Chickpeas, Mules, and Water–The Siege of Vicksburg
If you have ever gone through a Memorial which is dedicated to the fallen soldiers and civilians who have died or survived a horrific battle between two armies, you cannot come away from the memorial without a feeling of sadness and despair. This was the experience my wife and I had when we spent about three hours driving through and viewing the memorial of the seige at Vicksburg, Mississippi about fifteen years ago. If you read the account of the battle in Wickipedia, you do not get the same feeling nor do you get much more than a recitation of the Generals who commanded the armies who fought in this terrible battle. The scene of the battle was a grassy knoll where the Union Armies with supperior manpower and weapons laid seige to Vicksburg which lasted about six weeks. The feeling we got was eire. It was almost as if we had come upon the battle as it was being waged. The loss on the Union side was approximately 4 to 1, although the Wickipedia version does not tell the true story because it counts the men of the Confederate side as casualties even though they surrendered. I have never seen an account of a battle which counted those who surrendered or were captured as casualties. It reminds me of a professor I talked to who told me if you want to make history you have to write it.
The Siege of Vicksburg was a turning point in the Civil War, or as the Southerns call it “The War Between The States.” The reason the siege of Vicksburg was so important, had to do with its geographical location on the Mississippi River. Vicksburg is located on a high bluff overlooking the river where the Confederate forces mounted their big cannons and could blow any Union ships out of the water coming from the north or the south. The Union forces were determined to drive out the Southern forces in order to split the South into two regions. The siege of Vicksburg began about May 19, 1863 and ended about July 19, 1863. To get to Vicksburg, General Ulysses S. Grant’s Union Army of Tennessee had to bring his army down the west side of the Mississippi River and in some places had to build a canal to get his supplies and munitions so he could cross the river south of Vicksburg through some very. swampy land, with his army besieged by mosiquitos, knats(called by the Indians as”no-see-um’s”, snakes, probably alligators, and heat, because by the end of February, Mississippi gets very hot and miserable. An aside, having lived in Mississippi, I can personally attest to the misery the “no-see-um’s” caused me when raking leaves or working outside, so Grant’s Army had to be miserable while marching through this terrain.
Once General Grant arrived near Vicksburg, he approached it from the east with about 35,000 troops which later grew to about 77,000 troops, which compared to the Confederate Army forces of about 18,500, commanded by Lt.Gen. John C. Pemberton, was a very lopsided conflict. However, as my wife and I read about the conflict as we drove through the memorial, the Southern forces were very good at defense. Their forces were able to look down upon the Union forces and they were well defended with gun emplacements, tunnels, etc. When the Southern forces surrendered, according to the Wikepedia account , the Union forces had 77,000 men with 4835 dead and the Confederate forces had 32,697 with about 3,202 dead. I am not certain whether the Confederate forces who surrendered included civilians as well as soldiers or not.
I found out in talking to people currently living in Vicksburg an interesting detail that I had never seen mentioned in any of the history books written about the Siege of Vicksburg. According to the locals, the main sources of food as the siege continued were chickpeas and mule meat. Much of the population were living in caves to escape the artillery shells fired by the Union Army, so the casualty rate was very low, and the primary reason for the surrender of the Confederate forces was not because they were being overwhelmed by the Union forces but for a different reason entirely. The South was experiencing a very severe drought, and Vicksburg did not have wells but cisterns, which could only be filled by local streams or rainwater. So, while a diet of chickpeas and mule meat might have gotten very tiresome to eat, the population could not survive without water. So the Confederate Army at Vicksburg was forced to surrender. The Union Soldiers were so in awe of the bravery and the defense put up by the Confederate Soldiers that they lined up and shook hands with them as they surrendered. The Confederate soldiers were allowed to return to their homes because the Union Army could not provide food for so many men and did not want to divert their forces from bringing an end to the war.
In one Southern home we visited, there was a bulge in the wall in the entry hall to the home which was plastered over and left because am artillery shell was logged in the wall. It was too dangerous to try to remove it, because there was no way of knowing whether is was live or not. Two unmarried sisters had lived in the house during the Civil War and as well as after the war. It was obvious that at one time they had been well off, but the war changes the fortunes of many. This included the two women living in this home. The wisteria vines had not been trimmed so they came in one window of a very large room and went across the room and out the other side through another window.
Our next stop on our tour of Vicksburg was to go to the bluff and look down upon the Mississippi River. It is an awesome sight because it is a very long way down to the river bank. If the Union forces had tried to scale the cliffs the casualties would have been very great. I think one reason for our reaction to Vicksburg, was that I am certain that both my wife and I had family members fighting on both sides of the Civil war. We probably had more on the Confederate side since our ancestors were primarily Southerns. The soldiers on both sides of this conflict usually went to join a unit as friends. My Grandfather was 18 years old during the Civil War but did not serve because he broke his leg. By the time it healed, all of his friends had already gone of his had already gone to war. Serving in the Civil War with friends was a common practice as depicted in a book I just finished reading. This book, by Harold Coyle, “Until The End,” is about the conclusion of the Civil War, and follows two other books he has written about the Civil War. “Until The End” takes place in the Eastern states and is well worth reading.