OUR HERITAGE: Christmas Ball reenacted each December

Published 1:17 pm Friday, December 7, 2018

Every December, Warren County residents, some in period costume, gather in the courtroom of the Old Court House Museum and for a while go back to Dec. 24, 1862, and recreate a moment in history when Vicksburg was almost invaded by the Union.

The weather that Christmas was damp and unseasonably warm for the season, and Dr. and Mrs. William T. Balfour were entertaining the officers of the Confederate garrison and their ladies at a Christmas ball in their home on Crawford Street to celebrate the holidays.

But as the officers and their ladies enjoyed the holiday festivities, Union transports carrying a force of 32,000 men commanded by Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman and escorted by gunboats were slowly making their way down the Mississippi River to the Yazoo River as part of a plan to take Vicksburg from the north.

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As the story goes, the boats’ passage didn’t go unnoticed. A small black girl on the Louisiana side heard them as they passed Lake Providence, Louisiana, and told Confederate Majors E.P. Earnhart and Lee L. Daniels, who questioned her story until they heard the steamboats and saw a silhouette of one of the escorts.

Daniels telegraphed the warning of the impending attack to Col. Philip Fall, who took a rowboat across the river. About 30 minutes after getting the message, Fall reached the Balfour house, burst into the ballroom, and went to Gen. M.L. Smith, the garrison commander, who asked Fall, “Well, sir, what do you want?”

Fall told Smith a Union flotilla of gunboats and transports had passed Lake Providence and were headed down river. Smith turned pale, then loudly told the crowd, “This ball is at an end! The enemy is coming down river; all noncombatants must leave the city!”

The 6,000-troop garrison took up positions at the Walnut Heights and waited for Sherman’s troops, who landed Dec. 26 at Johnson’s Plantation on the Yazoo River to approach the Vicksburg defenses from the northeast. A fourth Union division landed on Dec. 27, and the Union troops crossed swamps and Chickasaw Bayou on their march toward the city.

“Gen. Sherman ordered that no fires be lit by the troops after they landed,” said Terry Winchell, retired historian for the Vicksburg National Military Park.

After attempts to flank the Confederate lines failed, Sherman ordered a frontal assault that was repulsed with heavy casualties and he withdrew Dec. 29.

About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

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