The city of Vicksburg, Mississippi was a Southern fortress of the highest importance during the Civil War. Because the town was situated on a high bluff overlooking a bend in the Mississippi River, the army that possessed Vicksburg could control all traffic on the most important waterway on the continent.
President Abraham Lincoln considered the capture of Vicksburg one of the Union’s highest priorities. He sent a formidable army under General Ulysses S. Grant to do the job. Grant was able to force the Confederate army of Lt. General John C. Pemberton into the confines of Vicksburg. Practically surrounded by Grant’s forces, the city was entirely cut off from the outside world.
Life for civilians trapped in the besieged city becomes extremely difficult
During the siege, Confederate soldiers were not the only people cooped up in Vicksburg. The civilian population had been warned of the approach of the Yankee army, and advised to leave. But many elected to stay. Slaves, having no choice in the matter, also remained.
All of them, black and white alike, would suffer from an increasing shortage of food and clean water in the encircled city. Even more disturbing was the constant danger of being blown to bits by the 16,000 artillery rounds General Grant’s forces would shoot into the fortress during the seven weeks of the siege.
Vicksburg becomes a city of caves
Civilians quickly realized that their homes, and even their basements, offered little protection from the shells that rained down on the city day and night. So, they (or more accurately, their slaves) started digging caves into the sides of hills. Vicksburg became virtually an underground city, to the point that the watching Union soldiers surrounding the place gave it the nickname “Prairie Dog Village.”
Caves were normally built with their mouths facing away from the Mississippi River, since two-thirds of the incoming shells were fired by naval gunboats on the river. The shelters ranged in size from single-family spaces to giant caverns that could accommodate up to 200 people. Usually several families would share a cave, making for crowded conditions with little privacy.
Because the shelling went on around the clock, the inhabitants had to spend most of their time, both day and night, in their caves. So, they did their best to make those habitations as homelike as possible. Furniture, closets, and shelving for books and household items all appeared in some of the more elaborate caves. Usually there were several entrances, which not only gave much needed circulation of air in the summer heat, but also provided escape routes in case an opening was collapsed by a shell exploding nearby.
What cave life was like
Caves often were divided into parlors and bedrooms, in an attempt to maintain as much privacy as possible. At least one child was born in a cave during the siege. His parents named him, appropriately, William Siege Green.
1863 etching depicting life in a Vicksburg cave
Cave dwellers soon learned the best times to leave their shelters to seek food and water or attend to other necessary business. The only times the shelling seemed to be suspended was around 8 am, noon, and 8 pm – apparently the times at which the Union artillerymen broke for meals.
When they did have to brave the streets of the town as projectiles rained down, inhabitants learned to watch the shells as they came in. “We learned to run toward them,” one of them remembered later, “to let them go over us if they would.” Another survivor later wrote, “while comparatively few non-combatants were killed, all lived in a state of terror.”
With the city being hit by hundreds of artillery rounds every day of the siege, it is a tribute to the caves of Vicksburg that only about a dozen civilians were killed.
Photo credits: Library of Congress (public domain)
Ron Franklin is a pastor, writer, radio broadcaster and producer, computer programmer, and musician. Now the founding pastor of Covenant Community Church in Harrisburg, PA, he was an engineer and manager for high-tech companies such as IBM and EDS. He is a graduate of the University of Tennessee and Denver Theological Seminary.