1863: Unidentified Soldier to his Mother

A post-war 19th Iowa Campaign Ribbon

This long but partial letter was written by an unidentified soldier in Co. A, 19th Iowa. We know this from the content of the letter and from the naming of a comrade in the same company. Unfortunately there are probably several pages missing because the letter ends on 14 July and the writer promised he would write of the regiment’s movements from the time of the surrender of Vicksburg to the date of his letter which was datelined from Port Hudson on 28 July 1863.

The author of this letter gives an excellent description of Vicksburg and then chronicles the movements of his regiment from Vicksburg to Yazoo City where the city was taken with little resistance. The following brief summary describes the expedition:

“On July 12, Admiral Porter sent seven transports carrying Major General Francis J. Herron’s division to Yazoo City. The transports were convoyed by the ironclad Baron DeKalb and the tinclads Signal and New Republic. The 5,000 men of General Herron’s army disembarked below the city and the ships moved upstream where there was a short duel between Confederate artillery in the bluffs above the town and the vessels on the river. The troops, during the artillery engagement, outflanked the town and made the Confederate position untenable.”


“Army of the Frontier”
Port Hudson, Louisiana
July 28, 1863

My Dear Mother,

Day before yesterday I wrote you a few lines merely to let you know where we were and where it was probable we would go. It is my purpose to recount to you our proceedings since the fall of Vicksburg, and to make my account of them as detailed and instructive as possible. I will commence forthwith, and go as far back as the surrender of Vicksburg.

I have spoken of the surrender of the city in previous letters, and undertaken to expatiate upon the grandeur of the occasion, but twas a weak effort in expressing my feelings, and utterly failed to do justice to the subject. And knowing my inability, I will not now again undertake to do that which it is impossible for me to do, yet I will note a few incidents connected with the surrender of the place and also some which occurred during our occupancy of the city.

The taking of Vicksburg has, I believe, taught me a useful lesson, and experienced me in the world’s uncertainties. How short-sighted and selfish are the people! How wonderful is the wisdom and power and dispensations of the Great Creator! After we had been before Vicksburg a week or more and learned the extent and stability of the rebel fortifications, and heard the conflicting stories relative to the amount of commissary stores within the city, I almost despaired of ever reducing the great stronghold. But the old adage, “The darkest hour is just before day,” was in this case quite true for the happy knowledge that the city was—or soon would be—ours, burst upon us suddenly and as brightly and invigoratingly as does the morning sun after a night of dreadful storm, dispelling fear and dread and suspense, and sending forth light and life and bright promise.

And I must apply the happy progression of prospects, hopes and fears, suspense and relief, and the crowning result of victory, before Vicksburg to the same of the entire country the whole war. The war goes on. We have been living between hope and fear, with our eyes turned anxiously upon the course of events—the victories and reverses of our arms, living in perpetual suspense, longing for the day of peace, and wondering “when will the terrible war end,” and casting the mind’s eye far in the future, and half discerning a desolated and ruined country, her people decimated to a weak and petty nation, and the Government or country as well as the people impoverished, and America’s sure ingloriously set—set forever. This is the sad picture all—or nearly all—of us have been wont to regard the end of our beloved country. But ere long the dark hour will have passed way and peace—innocent, bright-eyed, angelic Peace, with her words of meditation, will spread her golden wings over this bleeding, desolated country and warm into life a brotherly love between the contending districts of our country—a love which has long lain hidden, swallowed up in the dread passion of hatred.

Our several late victories look very much like the breaking of the day and look as though the night has passed away. Although that be not the case, yet I will never again despair of our final success. I believe that within a very few months, peace will be restored. And then we will wonder that we were so impatient and despondent during the months of soldier duty—months of toil, privation and danger, yet which were not devoid of good results. We didn’t accomplish as rapidly as we thought we might, yet we have been gaining steadily and have every reason to be proud of what our arms have achieved.

When we have finished our work, we will regret not having been more resigned to the natural working of the war, and not has so little faith in the Nation’s ability to conquer the traitors. And I think this war should teach all a lesson to profit by through life—to never be despondent.

I don’t know as I mentioned how hot it was on the 4th when we marched into Vicksburg. It was very, very hot and very dusty, nut notwithstanding this, it was a glorious Fourth to us and entirely appreciated. Along the river below the city there were about fifteen very heavy guns, well protected by natural and artificial palisades, and very extensive magazines near at hand. I do not know the number of guns commanding the river above the city but should judge there were twenty or thirty, mostly heavy guns. The river is very narrow just above the city. It isn’t more than a quarter of a mile in width. It appears as though it would be impossible for any vessel to pass that point and withstand the fire of the guns which would bear on her. In one of my letters I believe I said the number of pieces of artillery captured was 360. It is 260. The number of prisoners taken is a little over 31,000 including the sick. The number of small arms is 60,000. There were 60 stands of colors captured.

The idea of their running out of ammunition was absurd. They manufactured all their ammunition. They were actually casting cannon, mortars, shot, shell, &c. &c. Sixty mortars lay at the levee, never used, and there must have been 50,000 shot and shell which were not filled. All their magazines were well filled with ammunition and all along the trenches nearly everywhere had, besides his gun, another one half filled with slugs and brick-shot, which they intended to use in case a charge was made upon their lines. It would have been next to impossible to take their works by storm. They could have killed and wounded two-thirds of our army of 300,000 men making a charge upon them, and it was intended to make a charge on the left where we were on the 4th if the Rebs had not surrendered. And thank God we didn’t have to make a charge.

The only thing that found the tender spot of the rebel garrison was the dearth of provisions. That was the only way the place could be reduced, except by a great sacrifice of loyal lives. The capture of the place is a grand consummation. I didn’t take time to go around the rebel works before we left. It is said they are very formidable. They are on the rebel right, which I have seen. The Jackson Railroad runs into the town on the left of the lines. In a few days after the surrender, we had some of the cars running for there were quite a number of cars and two or three locomotives in the city.

I believe I haven’t described Vicksburg yet. It is a great city of about 8,000 inhabitants—or did contain about that before the war. It is situated on high ground, except that part lying along the levee. The ground slopes pretty steeply from the river to the top of the hill. However, a great part of the hill bordering the river is perpendicular for fifty or a hundred feet, but not rising  directly from the river. There is some gradually sloping levee all along the shore except just above the city. Below the city the land lies low and level for some distance back. The ground on which the city is built is, or has been, very broken and rough. And the country around Vicksburg is the roughest I ever saw. The hills are not very hight but they are so very steep, the hollows are so narrow for their depth, and there is non level ground. For two or three miles around the rebel fortifications nearly all the timber has been felled, rendering the whole country impassable not only to artillery and cavalry, but even to infantry. The timber too is very heavy.

Vicksburg is a pretty place. A great many of the houses are real palaces and the grounds are so beautifully lain out. There are some pretty churches and other buildings. The Court House is a splendid building, made of white granite. It has a town clock on its cupola. It looks well from the river. The country surrounding the city back a few miles is good farming land.

I must describe the vegetable productions of the country. Corn is raised at present pretty extensively and is pretty productive and well. cared. Very little wheat is raised and no potatoes (except sweet) worth mentioning. There are ad good peaches raised here as at the North, but apples do very poorly. Blackberries grow in great abundance and of good quality, but it was so confounded hot that it was worth 25 cents to pick them. I expect you have often heard of the Magnolia tree. There are plenty of them all through this country. hey grow to be three feet and more in diameter, and grow a hundred feet or more in height; the body of the tree being bare, generally, about half way up. The branches do not spread out very much and the tree runs up nearly to a point. The bark is smooth and nearly black, the leaves are very thick and shiny, and very dark, and the blossom is just like a laurel blossom, white as snow, but as large as your two hands. Tis a beautiful tree. The wood is white light and pretty soft. I have seen Swamp Willow grow to be three feet in diameter and Sassafras tree over five feet in diameter. Oak grows very heavy. There are many kinds of trees and shrubs and flowers here which are new to me. I have told you about the cane which grows here. Spanish moss is one of the wonderful productions of this country. It grows in any and all kinds of trees. It doesn’t grow upon all the trees, nor in all places. In some spots it grows upon all the trees in the vicinity. It doesn’t take root in the tree. It grows upon both green and dead timber. To look at it one would suppose it was dry and light, but it is green and pretty heavy. There is a quid of silvery sleek fur on it. It hangs on the boughs just like a handkerchief or sheet would hang in the same shape. It hands all through the limbs and leaves. This is the same that is shipped for mattresses, but it is rotted just like hemp and nothing but the inside used which is black and wiry, and looks like hair. There is also mistletoe here. It is an evergreen vine which grows on the boughs of trees. It grows in clusters about the size of a hat—larger or smaller—and looks pretty when the trees are bare. The leaves are small, nearly round, dark, thick and glossy.

There is scarcely a rock to be found in the whole country from Cairo to New Orleans except at two or three places. The water, even when obtained from wells, is very poor. I don’t think I should like to live in the South, but tis a pretty place around Vicksburg.

Before we left Vicksburg for Yazoo, I wrote to Miles and you, and just few lines to Cousin Ruth and Old Ward. I didn’t tell them any of the particulars about the fighting at Vicksburg or the surrender, and I haven’t written to either since. I haven’t written to anyone except you since the 9th.

On the 10th we received orders to be ready with five days rations to embark at 8 a. m. on the 11th. At that hour we were at the river. None but our division were ordered to embark. It was said we were going to this place, and I believe we were. But about the time the boats were ready to start, an ironclad came up from below with the news that Port Hudson had surrendered. That was glorious news again. And then we were certain that at last the Mississippi, the great “Father of Waters,” was once more ours—ours to navigate from the head to the delta, thus giving us a channel of trade and commerce through the great Southern Confederacy. We didn’t move from the levee until the morning of the 12th. Three ironclads left the day before. We had a pleasant trip. We started up the Mississippi. The river is very narrow just above the city, just at the bend of the river. I don’t see how a boat could run the rebel blockade there, they have to run so close to the Mississippi shore.

We entered the mouth of the Yazoo river and proceeded up towards Yazoo City, and it became pretty evident to us that we were bound for that place. It is about 8 or 10 miles from Vicksburg to the mouth of the Yazoo. We stopped an hour or two at Sherman’s Landing, at which place we stopped for an hour or two when we were coming to Young’s Point on our way from St. Louis. The country there is low and flat. While there I got some of the largest grapes I ever saw. There were larger than tame grapes. They are very sour now but it is said they are sweet and delicious when they get ripe, which is in the fall. Muscadine is their name.

Next we stopped at Hane’s or Snyder’s Bluffs. If you recollect, this pace was taken by our forces a few months ago. It is a very commanding place. One point in particular looks as though it would be almost impossible to take. It is a high point, almost perpendicular for 60 or 70 feet in nearly every side. We have a good many troops camped there now. It is said to be very unhealthy there.

During the 12th we ran up about 75 miles. We stopped at two or three plantations going up that day. The whole division stopped at one large plantation. Just as soon as the boats landed, the boys jumped ashore and broke for a large cornfield. The field was a very large one containing perhaps 500 acres. The boys returned to the boats with their arms full of corn. It was as good corn was I ever saw. Some of it was too hard for roasting ears. Some of the boys went to the planter’s house and got some eggs, apples, peaches, &c.

The Yazoo is so narrow that a steamboat can scarcely turn around in it. The Sunflower, which is a small, dead river, puts into the Yazoo twenty or thirty miles above its mouth. Its waters come from the swamps and is as clear as crystal but of a bluish green and has no current. It contrasts strangely with the waters of the Yazoo which is yellow and the muddiest looking water I ever saw. The Yazoo water, it is said, is the most unwholesome water in the whole South, and if drunken to any extent, will produce fever. The banks of the stream are bordered by almost impenetrable forests, for the first fifty or sixty miles from the mouth. The river is very, very crooked. Bayou’s [  ] the river all along, in which are a good many alligators. From Yazoo City down fifty miles, the land along the river is mostly cultivated. It is the richest country I ever saw. The country is all level, all the way to the Mississippi towards Memphis. I thought I saw almost enough corn to supply the whole rebel army a year.

We lay up on the night of the 12th. During the forenoon of the 13th we passed the gunboats which started up the other day before we did. There were three gunboats and two boats of the Mosquito Fleet—that is, steamboats with the lower deck protected by iron plates and carrying a few guns. There were 8 or 9 steamboats carrying the Army of the Frontier, all under Gen. [Francis J.] Herron. Early in the afternoon of the 13th we landed three miles below Yazoo City. It was said the place was garrisoned by a force of rebels and that they were well fortified and had some heavy guns.

The gunboats proceeded up to the city and about four or five o’clock in the evening they commenced to bombard the city. About 6 p. m. all the infantry landed. The 94th Illinois took the lead and the 19th [Iowa] next. About a mile from where we landed is a bridge on the road to the city. The rebels had fired this bridge and we were just in time to put it out. Just about dark our company were sent in the advance as sort of skirmishing pickets. We crossed a creek, advanced through a large and rough meadow and into a cornfield, and took position near the top of the hill, next the woods. There were deep and dangerous gullies through the land besides stumps and fallen trees. We remained there until eleven o’clock at night when we were relieved. During the early part of the night a couple of negroes came into our lives and said the Rebs intended to fight. About 12 o’clock that night we were ordered to fall into line and go to town. The rebels had skedaddled. We expected the morrow would bring forth a great battle. It was very strange marching on a rebel city at the dead hour of the night!

On nearing the city the ground became elevated and rough. Up on the river, just above the city, we could see great fires which we found when we reached the city, to the steamboats the Rebs had fired to prevent them falling into our hands. By the time we reached the city, out boats were there also. We passed the Navy yard on our way to the city. We marched through the main streets of the place and camped in front of the Court House. It was 1 o’clock when we entered the city. I slept on the porch of a house nearby. Some of us went round to the cistern to get a drink. The folks were rich and had everything. We found a box of tablecloths &c. marked “Steamer Dew Drop” which came off a steamer which the rebels captured from us some time ago. I took one of the tablecloths which I sent you.

Another rebel city has fallen and Yazoo City is ours! At daylight on the next morning (14th) I waked up and awoke my partner, Charlie Wright, and told him we had better go out prospecting. We looked around about us and got some apples and peaches, and then we went to a palatial residence to see what we could find. The negroes were milking and we asked them if there was anything in the house which we could get to eat. They told us there was. They went to get the key to the dining room but thinking they didn’t return soon enough, we hoisted the window and went in. There lay the remnants of their last nights supper, china ware and silver plate, and I picked up all the knives and forks and spoons which I sent home, except the large knife. We then went to the safe where we found some splendid boiled ham, chicken, splendid light bread, &c. which we put in our haversacks, and then left for camp. You may be surprised at this confession and still further surprised to learn your son would thus appropriate such goods in such manner. I am not ashamed of it for I consider I did right. The ones from whom I took those goods are our enemies—traitors in their country. Besides their property has been virtually confiscated by an act of Congress.

We learned that there were but four or five hundred rebels in Yazoo, and they fled immediately upon our gunboats opening upon them. As to numbers, however, the citizens word is all we can judge by. I believe there were more then….

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