Thursday, February 3, 2022

Confederate generals decided in this Vicksburg home to surrender. Now Pemberton's headquarters is getting some much-needed repairs

John C. Pemberton and his headquarters (Library of Congress and National Park Service)
As Union forces tightened their siege of Vicksburg, Ms., in spring 1863, Confederate soldiers and civilians alike lived under constant terror from thousands of artillery shells raining down on the fortress city

Emma Balfour (below), whose stately mansion was among those on bluffs above the Mississippi River, chronicled the siege with colorful prose, including this passage in her diary: “As I sat at my window, I saw mortars from the west passing entirely over the house and the parrot shells from the east passing by, crossing each other, and this terrible fire raging in the center.”

At a residence next door on Crawford Street, Confederate Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton – working from a first-floor office -- and his staff tried to manage the desperate situation. But by July 2, it appeared his isolated, famished and exhausted army could withstand no more. That night, they met and decided to negotiate for peace with Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.

“This was the culmination of one of the most brilliant military campaigns of the war. With the loss of Pemberton's army and this vital stronghold on the Mississippi, the Confederacy was effectively split in half,” the National Park Service says. “Grant's successes in the West boosted his reputation, leading ultimately to his appointment as General-in-Chief of the Union armies.

Many historians consider the loss of Vicksburg and the Union victory that day at Gettysburg to be the turning point of the Civil War.

Pemberton’s Headquarters survived, becoming a residence, Catholic school and bed and breakfast over the years. The NPS acquired the property in 2003 and opened it to visitors from 2008 to 2016, when it was closed because of safety concerns.

Now, the Greek Revival National Historic Landmark is undergoing a $704,000 rehabilitation by Vicksburg National Military Park. Work, which began Monday and is expected to last into October, will primarily focus on the front porch and roof.

“Installing a new roofing system to today's roofing code will allow for a weathertight structure which will include a new slate roof, a stainless-steel coated metal roof, proper flashing at chimneys and walls, structural modifications throughout, and preservation repairs to wooden elements,” an overview of the project says.

Crews will document and dismantle the porch’s wooden structure “and masonry base down to grade, and then reconstruct the porch with salvaged materials when possible,” according to the Vicksburg Post newspaper.

A dweller in a Vicksburg cave beseeches the almighty (Library of Congress)
Pemberton used the Willis-Cowan House as his headquarters from May 23-July 4, 1863. William Bobb built the residence in 1835-36 and it was owned during the war by John Willis.

The location was ideal for the general, situated on the airy bluffs well above the stagnant marshes along the river, and close to the city's commercial and government center,” the park service says. It was his second headquarters during the siege; the first deemed too exposed to enemy fire.

The home’s rich history is documented in a 2005 NPS report that includes other diary entries from Balfour during the siege.

On May 23, the day Pemberton moved into the Willis-Cowan House, she wrote:

“I had to stop writing on Thursday. The shells exploded so thickly all around us, all day… We sat or stood in front of the house til eleven o’clock, knowing that it would never do to go to bed as several houses had already been struck, Mrs. Pryor’s and Mrs. Willis’ … “

Bombproofs near the Shirley House in Vicksburg (Library of Congress)
At this point, hundreds of terrified Vicksburg residents were living in caves dug into hillsides. Balfour and her husband stayed at home, taking in wounded soldiers. She reportedly sent buttermilk to a Confederate general and his staff each morning.

Balfour penned this passage on May 30:

“We had comparative quiet yesterday, after the morning, till five o’clock when the most fearful cannonading commenced from the lines. I never saw anything like it. People were running in every direction to find a place of safety. The shells fell literally like hail. Mrs. Willis’ house was struck twice and two horses in front of her door killed. Gen. Pemberton and staff had to quit it.”

(National Park Service, click to enlarge)
Balfour’s diary speaks of some damage to Pemberton’s Headquarters, though historians considered it minor, according the NPS. Damage to the floor in one bedroom is believed to be a result of the bombardment and a number of windows were likely blown out.

By July, the situation was untenable for the besieged. Years after the war, Pemberton wrote:

“Feeling assured that it was useless to hope longer for assistance from General Johnston, either to raise the siege of Vicksburg or to rescue the garrison, I summoned division and brigade commanders, with one or two others, to meet in my quarters on the night of the second of July. All the correspondence that had taken place during the siege was laid before these officers. After much consideration it was advised that I address a note to General Grant, proposing the appointment of commissioners to arrange terms of capitulation.”

Pemberton sent a letter to Grant on July 3 and the surrender occurred the next day.

Home of William and Emma Balfour and an old photo of Pemberton HQ
(Robert Berryman, Wikipedia, and Library of Congress)
In a twist of fate, Balfour’s home became the headquarters of Union Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson. The couple returned later; Emma died in 1887, 10 years after her husband.

As for the future of Pemberton’s Headquarters? The park service said it is considering the best use in the long term. Given needed repairs to the interior, there is no current reopening date.

Brendan Wilson of Vicksburg National Military Park said staff will post updates on the project and a photo gallery of the work here.

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