“I’se So ‘Fraid God's Killed Too”: The Children Of Vicksburg
By Patricia Caldwell


Author Bio: Patricia Caldwell received a B.A. in Classical Studies from Chestnut Hill College, and earned an M.A. in Classical Studies from Villanova University, where she was initiated into the inaugural chapter group of the Phi Kappa Phi National Honor Society.

Pat is currently editor of Case Shot & Canister, the newsletter of the Delaware Valley Civil War Round Table, where she serves on the board of directors and on the Education Committee. She is also a member of the Old Baldy Civil War Round Table and is presently serving a 2-year term as Vice President. She has volunteered for a number of years at the Civil War Library & Museum in Philadelphia, which is now known as the Civil War and Underground Railroad Museum. Pat also is an instructor for the Civil War Institute at Manor College in Jenkintown, PA, which is a non-credit program sponsored by the Delaware Valley Civil War Round Table. She is a member of the 1st Corps, Friends of the National Parks at Gettysburg and of the Civil War Preservation Trust.


All too often we think of the Civil War as a contest between two opposing armies. In fact, many battles were fought in virtually unoccupied areas. However, there were indeed those conflicts whose resolutions would only come about after the upheaval and destruction of civilian lives.

Even more unique in the American Civil War was the campaign that resulted in the deliberate siege of a town or city, but it did happen, and as a consequence, in Civil War literature, the name Vicksburg has become synonymous with the siege of a city.

The siege of Vicksburg was more than the struggle between soldiers. It was the struggle to survive. It was determination, and it was heroism. At the end of this struggle homes had been destroyed, lives had been shattered. Life for the civilian survivors, among them some one thousand children, would never be the same.

These children at an early age saw war at its ugliest. They lived it, breathed, it, feared it. They cried, they suffered, they died, and despite it all, many survived, and after the ordeal they put their experiences on paper. Nothing can speak as eloquently as their words.

The siege of the city of Vicksburg for all intents and purposes began on May 18, 1863 and lasted for 47 days, culminating in the surrender of the city on July 4, 1863. Early in that month of May many nervous residents, in an attempt to safeguard their families had taken them into the countryside, but in the wake of Confederate reversals in the area which brought the army falling back into the city, these families scrambled back to presumed safety in Vicksburg.

But not all of the civilians who would feel the brunt of the Federal assault had been able to make it to the city. The countryside around Vicksburg now became territory inside the enemy lines. As recalled by young Ida Barlow, “My father’s home was not in the city but was in the Yankee lines. Being over age for active service, he was at home with my stepmother and the three younger children … Our home was surrounded by Yankees both day and night, as the headquarters of General Grant was only about a mile from our home. We were utterly in their power and in a constant state of uneasiness for fear we would be killed.” Following an incident that resulted in the death of a Yankee officer in an ambush near the Barlow home, retaliation struck the family. “The Yankees were so enraged with my father … that they at once put the torch to our home and told my father that he was on the premises at sundown they would hang him. Leaving our home a mass of smoldering ashes, we went bareheaded with nothing except what we had on – my father even being without a coat – to our grandfather’s.” But even there the Barlows were not immune to the siege of Vicksburg and the suffering it engendered. “During all these days and nights, we in our homes were in mortal dread… We were in the Yankee lines outside the city, but day after day the flare and boom of cannon and the whizzing balls were our constant companion… our home was filled with the wounded, right busy was every member of the family obeying orders from the surgeon and administering to the needs of the suffering.”

Young Lucy McRae, daughter of a well-to-do Vicksburg merchant chronicled the beginning of the siege in the town: “One bright afternoon, men, women and children could be seen seeking the hill-tops with spyglasses, as from the heights could be seen a black object slowly approaching along the river. Suddenly a shell came rattling over as if to say ‘Here I am!’ … Another shell, and still another, and the hills began to be deserted. The gunboat, seeing that her shells were falling short, ventured a little closer, and sent a few shells into the town. People sought their homes, but sleep visited few, as the shelling continued until late that night.”

Lida Lord, whose father was an Episcopal minister, recalled the beginning of the bombardment. "Before sunset a bombshell burst into the very center of the dining room ... crushing the well-spread table like an eggshell, and making a great yawning hole in the floor, into which disappeared supper, china, furniture... and our stock of butter and eggs." The family, consisting of 5 children, their parents, and the household servants, then moved into the church basement where they huddled in a coal bin while the shells shook the house. She remembered her mother trying to console her while she sobbed, "I'se so 'fraid God's killed too!" Lida’s brother Willie recalled this night as the time “the war became for the first time a reality and not the fairytale it had hitherto seemed.”

Eventually the Lords joined other families in establishing living quarters in a series of caves dug into the hillsides, in a futile attempt to escape the ceaseless bombardment that terrorized the town. While some families used the caves as temporary bombproofs, others set up a quasi-permanent housekeeping, with comparatively luxurious accommodations. They brought in furniture, rugs and familiar household goods. They decorated with flowers, brought books and favorite toys. But still there was the terror and the otherworldliness of the situation, always there.

Lida’s brother Willie chronicled the excitement felt by a young child in moving from an established home to the unknown: “To me, at first, before the novelty of it all wore off, this gnomelike life was the Arabian Nights made real. Ali Baba’s forty thieves and the genii of the ring and lamp lurked in the unexplored regions of the dimly lighted caves; and the sound of a guitar here, a hymn there, and a Negro melody somewhere else, all coming to us from among swaying Oriental draperies, sent me off at night to fairyland on the magic rug of Bagdad which is part of every well-trained boy’s dream equipment. But squalling infants, family quarrels, and the noise of general discord were heard at intervals with equal distinctness.”

Lida's family shared their new home with eight other families and their servants. Lida dreaded the nights, and with the nights the snakes in the cave. "In our cave we lived in constant danger from both rear and river. We were almost eaten up by mosquitoes, and were in hourly dread of snakes. The vines and thickets were full of them, and a large rattlesnake was found one morning under a mattress on which some of us had slept all night…” The fear, noise, darkness and crowded conditions were constant. There was no relief. “Candles were forbidden, and we could only see one another's faces by the lurid lightning-like flashes of the bursting bombs. Sometimes a nearer roar, a more startling beam, would cause us all to huddle closer together and shut our eyes, feeling that our last hour had come." She remembered one night in particular when there were 65 other people sharing the cave "packed in, black and white, like sardines in a box." The constant crying and moaning kept her from sleeping. There were several wounded soldiers in the cave, and a big box on the floor holding several babies. Then a woman went into labor before her very eyes. She was relieved when the "blessed daylight came like heaven."

One of the families sharing the cave with the Lords was the McRae family with their young daughter Lucy. During one of the shellings Lucy was buried alive when a shell collapsed part of the cave in which she was taking shelter. She was dug out by Mr. Lord. Lucy later wrote about her experience:

“Everyone in the cave seemed to be dreadfully alarmed and excited when suddenly a shell came down on top of the hill, buried itself about six feet in the earth, and exploded. This caused a large mass of earth to slide...catching me under it. Dr. Lord, whose leg was caught and held by it, gave the alarm that a child was buried. Mother reached me first, and ... with the assistance of Dr. Lord who was in agony...succeeded in getting my head out first... They pulled me from under the mass of earth. The blood was gushing from my nose, eyes, ears, and mouth...but there were no bones broken...During all this excitement there was a little baby boy born in the room dug out of the back of the cave...The firing continued through the night and early next morning...Mother decided to leave the cave...determined to risk her life at home with father. We left the cave about eight o'clock... I was bent over from my injuries and could not run fast, though between the shells we would make the fastest time possible; watching the shells we learned to run toward them, to let them go over us if they would."

Experiencing the siege at Vicksburg caused the children of the town to grow up faster than they should have, as is obvious from Lucy's matter-of-fact description of adapting to the shelling. One resident noted how even the youngest of the children learned to run for safety as they heard and recognized the approach of a shell. Eating and sleeping were no longer determined by the clock but by the extent of the shelling, although some children even learned to sleep during the heaviest bombardments. Washing and bathing were also dictated by the firing.

The adults admired the resiliency of the children in the way they adapted to their predicament. Mrs. Lord wrote, "The children bear themselves like little heroes. At night when the balls begin to fly like pigeons... and I call them to run to the cave, they spring up...like soldiers, slip on their shoes without a word and run up the hill to the cave." As the siege wore on the children grew accustomed to the sounds of the guns and learned to entertain themselves as best they could, singing and drawing silhouettes on the walls of the caves, collecting flowers and leaves, and reading books. Indeed, they too joined in the dangerous game of gathering shell fragments and minie balls. Neither white children, nor black ones, were immune to the attraction. A resident told the story of a young Negro child finding a shell in his back yard, “in rolling and turning it, had innocently pounded the fuse; the terrible explosion followed, showing, as the white cloud of smoke floated away, the mangled remains of a life that to the mother’s heart had possessed all of beauty and joy.” Yet through it all, the children tried to be children, and spent their days in play, climbing trees, but always ready to rush back to the caves at the first sound of the cannonading.

Willie Lord later wrote of his experiences: "We soon became familiar with the sound of those shells that gave warning of their approach, and expert in seeking the shelter of the cave when we heard them coming through the air. The cone-shaped Parrott shell, our most frequent visitor, fortunately could be heard a long distance off, and so gave time for flight to our underground home...Rifle-bullets...as they whistled past made a peculiar beeline sound...and of nothing were we more afraid, for when we heard it the bullet was beyond all question close at hand. One of these 'Minie balls' struck and wounded, but not dangerously, a young girl as she was sitting with her parents on the piazza of their home...The bullet was at once located and extracted, and a clever convalescent soldier at the hospital transformed it later into a set of Lilliputian knives and forks, to the girl's infinite pride and delight. A short time before this I myself had narrowly escaped death from a spent shell which passed so near the top of my head as to stir my hair, and fell close behind me...I had fortunately, stooped for the moment to gather something from the ground..."

As the days and weeks wore on food and drinking water became scarcer. People ate what they could find. Lida Lord remembered that once her family went without food for twenty-four hours; when they did get a meal it was because one of the family servants walked through the shelling, and came home with a "tray of ham and butter". Along with their neighbors the Lords became used to hunger and eating strange fare, such as mule meat and pea-flour bread. Household pets which had wandered the streets in the early days of the bombardment began to disappear. During lulls in the shelling water had to be drawn from household cisterns, or purchased by the bucketful, and rationed. The cave residents made numerous attempts to find fresh drinking water near their cave homes, but as the holes they dug brought up mostly mud, the families were forced to buy drinking water from those more fortunate with good wells. Young Lida wrote, “we realized what thirst meant, and were often hungry…”

The children became weary of the daily monotony which was occasionally broken only by death and disaster. One young girl while running back to her house was struck in her side by a shell fragment. She died as she ran into her mother's arms, her blood pouring out of her wound, coloring her light summer dress. A little boy playing outside his family's cave was struck by a shell fragment and suffered a broken arm. A servant boy found and played with an unexploded shell. It exploded, killing him instantly. A black girl going to purchase milk lost her arm when struck by a shell.

Willie Lord wrote, "When we think of this iron hail, estimated at 60,000 shells every twenty-four hours, descending upon the town by night and by day, the mortality among the citizens, even considering the protection of the caves, was wonderfully small. But while comparatively few non-combatants were killed, all lived in a state of terror."

By most accounts fewer than fifty civilians were known to have been wounded during the bombardment, with about a dozen of them killed or mortally wounded. But still that constant shelling and its ever-present terror were every bit as devastating to these children and their families, as they endured, day after day.

Throughout their suffering the people of Vicksburg waited anxiously for General Johnston's army to come raise the siege, and relieve General Pemberton's defenders. Rumors flew through the caves. "Our ears were always strained to catch the first sound of Johnston's guns," wrote Lida Lord. "Every extra-heavy cannonading was a message of hope, and every courier brought in, it was said, news of most encouraging victories." But no help came, and the populace began to realize that they couldn't hold out much longer. Philadelphia-born Lt. General Pemberton, meeting with his commanders, had been informed that not a one thought the weakened and starving troops would be able to evacuate the city. Pemberton then expressed the opinion that General Grant wouldn't give any better terms than those they were likely to receive on the Fourth of July, ironically the Union’s Independence Day. Negotiations began under a flag of truce.

Lucy McRae recalled "All was quiet; people could be seen walking around, concluding that the silence meant dreadful things on the morrow. We were all sitting outside the cave, twilight approaching, when father came in sight... Father came to mother, looking sad, with tears in his eyes, and said, 'You can all come home for a night's rest. General Pemberton has surrendered, and General Grant will enter the city in the morning'...". Lucy remembered the Fourth... "how sad was the spectacle that met our gaze: arms stacked in the center of the streets, men with tearful eyes and downcast faces walking here and there..." It was the 48th day after the beginning of the siege.

Ida Barlow recorded the situation in Vicksburg as the surrender came. “Up in the city, the scene would not be described by mortal tongue. Starving men, women and children with rags hanging to them stalked the streets in utter despair. They had given all for their country, and had naught left but a feeble claim on life…”

There was nothing left for the families of Lucy, Lida and Willie and their fellow survivors to do but leave their caves and try to pick up their shattered lives. Memories of what they had endured would last a lifetime. "I do not think a child could have passed through what I did and have forgotten it," Lucy McRae wrote years later. All that was left to them was their pride.

The Fourth of July would never again be celebrated in Vicksburg, Mississippi during the children’s lifetimes. In fact, it wasn't until July 4, 1945, at the end of World War II, more than 80 years later, that the citizens of Vicksburg were once again ready to participate in the celebration of the birthday of the United States.


SOURCES CONSULTED

Ballard, Michael B. The Campaign for Vicksburg. National Park Civil War Series. Eastern National Park and Monument Association, 1996.

Carter, Samuel III. The Final Fortress: The Campaign for Vicksburg 1862-1863. St. Martin’s Press, New York. 1980.

Hoehling, A. A. Vicksburg; 47 Days of Siege, May 18-July 4, 1863. The Fairfax Press, New York. 1991.

Korn, Jerry. War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign. Time–Life Books, Alexandria, VA, 1985.

Werner, Emmy E. Reluctant Witnesses: Children’s Voices from the Civil War. Westview Press, A Division of HarperCollins Publisher, Inc. Boulder, Colorado, 1998.

Winschel, Terry. “The Siege of Vicksburg”. Blue & Gray Magazine, Columbus, Ohio. Volume XX, Issue 4. Spring 2003.

 

 

 



 

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