VICKSBURG FACTS: A civilian’s perspective of the Siege

Published 8:00 am Friday, March 10, 2023

Do you know about Emma Balfour’s contribution to Vicksburg history?

Emma Balfour’s writings during the Siege of Vicksburg became a major contribution to American history decades later. What started off as diary entries to help her during conflicting times became informative insight for historians as to what happened during the Siege. 

Before moving to Vicksburg, Balfour lived with her brother and his wife in Alabama after the death of her first husband. While living in Alabama, she met Dr. William Balfour who attended medical school with her brother. She then married Dr. Balfour and the pair moved to Vicksburg.

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During the Civil War, the Balfours hosted a Christmas Eve ball to celebrate defeating Gen. Ulysses Grant’s forces in northern Mississippi, according to the National Park Service website. However, the ball was interrupted by a mud-covered courier named Phillip Fall. Fall reported to the Confederate commander the Union Expeditionary Force led by William T. Sherman had arrived at Vicksburg, according to NPS. This would eventually lead to the Siege. 

During the Siege of Vicksburg, Balfour and hundreds of others were told to leave but chose to stay. Eventually, they all became trapped in the city and had to experience the war firsthand with the soldiers. Balfour’s first diary entry was dated May 16, several days after the Battle of Raymond. 

“I hope never to witness again such a scene. From 12 o’clock until late in the night, the streets and roads were jammed with wagons, cannons, horses, men, mules, stock, sheep, everything you can imagine that appertains to an army being brought hurriedly within the entrenchment… What is to become of all the living things in this place – God only knows,” Balfour wrote in her diary.

Eventually, Balfour and many others had to take cover in caves to protect themselves from the blasts of cannons and mortars. 

“About nine o’clock in the morning, the gunboats towed some mortars into range, and there was a rushing into caves… We went into a cave for the first time… Just as we got in several machines exploded… just over our heads, and at the same time two riders were killed in the valley below us by a 24-pound shell from the east side,” Balfour continued, “As all this rushed over me and the sense of suffocation from being underground, the certainty that there was no way of escape, that we were hemmed in, caged, for one moment my heart seemed to stand still then my faith and courage rose to meet the emergency, and I have felt prepared ever since and cheerful.”

She continued to fill her diary with the day-to-day civilian life of living in Vicksburg during the battle. Balfour tried to remain in her home as long as possible instead of staying in a damp and mosquito-infested cave. 

“Still from sheer uneasiness, we remained there until a shell struck in the garden against a tree, and at the same time, we heard the servants all up and making exclamations. We got up thoroughly worn out and disheartened and after looking to see the damage, went into the parlor and lay on the sofas there until morning, feeling that at any moment a mortar shell might crash through the roof,” she wrote.

Balfour and her husband did survive the Siege. Her husband passed in 1877 and she eventually died in 1886. They are both buried at Cedar Hill Cemetery.