War stories: Vicksburg, Mississippi

It’s not the well known battles that make old wars real. It’s glimpses into the character of people like you and me that make a world-changing event like the Civil War personal, even 150 years later.

Vicksburg National Military Park, Mississippi River

Vicksburg’s view of the Mississippi today; the river was closer 150 years ago

Vicksburg National Military Park

Vicksburg National Military Park

Vicksburg sits on a pivotal bluff above the Mississippi River, so early in the Civil War it controlled a crucial artery that kept war supplies and needed commerce moving for the Confederacy. Everyone from generals on down said it could not be taken by the Union; it was impregnable. So when rebel General Pemberton raised the white flag over the city, ending Ulysses S. Grant’s strangling 47-day siege for the hungry, exhausted soldiers and civilians trapped in the city—and thereby cutting the Confederacy in two—the Union celebrated the 1863 victory as a turning point in the war.

But that’s just for context; I didn’t set out here to talk about the military action. Exploring Vicksburg’s National Military Park and several terrific small museums last month, some stories and images came to light that I found very poignant; I wanted to share a few of them with you.

When boys grow up fast

Orion P Howe, Vicksburg National Military Park

Orion P. Howe

In war, boys sometime take on the responsibilities of men, revealing their character at a young age. On May 19, Orion P. Howe, a 14-year-old musician with the 55th Illinois Infantry, was pinned down by Confederate fire along with the rest of his regiment. They were running out of ammunition; Orion volunteered to run to the rear to request more. He was wounded in the leg as he ran, but still found General Sherman and asked for the supplies they needed. The General recommended him for the Medal of Honor, saying, “What arrested my attention then was… that one so young, carrying a musket-ball wound through his leg, should have found his way to me on that fatal spot, and delivered his message…” Orion P. Howe was one of youngest ever to receive the medal, the country’s highest military honor, awarded for personal acts of valor above and beyond the call of duty.

An intriguing face

Pembroke S Senteny, Vicksburg National Military Park

Pembroke S. Senteny

I was captivated by a young, wistful face on a bas-relief plaque near where Union soldiers tunneled into a hill below the Confederate lines, then blew it up. There was no explanation on the monument, just Pembroke W. Senteny’s pensive, innocent countenance. So I went looking for his story. On June 26, the force of that explosion tossed the Army of Vicksburg defenders back from the works on the brow of the hill, knocking hats off their heads and guns from their hands. Immediately, Lieutenant Colonel Senteny and his 2nd Missouri Infantry regiment were ordered up to relieve the battered 6th Missouri. Senteny and his men endured constant fire from the Union batteries and mortars through the night, killing him sometime before dawn. His commanding officer said Pembroke Senteny was “numbered one of the best officers in the Missouri army… brave, cool, and generous—a model soldier and officer.” It’s an entirely unremarkable story; in war, men barely out of boyhood are sent to die. What’s remarkable is the way the artist captured his mournful, resigned, but proud expression, foretelling the inevitability of tragedy in the face of doing one’s perceived honorable duty.

The first sniper’s hat

Coonskin's Tower, Vicksburg National Military Park

Coonskin’s Tower during the siege

Coonskin's Tower,, Vicksburg National Military Park

Sketch of Coonskin’s Tower

A siege is a long, slow wearing down of the enemy, often picking them off one at a time. In the Civil War, most who were sharpshooters were just rank and file soldiers detailed to hunker down in forward rifle pits. They didn’t receive any special training in marksmanship or concealment—they were pretty ineffective. But Henry C. Foster of the 23rd Indiana was different—an “unerring shot” who earned the freedom to roam the federal lines, looking for the best fields of fire. He was also known as “Coonskin,” which, as you will have guessed, was for his non-regulation hat. Someone said “he was as bold and daring a young man as one would wish to see.” He would creep into the no-man’s land between the lines at night and build a burrow with a peep-hole, taking provisions and watching the rebels for several days. But he wasn’t satisfied with the targets he was getting. So on the night of June 8 he got creative, directing a volunteer detail to construct a tower on a strategic spot overlooking the Confederate lines. Then he rigged up a looking glass that let him view and fire into the enemy’s fort and rifle pits without exposing his head (or his famous cap). The fate of the hat isn’t known, but that of the looking glass is. One Union soldier wrote to his parents that the rebels “broke it all to smash after about 100 rounds had been fired at it.”

Rebels with Union inclinations

James Shirley, Vicksburg National Military Park

Judge James Shirley

Shirley Children, Quincy, Alice, & Abbie Shirley, Vicksburg National Military Park

Quincy, Alice, Abbie

Judge James and Adeline Shirley were respected members of Vicksburg society, raising three happy children in a white house in the country. But, like many in the bustling river city of Vicksburg with family ties to the North, they had pro-Union sympathies. In 1863 war came to their town. More than that, it came to their doorstep.

Shirley House, Vicksburg National Military Park

Shirley House and Union dugouts

When the Union Army knocked, young Quincy Shirley immediately joined up, fighting in the trenches surrounding their home. At the time, his older sister Alice was attending the Central Female Institute nearby in Clinton. Judge Shirley went to retrieve his daughter, but Union troops arrived at the same time and tore up the railroad tracks. So Alice stayed behind in Clinton—to her extreme displeasure. And her father turned around and walked 32 miles to get back home. When he arrived, he found his house terribly damaged and his wife and children, like many civilians caught in the siege, living in a cave.

Shirley House, Vicksburg National Military Park

Shirley House, restored

Alice returned after the siege to find her family’s pretty white home uninhabitable and her father very ill from his grueling walk; before long, he died. After the fall of Vicksburg the house was used as a Union hospital, then it fell into severe disrepair. Meanwhile, Alice and a Union officer fell in love and “eloped up the river.” In 1900, Alice sold the house and 60 acres to be part of the Vicksburg National Military Park, on the condition that the house be restored and her parents be buried behind it. The Shirley house is now the only remaining wartime building inside the park.

Don’t stories like these always make you wonder how you would behave if you were caught in a war?

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