In Search of Private Davies:
A trip to Vicksburg brings a Union veteran’s memories to life
I LOOKED DOWN INTO a lush little valley at Vicksburg National Military Park and wondered if that was where my great-great-grandfather, William Morgan Davies, had been on May 19, 1863, as Union forces attacked the Confederate fortifications defending Vicksburg. Gazing at Cemetery Road, which traverses the crest between two valleys, I considered whether I was looking at the ridge Davies referred to when he wrote in his diary: “[M]any were killed and wounded in the Brigade in crossing a ridge to the position and some owing to their eagerness to look over the hill on the columns struggling through the brush and falling timber and their withered branches towards the work.”
As I surveyed the scene, I wasn’t sure exactly why I wanted so much to find precisely where he had been on that day nearly a century and a half before, when his regiment—the 95th Ohio Infantry—was held in reserve while the other troops attacked. The rational part of me was saying: “It’s not important. You know he was somewhere nearby, and it makes no difference if he was in this valley or that ravine.” But a gut feeling kept me traipsing the battlefield, rereading my transcript of his diary and studying the historical markers, determined to figure out this puzzle.
There were moments when I wondered if it had been foolish to fly all the way from upstate New York to Mississippi just to visit the places Davies had written about, mostly in passing, as he joined the flow of forces bent on taking Vicksburg. I had never before traveled in the South, I didn’t have a lot of money to spend, and Mississippi had changed so much that it seemed hopeless to try to pinpoint the places my ancestor had once passed through. At these moments, however, I reminded myself I was engaged in an adventure, and Davies was guiding me by way of the writings he had left behind.
Not that he had left a lot to go on. A private, he was not well educated. The first eight entries in his diary read, word for word:
June 6th Commence keeping company with
Louisa, M, Dickerman
August 5th Enlisted in the 95th O,V,I
[Ohio Volunteer Infantry] Com, A
Aug 21st the 95th left Camp Chase for Kentucky
23rd Arrived at Lexington
30th Fought at the Battle of Richmond, Kentucky
Sept 27th Received the first month pay $15.00
Jan 6th Got married to L,M, Dickerman
Jan 18th The 95th left Camp Chase for Memphis
The 95th Ohio was part of Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s XV Corps in Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee, involved in the conquest of the strategically important city of Vicksburg. Although Davies had chronicled his marriage in just six words and his first battle in seven, his diary entries became longer and more frequent over the next few months as the campaign evolved. By the time the Union forces reached the fortifications defending Vicksburg, he was writing daily paragraphs, clearly caught up in the drama around him. What he wrote, however, addressed only events from the ground level. He didn’t provide an overall perspective that might have helped me locate where he’d been on the landscape.
Moving on Vicksburg from the east, Grant’s men encountered a treacherous landscape of ravines and gullies leading to a semicircle of well-defended fortifications situated on hills overlooking the ravines. The Federals failed in two assaults on Vicksburg on May 19 and 22, and Grant resorted to laying siege to the city, cutting off the Confederates’ food and armament supplies. As part of Sherman’s force, Davies was on the field for two attacks on the Confederate stronghold known as the Stockade Redan, a triangular fortification with palisaded walls.
The Vicksburg NMP’s battlefield tour is designed to be followed by car, but I decided to walk it instead, thinking it would help me to imagine how the soldiers of the 95th felt on approaching the fateful engagement at Vicksburg. Today, however, the battlefield is truly a park, with a paved road winding through mowed lawns that are occasionally graced with tall trees. The route bears little resemblance to the landscape my ancestor would have encountered. Ravines to the west of the road are now grown up with trees and brush, blocking the view the Union soldiers would have had of the Confederate fortifications protecting the city.
Eventually I realized I had misjudged the scale of the battlefield map in my pocket. Davies had a habit of noting how far he marched, often up to 20 miles in a day. Those distances were hard for me to imagine, since I was dragging by the time I reached Cemetery Road, after just two hours of hiking.
My weariness fell away when I found the marker that explained the preparations for the May 19 assault on the Stockade Redan. Regiments lined up on both sides of the road, with the 72nd Ohio to the right and the 95th Ohio behind it. Bingo! He was here!
But if this marker indicated the starting point, where was the ridge he had crossed to reach his position, or the hill that protected him and the spot where he lay? I wanted to know the exact place he was describing when he wrote: “it was a hot day we had to lay down in line amongst undergrowth and branches exposed to the hot sun all the afternoon the perspiration oozing out at every pore one man showed the white feather he turned tail and went back excuse that he was sick.”
A pretty valley to the right of the road enticed me to run down its grassy slope to three huge live oaks standing in boggy ground near the bottom. I felt that Davies might have been here, but I didn’t trust my intuition. Maybe I was just drawn by the beauty of a spot that would have looked vastly different in 1863, when trees and brush had been cut down and left in piles to block the invaders. The Union soldiers did not walk across an emerald lawn.
Furthermore, if the hill I saw to my west was the location of the Stockade Redan, the valley was the field of battle, and the forces in reserve—Davies included—would have been farther back. Markers dotting the side of the valley trace the location of Buckland’s Approach. Brigadier General Ralph P. Buckland was in charge of constructing an approach—a network of trenches dug after the two assaults on Vicksburg had failed and what would turn into a 47-day siege began. Those trenches, which enabled the Union troops to approach the Confederate defenses, have been filled in. The markers make no mention of the 95th Ohio.
I reluctantly climbed back up the slope and looked around. Spotting a wooded ravine to my east, I walked down into it through scruffy, spindly trees, vines, bamboo and lots of poison ivy. Then I asked myself: Was this where my great-great-grandfather lay, broiling in the heat on that May afternoon?
As I sat on a log, trying to picture less forest and more “undergrowth and branches,” I somehow sensed a connection with my ancestor. I tried to imagine what he might have felt lying in this ravine: Glad he’s on the backup force and not on the front line, where the odds of getting killed are high; fearing he’ll see action, then hoping he will, partly to get out of this oven and also because it will mean the Rebels are vulnerable, possibly ready to surrender Vicksburg. But his diary doesn’t mention his emotions at that point, so I could only guess what he might have felt. Maybe he had been in the ravine farther east instead.
By this time I was tired, and it was a long hike back to where I’d parked my car. Although I knew I might never return to Mississippi, I decided not to scale another slope to check out another, likely identical, scrubby forest like the one I was in. Even if I hadn’t found the exact place where my ancestor spent hours wondering what he was facing, I believed I had made an important gesture. My search for him was an act of love. It meant that I respected him enough to undertake this adventure as a result of his diary. It was a gesture of healing, too, of appreciation that he fought so I don’t have to live in a country burdened by slavery. It was also a statement—my ancestors have significance to me, and I believe I have something to learn from them. It asserted the importance of their legacy.
I went back up to Cemetery Road and followed it to the other side of the pretty valley, where a marker identified a little knoll as the site of Stockade Redan. Climbing to its flat crest, I looked down into the valley, trying to picture the lawn covered with “brush and falling timber and their withered branches.” Anyone lying on the ground there could easily have been shot from here. The men in the assault’s front line suffered hundreds of casualties. Davies had clearly been posted elsewhere— but the valley lingered in my mind.
In Jackson I visited the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and found Memoir: Personal and Political, by Ephraim McD. Anderson, a corporal in the 1st Missouri Confederate Brigade who wrote about the Vicksburg fighting in more detail than Davies. Anderson’s regiment was stationed south of the Stockade Redan, defending the fortification at Jackson Road from Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson’s XVII Corps. On May 19, the Rebels there saw the Union troops massing for attack. This was the moment when the 95th was taking position behind the ridge, held in reserve as the 72nd Ohio advanced on the Stockade Redan, and another regiment charged on the redoubt manned by Anderson. He expressed admiration for the soldiers scrambling up to the ramparts. The Yankees sent three waves of troops up to the guns, but none of them got over the parapets of the redoubt or the redan; as a result my ancestor remained sweating on the ground instead of getting shot.
Davies wrote of the aftermath: “I was on picket that night in front of our Brigade parties were engaged in bringing in the wounded & the dead untill one o clock great numbers of the dead could not be found in the darkness this was a trying time for me & all the rest also.”
Grant ordered a second assault on May 22. Davies explained: “[W]e lay down patiently for two hours while General [Francis] Blair[’s] Division was making the attack some of the men got up to the ditch but the number was small…this days attempt ended similar to the 19th the natural difficulties was too great and the Rebels stood to their post bravely.” Again he was in a branch-strewn ravine, out of range of Confederate bullets. Then the Union army resorted to a siege. Six weeks later, on July 4, the Confederates surrendered, a day after the Union Army of the Potomac had driven back Robert E. Lee’s army at Gettysburg. The two events marked a clear reversal in Southern fortunes.
Months after my trip to Mississippi, I was again looking through Davies’ diary when I noticed on the first page an entry that reads: “Mar 13th Left Memphis for Helena 80 miles by steamboat was organized in the 8th Division and Bucklands Brigade.”
Wait a minute—if Davies served under General Buckland, then he likely helped dig Buckland’s Approach and scuttled daily through the trenches during the siege. He might have crouched for an afternoon or two in the scrubby ravine, but for a month he spent hours each day in the pretty valley. My instincts had been right!
An entry for June 18 confirmed that idea: “Working on the approach Sap from 8 o’clock in the evening till 12….” That line had meant nothing to me before my trip to Vicksburg, but now I looked up “sap” in the dictionary and found that it’s a trench dug by a besieging army. And he worked from 8 p.m. till midnight because the work had to be done under cover of darkness, when the Confederates couldn’t see to fire down on the entrenching soldiers.
Another Davies entry from the siege is: “May 26th The Company was on picket in the Rifle pits in front…we kept a good lookout on the Rebel Rifle pits whenever a head was seen a dozen rifle balls would whistle in close proximity to the spot.” Now I had a good mental image of where the siege took place, I realized that when Davies said he was on picket in the rifle pits, he was actually below ground level and within range of the Stockade Redan—i.e., he had been in the pretty valley I visited.
Anderson wrote that gunfire came from the Federal rifle pits from sunup to sundown, making the Rebels wonder how their occupants could remain there all day. After the surrender, the Yankees told Anderson that fresh men had been assigned to the pits each morning. Each man was sent out before dawn with a day’s rations, a supply of ammunition, two canteens—one of water and one of whiskey—and instructions to use up all their bullets before leaving after dark. Davies had clearly been one of those men. How ironic, I thought, that I found this description of my ancestor’s role in the siege not in his own diary but in his opponent’s memoir!
Further research confirmed that the valley, named Mint Spring Bayou because of the watercourse that trickled through it, was key territory in both the May 19 and 22 assaults and in the siege of the Stockade Redan. Buckland’s brigade was initially ordered to establish outposts in the ravine bottoms in case the Rebels left their fortifications on May 19 for a counterattack across Cemetery Road.
A map that I recently found of the fighting on May 22 shows James Tuttle’s division was in the ravine adjacent to Mint Spring Bayou. In a similar map of the first assault on the 19th, it looks like Davies’ regiment might have been farther east—possibly in the ravine I had been too tired to investigate. On the 22nd he moved up to where I sat in the scrub.
I’m glad I went to Mint Spring Bayou. At first it seemed that my visit garnered less than conclusive results, but a bit more research—coupled with insights gained from my hike—made my ancestor’s diary come alive.
This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of Civil War Times.