From May through early July 1863, Vicksburg, Mississippi, a strategically important city on the Mississippi River, was besieged by Federal forces under the command of General Ulysses S. Grant, and by a flotilla of gunboats in the river commanded by Admiral David Porter. The city was surrounded by outlying Confederate lines of defense, but the Union forces also shelled the city itself, which was full of civilians, who dug caves into the clay hills of Vicksburg for protection from the artillery bombardment. The siege lasted 47 days, until the city and its Confederate defenders were at last starved into submission. The Confederate commander, Gen. John C. Pemberton, surrendered on July 4, 1863. So bitter were the feelings and memories of the people of Vicksburg afterward that they did not officially observe the Independence Day holiday for the next 81 years (not returning to its observance until 1945).
In his book Vicksburg 1863, published in 2010, historian Winston Groom noted the following: “From the river, Porter’s mortar boats kept up a regular bombardment of the city’s environs, while from landward Grant’s artillery relentlessly threw barrages of shells into the town. The shocking part of it was that much of the naval firing was deliberately aimed at the civilians.” (emphasis added)
Mary Longborough, a resident of Vicksburg, kept a diary that was later published as My Cave Life in Vicksburg. Her eyewitness accounts attest to many poignant incidents that occurred during the siege of the city:
“A young girl, becoming weary in the confinement of the cave, hastily ran to the house in the interval that elapsed between the slowly falling shells. On returning, an explosion sounded near her—one wild scream, and she ran into her mother’s presence, sinking like a wounded dove, the life blood flowing over the light summer dress in crimson ripples from a death-wound in her side, caused by the shell fragment.”
“One afternoon, amid the rush and explosion of the shells, cries and screams arose—the screams of women amid the shrieks of the falling shells. The servant boy, George…found that a negro man had been buried alive within a cave, he being alone at that time. Workmen were instantly set to deliver him, if possible; but when found, the unfortunate man had evidently been dead some little time. His wife and relations were distressed beyond measure, and filled the air with their cries and groans.”
“A little negro child, playing in the yard, had found a shell; 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.”
“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.”