The history of Vicksburg

May 23, 2013

Vicksburg, Mississippi

"The battle of Vicksburg was the turning point of the war," explained a guide at the Old Courthouse Museum.

"The whole economy of the South west of the Appalachians depended on the Mississippi river. That's how we got our food and cotton to market. We floated it down the river to New Orleans. And Vicksburg was the key to the Mississippi. You can see that we're up here on a bluff. From these heights, small artillery could control the river. So, that's why the Yankees were so determined to take Vicksburg."

More on that in a minute...first...the markets!

What kind of an investor would put his money in the stock market now? A fool? Or a realist?

Every day the market jumps or falls depending on what comes out of the Fed. Fed governor Bullard told us two days ago that the bank would keep boosting stocks. The market rose. Then, along comes word that the Fed is considering 'tapering off.' And stocks fall - down 80 points on the Dow yesterday. Bloomberg:

    U.S. Stocks Fall on Concern Fed Will Scale Back Stimulus

    U.S. stocks fell, with benchmark indexes retreating from record highs, as concern grew that the Federal Reserve will scale back its stimulus efforts if the labor market continues to improve.

Is this a serious way to invest? Of course not. 'Nuff said. Let's return to our report from Vicksburg.

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"The city was impregnable from the river side," said our guide, speaking in a soft Mississippi accent. "The confederate guns could blast any army trying to land on that side. And on the land side, the Confederate Army had set up defensive positions that the Northerners couldn't take...though they lost 10,000 men trying. They suffered so many casualties in one of their attacks that William Tecumseh Sherman said it was murder to send more troops. They called off the attack.

"Instead, they decided to besiege the city and starve it out. The siege began on May 25, 1863 - almost exactly 150 years ago. And it was awful. Union artillery constantly bombarded the city. The only building they didn't destroy was the Episcopal Church...where people kept going to pray and hold services. I guess they were praying that the Yankees would run out of ammunition.

"The people of Vicksburg moved out of their houses and lived in caves...where they hoped to be safe from the shells.

"And the siege worked. The confederate army had no way of getting supplies. It ran out of food. The soldiers were sick and starving. On July 4th, General Pemberton, surrendered. After 40 days of bombardment, suddenly, it was quiet. The local people waited for the Yankees to come.

"And when the Yankees came they paroled the confederate troops who were still alive and then they proceeded to loot the houses. They killed some civilians too - such as Ms. Cook. The army court martialed the soldiers who did it. A couple of them were executed by firing squad."

The Courthouse Museum was a treasure trove. It was the sort of museum where you can spend hours...happily exploring a riot of historical materials and local bric a brac. There are Indian artifacts, for example, that include hundreds of arrow heads, tomahawks, and pots from the Mississippi Culture. Curiously, in the collection is an axe head labeled "Celt axe" from about 1,000 AD, found in Mississippi in the 19th century. Was it misidentified? If not, how did it get to the valley? No explanation was offered.

Museums often tell you more about the people who put them together than the people they are meant to cover. History is interpreted according to the fashions of the time. Naturally, there were some attempts to tell the tale of the War Between the States in today's politically correct language. But there were quirks and inconsistencies.

We learn, for example, that Jefferson Davis was an up-standing citizen of fine intellect, good family, and a gentle heart. Davis's older brother had a house in Vicksburg. Jeff Davis launched his political career with a stirring speech from its balcony. We discover too that he was very generous and thoughtful towards his slaves and that they all "loved him" for it. When he was released from the federal hoosegow, for example, he and his wife were broke. But they still sent money to help support their aged retainers. And when the couple paid a visit to the old plantation years later, they were met by a marching band formed by his former slaves. Many attended his funeral and none ever spoke ill of him.

We also learn that many slaves chose to fight alongside their masters for the Great Cause. "Blacks who wore Gray," the display was titled. Some served their masters as valets or grooms. Others fought side by side with white southern soldiers. One, a sharpshooter, took aim at the federal troops and 'rarely missed,' we are told.

After the war, during the Reconstruction era a bill was introduced in the state legislature to erect a monument to the Southern war dead. A Black man who had served in the Confederate Army rose to speak in favor of it. So eloquent and persuasive was his support that all the Black legislators - every one of whom had been a slave before the war - voted for the measure.

While the confederates, black and white, were angels, the Yankees were devils. Not only did they steal the silver, it was revealed that they "maliciously" vandalized Jeff Davis's house as they took control of the area. When they moved onto the Davis plantation they treated the Blacks...well, like slaves! And whereas Confederate General Robert E. Lee had liberated all his slaves, his Union opponent, Ulysses S. Grant, still owned slaves...even as he led the fight to free them.

We were in Mississippi to visit our daughter Maria, who is shooting a movie there. Much of the film takes place in an old, abandoned school. The film company found one in California, but it would have cost $25,000 to use it. In Canton, MS, on the other hand, the city fathers let the film crew use a derelict school house for nothing. Even with the largest auto factory in the world - the Nissan plant - at their doorstep, they are still eager for any opportunity to bring commerce and industry to the area.

"I went to school here until 1968," explained the on-site medic. "Then, they shut it down."

The school building, near the town square, looked like a product of the '20s or '30s. It was solid, built of brick, with three stories and a few classical nods, such as thin columns on the front. Outside, weeds grew up between cracks in the concrete. Inside, plaster had fallen in many of the rooms. In one classroom, the floor had caved in. Dust and curdled, dried up paint covered everything.

The film crew, about 30 or 40 people, were setting up lights, sweeping floors, hauling away debris, and building props. They all wore white masks.

" better put these on," said the medic. "The dust. And this place has been closed up for 45 years. It probably has some molds."

"What happened? Why was the school abandoned?" we asked.

"Oh. Integration. The teachers and the students just left. They didn't want to go to school with Black kids. Seems silly now. But they set up classrooms in tents. It was amazing. They stopped taking care of the school building completely.

"I guess by the time they came to their senses it was too late for this building. It was such a mess that it was declared unusable. They had to build a new school on the outskirts of town."

Bill Bonner is the President & Founder of Agora Inc, an international publisher of financial and special interest books and newsletters.

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1 Responses to "The history of Vicksburg"

m r bhardwaj

May 23, 2013

Dear Sir,you should be short and crisp in your narratives. Too long becomes too boring.....

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