Sunday, February 4, 2024

Repairs on Pemberton's Headquarters at Vicksburg finally moving full steam ahead. This is where the general stayed in last months of the siege

Workers are doing a total rebuild of the home's front porch (NPS photos)
After delays due to a redesign and the availability of quality wood, workers have finished the roof and are rebuilding the deteriorated front porch of Confederate Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton’s headquarters in Vicksburg, Ms., officials said.

In December, crews finished repairing the roof the Willis-Cowan House, Vicksburg National Military Park recently announced regarding the major rehabilitation project on the dwelling. Porch work is expected to be completed by summer.

Pemberton used the home on Crawford Street as his headquarters from May 23-July 4, 1863, during the Union army’s siege on Vicksburg.

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

The home survived the Civil War, 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. Some observers have commented online about the lengthy closure.

The Picket reached out to the park about the extensive rehabilitation of the building. Superintendent Carrie Mardorf (left) provided these details. Responses have been edited.

Q. Regarding the porch, the park has said it wanted to use salvageable wood when possible. Has that happened? If so, can you generally detail how much is being reused and how? What type of new wood is going up?

A. Yes, salvageable wood was reused to the degree possible. However, during the dismantling of the porch, there was additional deterioration in several of the wood members that was not anticipated. Because if this, it was determined that 100% of the structural members (posts, joists, and rafters), and 70% plus of the balustrade and floor/ceiling planks had to be replaced. The new wood is a mixture of treated lumber for joists and rafters (to prevent future deterioration), and Southern yellow pine for columns and other millwork.

(NPS photo)
Q. Are the white column supports for the porch the ones that were already there?

A. Yes, those components were able to be reused. 

Q. The park had said: (Previous) shortening of the columns caused a flat roof over the west side of the porch to slope in the wrong direction, causing moisture problems. How has that been addressed? Are the new columns going to be longer?

A. New structural columns now rest on a metal column plate, which will not be seen once the trim boards are added. The plate will keep the bottom portion of the columns dry to prevent rot.  The lower portion of the previous structural columns rotted (and thus appeared shorter) because there was no metal plate. The replacement column height will be the original height.

A. Regarding the roof, the project listed this objective: 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. Did all of that occur?

A. Yes, all of the work has occurred, and structural modifications were needed. Structural modification included the introduction of structural steel to support the weight of the new roof. Additional repairs are also underway for all the other millwork. The project paused due to the availability of quality structural lumber and the length of time to acquire it. (At right, a historic photo of the facade)

Q. Has the work been constant the past two years, or has it been done in spurts?

A. The project paused in 2022-2023 to redesign the porch to address structural concerns and replace additional wood members that had unforeseen deterioration. The redesign included more metal structural supports and the new plans had to be reviewed and approved by the State Historic Preservation Office.  Work resumed in November 2023. 

Q. The estimated price tag for the work two years back was $704,000. Is that current?

A. The project increased by $300,000 to incorporate the structural redesign and additional repairs to the porch. Total project construction cost is now approximately $1.1 million.

Pemberton and the Willis-Cowan house before work began (Library of Congress and NPS)
Q. Any interesting finds so far during the project -- artifacts, architectural and construction details?

A. No, Pemberton's Headquarters served as a private residence from the late 1800s to early 2000s. The building and site have been heavily altered over time by its previous residents. 

Q. What will become of the building? Will it be staffed/reopened to the public? If so, when might that happen?

A. The building will continue to be preserved. The roof and porch project is the first of several needed repairs to address deferred maintenance. Additional phases of work are planned to address interior repairs, exterior windows and doors, upgraded utilities including fire suppression system, and retaining walls. The structure will not be staffed or opened to the public until the phases of work are completed.

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