You always assume anything really interesting must have happened on the other side of the world. I rather suspect kids raised in Jerusalem, Athens, or Volgograd feel pretty blasé about their local history as well. However, as a product of the American Deep South myself, there was quite a lot of tragic stuff that once unfolded in my backyard.
It was the early summer of 1863, and America was rabid to tear itself apart. The war had been going on for two long bloody years, and the ultimate outcome was far from certain. Lee and Longstreet were preparing to spend the Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg. Simultaneously some 1,000 miles to the Southwest 70,000 Federal troops under US Grant stood poised to wrest control of a little Mississippi town called Vicksburg from General John Pemberton’s 33,000 Confederates.
Vicksburg held a commanding view of the Mississippi River, then the equivalent of the nation’s only north-south interstate highway. Pemberton’s Confederates held it. Grant’s Federals wanted it. The stage was set for an epic siege.
Rivers of ink have been spilt exploring the innermost thoughts, campaigns, successes, and failures of the Generals. These rarefied military rock stars get all the proper press. However, it isn’t the Generals who typically do the fighting and dying. It is in the small things and the normal folk where the true tragedy and triumph may be found. Such a poignant event occurred on a friend’s plantation just outside Vicksburg proper. The farm and associated holdings have been in my buddy’s family for as far back as institutional memory might span.
The Fog of War
This plantation had the poor fortune of hosting the most favorable river landing for Union troops staging for the pending siege. All the local males of military age had long since left to fight. What remained to tend the plantation was the matriarch, the young ladies of the family, and the standard complement of slaves. The entire Neapolitan mob toiled together to fight off rank starvation.
US Grant himself along with all of his entourage had landed the day before, swept through like locusts, and moved on. One of the young Union officers had a horse that had come up lame. He appropriated another from the family stable but apologized profusely for the imposition. Draft animals in this place at this time could literally spell the difference between life and death, and the young officer did not confiscate this one lightly.
As quickly as the Union command group had arrived it was gone, moved on to the more pressing affairs of strangling the population of Vicksburg. The following day, however, there landed a solitary Union officer. He was armed, inebriated, and looking for trouble.
This Federal officer was a straggler. The specifics of his story were never known. However, when he realized both the local men as well as his superiors were long since gone he felt it was time to become acquainted with the local ladies.
This man carried a .58-caliber single-shot horse pistol as he made his way up onto the expansive porch of the plantation house. The matriarch planted herself in the doorway and forbade him entry into her home. The flower of young genteel Southern womanhood resided therein, and she could justifiably see little good to come from this Yankee drunkard gaining entry. The older woman was of modest build, however, and the younger man fairly strapping. Even in his intoxicated state, it became obvious that he was soon to get past her.
At the same time, the senior male slave was industriously digging a rose bed in front of the house, breaking up the ground with a heavy pickaxe. He was close enough to hear the matriarch’s frantic remonstrations but kept to himself. When the lady of the house planted herself boldly across the doorway the drunken soldier placed his hand on the butt of his pistol. He had traveled far from home to teach these Rebels a lesson, and no slight woman past her prime was going to deprive him of some proper companionship.
The family slave then felt compelled to act. While the inebriated Yankee argued vociferously with the lady of the house this man quietly walked up the steps behind him, swung the pickaxe he had previously been using on the rose bed, and buried the spike end up to the handle in the randy Federal’s skull. The Union officer was dead before he hit the porch.
For many officers serving in the American Civil War, it was a come-as-you-are fight. The Union had the resources to kit out large combat formations in uniform clothing and weapons. Confederates were frequently a more motley mob. However, even Federal officers typically bought their own swords and sidearms.
I have seen a photograph of the pistol this hapless Union officer wielded that fateful day back in 1863. As near as I could tell it was a Model 1855 Harper’s Ferry single shot horse pistol. These heavy guns were typically carried across the pommel of the saddle in a symmetrical holster balanced on the opposite side by the gun’s detachable shoulder stock. They were intended to bring down an enemy’s mount if necessary. These .58-caliber guns were evolutionary developments of the original Model 1805 US Marshal Harper’s Ferry flintlock pistols.
Those earliest guns represented the first design produced by an American national armory. This flintlock weapon was the standard handgun of the American Dragoons who fought during the War of 1812. This same basic chassis was upgraded several times between 1805 and the onset of the Civil War.
The first .54-caliber M1805 guns were copied from the 1798-vintage French Pistolet Modele An. IX. The final model of 1855 featured octagonal rifling that tapered to a smoothbore at the muzzle. The ramrod was positively retained on a swivel to prevent its loss while reloading from horseback.
Most of these guns were primed using the notoriously unreliable Maynard tape priming system. They typically launched a 450-grain Minie ball with annular grease grooves. Though clearly obsolete on a battlefield liberally populated with revolvers, these massive guns still offered the sort of knockdown power usually reserved for shoulder arms.
The Rest of the Story
The matriarch of the family was rendered hysterical by the loyal slave’s spontaneous actions. While she was grateful that he had so ably defended the virtue of the young ladies inside the house, she was also justifiably terrified about what the Federals might do to them all once they discovered the killing. The story goes that the black man retrieved his pickaxe from the man’s skull and casually observed, “Well, ma’am, I’m digging an awful nice rose bed right over there.”
The slave buried the man on the spot before sowing his rose bushes liberally across the top of the grave. The heavy single-shot handgun has since been passed down through the generations all the way to the present. No one ever came inquiring after the fallen Union officer, and I suppose his corpse remains undisturbed underneath that Mississippi rose bed to this very day.
Two years later the war finally ground to its gory conclusion. The Union officer who had appropriated the horse was assigned to occupation duty in New Orleans. He posted a letter back to the matriarch of the plantation once again apologizing for having taken the animal and including fair monetary compensation for the loss. This letter remains in the family today as well.
Most modern students of history weigh slavery as the primary causative agent behind this bloodiest war in American history. The ownership of human beings by other humans is morally repugnant to the civilized mind, so this makes for a reasonable narrative. Interestingly, roughly 90% of those fighting for the Confederacy did indeed not own slaves. However, they were typically young and, like most junior soldiers today, had not the time to accumulate much in the way of possessions.
The capacity of individual states to determine their own destinies fundamentally shifted with the American Civil War. The founders never could have imagined the ponderous leviathan that the US federal government has become in the modern age. It is the most behemoth undertaking in all of human history. The expansive powers wielded by the US federal government would have been utterly terrifying to men who had staked their fortunes and their lives on an existential fight to throw off the oppressive tyranny of King George III, his intrusive governance, and his onerous taxes.
The concept of states’ rights died in 1865 along with the doomed Confederate cause. With the benefit of hindsight, this was indeed a modest price to pay to retire the reprehensible practice of slavery. Amidst an entire nation at war with itself, however, one small tragic drama played out on the front porch of a plantation house during a hot summer afternoon outside Vicksburg, Mississippi. This hapless Union officer’s unwitting contribution no doubt enhanced some simply superb Southern roses.