A capture in 1863, a memory in 2012

Published 1:00 am Wednesday, July 4, 2012

When Confederate Sgt. Jacob Senile Heller was captured at Vicksburg July 4, 1863, by Union troops, he was given a choice: sign an oath that he would not continue to fight and be paroled to go home, or be taken as a prisoner of war.

A Union-issued blanket passed down by Heller to family members is the only clue to what Heller decided.

Monday, that blanket found a permanent home in Vicksburg thanks to Holland’s great-great-granddaughter, Nikki Holland Everett, a North Carolina resident.

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“We knew he had been captured here,” said Charlottesville native Everett, standing with her 11-year-old daughter in the Old Depot Museum, where the treasure will now reside. “The blanket has been in the family for all this time. It was packed away in an attic.”

Everett researched various Vicksburg spots that could be a good home for the family treasure, finally settling on the newly opened museum in the Yazoo & Mississippi Valley Railroad station on Levee Street.

“They needed donations. They had that on their website. When I read that, I thought, ‘that’s where it ought to go,’” Everett said.

Her father, B. Lee Holland of Huntersville, N.C., said he is delighted with Everett’s decision. As a boy, he often visited his aunt and her husband, Jewel and Albert Grego, who lived at 2421 Drummond St., and has fond memories of the city.

“To me it’s appropriate because he was captured there,” said Holland, 75, reached by phone Tuesday. “It’s like it’s gone home.”

Holland said he was in the city visiting his aunt on July 4, 1947, when then-Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower came for a military parade. “There was a huge celebration, which we went downtown to see,” he said.

Old Depot Museum Director Lamar Roberts said the family contacted him a few weeks ago about donating the blanket. Seeing it Monday, Roberts said the sturdy weave of the wool cloth and the hand-stitching on its binding testify to its age.

“I’m surprised to see the excellent condition,” said a broadly smiling Roberts, clearly tickled to have it. He plans to set aside an area where it, historic letters and other artifacts can be viewed but not jeopardized by handling.

Heller was a native of Bohemia, in an area that was then part of Austria, said Holland. He was 21 when he came to the United States in 1854, eventually settling in Delhi, about 40 miles west of Vicksburg.

“We know he worked in a general store before he got married, and he imported the lady who became his wife,” Holland said.

Heller enlisted in the Confederate States Army on April 21, 1862, and eventually was assigned to Company C of the 31st Louisiana infantry.

The 31st saw action at Milliken’s Bend and Chickasaw Bayou in 1862, and wintered quietly in Vicksburg, “doing picket duty and drilling,” before being sent in May 1863 to Port Gibson “as (Union General U.S.) Grant’s campaign against Vicksburg began in earnest,” according to “A Brief History of the 31st Louisiana Infantry,” by Kelly Shockley.

The regiment defended against Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign at Jackson, the Big Black River and Vicksburg. Its members helped repulse Grant’s May 22 assault, Shockley wrote, and was a part of the Confederate force that surrendered July 4 after the 47-day siege.

“Each Confederate soldier was forced to sign an oath, saying they would no longer fight, and were then paroled,” he added. “Those refusing to sign remained as prisoners.”

Holland said the family history does not explicitly state that Heller refused to sign the oath, but in addition to having the Union blanket it’s known that he was part of a prisoner exchange to Allen’s Brigade in Shreveport, La., March 29, 1864, and Heller’s daughter, Eunice Heller Levy, Holland’s grandmother, always told family members he said the blanket was given to him when he was a prisoner.

“From my grandmother speaking about him and the kind of man he was, she said he was a very determined individual with very strong feelings about his family, his country, about doing the right thing, and it was one of the reasons he joined the army,” Holland said.

After the war, Heller and his wife, Babette, eventually settled in Bastrop. The 1900 census lists nine daughters born to the couple. Two other children were stillborn, according to family records Holland sent to Roberts to authenticate the donation.

“We hold a very special place in our hearts for Vicksburg,” Holland wrote to Roberts. “My aunt took me to the battlefield on holidays and other occasions, and it was very much a large part of my fondest memories of growing up. I can think of no better resting place for the blanket than to be a part of Vicksburg history for others to enjoy and reflect upon.”