Woodrick’s “The Civil War Siege of Jackson”: A Review

In the Memorial Hall Foundation Museum in New Orleans sits a chunky Chickering “square” parlor piano manufactured in Boston in the 1840s. The piano, the former proud possession of the Cooper family of Jackson, Mississippi, once helped to shore up a Civil War redoubt facing south along the Jackson Railroad line. The fortification was manned by the Fifth Company Washington Artillery, part of General Joseph Johnston’s Confederate “Army of Relief” defending Jackson against the forces of Union General William Tecumseh Sherman.

On the sweltering morning of July 12, the Confederates began playing the piano, oblivious to the Federal line advancing on their position. The men sang songs of home as their skirmish line was pushed back behind the redoubts, and while the men were called to their guns, the pianist, Private Andrew Swain, began playing “You Shan’t Have Any of My Peanuts.” The attack began, but the Confederate line held, and Swain resumed his place on the piano to play “Oh, Let Us Rejoice.”

The saga of the Cooper family’s piano is just one of the many wonderful stories that enrich Jim Woodrick’s The Civil War Siege of Jackson, Mississippi, an account of Sherman’s little-known and less-documented attack on Mississippi’s capital after the fall of Vicksburg in July, 1863. The Siege of Jackson, as Terrence Winschel observes in his introduction, was “the final, yet seldom mentioned scene of ‘the great drama’—i.e. the campaign for control of the Mississippi River.” The capital of Mississippi became, for that week, a battlefield. Its capitulation capped Grant’s victory at Vicksburg, put a black band around the Confederate war effort, and reduced the nascent city of Jackson to smoking ruins.

In the spring of 1863, the war in the west focused on Vicksburg. Lincoln told his civilian and military leaders, “Vicksburg is the key!” Confederate President Davis was of the same mind: “Vicksburg is the nail head that holds the South’s two halves together.” In Confederate hands, Vicksburg blocked Union navigation down the Mississippi and allowed communications and reinforcements from Confederates to the west. The natural defenses of the city led to its nickname, the Gibraltar of the South.

Earlier in the Vicksburg Campaign, Union General Ulysses S. Grant became convinced that Confederate forces assembling in or near Jackson might be stronger than he had initially supposed. The eradication of Jackson was essential for two reasons: first, Jackson was a focal point for the relief of Vicksburg, with a railhead and the entire Confederacy behind it; secondly the destruction of the capital city of President Davis’s home state presented a significant opportunity to demoralize Confederate leadership and the Confederacy itself.

In a torrential downpour on May 14, 1863, Grant’s men drove through Johnston’s weak defenses and captured Jackson. To conserve his forces, Johnston abandoned the city and withdrew to Canton. Weeks later, after Grant besieged Vicksburg, Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon urged Johnston to relieve the river city. Seddon, however, refused to send Johnston reinforcements, and Johnston declared that “saving Vicksburg is hopeless.”

Nevertheless, in mid-May, when General William Loring and some five thousand Confederate troops entered Jackson, Johnston set about organizing a relief column. On June 28, he began moving west, and advanced as far as the Big Black River only to discover that Vicksburg had fallen on July 4. Johnston retreated to Jackson, fortified the city, and by July 10 was invested by greatly superior Union forces under William T. Sherman. The siege of Jackson had begun.

Map by Howard Bahr

For Jackson readers, The Civil War Siege of Jackson, Mississippi—hereafter, The Siege of Jackson—brings the violence of a hundred and fifty-six years ago to street level. Novelist and historian Howard Bahr observes that few current residents of Mississippi’s capital city are aware of the dramatic events of July, 1863: “The reader may well be surprised, as I was, by the scope of this operation and the great violence and loss of life that occurred on the ground we walk over every day. Jim Woodrick’s account, well-written and meticulously researched, offers for the first time a detailed, comprehensive narrative of the weeklong siege supported by maps, period drawings, an Order of Battle, and photographs. The account is enlivened by humorous anecdotes and, more important perhaps, a focus on individual participants and the personal tragedies of soldiers who died far from home.”

The Siege of Jackson is very much a work of scholarship. Terrence Winschel, author of the introduction, has recently retired as the Chief Historian of the Vicksburg Military Park; Woodrick, a native of Meridian, graduated from Millsaps with a degree in political science, was active in the Jackson Civil War Round Table, and is currently the Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer at the Mississippi Department of Archives & History.

Woodrick said he decided to write The Siege of Jackson for two reasons.

First of all, only one book has been previously published that covered the Jackson campaign and the subsequent siege, and that book, published in 1980 by the Jackson Civil War Round Table, combined the siege with the May 14, 1863, battle of Jackson, When I first started exploring the possibility of a book on Jackson, it was actually intended to be an updated version of that book with one of the original co-authors, Warren Grabau. Unfortunately, Warren passed away before we could tackle that project and the idea went to the back burner for a time.

But the idea of writing about the Siege of Jackson stayed with me,” Woodrick said, “and the more I studied the campaign the more I felt it deserved to be studied on its own. Considering that I work next door to the Old Capitol Museum – essentially in the middle of the siege lines – I thought it fitting that I be the one to tell the story of the approximately 70,000 men – blue and gray – who fought for a week in July 1863 for control of Mississippi’s capital city.

Woodrick’s retelling of the siege is a significant upgrade from that of Bearrs and Grabau, who primarily concentrate on military aspects of the action. Woodrick’s version is far more inclusive, incorporating, vivid descriptions of the action, details of the terrain, conditions and armaments and profiles and accounts of individual soldiers and commanders. It is an essential book for Jacksonians interested in the city’s history and is highly recommended for anyone interested in the Civil War.

Woodrick went on to say:

When I started working on the book, I was perhaps most interested in the two army commanders involved in the siege,” Woodrick went on to say. “Sherman and Joseph E. Johnston would meet again, but the Jackson Campaign is actually the first time they faced each other, and the siege of Jackson is, I think, an interesting look into their leadership abilities at this point in the war.

A re-enactor as well as a military historian, Woodrick writes for readers interested in military history and tactics, a demanding audience indeed. Woodrick rises to the occasion by describing in detail the most significant—and bloodiest—action of the week-long siege: Union Brigadier General Jacob Lauman’s calamitous assault on Breckinridge’s Division in the Confederate redoubt southwest of the city where the entrenched Washington Artillery manned two James rifles, four Napoleons, and a Chickering piano.

Woodrick ensures the book’s broader appeal by positioning the siege of Jackson within the framework of the Vicksburg Campaign, which is—to Mississippians, at least—the most familiar military action of the Civil War. Woodrick underscores the importance of both the Battle of Jackson (May 14, 1863) and Siege of Jackson as components of Grant’s successful Siege of Vicksburg and Union domination of the Mississippi, in both instances to eradicate Jackson as platform for Confederate forces. Woodrick says:

In a cursory sense, I suppose the campaign could be viewed as simply a rearguard action, but I think that’s selling it far short. In reality, the Siege of Jackson is the exclamation mark at the end of the Vicksburg Campaign. Having finally achieved the long-sought goal of capturing Vicksburg, Grant simply could not ignore Johnston’s still-intact army looming to the east, and in that sense, I think it was critical to the ultimate success of the Vicksburg Campaign. Unfortunately, because of events in Pennsylvania (i.e., Gettysburg), the Jackson Campaign in many ways gets overlooked by historians (and at the time), especially since the siege didn’t end in a grand charge or the capture of an army (as at Vicksburg). That doesn’t diminish the importance of the campaign, however, in finally securing the Mississippi River for the Union.

The fall of Jackson affected Mississippians viscerally. Jefferson Davis wrote in July, 1863, “In these times of disaster, when my relations and nearest friends are the objects of most cruel animosity, when my beloved Mississippi is being overrun by the invader, I deeply feel my want of that sustaining power which had in times past upheld the just cause, and given to the weak the power to defend the strong.” Even after Vicksburg’s capture, the fall of Jackson sent a shudder throughout the Confederacy.

While Sherman and Johnston are key players in Woodrick’s bloody drama, the central player is the city of Jackson itself. “As the book progressed, I think the most interesting ‘character’ to emerge was the city itself and, of course, the stories of the common soldiers who served here and–for some­–who died here,” Woodrick said.

One of the main points that I intended to make when I began the book was to disprove, once and for all, the story of “Chimneyville”. Based on a number of factors, I was convinced that the oft-told stories of Jackson’s destruction were in large part myth. As I looked closely at the evidence, however, I discovered that the opposite was true–that Jackson and her citizens did indeed suffer catastrophic losses as a result of the siege, both from Union soldiers and Confederate troops. As a result, Jackson was in large part reduced to rubble.

Charred ruins of Bowman House Hotel with Capitol Building.

Sherman’s signature scorched earth policy was initiated in Jackson. Bruce Catton, in Grant Moves South (1960), writes, “every installation which might conceivably be of use to a struggling Confederacy were destroyed with grim effectiveness. Sherman reported to Grant that ‘Jackson cannot again become a place for the assemblage of men and material with which to threaten the Mississippi River.’ private soldiers looked at the wreckage and gave Jackson the descriptive name of ‘Chimneyville,’ and on July 23, Sherman pulled his army back and prepared to give all hands a rest. He left a desert behind him.”

Contemporary accounts of the devastation are hyperbolic. Although Sherman assured Mayor Manship and a committee of twenty prominent citizens that “all citizens acting in good faith will be respected by me and my command,”  George Whitman, a soldier in the 51st new York Infantry and the younger brother of poet Walt Whitman, reported, “Soon after we entered [the city], the western troops began to come in and they ransacked and plundered completely.” Another Union soldiers reported, “I never saw or heard of a city being so thoroughly sacked and burned as this place.” Contemporary newspapers also confirm the devastation. The New York Herald: “As our men would reach private dwelling houses they would enter them and in a short time scenes of the most unmitigated plundering took place.” The Memphis Bulletin: “Lazy, contemptible stragglers could be seen. . . engaged in dividing their ill-gotten plunder, which consisted of fine silks, shoes, ladies’ bonnets . . . my pen can never record what outrage was done that day.

The following eyewitness account appeared in the Canton American Citizen while Sherman’s troops were still tearing up the railroad: “One must visit Jackson to learn the extent of the destruction it has sustained. It is a mere wreck of its former self . . . look in whichever direction you may from the front of the Capitol, ruins meet the eye. The numerous chimneys still standing upon burnt districts and the undisturbed debris of charred walls and destroyed wares will remain until the end of the war, silent but terrible monuments to the devastating inroad of the vandal hoards. . .”

Woodrick’s portrait of pre-war Jackson at the outbreak of hostilities in the 1860s reveals it to be a provincial town that became a capital without ever becoming a city. Jackson had barely begun to build before it was destroyed. By 1866, “Chimneyville” was on the mend. Woodrick includes a panoramic photograph of Jackson taken from the cupola of the state capitol in 1869 as documentary evidence of an “expanding but still somewhat rural city” and dismisses doubts the photograph might raise about the actual extent of damage to the city by reference to the “overwhelming number of primary accounts and evidence of rebuilding found in newspapers of the period.” Finally, Woodrick provides us with what few physical reminders of the siege that remain, and concludes, elegantly:

Jackson has not changed to such a degree that the battlefield cannot be understood, and there are areas throughout Jackson where interpretation could be used to explain what took place. Such an effort would in some small way help in remembering the sacrifices made by the men in blue and gray during those hot days in July 1863. We owe them nothing less.

The Real First Memorial Day

Widely acknowledged as the precursor of Memorial Day, observance of a Decoration Day began shortly after the end of hostilities in the Civil War, when citizens began decorating the graves of fallen soldiers. Many cities claim to be home of this observance, including Waterloo, NY, Boalsburg, PA, Carbondale, IL, Columbus, GA, and much closer to home, Columbus, Mississippi. In their 2014 book, The Genesis of the Memorial Day Holiday, Dr. Richard Gardiner and Daniel Bellware state that according to the Veteran’s Administration, at least 25 cities across America claim to have originated the Memorial Day holiday. While numerous historians feel that the true history may never be known, this book rejects that claim and explores the factual history of the holiday and shows that most of the better-known stories are mere myths and local legends; that being said, Jackson, Mississippi offers substantial proof that the first Decoration Day was held on April 26, 1865 in the historic cemetery in downtown Jackson now known as Greenwood.

As the story goes, citizens of the Confederacy were well aware of the strategic importance of Appomattox; those in Jackson, Mississippi were already shaken by the fall of Richmond on Apr. 4, 1865, and news of Grant’s victory reached Governor Charles Clark some days later. In her diary his daughter recalled the telegram being passed around: “Yes, it was all over. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox! Like a thunderbolt it fell on all of us. We were stunned. I remember feeling astonishment that we were not all dead.” Many if not most were already resigned to defeat and were shocked by the assassination of Lincoln less than a week later, so it was a somber group that assembled on Tuesday evening, April 25 at The Oaks, home of former Jackson mayor James Boyd on North Jefferson Street. Just before midnight two couriers arrived with the news that Confederate Lieutenant General Richard Taylor and Union Major General E.R.S. Canby had agreed to a truce in Meridian, darkening the mood. Among them was Sue Langdon Adams, a Missouri native and niece of Mississippi’s Senator Robert Adams. A nurse, Sue had infiltrated Union lines bringing medical supplies back for Confederate forces and informing Confederate authorities of Union troop deployments.

When the news of the truce came, Sue was reading Plutarch’s Lives, where it’s mentioned that the graves of fallen soldiers were adorned with wreathes of laurel. Fearing that the reoccupation of Jackson was imminent, she tore out a blank page and penned an appeal to the women of Jackson to gather the next day at the city cemetery at two in the afternoon and adorn the graves of fallen soldiers with flowers. One of the young couriers took the note and raced to the office of the newspaper, Mississippian, just in time for it to be printed in the next morning’s edition. The next day, a large group of citizens gathered in the cemetery soon every soldier’s grave was covered with floral designs of every kind. Troops led by Colonel McFarland marched through the cemetery as their band played Handel’s “Dead March” from Saul. As Adams moved through the rows of graves, she saw some that were unadorned and asked why there were no flowers on them. Told they were the graves of Union soldiers, she replied, “I will garland them with my pink roses for mothers and sisters sobbed prayers over them as they marched away. Maybe they fell in the riven flags in the battle of West Jackson.”

Adams later moved to California and married a Judge Vaughan. She died in Arlington, Virginia in 1911 and is buried in the Mount Olivet United Methodist Cemetery there. Her memorial efforts were acknowledged in an inscription on a monument which was unveiled on the Jackson Capitol Green in 1891:

“It recks not where their bodies lie,
By bloody hillside, plain or river,
Their names are bright on Fame’s proud sky,
Their deeds of valor live forever.”

Decoration Day Originated in Jackson, Miss. April 26th 1865
By Sue Landon Vaughan

Text by Cecile Wardlaw, based on research by Peter Miazza