Now that I’m safely in Virginia, you want my impressions of Jackson. I should say first that when I moved to the city eight months ago my life and experiences provided my only perspective, but nothing prepared me for Jackson, Mississippi. I’m still not sure if it’s because that is as far South as I’ve ever been (or want to be again, to be honest) or because Jackson itself is so sullen and isolated.
The city is frozen; those capable of formulating effective fixes for the neighborhoods of row upon row of abandoned/half-demolished houses simply ignore the problem. The economic riptide washing away businesses from the city are bound and gagged by their racial, familial, and petty political connections. Even compared to the rest of Mississippi, Jackson seems narrow-minded, racially divided, and culturally backwards, and it’s hard for me to understand why. Jackson reminds me of some diminishing empire that has begun to erode and decay, leaving only an indifferent government, an inefficient bureaucracy, and places of worship blind to suffering and deaf to prayers.
I found that there is literally a black side of the street and a white side of the street, and folks of both complexions will gawp at you if you are on the wrong sidewalk. A city councilman who patronizes three-star eateries demands that his constituency throw bricks at police cars from neighboring towns and counties when they pursue thieves and drug dealers into his ward. The waitress filling your cup at a coffee shop will complain about the racist environment permeating Jackson and in the next breath whisper some platitude concerning the unfitness of black people for civilized society.
Jackson is a nest of grasping, insular people huddled together for safety on the banks of a dirty river, but nothing is safe. Children are shot in their homes while sleeping, and thugs roam even in affluent neighborhoods. What should be a shining stage for vision and concord is instead a fetid wallow of greed and dissent.
Wil and his wife Bev live around the corner from me in an sedate residential neighborhood in downtown Jackson, Mississippi. More than anyone I’ve ever known, Wil embodies the American Dream of work rewarded and a life well-lived. Here is his story for the world; it matters, yes it does.
I was born September 26, 1939, in a shotgun house on Farish Street in the heart of the black community. The neighborhood had four barbers, three restaurants, and two fast food restaurants for hamburgers, pig ears, smoked sausage, and sandwiches. We had our own grocery store, a cleaner, a shoe repair shop, a laundry, an ice cream parlor, and movie houses on Farish and Amite. We also had two funeral parlors, a bike shop, and a bus company that brought people from the country to sell their produce. Three doors from my house was a pool hall and a cab stand, and all my friends lived within a few blocks.
My aunt always told me I should try to make some money on my own, so I got a job at a beauty parlor on Capitol Street. It was owned by a guy named Baldwin, one of the biggest jerks who ever lived. He said he’d give me six dollars a week to shine shoes, but I couldn’t take tips. I was supposed to make six dollars a week, but he would give me five one week and four the next.
It went on like that for a while until I finally got tired of it and told my aunt. She said, “We’re going to go down and get your money.” She put her pistol in her purse, and we went to the beauty parlor. “Mr. Baldwin,” said my aunt, “you owe this boy six dollars, and you need to pay him.” Baldwin said, “Well, I’m not going to give him anything. He’s fired.” My aunt reached into her purse and pulled out her pistol, walked around the chair where he was standing and said, “You need to pay him his money.” And he did.
Our house at 518 Farish backed up on an alley across from Rodger’s Tailor Shop. Up the alley lived a lady bootlegger named Cara Lee, whose daughter was a whore. All kinds of trouble went on up there on Friday and Saturday nights, and, because my bed was under a window, I heard things I hoped I’d never hear again. Sometimes the police raided Cara Lee’s place, and one night a policeman shot our little cocker spaniel just because he was barking. At that, my aunt came out of the house with a Winchester rifle and told the policeman she might blow his brains out. A long, tense moment passed, and I was sure someone was going to get shot, but finally another officer came over and said, “Please ma’am, Lord to God, he was wrong to shoot your dog, and I’m sorry.” The policeman apologized, and my aunt huffed back into the house.
After all that, my aunt decided it was time for me to get back with my mother. She said, “Son, you know I love you more than life, but if you stay here, either I’m going to be killed or you are. I think it’s time for you to go be with your parents.” Correspondence went back and forth, and in the summer of 1954, I left Jackson and went to Madison, Wisconsin, where my mother and stepfather rented a house in South Madison. The neighborhood was called “The Bush” and was made up entirely of blacks and Italians. I was surprised because every one got along fine.
My new school was Edgewood Sacred Heart Academy, where I was the sixth black among five hundred students. I didn’t do well in school; it was hard for me to concentrate because of the trouble I had at home. My stepfather was an alcoholic, and he couldn’t stand to see my mother and I growing close.
In 1958, I graduated from Edgewood with a C-minus average. Luckily, I was a good athlete and got an offer from Bishop College in Marshall, Texas. I played ball for them over a few semesters, when, out of the blue, my real father sent me a train ticket to come out to Los Angeles. I liked being with my father and planned to go to L.A. City College in the fall, but my grandmother died, and my mother insisted I come back to Farish Street for the funeral. My father begged me not to go, but I had to. I never saw my father again.
By 1961, I was living in Madison again. One snowy day, I was walking down Park Boulevard when two of my buddies and a woman drove by in a Volkswagen bug. I asked, “Where are you going?” They said, “We’re going to New York City.” I said, “Hold on, drive by the house, let me pick up some stuff!” That’s how I got to New York.
I’ll never forget standing on 6th Avenue thinking, “I’m in New York! I’m in the Village!” I moved into a little flea-bag hotel on 43rd Street and found a part-time job right around the corner. Everything was fine until I started going out with a woman who worked in the same place. It wasn’t long before our relationship got to a point where I felt trapped. I wanted to be free, but didn’t know what to do.
One morning, I was looking at the travel section of The New York Times when something caught my eye: a Yugoslavian freighter was due to sail out of Brooklyn for Tangier and Morocco, and you could get passage for $141. As soon as I saw that notice, I remembered the night back in L.A. when my father shook me awake. I said, “What’s the matter?” He said, “Dorothy’s in the kitchen.” I said, “So what?” He said, “She’s boiling water to make tea, and she don’t drink tea. Get dressed–we’re going to your sister’s.”
That was it. If you want to get free, all you have to do is leave. A few days later, I was on that Yugoslavian freighter bound for the Straits of Gibraltar.
The voyage lasted nine days. I had my own room, the food was excellent, and I got so drunk off slivovitz, I’ll never drink another drop of it. In Tangier, I rented a room for seventy-five cents a day in a hotel near the Casbah. A few days later, I went to an American bar and was introduced to Mark Gilbey, who owned Gilbey’s Gin. We talked and had some drinks, and after a while, he invited me to a Christmas party. He had a fabulous place overlooking the Atlantic Ocean with a red room, a blue room, and so on.
I stayed in Morocco nine months, in Tangier, Affairs, Rabat, Casablanca, Marrakesh, and Showan. When I finally decided to leave, I crossed the Mediterranean to Spain. I loved the Spanish people, but when I got into France, I ran into problems. I didn’t speak French, and the natives were nasty about it. From Nice, I took a train into Rome. I was sitting on the Spanish Steps when a guy came up to me and said, “My name is Wilpert Bradley, I’m from Chicago, and I’m gay.” I shook his hand and said, “My name is Wil Cunningham, I’m from New York, and I’m straight.” He laughed and said, “Wil, you’re the first American I’ve met who didn’t take offense at that.” I said, “I’m travelling and living my life. Ain’t no problem.”
Bradley had come over with the “Cleopatra” film company. He had a big place over on Via Seccalle and let me a room in the back. That’s where I stayed for a year and a half.
I did a little modeling, and I was in some spaghetti Westerns, made up as a Mexican bandito. I got fifty dollars a day to stand around and wait for them to shoot me and fall off the horse. It was fun–fifty dollars a day for doing nothing. When I’d made a little money, I’d go up in the Scandinavian countries. I just travelled, met people, travelling was cheap, I could get on the train and be in Paris in just a few hours. But Rome was my home. I could go away for four or five days and come back, and I had a place to stay.
Some friends were showing my Portfolio around to movie companies in Rome when my mother called with bad news. My step father was in the hospital with cirrhosis of the liver, and the doctors feared he would not make it. I thought it was time I should go home for a while–I could get back to Europe after the crisis was over. As it turned out, it would be years before I returned.
When I got back to New York, I stayed with a friend from UW and waited for instructions from mama. The friend was from New Rochelle, New York; that week-end, there was a party up there, and he asked me if I would like to go. That was one of the best things that ever happened to me, for it was at that party I met my wife-to-be. We had a great time together, and we fell in love.
Her father gave us good advice: “Get out of the city,” he told us. “Get out of New York. You’ll never make it there.” My stepfather was in a Madison hospital, and my mother was having a hard time. I talked it over with Beverly, and she said, “Let’s do it. Let’s go to Wisconsin.”
I fought my demons and finally reconciled with my stepfather. As for Bev, my mother thought of her as a daughter until the day mama died. Eventually, Bev and I found jobs, and in no time, we had our own place. That September, we went back to New York and got married.
I attended community college to see if I could get my grade average high enough that a university would accept me. Meanwhile, I got a job at a clothing store called “No Hassle.” The guy liked me a lot because I was very fashion-oriented, I had just come back from Rome, and I knew a lot about clothes and shoes. What I really wanted, though, was to open my own business.
After a year at the community college, I qualified to enroll at the University of Wisconsin, but the desire to open my own business was too strong, and I only stayed one semester. I reached out to a friend of mine, Lamont Jones from Mobile, Alabama, who had just gotten his MBA, and we wrote up a business plan for a woman’s shoe store. He would handle the money, and I would be the buyer, something my time at “No Hassle” had prepared me for.
The problem was, Lamont and I had just two thousand dollars apiece and little credit. The Small Business Administration loaned us nine thousand, and in 1969, we finally opened our shoe store–“Compared To What”–on State Street in Madison, about three blocks from the university campus. Then we had another problem: we simply couldn’t get a credit line with any of the suppliers. When they sent us the shoes, we had to send them the money. We were selling shoes like mad, but we didn’t have a cash flow.
After five years, Lamont and I realized we had a losing proposition. We just couldn’t get ahead, and we still owed Small Business nine thousand dollars. We went down there to pay them off, and the guy said, “We can’t take cash.” I said, “You’re going to take cash today, and I want a receipt.” I counted out nine one-hundred-dollar bills, then Lamont and I split up the remainder: two thousand dollars each, same as we started with.
I decided I’d have to set aside my father-in-law’s advice and return to New York. I had contacts among shoe buyers and suppliers, and through them, I met the general manager of Thayer-McNeil, a division of Florsheim Shoes, in Manhattan. He made me manager of a store at 73rd Street and 3rd Avenue. I had been at Thayer-McNeil/Florsheim a year when a guy told me about a job with Converse. At that time, Converse had an office on the eighty-first floor of the Empire State Building. As soon as I walked in the door, the general manager said, “You’re hired. I like the way you walked in.” (I always dressed well as a salesman.) When the paperwork was finished, I was told my territory would be Brooklyn, a part of New York I knew nothing about.
They gave me a company car with a trunk-load of samples. Next day, the valet parked it in the garage while I went up to the eighty-first floor to check with the general manager. When I got to the car again, I drove across the Brooklyn Bridge and down Flatbush Avenue to my accounts. My first stop was a store that sold Converse; I went in and gave the manager my card. Luckily, business was slow, and the manager was glad to have someone to talk to. I went out to the car to get my samples from the trunk . . . and they were gone! I drove straight back to Manhattan, had the valet park my car, went up eighty-one stories, and said to the general manager, “Irving! I went to a store on Flatbush Avenue, went in to see the manager, came out to get my samples–and they were gone!” Irving closed his eyes for a moment, then said, “Earlier this morning, you parked in the garage downstairs, right?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Next time, when you give the valet your keys, take the trunk key off the ring.” That was my first lesson on the new job.
Irving Cole taught me a lot when I was at Converse. My first time out with him, for example, he taught me to listen. We went into a store in Brooklyn, and before I could unpack my bags, the store manager started complaining about how hard it was to work with our company. He went on for a long time, using language that made me uncomfortable. Meanwhile, Irving never said a word, just let the guy vent. Finally, when the manager calmed down a little, Irving said “Let me apologize for the problem you have getting this shoe in your store.” Then he took out a notepad and asked what colors and sizes the guy needed, and how soon he would need them. When he had the information, he went to the store phone, called our customer service, and arranged for everything to be shipped next day.
After we left the store, Irving asked, “What were you thinking in there?” I told him the guy scared me, and if I’d been by myself, I probably would have walked out. “You got to listen,” Irving said. “The whole time we were in there, the guy never once said he didn’t want our product–he was mad because he couldn’t get it when he needed it. The secret to making a sale like that is not to overreact, but listen to what the guy really needs and see that he gets it. The most important thing you can do is listen.”
In November, 1975, I moved to the sporting goods division, which is where I should have been in the first place. My territory was all five boroughs of New York City. It was a ten-million-dollar account, and I made that and above. In addition, I was given the responsibility of signing pro athletes for Converse; I had the Jets, the Giants, the Knicks, the Jets, and the Yankees (I would go to spring training with the Yankees and make sure they had everything they needed.) Famous guys like Reggie Jackson, Larry Bird, Bernard King, and Larry Johnson would call me at home. Yogi Berra called once, and Spring, my youngest daughter, said, “Yogi the Bear is on the phone!”
I worked that job for twenty-nine years, trying to make a difference. Then, in 2000, I made up my mind that Converse was going nowhere. New owners were taking over, and they were looking to flip the company to the highest bidder. I knew I was not part of their plan, so I took my retirement. It was all right with Bev; she knew it was time.
After my stepfather died in 1996, my mother went home to Jackson, and I talked to Bev about moving down there to look after her. Bev was all for it; she loved mama and was like a daughter to her. We owned five acres in Madison County, and I had the dream of building a big house where all of us could live. In 2001, we moved south, back to the town I started out in. Before long, I realized my dream of building a big house in the country was not going to happen. First, every contractor we spoke to quoted a price way out of our range. Second, I discovered that, no matter how much two women might love each other, each wants her own place.
Bev and I ended up buying a beautiful little house on Kenwood Street in Belhaven. The neighborhood is old and peaceful, and I looked forward to reconnecting with people I’d known as a teenager. As it turned out, this was another dream that, if not lost, was deferred.
One day I brought my oldest friend to the house we had bought. When we got out of the car, I noticed he was hanging back a little, as if he were confused. “Why did you buy a house here?” he asked. “We never came over here when we were kids. Who do you know lives here?” I said, “I was told there’s only one other black owns a house in Belhaven. Now there’s two.” He had nothing to say after that. Another time, Bev and I invited about ten people over for coffee. The men were uncomfortable, and the women sat with their purses in their laps and said little or nothing. These people will always be friends of ours, and we hope that, one day, whatever discomfort they felt will be a thing of the past.
Farish Street is empty now; all the life is washed out of it, and it will never again be like it was when I was a kid. We can’t return to the past, and often it’s hard to catch up to the present, yet, after eighty years, I find myself looking down the road to bridges I’d like to cross. All I can say now is what I said to Wilpert Bradley on the Spanish Steps so many years ago: “I’m travelling and living my life. Ain’t no problem.”
In addition to their numerous charitable endeavors, the Junior League of Jackson has issued two quite remarkable publications. The first, in 1978, was their landmark Southern Sideboards, a truly luminous work that has since gone through fifteen printings, five of those Southern Living Hall of Fame editions. The recipes in Southern Sideboards altogether comprise nothing less than an exhaustive tutorial for home cooks in the Deep South, and if that weren’t enough also includes a heart-felt introduction by Wyatt Cooper.
Their second, more important work, is Jackson Landmarks (1982) dedicated to the Manship House, one of Jackson’s most beloved architectural treasures. Jackson Landmarks is important not only for the wealth of detail and historical data, but also because Jackson’s urban landscape has changed significantly in the 35 years since its publication, and an estimated 25-30% of these structures are gone.
Jackson Landmarks also includes this essay by Charlotte Capers. Miss Capers was director of the Mississippi Department of Archives & History from 1955-1969, and during that time saved the Old Capitol from destruction and saw to its renovation and establishment as the state historical museum. Miss Capers also oversaw the restoration of the Governor’s Mansion. In addition, Capers was a “world-class raconteur”, a writer (The Capers Papers as well as hundreds of magazine articles and book reviews) a wit and a close friend and companion of Eudora Welty. Charlotte Capers is a significant figure in Mississippi history and deserves a work of equal if not greater thoroughness than the one recently afforded Fannye Cook.
My first opportunity to participate in this book was an invitation to write a brief and breezy history of Jackson.” Well, Jackson goes back to the 1820s and I don’t, so I declined. When I was reminded that I do go back to the 1920s, and what’s a hundred years more or less, I agreed to write a few recollections of my old home at 705 North State Street, as I remember it and as for me it was the heart of Jackson when I was very young.
When I first saw the house it was white, and I was five years old. Therefore, it remains in my memory as white, and only recently I learned that it was not white to begin with, but a darker hue much favored by home owners of the 1890s, when it was built. Perhaps it was buff or brown or gray. It doesn’t matter, except to point out that things are not always what they seem. The house was built by Mr. and Mrs. A. D. Gunning on the corner of North State and George streets. The Cunnings had a large family and must have been much given to hospitality, as the house was plainly built for entertaining. A large reception hall opened into a graceful living room on one side, and a dining room with striking midnight blue wallpaper and painted white paneling on the other. A mirror was built into the ornately carved hall mantelpiece; a central staircase which divided and curved upward from the landing was the architectural focus of the hall. Shining oak floors invited dancing, and of more concern to my mother, suggested more rugs than we had and required a good deal of waxing and polishing.
After the Cunnings, the house was owned by Mr. and Mrs. Arthur C. Crowder. Mr. Crowder was at one time mayor of Jackson; Mrs. Crowder was the former Mattie Robinson Saunders, whose family home was a block away on the corner of North State and Boyd streets. When the Crowders moved to Birmingham, the house was purchased by St. Andrew’s Church as a rectory for my father and his family. Subsequent owners were the Lamon Goings, who had a Studio of the Dance therein, and Mr. and Mrs. Harry Jacobs, who adapted the house for use as a retail outlet for their business, Greenbrook Flowers. The original architecture is essentially unchanged.
As I see the house now, it is big. As I looked at it with five-year-old eyes, it was tremendous. Adorned with every detail and conceit available to admirers of the Victorian style, it had towers, minarets, gables, a scary basement, a cobwebbed attic, cushioned window seats, and wonder of wonders, swinging doors for the dogs. Scaled to fit the family canines, these doors opened at the touch of a muzzle. When I tried to describe them to a contractor for my own house, he was confounded. My dogs have to bark to get in. So everything isn’t more convenient now than it used to be. Ask the dogs. Anyway, when I was a child I saw the house as a fairy-tale castle, and untroubled by the economic realities of maintaining such an establishment, I thought it was a perfect home.
This depends upon your point of view, of course, and I remember Our struggle to keep the house warm in the winter. Beautified by countless windows and French doors, 705 North State was a veritable cave of the winds. The windows called for draperies which we could not afford, so my mother settled for glass curtains. My childhood memories seem to return filtered through yards and yards of filmy material, which let in the light as well as the breezes. Another problem was the coal furnace. Coal was expensive, plus the fact that my father had to stoke the furnace and bring coal to the fireplaces throughout the house. My father solved this problem by rising above aesthetics and installing a pot-bellied stove squarely in the middle of the elegant reception hall. This at least indicates that he put first things first, like not freezing to death. The feature of the house which I remember with most affection, next to the dog doors, was my bathtub. It was splendid, something like a gondola, mounted on iron paws with a stalwart wooden rim. Into its watery vastness could submerge the vicissitudes of childhood, and dream great dreams as they soaked away. When I left that bathtub, and moved to a shorter and stubbier one, my dreams grew shorter and stubbier.
It seems to me that 705 North State Street was a fine place for growing up in Jackson and learning the lay of the land. Around the corner and less than five minutes by skate, foot, or bicycle, was Davis School. The New Capitol was only a few blocks away, and young skaters did not hesitate to skate through the tiled basement floor and admire the Egyptian mummy who was the star of the building. A streetcar track ran in front of the house. When we were very young, we would put two straight pins on the track, spit on them, and wait for the streetcar. As it rumbled past it fused the pins into a charming design of crossed swords. If you wished to travel, the streetcar could deliver you north, south, or west. East was the Pearl River, and the suburbs in that area were not yet developed. As St. Andrew’s was the only Episcopal church in Jackson for a long time, my father’s congregation was scattered all over town and from Clinton on the west to Madison on the north. Sometimes Father would let me ride with him in the family Essex when he went calling, and we covered a lot of territory. The Fairgrounds were within walking distance, as were the downtown picture shows. Beulah, my nurse, took me to the Fair every year on the five dollars my grandmother sent us. This included lunch. When we got home, Beulah became our cook. I should note that Beulah was not my nurse because I was sick, but because I was a child, and nurses were what children had in the 1920s. Nurses were for taking care of children, cooks were for cooking, and so far as I knew, maids had bit parts, like “Your carriage awaits, madam,” in the occasional stage plays which came to the Century Theater.
An interesting thing, at least to me, is the fact that I can remember the telephone numbers of the neighborhood children, I have always had a block in my head about numbers, and now I have trouble remembering my own telephone number. At any rate, to suggest the size Of Jackson in the 1920s, I could get Mary Woodliff at 2628; Winifred Green at 1210; Ann Sullens at 560; and Maude McLean at 247. As Maude’s father was a doctor, we thought we would help his practice, which did not need any help, by making up a jingle for him. It went like this: “If you think you’re going to heaven, call two-four-seven.” I believe you call the Fire Department nowadays, whatever your destination.
The Depression was an exciting time at 705 North State. There were a good many home weddings, as it was more economical to get married in the Rectory than in the home of the bride. Sometimes a drop-in bride and groom, having proven that they were of age and met other canonical requirements long since forgotten, got married in the living room, and if any of my friends were there Father might ask us to be witnesses. This custom ended when Winifred Green and I stood up with a lisping groom, and got the giggles every time he repeated his vows. Mother was good about entertaining, and we had a lot of company. I always had a Hallowe’en party and a birthday party, and during the Depression some of our company often included tramps. Tramps are now known as vagrants or street people, but they amount to the same thing. Our tramps knew the best places for a handout, and occasionally one would make a great impression on my father, who would invite him to spend a few days with us One of our favorites called himself Jiggs, and more than repaid us for our hospitality by his tales of travel and adventure. Jiggs left us wearing my father’s clerical vest, and some months later appeared in a news magazine, photographed in ecclesiastical garb while attending a Tramps’ Convention in Washington. It is interesting to observe that in spite of the real economic hardship of the Depression, I don’t remember it as a bad time. It was in the 1920s that we learned to dance, and perfected our skills later during the Depression at dances in our homes, including the Rectory, to the Dixieland jazz of Joe White and his combo, fifteen to twenty-five dollars for four hours, depending on the number of instruments.
This isn’t much of a “brief and breezy history of Jackson,” but it may recall a certain time in a certain place, both gone forever. North State Street has just about given up the ghost, the town has grown into a city, the city has spread into the suburbs, and sometimes I can’t remember my street address. •sour crowd” had a good time, there was room in our house for friends and my grandparents and my brother and his wife, and even for transients who could tell a tall tale. Much of what was once “old Jackson” was swept away by commercial development after World War Il, but as this is written, 705 North State Street still stands!
Local history is the beggar at Clio’s feast. In the hierarchy of history topmost are works on great wars, empires and cultures; next histories of countries, commerce and important cities; then finally—after a considerable gap—comes state and local history, the latter often denigrated as nothing more than amateur obsessions.
State and local histories command little professional attention because they receive the least academic funding, the fewest and least government loans or grants, and the smallest lectern on official and scholastic stages. In those the folklorist with his dancing palette and anthropological basis commands more respect. Professional historians deride local history as poorly-researched, ill-written and hopelessly insular. This criticism can and is levelled at history written on any level; simply read The American Historical Review for confirmation.
Yet who can scorn research as insufficient when conducted with so little material in place? How often does Gibbon himself sound as if he’s labored far too late and drunk far too much port? Who can say that the storming of the Bastille isn’t local history to Parisians, or an account of the Beer Hall Putsch isn’t to Bavarians? The least parts of history come together to form the whole, and in the smallest arenas of mankind we can discern a microcosm of the whole.
Let us treasure those who, compelled by their love of place, put before us a likeness of how it was before our time, teaching us who we are, revealing how our little part of the world shapes our lives and strengthens our hearts.
A History of Greater Belhaven is available at the Greater Belhaven Neighborhood Foundation office for a donation of $20 (or more). Copies may be obtained by contacting Casey Creasey at (601) 352-8850 or email her at email@example.com.
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.
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.
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.
Several weeks ago, I received a query via the Sideboard from former Jacksonian Sombra Laubach:
“Would like the King Edward Hotel recipe for chicken thighs baked with thyme and onions, please. My Jackson Symphony Cookbook disappeared. This was a recipe in the cookbook that the King Edward Motel was famous for back in the 70s. It is a favorite of mine over the years. Thrilled the King Edward Hotel has been refurbished!! Thank you for the recipe in advance. Hope all is wonderful in Jackson, my hometown!!”
I soon received a similar request from Diane Flowers and went looking for the recipe. I have The Jackson Cookbook, a superb collection with an introduction by Eudora published in 1975, but kept missing the recipe until a neighbor who is a native Jacksonian pointed it out to me (Thanks, Margaret!) In my defense, the recipe is credited to the “Edwards House”—as opposed to the King Edward Hotel—and I’m not really sure why. Perhaps the hotel restaurant was called the “Edwards House” though given the suspiciously archaic phrasing the recipe may date back to the early quarter of the century, which makes it really special indeed, an indication of the level of culinary hospitality in the city at that time.
The recipe is a classic fricassee, chicken fried and braised, simple yet rich, with a sublime aroma, all characteristic of haute cuisine of the sort you’d expect to have found in an establishment such as the King Edward in its heyday. Sombra said she doesn’t bread her chicken at all, that the onions were sliced thick enough not to singe and that basting is crucial. Me, I used boneless thighs skewered and lightly floured (no drenching beforehand) with salt and pepper, the beautiful early yellow onions we have coming to market now and a mixture of green and dried thyme. Use a medium heat—the butter will burn if too hot—and give the chicken a good browning. I wilted the onions in the oil/butter before topping the chicken, drizzle with more of the mix and placed it in a medium (350) oven for about half an hour.