during those traumatic times.
Life in the caves has been dramatically preserved in the diary of Mary Loughborough, the wife of a Confederate officer at Vicksburg. In 1864 she published her experiences in My Cave Life in Vicksburg, and described the need for the subterranean dwellings: “The caves were plainly becoming a necessity, as some persons had been killed on the streets by fragments of shells. The room that I had so lately slept in had been struck by a fragment of a shell during the first night, and a large hole made in the ceiling.”
Mary described mealtime and the meager fare: “Our dining, breakfasting, and supper hours were quite irregular . . . Some families had light bread made in large quantities, and subsisted on it with milk (provided their cows were not killed from one milking to another), without any more cooking, until called on to replenish, though most of us lived on cornbread and bacon, served three times a day, the only luxury of the meal consisting in its warmth. I had some flour, and frequently had some hard, tough biscuit made from it, there being no soda or yeast to be procured.”
Mary vividly expressed her dread of the constant Union bombardment in her remarkable diary: “I shall never forget my extreme fear during the night, and my utter hopelessness of ever seeing the morning light. Terror stricken, we remained crouched in the cave, while shell after shell followed each other in quick succession. I endeavored by constant prayer to prepare myself for the sudden death I was almost certain awaited me. My heart stood still as we would hear the reports from the guns, and the rushing and fearful sound of the shell as it came toward us. As it neared, the noise became more deafening; the air was full of the rushing sound; pains darted through my temples; my ears were full of the confusing noise; and, as it exploded, the report flashed through my head like an electric shock, leaving me in a quiet state of terror the most painful that I can imagine—cowering in a corner, holding my child to my heart—the only feeling of my life being the choking throbs of my heart, that rendered me almost breathless . . . We were safe at least from fragments of shell—and they were flying in all directions; though no one seemed to think our cave any protection should a mortar shell happen to fall directly on top of the ground above us.”
A particularly close call came when a shell entered the cave one afternoon: “It was about four o’clock one Wednesday evening—the shelling during the day had gone on about as usual—I was reading in safety, I imagined, when the unmistakable whirring of Parrott shells told us that the battery we so much feared had opened from the entrenchments . . . A man came in much frightened, and asked to remain until the danger was over. The servants stood in the little niche by the bed, and the man took refuge in the small ell where I was stationed. He had been there but a short time, standing in front of me, and near the wall, when a Parrott shell came whirling in at the entrance, and fell in the centre of the cave before us all, lying there smoking. Our eyes were fastened upon it, while we expected every moment the terrific explosion would ensue. I pressed my child closer to my heart, and drew nearer to the wall. Our fate seemed almost certain. The poor man who had sought refuge within was most exposed of all. With a sudden impulse, I seized a large double blanket that lay near, and gave it to him for the purpose of shielding him from the fragments; and thus we remained for a moment, with our eyes fixed in terror on the missile of death, when George, the servant boy, rushed forward, seized the shell, and threw it into the street, running swiftly in the opposite direction. Fortunately, the fuse had become nearly extinguished, and the shell fell harmless—remaining near the mouth of the cave, as a trophy of the fearlessness of the servant and our remarkable escape.”
As the days of the Siege of Vicksburg ticked by and went from balmy spring to sultry summer, living conditions became increasingly worse. Mary wrote: “And so the weary days went on—the long and weary days—when we could not tell in what terrible form death might come to us before the sun went down . . . [My husband] told me of the soldiers in the entrenchments, who would have gladly eaten the bread that was left from our meals, for they were suffering every privation, and that our servants lived far better than these men who were defending the city. Soon the pea meal became an article of food for us also, and a very unpalatable article it proved. To make it of proper consistency, we were obliged to mix some corn meal with it, which cooked so much faster than the pea meal that it burned before the bread was half done. The taste was peculiar and disagreeable.”
Finally, on July 3, a truce was called to discuss surrender terms. Mary remembered, “I put on my bonnet and sullied forth beyond the terrace, for the first time since I entered. On the hill above us, the earth was literally covered with fragments of shell—Parrott, shrapnel, canister; besides lead in all shapes and forms, and a long kind of solid shot, shaped like a small Parrott shell. Minie balls lay in every direction, flattened, dented, and bent from the contact with trees and pieces of wood in their flight. The grass seemed deadened—the ground ploughed into furrows in many places; while scattered over all, like giants’ pepper, in numberless quantity, were the shrapnel balls. I could now see how very near to the rifle pits my cave lay: only a small ravine between the two hills separated us.”
The surrender of Vicksburg ensued on July 4, 1863, and Mary wrote that her husband “came up, with a pale face, saying: ‘It’s all over! The white flag floats from our forts! Vicksburg has surrendered.’ He put on his uniform coat, silently buckled on his sword, and prepared to take out the men, to deliver up their arms in front of the fortification . . . I felt a strange unrest, the quiet of the day was so unnatural. I walked up and down the cave until [my husband] returned. The day was extremely warm, and he came with a violent headache. He told me that the Federal troops had acted splendidly; they were stationed opposite the place where the Confederate troops marched up and stacked their arms; and they seemed to feel sorry for the poor fellows who had defended the place for so long a time. Far different from what he had expected, not a jeer or taunt came from any one of the Federal soldiers. Occasionally, a cheer would be heard; but the majority seemed to regard the poor unsuccessful soldiers with a generous sympathy.”
The Siege of Vicksburg ended on July 4, 1863, but the campaign, the siege, and the cave life in Vicksburg will be reenacted for public viewing on the Raymond battlefield on November 5-6, 2005, during the Vicksburg Campaign Reenactment sponsored by Friends of Raymond and Stanford’s Mississippi Battery
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