Thursday, May 23, 2013

Bill Bonner, “The Siege of Vicksburg”

“The Siege of Vicksburg”
by Bill Bonner

"The Battle of Vicksburg was the turning point of the war," explained the guide at the Old Court House Museum in Mississippi. "The whole economy of the South west of the Appalachians depended on the Mississippi River. That's how we got our food and cotton to market. We floated it down the river to New Orleans. And Vicksburg was the key to the Mississippi. You can see that we're up here on a bluff. From these heights, small artillery could control the river. That's why the Yankees were so determined to take Vicksburg."

More on that in a minute... First, the markets! What kind of an investor would put his money in the stock market now? A fool? Or a realist? Every day, the market jumps or falls (broadly speaking, of course) depending on what comes out of the Fed. Earlier this week, St. Louis Fed President James Bullard told us that the Fed would keep boosting stocks. The market rose. Then along comes word that the Fed is considering "tapering off" its bond purchase... and stocks fall. The Dow shed 80 points during yesterday's session. From Bloomberg: "US stocks fell, with benchmark indexes retreating from record highs, as concern grew that the Federal Reserve will scale back its stimulus efforts if the labor market continues to improve."

Is this a serious way to invest? Of course not. 'Nuff said. Let's return to our report from Vicksburg.

The City Falls: "The city was impregnable from the riverside," said our guide in a soft Mississippi accent. "The Confederate guns could blast any army trying to land on that side. And on the land side, the Confederate Army had set up defensive positions that the Northerners couldn't take... though they lost 10,000 men trying. "They suffered so many casualties in one of their attacks that William Tecumseh Sherman said it was murder to send more troops. They called off the attack. Instead, they decided to besiege the city and starve it out. The siege began on May 25, 1863 – almost exactly 150 years ago. And it was awful. Union artillery constantly bombarded the city. The only building they didn't destroy was the Episcopal church... where people kept going to pray and hold services. I guess they were praying that the Yankees would run out of ammunition.
The people of Vicksburg moved out of their houses and lived in caves... where they hoped to be safe from the shells. And the siege worked. The Confederate Army had no way of getting supplies. It ran out of food. The soldiers were sick and starving. On July 4, General Pemberton surrendered. After 40 days of bombardment, suddenly it was quiet. The local people waited for the Yankees to come. And when the Yankees came, they paroled the Confederate troops who were still alive, and then they proceeded to loot the houses. They killed some civilians too – such as Ms. Cook. The Union Army court-martialed the soldiers who did it. A couple of them were executed by firing squad."

The Old Court House Museum is a treasure trove. It is the sort of museum where you can spend hours... happily exploring a riot of historical materials and local bric-à-brac. There are Indian artifacts, for example, that include hundreds of arrowheads, tomahawks and pots from the Mississippi Culture. Curiously, in the collection is an axe head labeled "Celt axe" from about 1,000 AD, found in Mississippi in the 19th century. Was it misidentified? If not, how did it get to the valley? No explanation was offered.

A Special Kind of History: Museums often tell you more about the people who put them together than the people they are meant to cover. History is interpreted according to the fashions of the time. Naturally, there were some attempts to tell the tale of the War Between the States in today's politically correct language. But there were quirks and inconsistencies.

We learn, for example, that Jefferson Davis was an upstanding citizen of fine intellect, good family and a gentle heart. Davis' older brother had a house in Vicksburg. Jeff Davis launched his political career with a stirring speech from its balcony. We discover, too, that he was very generous and thoughtful toward his slaves and that they all "loved him" for it. When he was released from the federal hoosegow, for example, he and his wife were broke. But they still sent money to help support their aged retainers. And when the couple paid a visit to the old plantation years later, they were met by a marching band formed by his former slaves. Many attended his funeral and none ever spoke ill of him.

We also learn that many slaves chose to fight alongside their masters for the Great Cause. "Blacks Who Wore Gray," the display was titled. Some served their masters as valets or grooms. Others fought side by side with white Southern soldiers. One, a sharpshooter, took aim at the federal troops and "rarely missed," we are told.

During the Reconstruction Era, a bill was introduced in the Mississippi state legislature to erect a monument to the Southern war dead. A black man who had served in the Confederate Army rose to speak in favor of it. So eloquent and persuasive was his support that all the black legislators – every one of whom had been a slave before the war – voted for the measure.

While the Confederates, black and white, were angels, the Yankees were devils. Not only did they steal the silver, it was revealed that they "maliciously" vandalized Jeff Davis' house as they took control of the area. When they moved onto the Davis plantation, they treated the blacks... well, like slaves! And whereas Confederate General Robert E. Lee had liberated all his slaves, his Union opponent Ulysses S. Grant still owned slaves... even as he led the fight to free them.

Another Monument to the Past: We were in Mississippi to visit our daughter Maria, who is shooting a movie there. Much of the film takes place in an old, abandoned school. The film company found one in California, but it would have cost $25,000 to use it. In Canton, Mississippi, the city fathers let the film crew use a derelict schoolhouse for nothing. Even with the largest auto factory in the world – the Nissan plant – at their doorstep, they are still eager for any opportunity to bring commerce and industry to the area. "I went to school here until 1968," explained the on-site medic. "Then, they shut it down."

The school building, near the town square, looked like a product of the 1920s or 1930s. It was solid, built of brick, with three stories and a few classical nods, such as thin columns on the front. Outside, weeds grew up between cracks in the concrete. Inside, plaster had fallen in many of the rooms. In one classroom, the floor had caved in. Dust and curdled, dried-up paint covered everything. The film crew – about 30 or 40 people – were setting up lights, sweeping floors, hauling away debris and building props. They all wore white masks. "Here... you better put these on," said the medic. "The dust. And this place has been closed up for 45 years. It probably has some molds."

"What happened? Why was the school abandoned?" we asked. "Oh. Integration. The teachers and the students just left. They didn't want to go to school with black kids. Seems silly now. But they set up classrooms in tents. It was amazing. They stopped taking care of the school building completely. I guess by the time they came to their senses, it was too late for this building. It was such a mess that it was declared unusable. They had to build a new school on the outskirts of town."

No comments:

Post a Comment