The Vicksburg battlefield tour is designed to be followed by car, but I decided to walk, hoping to imagine how my great-great-grandfather, William Morgan Davies, and his comrades in the 95th Ohio Volunteer Infantry might have felt approaching the Confederate works defending the strategically critical city of Vicksburg, Mississippi. His diary does not name the Stockade Redan, a triangular fortification that was part of the semicircle of defenses around the eastern side of the city. According to my research, the redan was the main target of the Union attack on May 19, 1863, when Davies wrote:
Grant sent orders to be given to each Regt. that a general attack on the whole line was to be made at 2 p.m. and take the works by storm …. at 2 p.m. promptly the Brigade moved to the front within 500 yards of the Rebel line protected from the Rebel line by hills that run along our line the Brigade was held in this position as a reserve ready to move in case the storming forces would be successful
As I trudged up the road of the battlefield park on a spectacular April morning, stopping to read explanatory markers along the way, I wondered exactly what I was after. When I had the idea to come to Mississippi and follow the path laid out in my ancestor’s diary, it had seemed like a perfectly logical adventure. But confronted by roads and towns that bear little resemblance to the ones mentioned in the diary — and in some cases no longer exist — I was perplexed.
My urge was to find the exact places Davies had marched, camped and stood, and try to understand what happened to him there. But how could I, a woman traveling in peacetime, hope to approximate the experience of a soldier marching with his regiment in war 150 years ago? And what would be the purpose of such an experience?
I clung to the two obvious things he and I had in common: camping out, since I was spending the three solo nights of my trip in campgrounds until my friend Sara arrived; and keeping a diary. But I still could not quite figure out what the connection meant to me.
Even the battlefield, I gradually realized, looks nothing like it did in 1863. The mowed lawns along the tour road make for a beautiful day in the park, not much like the farmland it was in the 1800s. Cannons, laid out at intervals, point west at a ridge now completely hidden by the trees that grow in the intervening ravines.
But the sun was shining, the air was temperate, and I was enjoying my walk.
I had completely misjudged the scale of the map. After two hours of hiking, I finally pulled up in front of the marker that began, “Buckland’s Brigade: Assaults, May 19 and 22, 1863. The afternoon of May 19, this brigade was in support of Blair’s Division — the 72nd Ohio in front on the right of the road and the 95th Ohio in its rear.”
Yes! — just as Davies wrote, the 95th had been held “in reserve,” behind the attacking troops. Where, then, was the spot where he “lay down in line amongst undergrowth and branches exposed to the hot sun all the afternoon the perspiration oozing out at every pore?” I began to prowl the area along Cemetery Road, an east-west traverse with no trees, providing my first view of the Confederate side of the battlefield. To the right of the road was a little valley with steep grassy sides and three splendid oaks at the bottom. Was this the place? I was drawn to the valley, although I knew it had probably been much less attractive in 1863, littered with brush and trees cut down by the Confederates to block the advance of the attackers.
Flushing a deer in the wooded ravine to the east, I skirted the top edge to read the markers. The cannon mounted along the rim of the valley had been part of the Waterhouse battery, pulled by horses and mules that accompanied Davies’ regiment. It was frequently mentioned in his writing. A string of markers descended the slope into the pretty valley, and I followed them down — but they all read “Buckland’s Approach,” referring to a series of trenches built after the May 22 attack and designed to enable troops to get closer to the Rebel works without getting shot.
I concluded that on the 19th this area had been a no-man’s land and not the place where Davies lay and sweated in the sun. Disappointed, I headed back to the first marker and found one near the road that read “This stone marks the farthest advance of the Seventy-second Ohio Regiment in the assault of May 22, 1863.”
So I went back to where the deer had snorted at me. I walked down into a ravine full of scruffy, spindly trees, vines, bamboo, and lots of poison ivy. At the bottom, I sat on a log next to a mud puddle and looked up at the ridge that could hardly be called “a line of hills,” although it certainly would have protected soldiers from gunfire to the west. I asked my great-great-grandfather (yes, I talk to him sometimes) whether this was the place he had lain, broiling in the heat “amongst undergrowth and branches.”
“That’s not a line of hills,” I pointed out.
“Don’t forget, I was from Ohio,” he said. “It’s flat there. That would’ve looked like a line of hills to me.”
He didn’t exactly say yes, this was the place, but he didn’t say no. Still, looking around at the tangled woods, I couldn’t picture him lying here. I tried to imagine what he might have felt. Glad he’s in the backup force and not on the front line, I concluded, where the odds of getting killed would be high. There he was, fearing he’d see action, then hoping he would, partly to get him out of this broiling ravine and also because it would mean the Rebels were vulnerable, possibly ready to surrender Vicksburg.
But I was only guessing. His diary does not discuss his emotions.
At the other end of Cemetery Road, I found the sign that marks the redan, a little grassy height that was once buttressed by wood and sandbags above lines of sharpened stakes. Looking down, I saw that soldiers in the pretty valley would have been sitting ducks to the Confederates in the redan. It’s also possible that the 95th was in another ravine behind the one I sat down in.
When I got back to the park’s visitor center, a ranger said the loop I had walked was seven or eight miles. So I had done a bit of marching that day.
I asked my great-great-grandfather what my trip had been about. He told me it had been an act of love.
Even if I learn nothing, I had made a gesture toward him by coming to Mississippi, declaring that I respect him enough to undertake this adventure in response to the words he left behind. My gesture was a statement that my ancestor has significance to me, that I have something to learn from him, and that I value his legacy.
Shandaken resident Sara Shinbach, whose mother grew up in Mississippi, met me in Jackson, the state capital. We went to the Department of Archives and History, so she could look through boxes of family papers donated by herself and her siblings, descendants of local planters and lawyers. I decided to look for Confederate accounts of the Stockade Redan assaults.
I found the original of a letter by Josiah A. P. Stewart of Mississippi, written on the morning of May 19, 1863. He knew the Federals were preparing to attack and that, if they fail, the city would be under siege. Stewart told his wife to prepare for the likelihood that he would not survive. My heart was breaking for them.
Then on the final page he advised her to sell their remaining male slave, since if the Yankees get to the farm, they will set him free anyway. It’s hard to sympathize with people who are so sure of their right to own other people.
But I really hit pay dirt with the Memoir: Personal and Political by Ephraim McD. Anderson, a corporal in the First Missouri Confederate Brigade, published in 1868 and reprinted in 1972 by Morningside Bookshop of Dayton, Ohio. Anderson, more educated and articulate than Davies, was a corporal in a regiment manning the fortifications at Jackson Road, immediately south of the Stockade Redan.
On May 19, Anderson saw the Federal troops massing for attack. This is the moment when the 95th was taking position behind the line of hills, held in reserve as the 72nd Ohio advanced on the redan and another regiment was charging up to the redoubt manned by Anderson.
Anderson expressed admiration for the soldiers scrambling, at point-blank range, up to the fortifications, many of them dropping right in front of him. The Yankees sent three waves of troops up to the guns, but none of them got over the parapets, and as a result my ancestor was permitted to remain sweating on the ground instead of getting shot.
On May 22 comes the second assault. Davies remarked laconically, “this day’s attempt ended similar to the 19th the natural difficulties was too great and the Rebels stood to their posts bravely.”
At night, the Federals collected their dead and wounded, but some men were lying too close to the fortifications to be reached by their compatriots without getting shot. By May 25, the corpses were stinking up the no-man’s land, and Confederate general John Pemberton demanded that Grant request an armistice to bury them. Anderson’s description of that operation was poignant:
“The enemy came forward with shovels and spade and covered most of the bodies where they lay, by simply throwing a bank of dirt over them; I observed two men carried back into their lines, that still had life in them.
“All the soldiers came out of their works and hiding-places, and gave us a good opportunity to look at them. Many gibes and cuts were exchanged between the lines…I saw a young soldier of our command meet a brother, on half-way ground, from the
Federal lines, where they sat upon a log and conversed with one another until the armistice was over. During the time, we received some papers from the Federals, and several of the boys exchanged tobacco for coffee with them.
“The dead being buried, in an instant every one on both sides disappeared, and where the breastworks a moment before were alive with men, nothing could now be seen but white puffs of smoke, the blaze of artillery, the flash of musketry, the glitter of bayonets and flags drooping upon their standards in the calm, serene atmosphere.”
Davies, concise as always, comments simply, A flag of truce was granted to the Federals to bury their dead them that was killed in the late fighting
Grant gave up trying to take the city by storm and settled into a siege, preparing to starve out the Confederates. Davies mentioned constructing magazines (storage places for ammunition) and gabions (cylindrical baskets filled with earth and used as protective fortifications) as the Union soldiers expanded their defenses. He explained, I was working all night throwing up a breastwork on a hill within 60 yards of the Rebel works
Anderson says that during the siege gunfire came from the Federal rifle pits from sunup to sundown, leading the Rebels to wonder how the occupants could remain there all day. After the surrender, he was told by Yankee soldiers that each morning fresh men were sent out before dawn with a day’s rations, a supply of ammunition, two canteens — one of water and the other of whisky — and instructions to use up all the bullets before leaving under cover of darkness.
Davies must have been referring to this assignment when he wrote, The Company was on picket in the rifle pits .… 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
After I got home, I glanced at the first page of the diary transcript and noticed the line, way back on March 13, 1863, “was organized in the 8th Division and Bucklands Brigade.” Wait a minute — if the 95th was part of Buckland’s Brigade, and Buckland had devised the “approach” that threaded into the pretty valley, then Davies must have scuttled through those trenches, making inroads into no-man’s land! So in fact he must have passed much of the siege in that valley that so attracted me.
Of the siege, another Confederate, James Palmer, wrote, “We had to live on quarter rations and scanty at that. We lived twelve days on pee bread and beef. Pee bread is very poor bread but it will sustain life. A man don’t know how little he can live on until he has a trial of it.”
On July 4, with his soldiers starving and sick, Pemberton surrendered Vicksburg. Davies, Anderson, Palmer and Stewart had all survived.
Everything I used to know about the Mississippi Delta I learned from “Ode to Billie Joe,” the 1970s hit song by Bobbie Gentry. On the “sleepy, dusty Delta day” described, the narrator was chopping cotton, not at the mouth of the great river, in Louisiana, but in relentlessly flat northwestern Mississippi, where the many rivers overflow annually, enriching the soil. When Sara used to visit her grandmother, Miss Sally, in the Delta city of Greenwood, her mother, Sazie, would take her to the Tallahatchie Bridge, from which Billie Joe supposedly leapt to his death. Davies had mentioned the Tallahatchie River several times in the latter part of his diary, noting the absence of a bridge.
Sara and I drove to Greenwood, 65 miles northwest of Jackson. Her good-humored cousin Tom came to our hotel with a cooler of beer and entertained us with family stories, referring occasionally to the “War of Northern Aggression.”
One of their great-grandfathers, Sylvester Gwin, was accompanied to the war by a personal slave, mentioned often in Sylvester’s letters to his wife. Burgess, the slave, was so devoted to his master that when Sylvester was wounded in Franklin, Tennessee, Burgess stole a wagon and drove him home, over 400 miles, to the plantation in Monticello, Mississippi, to be nursed back to health.
Certain Southerners, said Sara, still love to tell such stories as evidence that slavery wasn’t so bad, and the North had no business declaring war — as if to deny the fundamental injustice of the institution and the atrocities so widely reported by slaves.
I asked whether Sylvester was any relation to the Samuel Gwin who had been involved in a duel near Jackson after the war. Tom said he’d never heard of the duel and didn’t think they were related, as there were several branches of Gwins. “It’s a name from the British Isles,” he remarked.
Gwin, a variant of Gwynn, is a Welsh name. William Davies was born in Wales, and somewhere back in the Gwin line, someone emigrated from Wales. Sara and I might be related! And if we are, so were William Davies and Sylvester Gwin.
Near Greenwood is Carrollton, the sleepy hill town where Delta planters escaped the malarial swamps in the summer, and where Sara’s mother and her siblings bought a patch of countryside, now owned by Sara, Tom and their cousins. After visiting the land, Sara and I ate lunch on a bench in front of the Carroll County Courthouse. (If that name rings a bell, recall Gentry’s line about Billie Joe putting “a frog down my back/at the Carroll County picture show.”)
A car stopped, and out jumped a thin, dapper man with a small white mustache, one arm pinned to his chest in a sling. John Pope welcomed us to town and invited us to the meeting of the genealogical society starting in five minutes.
I was stunned. Sara was elated — now this was real Southern hospitality! We sat in on the meeting, where president Judy Stanford welcomed us as visiting dignitaries from far-off New York.
Guest speaker Christie Genola told her audience of 20 the story of a train wreck that killed 34 Confederate soldiers in a head-on collision at nearby Duck Hill in 1862. One of the men presumed dead was later found on the prisoner rolls at Camp Chase in Ohio. “Camp Chase is where my great-great-grandfather was mustered in,” I whispered to Sara.
We were asked what had brought us to Mississippi, and I explained, slightly nervously, about my ancestor. Although he was a Yankee soldier, the members were impressed, or were too polite to show otherwise.
During the refreshments, I discovered that, just as Davies had his Southern counterpart, so I had mine. I was interviewed by the local journalist, Susie James of the Carrollton Conservative.
Wilsye Lott invited us to tour her house, built by one of her ancestors in the late 1800s. Former slaves helped build the neighboring estate of a major politician of the same period. “After the war, the freed slaves and their masters got along just fine around here,” she explained. “We needed each other to survive.”
I wondered whether this sweet lady was being just a touch defensive — telling us that Southerners, despite slavery, were really very nice people.
At the Jackson airport, I noticed a man in Army fatigues. Since my instincts are those of an anti-war liberal, my usual reflex reaction to soldiers is one of distrust, suspicion and pity. Having immersed myself in the travails of Civil Warriors for a week, I felt, along with those sensations, something different: sympathy and a tentative admiration.
On the plane, a male black flight attendant announced that the soldier, a lieutenant who looked Hispanic, was on the flight, and asked the passengers to give the hero a round of applause.
As we taxied down the runway, I began to cry for William Davies. He gave up so much in the war — physical and mental health; later his wife and family. When he started beating her, two decades later, she divorced him, and the family attributed his violence to wartime trauma.
But I also saw that if I have inherited some of that pain I have also been equipped with a sense of — how can I put it — taking things seriously, a willingness to grapple with existential issues, a determination to deal with suffering. I do not approach the obscure truths of life lightly.
Some people believe that the Civil War was unnecessary and that slavery would have died out of its own accord. Many historians point out the economic reasons for the war, and the issue of states’ rights that contributed to the differences between North and South. But there’s no doubt that the moral issue dividing the country was slavery, and we don’t know what would have happened without the war.
I am grateful that I do not have to live in a nation where, whatever its inequities, one human being can no longer buy, own, or sell another human being. For that privilege, I give thanks to my great-great-grandfather. ++