Thursday, August 12, 2010

Mississippi in the Civil War: The Home Front

Mississippi in the Civil War: The Home Front. By Timothy B. Smith.

In his latest book Timothy Smith tackles the Mississippi home front during the war. Although several Mississippi battles are mentioned they are only discussed as context for some other topic, this book is not intended to inform about every military engagement in the state during the war. Smith’s intent is to cover the entirety of the Mississippi home front, some aspects of which have never been covered in such depth before.

The first half of the book focuses on the more traditional aspects of Civil War history. Smith starts off with a great chapter on Mississippi’s secession convention and explains how they did much more work than simply removing Mississippi from the Union. The convention then spent much time putting their state on footing as a country, at the time it was not a foregone conclusion that enough states would leave the Union to form a new country. Then they worked to make their state part of the Confederacy. Along the way they took time out to declare the reason they had seceded, firmly stating that it was to protect slavery and not for any other reason.

The next four chapters cover the state’s political system, the military complex that was destroyed, the infrastructure and the economy. These are the more traditional ways of discussing the home front. Smith then follows those with five chapters are areas that have barely been covered in the past. There are chapters on the war’s impact on culture, how women dealt with the war, the experience of blacks transforming from slavery to freedom, the loyal white population and the disloyal white population.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Much of it was new to me as I knew little of the Mississippi home front. One of the things I enjoyed was reading about Governor Charles Clark. Clark was a division commander at Shiloh but leaves that army afterwards and I really hadn't come across much about him. So I was excited to read about his time as governor. He was elected in November 1863 so he only saw a time of disappointment. At one point he made the following speech:

"There may be those who delude themselves with visions of a reconstructed Union and a restored Constitution. If such there be, let them awake from their dreaming! Let the last of our young men die upon the field of battle, and when none are left to wield a blade or uphold a banner, then let our old men, our women and our children, like the remnant of the heroic Pascagoulas, when their braves were slain, join hands together, march into the sea and perish beneath its waters."

So although the war effort was clearly fading quickly in the state he was still trying to do his best to hold it together. I also had to look up Pascagoulas as I've never heard of them before. According to legend, the peace-loving tribe walked single file into the Singing River, now known as the Pascagoula River, because the local Biloxi tribe were planning to attack. Anola, a princess of the Biloxi tribe, was in love with Altama, Chief of the Pascagoula tribe. She was betrothed to a chieftain of her own tribe, but fled with Altama to his people. The spurned and enraged Biloxi chieftain led his Biloxi braves to war against Altama and the neighboring Pascagoula. The Pascagoula swore they would either save the young chieftain and his bride or perish with them. When thrown into battle the Pascagoula were out-numbered and faced with enslavement by the Biloxi tribe or death. With their women and children leading the way, the Pascagoula joined hands and began to chant a song of death as they walked into the river until the last voice was hushed by the dark, engulfing waters. Apparently the Singing River is known throughout the world for its mysterious music. The singing sounds like a swarm of bees in flight and is best heard in late evenings during late summer and autumn. Barely heard at first, the music seems to grow nearer and louder until it sounds as though it comes directly under foot.

Another section I especially enjoyed was the part about the secession convention. They did much more work than simply secede, they had to get Mississippi ready to be its own country (only South Carolina had also seceded at this point, though others quickly joined them). For awhile they really operated more as the legislature as they created various boards to oversee a variety of essential tasks that would hopefully help Mississippi achieve its independence. Once it was clear that there would be a Confederacy these boards would work with the new nation to achieve those goals. They also took the time to explain that the cause of their secession was slavery.

Smith also does a great job explaining the complicated nature of Unionism in the state. Although it was the second state to secede there was quite a bit on Unionism. Some opposed secession on all grounds. Some opposed it until the new Lincoln administration proved it would not compromise on slavery. Some opposed it on practical grounds because they could see that war and/or separation would mean decreased business on the Mississippi River and a wide variety of Mississippians depended on the river trade for their livelihood, from business men to large plantation owners situated along the banks of the river.

In discussing the book with Smith I was pleased to learn that he has recently submitted a manuscript on Corinth. I look forward to that book as not much has been written about Corinth previously. I'll surely review that book too when it comes out.

1 comment:

Chris Evans said...

Great review.

Have been over the Singing River many times. Very neat to see it mentioned in the book and your review. That is one of the big legends of the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

The Mississippi coast has lots of interesting history going back to the Indians and the first French settlers. Andrew Jackson camped in Pascagoula on his way to the battle of New Orleans and ,of course, Jefferson Davis lived at Beauvoir on the beach in Biloxi. Too much of this history has been lost to development or storms.

It's interesting that Smith will be writing on Corinth. I'm anxious to see how different his work will be from Cozzens awesome book. That really has been the gold standard.