Lincoln, 16th U.S. president, had Vicksburg ties

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 8, 2009

Thursday, Feb. 12, is the 200th anniversary of the birth of the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, and this story is concentrated on his connections to Vicksburg and this area.


When Abraham Lincoln ran for the presidency in 1860, he got just two votes more in his wife’s Kentucky hometown than he did in Vicksburg, and in the 10-county Bluegrass section of that state he received only 15 votes more than he did in the entire state of Mississippi.

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So how many votes did he get in Vicksburg and the rest of the state?

None. He wasn’t on the ballot. Nationally, with a four-way split in the voting, he became president with the smallest minority ever.

Born in Kentucky to Tom Lincoln and Nancy Hanks, he grew up in Indiana and Illinois. He made a trip to the deep South when he was about 19, in 1828, perhaps stopping in Vicksburg when the river town had been incorporated only three years. He might have gotten off the boat, or perhaps he didn’t.

Regardless, 33 years later when he was 52 and leader of the Northern states, he realized the military importance of the city on the bluffs and pronounced the possession of Vicksburg as the key to victory. He proved to be correct.

Lincoln might not have been on the ballot, but through the national media he was well- known to voters here. Most probably knew only one side of the Illinois politician, for the press was most unkind in accounts and remarks.

So antagonistic was one local voter that he offered a reward for the railsplitter: Dr. Richard S. Pryor, who was a pharmacist, deputy sheriff and U S. marshal, placed an ad in the Vicksburg Evening Citizen shortly after the fall of Fort Sumpter, offering $100,000 for the head of Abraham Lincoln, which he wanted to present to Jefferson Davis on July 4, 1861. He probably had nowhere near that much money, but no one misunderstood his feelings.

The closest physical connection Lincoln had to Vicksburg was his in-laws. Mary Todd, his wife, was from a well-established Kentucky family, an aristocratic slave-holding household with many relations throughout the South. Mary Todd Lincoln had 11 cousins in Confederate service from South Carolina alone. Two of her brothers were in service to the South, and another was outspokenly pro-Southern. Her favorite sister married a Confederate general. Mrs. Lincoln also had relatives in the Northern army.

Some of her close kin, the family of Dr. James Parker, lived in Port Gibson. Parker was her mother’s brother and was married to Mary Jane Milliken from Milliken’s Bend in Madison Parish. They had a son, John Milliken Parker, who was Mrs. Lincoln’s first cousin. Dr. Parker died just before the war began.

Much has been written about Robert E. Lee agonizing over whether to stay with the Union or go with the secessionists. He wasn’t the only one — there were numerous others, including Benjamin Hardin Helm. Lincoln summoned Helm, a career soldier, to the White House and offered him a position in the Union Army. He told the president that though they opposed one another politically, that Lincoln had always been kind and generous to him. Helm would make up his mind and let him know.

Helm then went to Virginia where he called on Robert E. Lee, who told him that he had just resigned his commission in the Union Army because, “I cannot strike at my own people.” Lee also told Helm he had no doubt of Lincoln’s good intentions, “but he cannot control the elements. There must be a great war.”

When Helm told Lee that Lincoln was his brother-in-law, Lee advised, “Do what your conscience and honor bid.” Soon, Helm was wearing Confederate gray, serving with another family kinsman, Gen. John C. Breckinridge, related to Mary Lincoln through marriage.

Helm commanded troops at Vicksburg during the bombardment of 1862. His brother-in-law, Alexander Todd, was a soldier here during that same time. He was Mrs. Lincoln’s brother and was later killed at Baton Rouge. The next year, her brother David H. Todd was among Pemberton’s army who were paroled after the siege of Vicksburg. A New Orleans paper described him as “tall, fat, and savage against the Yankees.” It isn’t known whether or not his captors were aware of his sister in Washington.

In the fall of 1864, a number of people from Port Gibson were arrested by Union occupation troops, the only charges stating, “To be held as hostages,” on order of Gen. Napoleon Jackson Tecumseh Dana. Of the approximately 20 prisoners most were male, a few were female, and one was a 12-year-old boy.

And one was Mrs. Lincoln’s first cousin, John Milliken Parker, who had served in the Confederate Army. There was no hearing, no trial and after three months the prisoners were released. In later years, Parker’s son became governor of Louisiana and vice presidential candidate on a ticket with Theodore Roosevelt.

A year after Vicksburg’s surrender, Lincoln ran for re-election, easily defeating Gen. George McClellan. Occupation troops, carpetbaggers and scalawags held celebrations wherever they were in control in the South. On Nov. 14, in Vicksburg, the Union commander ordered a national salute at 5 o’clock. A Union army chaplain, R.L. Howard, described the moment and labeled it “republican thunder” as 420 cannons roared in unison.

The official celebration was staged Nov. 30 by the Union League at Crawford Street Methodist Church, of which the Union had taken control. The building was filled to capacity and the army band played “Yankee Doodle” before the Rev. Aiston Mygatt, a New York-born Methodist preacher and one of the most despised men locally, told of the trials and tribulations of Lincoln’s men in Vicksburg.

There were other celebrations, private ones, including one at the headquarters of Col. Osband, commander of the colored troops. Two young officers, lifelong friends, had a bit too much to drink, bragged about their personal marksmanship, and decided to test the matter a la William Tell, but with a silver goblet rather than an apple. The one with the goblet on his head was leaning against the wall and decided to stand up straight just as his friend pulled the trigger. His funeral for that era was expensive — $65.

A month or so later, on Christmas Day 1864, some Vicksburg ladies expressed how they felt about Lincoln. When the guest priest at Christ Church, on order of Gen. James B. McPherson, prayed for Lincoln instead of Jefferson Davis, they walked out of church — and were banished from Vicksburg.

When the president was murdered in April 1865, Confederate truce officials in Vicksburg fled the city for Bovina, fearing for their lives. Union troops and their friends held an indignation meeting at the courthouse where resolutions of sympathy and regret were passed concerning the tragedy.

The event divided families, Dr. George K. Birchett chaired the meeting. But his son, a Confederate officer, was described as “too disgusted for expressions” at the public actions of his father. Incidentally, Dr. Birchett’s brother-in-law was Dr. Pryor, the man who had offered a reward for Lincoln’s head in 1861.

Following the war, the carpetbagger legislature changed the name of Davis County back to Jones, which it had been originally, and created a new county named Lincoln. His birthday, however, is not a state holiday.

Gordon Cotton is an author and historian who lives in Vicksburg.