The river belonged to Vicksburg, but not for long

Published 12:13 am Sunday, October 28, 2012

As John Pemberton boarded a train in Richmond, Va., to begin his long journey to Mississippi and a rendezvous with destiny, the residents of Vicksburg enjoyed a peaceful respite from the dangers of war they had endured in the summer of 1862.

Situated on the east bank of the Mississippi River, the city was named for the Methodist minister Newit Vick, who, in 1812, first viewed the “Father of Waters” from the heights on which the city now stands.

But it was the silent river that gave birth to the town and nourished its soil. Through industry and thrift, those who followed Vick tamed the land and traditionally yielded a bountiful harvest. An abundance of wood, cotton and foodstuffs soon ushered in brisk and profitable trade with other towns along the river and its tributaries. The steamboats that plied the river at Vicksburg came from New Orleans, Memphis, St. Louis, Louisville, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh and brought prosperity to the Hill City. Vicksburg quickly grew in wealth and charm to become by 1860 the second largest city in Mississippi, boasting a population of 5,000, and was considered among the most beautiful in the South.

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Although noted for its charm and beauty, it was the people of Vicksburg who gave the city its identity, its flavor. They were a mixture of people from across the South with a sprinkling of Northerners and immigrants from more than a score of foreign lands.

This diversity was reflected in every aspect of community life from agriculture to clothing, social customs to religion and made Vicksburg unique among the towns along the river.

“These people together with the agricultural community served by Vicksburg, supported almost one hundred shops, banks, stores, factories, and business houses,” wrote historian Peter Walker. “Wholesale grocers, commission merchants, and cotton brokers held the largest business interests in the city. Druggists, gunsmiths, tailors, jewelers, insurance salesmen, publishers, bookbinders, carriage-makers, stove- and boilermakers, photographers, bakers, confectioners, nurserymen, liquor dealers, and dressmakers catered to the legitimate wants and wishes of the community.”

There also were churches and civic organizations to suit any denomination or interests and hotels and brothels to fit any pocketbook. Professional men, as well, were abundant in Vicksburg, where lawyers, doctors and teachers all made a good living. The city also was home to political figures of renown on the state and national levels, most prominent of whom was the president — Jefferson Davis.

Among the residents we will come to know through this column are Emma Balfour, an attractive Vicksburg socialite; Margaret Lord, whose husband, William, was rector of Christ Episcopal Church; Lucy McRae, daughter of Warren County Sheriff William McRae; Mahala Roach; Anne Lake; Duff Green; Jenny Wilson; J.M. Swords; Dora Miller; and others who recorded their experiences.

Regardless of their station in life, those who lived or worked in Vicksburg enjoyed a special bond with the river — it was their river and every aspect of community life depended on the silent, majestic water.

Sara Ann Dorsey, who lived across the river in Louisiana, recognized and understood that bond and referred to the residents of Vicksburg as “the keepers of the river.” But just as the river gave life to the town, it would also bring the instrument of Vicksburg’s destruction.

Next: Safeguarding the city