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The Captain of the Junior Volunteers 1
EARLY in the war I organized some of the Vicksburg boys into a military company by the name of the Junior Volunteers, and I was elected captain. We were from twelve to fifteen years of age, and I reckon there were twenty-five or thirty of us. But when Vicksburg began to be threatened lots of people moved away, and the Junior Volunteers all scattered off and the company was broken up.
My mother was one of those that refugeed. She took me and her three other children off across the Big Black River. We just packed up a few clothes and things and went out there and rented. That was somewhere along the first part of '63 when I wasn’t over fourteen at the furthest. My father was an auctioneer of new and second-hand furniture hyar. Most of the stores were closed and business was at a standstill, but he stayed to take care of our house which was right on the chief business street.
The rest of us moved out in the country into a four-room building with a big chimney in the middle and a gallery in front. Our food supply was pretty scanty, and I remember that for one solid week we lived on rice. We boiled it and ate it without even sugar.
Mother had some silver forks and spoons, and she used them regular on the table. She thought we were way off where there was no need of hiding things. One morning two Northern stragglers came to the door, shortly after we'd finished breakfast, and wanted something to eat. Mother always gave such men, whether of the North or of the South, what we had ourselves. I never saw her refuse. The soldiers came in, sat down at the table, and ate. When they were through one of 'em picked up the spoons and examined 'em one by one to see if they really were silver. Then he slipped 'em into his pocket and started to leave, but Mother grabbed him.
"Let go of me," he said.
"No, you've got my silver," she told him.
He went into the next room with her clinging to his clothes, and we children looked on too frightened to move.
"If you don't let me loose I'll hurt you!" the man shouted.
But she wasn’t one who could be intimidated. "You've got to give up that silver," she told him.
He stopped struggling and said, "Well, I'll put it right back where I got it."
So he returned to the dining-room, but instead of doing as he had promised he bolted out the back door with the silver in his hand. He ran around the house and she after him. Mother had a loaded six-shooter in her pocket. Every woman had a pocket in her dress at that time. She pulled the revolver out as the fellow was about to go over the fence, and said, "Stop right there or I'll kill you"; and she'd have done it, too.
But the man brought back the silver. She had won. It was not, however, a victory that cost her nothing. The excitement of that thing nearly killed her. For weeks afterward the barking of a dog or any sudden noise would startle her so she wouldn’t know what to do.
After a while we heard that Grant had moved down below Vicksburg on the west side of the Mississippi and had crossed over to our side. It seemed to us that we'd be safer back in the town. So we put our trunks and heavy luggage on a dray, and got ready a two-seated barouche and a buggy. A black drove the dray, my mother and brother took turns driving the barouche, and I drove the buggy principally myself. It was late in the evening when we reached Vicksburg and entered our old home.
The next day, as soon as I had a chance, I went to look up my Junior Volunteers. I could only find my lieutenant, Walter Cook. He and I went around a good deal together in the days that followed.
We were under fire for the first time when the fighting began in the immediate vicinity about the middle of May. The two of us had gone a little more than two miles out of town and were on the Confederate left by the old Spanish fort. While we were standing there the Federal sharpshooters began firing across the hilltop very rapid.
Our men had two twelve-pound guns there that they were firing, and we wanted to watch them. A few rods away was a pair of mules hitched to an old china tree. We saw several branches that the Minie balls cut off fall down onto the mules, and we retreated to a little smooth green hollow. That seemed safe enough, but as we were peeping up over the edge a ball passed right between us, and I remarked, "Walter, we better get away."
So we slid down the hill to the Yazoo Road and went along back toward the town. Pretty soon we met two soldiers and we had stopped to talk with them when a bullet came over the hill and struck the ground near us. It bounded up and hit me a rather sharp blow in the back and dropped down into the road. "Come on, Walter," I said, "we'll be killed hyar yet."
One of the soldiers called after me; "Bud, stop and pick up that ball."
But we kept on, and we didn’t go slow either. Those Minie rifles carried three miles, and it seem like the balls followed us all the way to town.
My people had a cave back of our house, under a bank. It was just arched out, and it had no timbers inside. The sides, top, and floor were plain earth. There was no door at the opening, but we erected a tent there. The hill was too low for the cave to be safe. If one of the big shells had come down through the roof it would have been the end of us. There was lots of power in those shells. When one went into the earth it often tore up a place large enough to bury a horse or a cow. Once, along about the middle of the evening, a shell exploded near by while my sister was sitting in the cave, and the jar of the explosion loosened a lot of earth and covered her out of sight. We soon got her out. She was stunned, but not seriously hurt.
The sound of a shell was z-z-z-z-z-zimp! That "zimp" was when it hit the ground. If it burst it made a large white and bluish smoke. One day Mother was layin' down in the house. The shells began to fly, and she started for the cave. She had almost got to the tent when a shell went through it. That shell just did miss her.
We slept in the cave at night, and we kept something to eat in there. Mother had a few things saved in the food line. We didn’t go hungry, and we had plenty of coffee to drink made out of toasted sweet potato and parched corn.
Some didn’t fare so well. One gentleman killed and cooked a cat, and he e't some, and his wife e't some. I reckon it tasted 'bout like a piece of squirrel.
They say the soldiers e't mule meat and horse meat. I had an uncle who was one of Vicksburg's defenders, and he told us there were some Mexicans in the army who prepared the mule meat. They pulled off every bit of flesh on the animal — cut it off in slices like a butcher cuts steak, and rolled the bones and hide and all the waste down into the Mississippi River. They punched a little hole in each strip of meat and pushed a slender stick through. The sticks were a yard long and held quite a number of pieces. To cure the meat they made fires ten feet or more long. The firewood was from old houses that the soldiers pulled down. Crotched sticks three or four feet high were stuck in the ground at the corners of the fires to support poles on either side. Then the sticks with the meat were put on the poles over the fires. That was the way they made jerked mule meat, and you couldn’t 'a' told it, sir, from dried beef, so my uncle said, unless you noticed that it was coarser grained.
Sometimes they boiled the mule meat. They did the boiling in a hollow where the enemy couldn’t see 'em, and my uncle said the odor in that hollow while the cookin' was goin' on was terrible. They had to just stand there and skim off the pots, but when the meat was done it tasted all right. My uncle said that the fact of the matter was they couldn’t have kept up the defense hyar nearly so long if it hadn’t been for the mule meat and the plentiful supply of sugar and molasses.
The last gun was fired 'bout eight o'clock on the morning of July 3d. Everything seemed strangely quiet, and we heard that the city was going to surrender. I went up on a high place and looked off. I could see little white flags all along on our breastworks, and the Yankees and Rebels were just sitting up there enjoying themselves like brothers who'd met after being long parted. You wouldn’t think that for weeks and weeks they'd been trying to kill each other. Well, our men were mighty hungry, and a man who's starving would be friendly with his greatest enemy in the world if that enemy brought him food.
The last Confederate rashions were served on the evening of the 2d, and our soldiers had no more rashions till the Yankees supplied them on the evening of the 5th. It would have gone hard with the poor fellows if the Federals hadn’t fed them out of their haversacks. The trouble was that our officers were all drunk. They got into the whiskey and were having a big time, and no business was transacted.
On the morning of the 4th the transports came around the bend of the river. Just as they got opposite Court Square they fired a salute. The boats tied up at the wharves at twelve o'clock. A flagstaff had been put up on the square, and some soldiers came and ran up the stars and stripes.
A few days later I bought some lemons and made a bucket of lemonade. I stood right on the corner of the street under a cedar tree at the end of our yard and sold the lemonade all out to the soldiers. I took in the first greenback money I had seen — five, ten, and twenty-five cent pieces — and I made thirty-five cents.
Shortly afterward, a suttler opened what was called a shebang, and I worked for him two or three months. We stood inside of his shanty and sold cakes and spruce beer, cider, and ice pop to the soldiers.
The Union troops, as I remember them, behaved very well hyar in town. They were not allowed to disturb anything, but I know they'd sometimes raid a stand in the market. You'd hear a racket and find they'd jostled the stand and sent what was on it flying. Then they'd scramble around and get away with some of the oranges and things. However, that was just mischief, and on the whole they were pretty orderly.
1 My informant was a man of much natural ability, yet evidently one on whom drink had long had an overpowering grip. We visited in the smoke-laden atmosphere of a town pool-room.