• 70°

Stories of early Vicksburg abound in letters

Gordon Cotton sits on the outside steps at the Balfour House on Crawford Street, talking about his new book based on letters Emma Balfour wrote from 1847 until 1857.(Jon Giffin The Vicksburg Post)

[8/16/04]Letters detailing the daily life of a Vicksburg woman whose Civil War diary became famous have been transformed into a book by Vicksburg author Gordon Cotton.

“From the Letters of Emma Balfour 1847-1857” uses previously unpublished letters written by Balfour while she lived on Crawford Street.

The letters more than 90 of them were written to her sister-in-law, who lived in west-central Alabama. Balfour had lived there with her brother and his wife for 18 months after her first husband died in Vicksburg. She then returned here, where she met and married William Balfour, a physician, and the correspondence began.

The letters were rediscovered in the 1990s in the Birmingham, Ala., public library and were recognized as a treasure trove of everyday life in early Vicksburg.

“Emma’s letters told of her life as a new bride, as a physician’s wife, and as a young mother,” wrote Cotton, who has been director and curator of the Old Court House Museum since 1976.

“Her pages were full of family news, social and religious events, bits of gossip, discussions on fashions and furnishings and gardening, and occasionally politics. Her passion was flowers, a love also enjoyed by Lou(isa Harrison, her sister-in-law).”

Beginning with the chapter “Vicksburg as Emma Knew It,” Cotton’s book uses the information contained in the letters to tell about Balfour’s life during that decade and to place it in the context of its place and time. It also includes footnotes providing genealogical and other information about the people and events referred to in the letters.

The diary she would write during the siege of Vicksburg in the spring and summer of 1863 is also included in the book. It “is one of the most oft-quoted personal sources of the famous Civil War conflict,” Cotton wrote in his preface.

“Mrs. Balfour was a candid writer and keen observer, and as she lived next door to Gen. John C. Pemberton’s headquarters and only a few blocks from the domiciles of several other Confederate officials, she was in a prime position to see, hear and know what was happening.”

The Balfour home was also used after the city surrendered as the headquarters of U.S. Gen. James B. McPherson, one of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s corps commanders during the campaign and siege.

The book contains more than 50 photographs or illustrations and is indexed. Cotton worked on it “off and on” for about five or six years before its publication Wednesday, he said.

“It was because of the persistent suggestions of Katy Watt and Nita Brown that this book was written,” Cotton wrote. The two Vicksburg tour guides spent hundreds of hours transcribing the letters, copies of which filled several large notebooks, he wrote.

Balfour’s letters were mainly about her close neighbors and church friends in what is now near the center of Vicksburg but was then near the outskirts of the city, Cotton said.

A Christmas ball at the Balfours’ home, which was built in the mid-1830s, was interrupted by federal troops arriving by boat from upriver in 1862. The episode was regularly re-enacted at the home, but the home is now vacant, and a similar event is held at the Old Court House Museum.

“In researching material for this book and reading Emma’s letters I have become aware that her contribution to history is far more significant than the Civil War diary for which she is famous,” Cotton wrote. “Her candid opinions, coupled with intellectual curiosity, offer insightful observations of life in antebellum Vicksburg. “I think you, too, will like Emma.”

Copies of the book, which Cotton has self-published in stiff-backed form, are available for $29.95 each at the Old Court House Museum, The Cinnamon Tree, Peterson’s Art & Antiques and Suzanna’s, all in downtown Vicksburg.

Cotton is also the author of several other books, most recently of “Vicksburg and the War,” co-authored by Old Court House Museum historian Jeff T. Giambrone and published in 2004 by Pelican Publishing Company of Gretna, La.