"My heart has always beat more warmly for Mississippi, and I have looked on Mississippi soldiers with a pride and emotion such as no others inspired..."
--President Jefferson Davis, CSA - Jackson, Mississippi - December 26, 1862
When growing political tension forced the issue between union and secession into open conflict, Mississippi left the Union on a split decision. The wealthier families in the state, hesitant to trust their fortunes to a fledgling government, were joined in their support of the Union by the poorer classes, who feared the possibility of war. It was the ambitious class who pushed for separation from the Union and, through brilliant oratory and sheer numbers, swept the others with them into secession. At an emotional meeting of the state convention on January 9, 1861, Mississippi became the second Southern state to secede from the Union on an 84-15 vote.
On January 21 Jefferson Davis resigned his seat in the United States Senate, and on February 9 was elected President of the Confederate States of America. The election of a Mississippian to the Confederacy's highest office drew the state particularly close to the new government, and with the capture of Fort Sumter, any lingering doubts about secession were lost in the roar of cannon fire.
The people of the North dubbed the Civil War "The War of the Rebellion", while Southerners referred to it as "The War for Southern Independence." Slavery may have taken center stage as the catalyst issue, but the average soldier was neither slaveholder nor abolitionist. "Billy Yank" fought to preserve the Union; "Johnny Reb" to ensure states' rights. The War for Southern Independence was not an action of conquest, but a conflict of principles. Confederate or Union, the volunteers who marched into battle in 1861 believed their cause was just.
During the first year of the Conflict, thousands of Mississippi volunteers fought in the Army of Northern Virginia, but there was no combat on Mississippi soil with the exception of the Union occupation of Fort Massachusetts on Ship Island in December 1861.
The first invasion of Mississippi followed the fierce and bloody battle of Shiloh, fought in early April 1862, because of the strategic railroad crossroads at Corinth. The union victory at Shiloh forced the Confederate, commanded by Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard and numbering about 50,000 soldiers, to retreat within their works at Corinth, where a Union army of some 128,000 troops besieged them from April 29 to May 30, their position having become untenable, Beauregard ordered a retreat to Tupelo.
Hard fighting took place at Iuka and Corinth in the fall of 1862 before Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, commanding a Union army, began his first attempt to capture Vicksburg and attain control of the Mississippi River by marching southward through north Mississippi. Defeats at Coffeeville and Holly Springs, as well as Sherman's failure to carry the Confederate positions at Chickasaw Bayou along the Yazoo River above Vicksburg, forced Grant to try other approaches. These included the construction of Grant's Canal, an attempt to divert the Mississippi away from Vicksburg; and the Bayou campaigns, an attempt to come at Vicksburg through the rivers and bayous of the Mississippi Delta. All failed. Grant then decided to make another approach to the bluff city -- an attempt known historically as the Vicksburg campaign.
The campaign is considered by many historians to be the most ingenious military action in American history, with the prolonged quest for the city transforming central Mississippi into a bloody battleground. From Bruinsburg, Grant launched his relentless march toward the "Gibraltar of the Confederacy", carving a triangular arena of destruction. The Union forces moved northeast toward Jackson, capturing Port Gibson and Raymond en route to the capital city.
With the Stars and Stripes reinstated over the capital's dome, the Union troops fought their way west, and after a major battle at Champion Hill and a defeat at the Big Black River, forced the Confederates defending the path to Vicksburg back inside the fortified city. When attempts to take the city by force failed, Grant laid siege to Vicksburg. Cut of from the rest of the Confederacy and short on food, water, and medical supplies, the city was forced to surrender on July 4, 1863. The Union victory at Vicksburg, and the subsequent surrender of Port Hudson in Louisiana, gave the Federals control of the Mississippi River, and coupled with the Union victory at Gettysburg, crushed the hopes of the dying Confederacy.
After the city's fall, the majority of Confederate forces left in active service in Mississippi were sent to other states. In 1864, the Southern troops who remained, including a highly effective force of mounted infantry commanded by Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, were kept on the defensive by numerous Union forays into the state. The most significant of these raids, Gen. William T. Sherman's Meridian Expedition, occurred during the winter of 1864 and resulted in the destruction of everything of military value from Vicksburg to Meridian. A Union calvary force under Gen. Sooy Smith had been ordered to join Sherman at Meridian but was routed by Forrest at Okalona on February 22, and retreated instead to Memphis.
Later in 1864, Sherman, who wanted above all else to keep Forrest off his supply lines in Tennessee as his army pushed into Georgia toward Atlanta, sent three successive expeditions into north Mississippi. Battles at Brice's Cross Roads and Tupelo, skirmishing at Oxford and a celebrated raid by Forrest on Memphis ensued between June and August of that year.
At the battle of Brice's Cross Roads, hotly fought in June, Forrest and his outnumbered horsemen enjoyed an overwhelming victory against a numerically superior mixed Union force of artillery, calvary and infantry. Despite such brilliant tactical victories, the war was drawing to its inevitable close following Sherman's conquest of Atlanta and Grant's successes in Virginia, and Forrest's triumph at Brice's Cross Roads proved to be a hollow one.
Contraband camps were established thourghout Mississippi in areas that were under Federal control after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The more notable of these sites were Corinth, Vicksburg, Natchez and the Gulf Coast.
On May 4, 1865, less than one month after Lee and Grant met at the Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia, Mississippi forces surrendered. And the soldiers and citizens of the state looked toward peace.
Of the 80,000 soldiers Mississippi contributed to the Confederate cause, 59,000 were either dead or wounded by war's end.
In his last public address, Jefferson Davis urged Southerners to put the sorrowful memories of the Civil War behind them and work to build a strong, united country. "Before you lies the future," Davis said. "Let me beseech you to lay aside all rancor, all bitter sectional feelings, and bring about a consummation devoutly to be wished -- a united country."
In 1911, 48 years after the fall of Vicksburg, U.S. Grant, echoed Davis' thoughts upon returning to the city. "Leaving those days of strife and battle, the years 1861-1865, we look gratefully upon our present time of peace and prosperity, when North and South together...in harmony and union," Grant remarked at dedication ceremonies in the Vicksburg National Military Park. "How beautifully this present condition of peace in our land is expressed by the inscription on yonder monument, which says, 'Here brothers fought for their principles; here heroes died for their country; and a united people will forever cherish the precious legacy of their noble manhood.'"
Veterans from both sides felt an obligation to preserve the memory of those turbulent years, and a result of their joint efforts, a number of important battlesites, including the Vicksburg National Military Park, were purchased for preservation.
Today the fields are tranquil and the guns silent, but an aura of timelessness dominates the landscape. Glorious triumphs and heartbreaking defeats are captured in stone and bronze, withstanding the touch of time to share their stories with future generations. Monuments honoring long-ago heroes, from both North and South, remind visitors that this ground is hallowed, populated by restless spirits clad in blue and grey.
For more information on Civil War sites and history in Mississippi,
contact the Mississippi Department of Archives and History,
P.O. Box 571, Jackson, MS 39205; (601) 359-6876.