Three eyewitness accounts describe what it was like for Vicksburg civilians to burrow underground to escape unrelenting shellfire.
In the spring and summer of 1863, as the following accounts show, Vicksburg residents found themselves in a day-to-day fight for survival, living as best they could in caves dug to provide shelter from Union field cannons and gunboat-mounted heavy mortars firing at Confederate troops defending the besieged city.Although the 47-day siege killed relatively few civilians—an estimated 12 to 15 or so out of the several thousand noncombatants in the city—the constant shelling and horrific injuries terrorized those living underground. “Really, was there to be no mental rest for the women of Vicksburg?” wrote resident Mary Webster Loughborough. She and other diarists recorded their thoughts as they huddled in shelters and prayed for an end to the shelling.
MARY WEBSTER LOUGHBOROUGH
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 intrenchments. I ran to the entrance to call the servants in; and immediately after they entered, a shell struck the earth a few feet from the entrance, burying itself without exploding. I ran to the little dressing room, and could hear them striking around us on all sides. I crouched closely against the wall, for I did not know at what moment one might strike within the cave.
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….Sitting in the cave, one evening, I heard the most heartrending screams and moans. I was told that a mother had taken a child into a cave about a hundred yards from us; and having laid it on its little bed, as the poor woman believed, in safety, she took her seat near the entrance of the cave. A mortar shell came rushing through the air, and fell with much force, entering the earth above the sleeping child— cutting through into the cave—oh! most horrible sight to the mother—crushing in the upper part of the little sleeping head, and taking away the young innocent life without a look or word of passing love to be treasured in the mother’s heart. I sat near the square of moonlight, silent and sorrowful, hearing the sobs and cries—hearing the moans of a mother for her dead child—the child that a few moments since lived to caress and love—speaking the tender words that endear so much the tie of mother and child….
I could not sit quietly within hearing of so much grief; and, leaving my seat, I paced backward and forward before the low entrance of my house. The court-house bell tolled twelve; and though the shells fell slowly still around the spot where the young life had gone out, yet friends were going to and from the place. How blightingly the hand of warfare lay upon the town! even in the softening light of the moon—the closed and desolate houses— the gardens, with gates half open, and cattle standing amid the loveliest flowers and verdure! This carelessness of appearance and evident haste of departure was visible everywhere—the inhabitants, in this perilous time, feeling only anxiety for personal safety and the strength of their cave homes. The moans of pain came slowly and more indistinct, until all was silent; and the bereaved mother slept, I hope—slept to find, on waking, a dull pressure of pain at her heart, and in the first collection of faculties will wonder what it is. Then her care for the child will return, and the new sorrow will again come to her—gone, forever gone! It will take days to fully realize it, and then she will struggle and grow strong. God in his mercy helps the poor human hearts that suffer, struggle, and grow strong in these sad years of warfare! No one came now—no word to show that life still throbbed in the silent city. The fresh air told of the coming morning: the guns were still.
We have spent the last two nights in a cave, but tonight I think we will stay at home. It is not safe I know, for the shells are falling all around us, but I hope none may strike us. Yesterday morning a piece of a mortar shell struck the schoolroom roof, tore through the partition wall, shattered the door and then went into the door sill and down the side of the wall. Another piece struck in the same room and a third in the cement in front of the house. Such a large piece struck the kitchen also, but we see them explode all around us and as this is all the harm done to us yet, we consider ourselves fortunate. Mrs. Hawkes’ house is literally torn to pieces, and Mrs. Maulin’s was struck yesterday evening by a shell from one of the guns east of us and very much injured. In both of these houses gentlemen were sick and in neither case was any one hurt. It is marvelous. Two persons only that I have heard have been killed in town, and a little child. The child was buried in the wall by a shell, pinned to it. Today a shocking thing occurred. In one of the hospitals where some wounded had just undergone operations a shell exploded and six men had to have limbs amputated. Some of them that had been taken off at the ankle had to have the leg taken off to the thigh and one who had lost one arm had to have the other taken off. It is horrible and the worst of it is we cannot help it. I suppose there never was a case before of a besieged town when the guns from front and back met and passed each other….
In the midst of all this carnage and commotion, it is touching to see how every work of God save man, gives praise to Him. The birds are singing as merrily as if all were well, rearing their little ones, teaching them to fly and fulfilling their part in nature’s program as quietly and happily as if this fearful work of man slaying his brother was not in progress.
One night, soon after entering our cave home, mother fixed our beds for us, putting my brothers on a plank at one side, and putting me near Mary Ann; but, spoiled and humored child that I was, I decided not to stay near Mary Ann, so proceeded to tear up my bed. The Rev. Dr. Lord, of the Episcopal Church, and at that time rector of Christ Church, was suffering with a sore foot and leg, which was all bandaged and propped on a chair for comfort. He said, “Come here, Lucy, and lie down on this plank.” Dr. Lord was almost helpless, but he assisted me to arrange my bed, my head being just at his feet. The mortars were sending over their shells hot and heavy; they seemed to have range of the hill, due, it was said, to some fires that a few soldiers had made on a hill beyond us. Every one in the cave seemed to be dreadfully alarmed and excited, when suddenly a shell came down on the top of the hill, buried itself about six feet in the earth, and exploded. This caused a large mass of earth to slide from the side of the archway in a solid piece, 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 a Mrs. Stites, who was partially paralyzed, with the assistance that Dr. Lord, who was in agony, could give, succeeded in getting my head out first. The people had become frightened, rushing into the street screaming, and thinking that the cave was falling in. Just as they reached the street over came another shell bursting just above them, and they rushed into the cave again. Then came my release. Mother had cried in distressing tones for help, so as soon as the men could get to me they pulled me from under the mass of earth. The blood was gushing from my nose, eyes, ears and mouth. A physician who was then in the cave was called, and said there were no bones broken, but he could not then tell what my internal injuries were. Just here I must say that during all this excitement there was a little baby boy born in the room dug out at the back of the cave; he was called William Siege Green.
Originally published in the July 2008 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.