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Ask Rufus: How Silent the Country Is


This drawing of the destruction and burning of Jackson, by Union troops was published by Harper’s Weekly on June 20, 1863.

This drawing of the destruction and burning of Jackson, by Union troops was published by Harper’s Weekly on June 20, 1863. Photo by: Courtesy photo


Rufus Ward



As we approach the doom and gloom of the fiscal cliff, its repercussions are mild compared to what was happening here 150 years ago.  


In this, the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, much has been written and said about the battles and leaders. There was a huge reenactment at Shiloh last spring and Lincoln is now a hit movie. But there has been little said about the effects of such a horrible war on families and common people in Mississippi. 


Diaries and letters from the Columbus area in 1863 paint a bleak, depressing portrait of life. A Jan. 25, 1863 letter from William Sykes to James Sykes in Columbus describes panic along the Yazoo River with the approach of Union troops and shortages of both food and clothing. In a later letter Sykes wrote, "We find ourselves here without anything, our country is void of almost every thing needed except corn, of which there is plenty." 


The 1863 diary of Lucy Neilson is filled with death and sadness. Several of her cousins died in battle and one died from winter exposure while a Union prisoner. She describes many people being ill including "Sis Lizzie," who suffered from a "dreadful cough." Lucy did comment, though, that being young; "Altho, our afflictions were so many and so frequent, I soon shook off the impressions and was quite gay."  


In 1862 Columbus had become both a hospital center and a place of refuge. Its role in those areas only grew during 1863. Many acts of kindness took place, including tending to sick and wounded and caring for refugees. 


In the spring of 1863 General Daniel Ruggles, the Confederate commander at Columbus, complimented the local "Committee for Relief of Exiles" for assisting refugees. He especially recognized Mrs. Long for taking into her home three ladies who had fled to Columbus. He also requested that the ladies -- Mrs. Sappington, Mrs London and Mrs. Smizer -- be provided additional assistance. In conclusion, Ruggles expressed concern about "other ladies still at Okolona" who needed assistance. Not all such help and assistance had good endings, however.. Stephen Brown's wife died of typhoid fever she had contracted while tending a sick soldier. 


The most vivid image I have found, of the north Mississippi countryside 150 years ago, appears in a letter marked: Holly Springs, Jan. 5,1863, published by the Cincinnati Daily Gazette.  


The writer had ridden through the north Mississippi countryside and recorded his impressions: 


"First you notice how silent the country is; though you ride for miles past fenced fields, and catch glimpses of houses now and then, you hear none of the usual sounds of country life; no lowing of cattle, nor neighing of horses, nor braying of mules, nor bleating of sheep, nor shout or song of laborers in the field. Everything of the animal has long since been driven off to the camps of one army or the other. You ride to the summit of the highest hill and survey the country far and wide but in all the broad fields you see no human being...On four-fifths of the plantations you pass you see no living soul. On some, the doors and windows of the deserted houses stand open wide, but there is nothing but emptiness within; and on others nothing but the tall chimneys, whightened (sic) by the flames remain...If you go into one of the few houses which are still occupied, you find large landed proprietors who have nothing left to eat but a little cornbread, and whose threadbare apparel indicates that merchants and dealers in clothes have since become an extinct class." 


And we think times might get bad because of the fiscal cliff?


Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]


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