Examine the toll that the seige of Vicksburg took on civilians.

A piece of paper with a cyphered message accompanied by a small glass bottle

Historical Context

In 1863, General Ulysses S. Grant, as commander of the Union army in the West, spent much time trying to take the town of Vicksburg, Mississippi, located right on the Mississippi River. Taking Vicksburg meant the Union army would gain control of the Mississippi River and divided the Confederacy, leaving Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas separate from the rest of the country. After a long campaign that utilized river crossings, cavalry movements, and battles, General Ulysses S. Grant forced the town into a siege nearly two months long from May –July 4, 1863. The constant shelling meant it was not safe to be outside and move about. The Confederate army and the civilians of Vicksburg were desperate and hungry. The Confederate commander, General John Pemberton surrendered his army and town to Ulysses S. Grant on July 4, 1863, the day after one of the worst defeats in Confederate history at Gettysburg. Vicksburg was just as important as Gettysburg in deciding the outcome of the Civil War.

During the 47-day siege, it was not safe for people to stay in their homes due to constant shelling and fighting. Many people moved into caves. The caves were much safer than being in a home or on the street where flying debris was the primary danger. People dug caves into the hillsides. Single-family caves had only one or two rooms, while others were much larger and could hold more people. The citizens of Vicksburg took things from their homes to make the caves more comfortable and homelike. They brought carpets, furniture, books, etc. Thanks to the widespread use of caves, only a very small number of Vicksburg citizens were killed or wounded during the siege.

However, civilians suffered in other ways; food was scarce in Vicksburg. The Confederate army seized livestock, vegetables and produce, draining the town of supplies. The people of Vicksburg had to use substitutes for real food. They brewed sweet potatoes or other vegetables for coffee. Frogs, mules, squirrels, and rats became meat. Not only was food hard to come by, so was newsprint. Things were so scarce in Vicksburg that the Vicksburg Daily Citizen printed its newspaper on wallpaper. The reprint featured here demonstrates this fact.

Not only was food hard to come by, so was newsprint. Things were so scarce in Vicksburg that the Vicksburg Daily Citizen printed its newspaper on wallpaper. The reprint featured here demonstrates this fact.

Resource Info

Date and Eras1863
ThemesBattles, Homefront, Women, Soldiers, Surrenders
Grades5–7, 9–12

Suggested Questions

1. What would you take with you if you left your home to live in a cave? Make a list of the top five things you would choose and explain why.

2. How would you feel if the Confederate army took all of your food and you and your family had nothing to eat? What would you do about it?

3. Why do you think it was so important capturing the city of Vicksburg? How do you think the capturing of Vicksburg affected the longevity of the Confederacy?

4. Why do you think it was of such importance during the siege to still print the Vicksburg Daily Citizen?

5. How does the information/text provide insight on the Siege of Vicksburg? List a few words/phrases below that express the significance of the paper providing insight on the siege. “

Suggested Activities

1. Begin by telling students they are going to use firsthand accounts written by women and children in Vicksburg to gain a better understanding of the thoughts and experiences of life during the Siege of Vicksburg in 1863. Have students read the excerpts of accounts from Mary Ann Loughborough and Dora Miller. Once students have read their accounts, hold a class discussion on what people like Mary and Dora were feeling and thinking during the siege. Then divide students into small groups. Give each group a sheet with one line from either Mary Ann Loughborough or Dora Miller’s memoirs. Have students use that one line as a writing prompt. Have students use the one line they are given to brainstorm ideas for a short story, approximately one to three pages depending on the age of the students. Have students assign each person in their group a role, such as scribes and readers. Once the stories are written, have students read them to the class.

2. For upper-level students, have them read these accounts and other primary sources. Have students write an essay in response to the following question: Why do you think Independence Day was not celebrated in Vicksburg again until 1945? What does this say about the collective memory of the South after the war?

3. Have the students pretend that they are citizens that are living in Vicksburg during the time of the battle. Have them read the newspaper article provided, after have them write their own newspaper article about living in Vicksburg just days before the city surrendered. Give the students 20-30 minutes to complete. Collect the finished articles once completed.

4. Begin by explaining to students that history is full of mysteries. Explain to students the mystery of the message in a bottle. During the Civil War, many generals wrote messages and orders in secret code. If the messages ended up in the hands of the enemy, the enemy would not know what the message said if they did not know how to decode it. Many times the messages reached the correct officers who knew the secret code. However, sometimes messages never reached the intended officer and were returned to the sender, never opened. One such message is this message in a bottle from Vicksburg. Confederate General Joseph Johnston did not believe the army had enough troops to continue the siege and wanted General John Pemberton to abandon Vicksburg and save the army. He tried to plan an attack with other Confederate soldiers under General John G. Walker. The message inside the bottle was sent by General Walker to General Pemberton on July 4, 1863, the very day that General Pemberton surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant. The message was never delivered and was returned to the sender. It remained unopened for another 146 years. The message was opened and decoded in 2009. Photographs of the message and the bottle are included with this lesson plan. The message reads; “July 4th. Gen’l Pemberton: You can expect no help from this side of the river. Let Gen’l Johnston know if possible, when you can attack the same point on the enemy’s line. Inform me also and I will endeavor to make a diversion. I have sent some caps. I subjoin dispatch from Gen. Johnston.” Divide students into small groups. Give each group a cipher. Instruct groups to create a message about something they have learned about the siege of Vicksburg. Have each group trade their secret message with another group and use the cipher to decode the message.