Written by Mariam Touba, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections.
One hundred-fifty years ago, in the late spring of 1863, the news was troubling for Federal forces as they awaited an invasion of the northern states by Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The hope was that Major General Ulysses S. Grant, operating with some independence in the West, could accomplish his goal of gaining full control of the Mississippi River. Standing in the way was the Confederate outpost at Vicksburg. Grant’s determined pursuit of this goal included attempting to build a canal to bypass the stronghold, a frontal assault on the city, the laying of mines under Confederate barricades, and bombardment from gunboats. He finally settled into a relentless siege of the city.
As the siege of Vicksburg began in the third week of May 1863, General Grant’s troops dug themselves into over 60,000 feet of trenches around the works protecting the city. Stationed in nearby dugouts and forced to conserve ammunition, the Confederate defenders could only trade nightly gibes and barter for coffee and newspapers with their besiegers. Civilians shoveled themselves into more commodious hillside caves, an arrangement the Union soldiers dubbed “Prairie Dog Village.” The non-combatants usually managed to escape the exploding shells but suffered most from the food and water shortages.
Confederate survivors of the siege of Vicksburg contended that most civilians were as generous as they could be but that, as the wealthy had been able to flee, the danger of starvation fell to the indigent and to abandoned Confederate army horses. Survivors would also recall the multiple terrors of incendiary shells, Federal sharpshooters firing on anyone who approached the river for water, and newly-designed Parrott missiles so rapid that they arrived even before the report of the gun could be heard.
Also fired was a bit of psychological warfare in the form of a printed circular beginning, “Cave in boys and save your lives, which are considered of no value by your officers.”
A Union officer claimed that 300 leaflets were fired in bombshells into Confederate lines with the hope that a few would arrive intact and help break the resolve of the besieged. It may be more likely that the small papers were floated in balloons. In any case, the Confederates apparently saw none of them, but this one—likely never fired or floated—survives in the New-York Historical Society collections.
In a city where the besieged citizens and soldiers lacked for food and water, the shortage of paper would have been of relatively small concern, but the editor of the Vicksburg Daily Citizen also had to be resourceful.
Like newspaper publishers elsewhere in the Confederacy, he issued his newspaper on the blank side of bolts of wallpaper. The paper’s tone is one of defiance as it reports on the success of Robert E. Lee marching toward Gettysburg (“To-day Maryland is ours, tomorrow Pennsylvania will be, and the next day Ohio”).
Editor J. M. Swords ridicules the “Yankee Generalissimo” Grant’s ambition to dine in Vicksburg on the Fourth of July by reminding the general that he would have to “catch the rabbit” first. He assures the citizens that “there is plenty within our lines” and that “Confederate beef,” i.e., mule meat, is “sweet, savory and tender.” This rare surviving newspaper, dated July 2, 1863, was found set in type in the printing office when, on July 4, the city capitulated and Federal forces entered after 47 days of siege. Not losing an opportunity to put out the news, the Union troops reissued the paper with this addendum in the lower right corner:
Note. Two days bring about great changes. The banner of the Union floats over Vicksburg. Gen. Grant has “caught the rabbit;” he has dined in Vicksburg, and he did bring his dinner with him. The “Citizen” lives to see it. For the last time it appears on “Wall-paper.” No more will it eulogize the luxury of mule-meat and fricasseed kitten—urge Southern warriors to such diet never more. This is the last wall-paper edition, and is, excepting this note, from the types as we found them. It will be valuable here-after as a curiosity.
As for the citizens of Vicksburg, Mississippi, tradition states that they did not celebrate the Fourth of July for decades.