Vicksburg as a major center on the Mississippi River

Published 7:00 am Saturday, February 25, 2023

On the eve of the Civil War, Vicksburg was a booming commercial center and port.
“At one point, Vicksburg was the biggest city on the river,” said Bubba Bolm, director and curator of the Old Court House Museum-Eva W. Davis Memorial.

In 1860, the population of Vicksburg was 5,000 people.

“The public wharf was crowded with steamboats, barges and pirogues ready for shipping and receiving goods from national and international markets for the city’s residents, and Levee Street was jammed with wagons, stacks of cotton bales and freight,” writes Christopher Morris in his book “Becoming Southern: The Evolution of a way of Life, Warren County and Vicksburg, Mississippi, 1770-1860.”

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By one account, more bales of hay were shipped from Vicksburg than any place in the state. The river, the rail and the rich soil are what Bolm said led to Vicksburg’s success. In his book, “Vicksburg: A People at War,” Peter F. Walker wrote that, “Steamboats arrived daily from New Orleans, Memphis, St. Louis and Louisville, Ky. Boats left three times a week for New Orleans and Memphis, and a Yazoo boat went to Greenwood. The rail line was the Vicksburg, Shreveport and Texas Railroad.

“The new metropolis climbed the hillsides and boasted 100 buildings holding a variety of stores, insurance offices, lawyers’ and doctors’ offices, restaurants and taverns, small manufacturing businesses, four nurseries selling plants and hilltop mansions.”

There were three hotels — the Washington, Prentiss House and the Commercial Hotel. Vicksburg also boasted a city hospital, six newspapers and an opera house where the top actors of the period performed.

“Vicksburg had many big theaters and actors and opera singers would come from all across the country to
perform, like the Booth Brothers,” Bolm said.

Edwin Booth, brother of John Wilkes Booth, was considered one of the leading actors of his day. The city had a cosmopolitan atmosphere. People came to Vicksburg from other areas like the East Coast, other southern states and foreign countries. One-quarter of the city’s free inhabitants were foreign-born. Eighty percent of the transplants came from England and Germany, but 17 countries in Europe and the Americas were also represented.

Morris wrote, “Signs hung over the shops along Washington Street reflected the ethnic mix of Vicks-
burg’s population. J.F. Baum fruit stand; Bazinsky and Simmons dry and clothing; Botto and Spengler coffee house; Antonio Genella general variety store; Francis Hernandes Havana cigars; Henry Volker shoemaker; Patrick Burns blacksmith; and A. J. Carnahan merchant tailor.”

“People had the finest furniture and clothing,” Bolm said, and downtown shops had fine silver, watches and clocks. “Had we been 50 miles off the river, we would not have had any of this,” he said.

Terry Winschel, retired Vicksburg National Military Park Historian, said, “Because of the foreign immigrants, people heard foreign tongues spoken on the streets,” and the diversity was also reflected in the houses of worship. The Methodist, Baptist, Episcopal and Presbyterian churches were represented along with a Roman Catholic Church and a synagogue.

Washington Street was the center of commerce, featuring quality stores, offices, tailor shops and dressmakers, and would be for many years to come. The city had the A.B. Reading and A.M. Paxton foundries, which made boilers for steamboats, plows, tools and later cannons for the Confederacy
during the war.

According to “Vicksburg: A People at War,” the assessed value of personal and real property in the city in 1860 was $4,820,650, or about $164.5 million in today’s money. Real estate was valued at $1.54 mil-
lion or about $55.3 million, and the value of manufactured goods made in Vicksburg totaled $643,700, or $23.1 million today.

“It was truly a bustling community,” Winschel said. “There was diversity in business. It had four fire
stations — volunteers that were more like political organizations. They raced each other to fires and the first one there would stump political philosophy to the crowd watching the fire. Every once in a while, they would put a fire out.”

Politically, the people of Vicksburg were Whigs, Winschel said, which was common for river towns. One of the forerunners of the Republican Party, Whigs advocated protecting industry and limiting presidential powers. Because of its political philosophy, Vicksburg’s residents, like those in Natchez, opposed secession because the towns had too much to lose by leaving the Union. Vicksburg’s representatives voted against secession at the state’s convention to determine whether leave the Union.

In 1860, Vicksburg was governed by a board consisting of a mayor and four councilmen. Similar to today’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen, the pre-war board dealt with the business of running the city — budgets, making sure the city’s dirt streets, sidewalks and alleys were clean, handling complaints about derelict buildings and passing ordinances.

The effects of the Civil War were experienced by Vicksburg residents early in the war when a naval blockade blocked Southern ports and the Mississippi’s tributaries, reducing the goods coming to port and forcing layoffs and unemployment. When Union Flag Officer David Farragut captured New Orleans and Baton Rouge in the spring of 1862, supplies became even fewer. The war hit closer to home when
wounded from the Battle of Shiloh — fought April 6-7, 1862 in western Tennessee — came to the city by boat or train.

The battle was one of the bloodiest of the Civil War, with 23,746 casualties, 10,699 of those Confederates. The Confederates had 1,728 killed and 8,012 wounded. At the time, there was no fighting around Vicksburg, making it one of the safest places to be.

“Vicksburg would be a major hospital center for the confederacy in 1862,” Winschel said. “After the Battle of Shiloh, as the wounded were being unloaded off the steamboats and taken into the city, many of the townspeople went down to offer assistance and they found their own sons.”

In May 1862, Union forces made their first appearance at Vicksburg. The war forced the Board of Mayor and Council to deal with new issues as soldiers passed through town going to battle and refugees came from captured areas. The board on March 24, 1862, ordered the city’s bars to close early and suspended
issuing new liquor licenses. It later declared martial law to discourage crime.

With its surrender on July 4, 1863, Vicksburg became an occupied city, Winschel said.

Vicksburg fell under military rule, which remained in place until Reconstruction ended in 1877, even though Mississippi had been readmitted to the union in 1870.

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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