On Civil Wars: Part 1

On a windy, but sunny day, Mom, David and I drove to Vicksburg to visit the National Military Park.  The Vicksburg campaign was one of Grant’s greatest military successes, and combined with the Union victory at Vicksburg, cemented the turning point of the war.  However, it came at a bloody cost. More than 20,000 Americans lost their lives during the Vicksburg campaign.  My ancestor, David A. Hillman, is included in that number. He died on July 2, 1863, two days before the Confederates surrendered after the long siege. They were well dug-in and repelled the frontal assaults, but with no supply lines into the town, had no food, no reinforcements, and surrendered because of exhaustion.  I have no idea what was the cause of David Hillman’s death.  Most likely it was something having to do with disease, starvation, or exhaustion, by that point in time in the siege.  I don’t know where he is buried, probably in an unmarked grave somewhere. The National Cemetary at the Battlefield is only where Union soldiers were buried.

2011 marks the sesquicentennial of the beginning of the American Civil War.  Over the next four years, I am sure there will be many commemorations, vigils, and battlefield re-enactments.  One hundred and fifty years later, though, I doubt most Americans know how to process what happened in the Civil War.  I know I don’t. I keep reading non-fiction books describing Civil War history in the hope that the next one will be the one where it all finally starts to make sense. But it never happens.  It doesn’t make sense to me that hundreds of thousands of Southern men would fight for simply preserving the rancid institution of slavery, when most of them were too poor to own any slaves.  It doesn’t make any sense to me that so many generals would see such butchery as took place in the Civil War in such heroic terms.  So much about this war still doesn’t make sense to me.

Here is one example from the case of Vicksburg. When Vicksburg’s citizens voted on representatives to send to Jackson for the vote on Mississippi secession, they elected representatives to vote in favor of the Union.  Vicksburg was a commercial center with a large merchant middle class who were not in favor of secession. Nonetheless, they were outvoted by the planter majority who made up the elected representatives, and of course, Mississippi seceded.  However, Vicksburg’s citizens were repaid for their loyalty to the Union by a devastating siege and subsequent occupation by federal troops that stripped citizens of most of their civil rights.  You can argue that this was required to make up for the brutal history of slavery (and I can point out that such treatment was not universally applied to slave holders and slave states, because after all, the Union slave states of Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware certainly did not have to endure such treatment), and certainly, the entire nation did need to atone for the ills of slavery. However, why is it that Vicksburg had to suffer so disproportionately, when its citizens didn’t even want Mississippi to secede?

Most of what I saw at the Visitor Center’s displays was simplistic, factual and straightforward enough to explain what happened, but not how such things could happen.  However, the concluding sentence at the last display was a lie if there ever was a lie. It read, “Vicksburg is once again a thriving port city.”  No, Vicksburg is not once again a thriving port city. Some of that is because of geography; in 1876, the Mississippi River decided to change course and no longer flows directly by the downtown portion of the city. They did build a canal that keeps the Mississippi connected to the Yazoo River, and that still flows where the river once did.  The explanation isn’t entirely geographic, though.  Vicksburg never recovered from the Civil War. Mississippi really never recovered either. What I mean by “never recovered” is that I mean that city and that state never knew how to deal with its aftermath.  Arguably, the entire nation never really has figured out what to do with a place like Vicksburg after the Civil War. Now, the streets where people like my Great, Great, Great Grandfather died, are filled with payday and title loan establishments to offer easy capital for use in the riverboat casinos in the canals and bayous below the city bluff.  The only industry that has made any significant impact on Vicksburg since the end of the Civil War is the gaming industry. However, in many places, downtown Vicksburg is still lovely and properly restored and maintained, but it is only as a part of the past.  It appears that no one in Vicksburg knows how to move on from the past without self-destructing.

So, we few tourists who make a stop off of I-20 drive around through monuments, pose for pictures in front of cannons, and marvel at the restored Union Gunboat, the Cairo, once sunk by Confederate torpedos and later floated to the surface of the muddy Yazoo. We do all of this and smile because we really aren’t sure of any other way that can approach making sense of it.  We try to reimagine the various offensives at their geographic locations, but we cannot hear the sounds of war, nor smell of its death and destruction.  I can’t imagine, for one minute who David A. Hillman was, what made him fight for the confederacy, or what his death was like.  I try, but the ghosts don’t talk to me.

Afterward

My great-great grandmother, Julia Hillman was born in 1860. She probably never knew her father.  However, while I lack knowledge of the details of her father’s life, I know a few more about hers.  At some point after her marriage to Edward Rufus Ball (the son of another Confederate veteran), she met Mormon missionaries, was baptized, and then migrated Westward among the charred remains of the Reconstructed South. Mississippi is a tough place to shake, though. Her family was settled in Mesa, Arizona, but they didn’t stay. For some unknown reason, they decided to return to Mississippi. My great-grandmother, Julia Georgian Ball, was born in New Mexico, as they began their return trip to Mississippi in 1896.  Julia Hillman was thirty-six years old when delivered her final child, Grandma Ball (Grandma Ball was the one great grandparent that was living when I was a child and this is what we called her).  She persevered on in rural Mississippi, contributing to the creation of the first branch of the LDS church in Mississippi, where the members didn’t migrate to the West.

She is buried behind the old Darbun Branch meetinghouse for the Mormon church.

Her father’s final resting place is unknown.

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One thought on “On Civil Wars: Part 1

  1. You are such a great writer, Leslie. I like history, but your passion for it magnifies it. Sadly, I hardly ever act on it. So I especially love reading about things you have learned.

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