ECW is pleased to welcome back our friend, Dr. Curt Fields. Curt is nationally known for his acclaimed portrayal of Ulysses S. Grant. This week, he reflects on some of the highlights of his career thus far. (part four of seven)
Part Four: Vicksburg
The Vicksburg 150th proved to be insightful because of the numbers of people who came through the park for the event. Standing on the surrender knoll, re-creating the talks between Pemberton and Grant, as a large crowd stood at the base of the hill listening, was humbling because the spectators were clearly moved. All of us on that hill from both staffs were equally touched. Later that morning, standing on the same Warren County Court House steps that Grant stood on to address a large crowd, in real-time, about what the citizens of Vicksburg could expect from Federal troops during the occupation was a moving experience made moreso by the sobbing of people in the crowd because it was such an emotionally charged moment.
I did not use a specific text for the address. I don’t think one exists. What I said was based on research, though. I had a good idea, given what he had said at Donelson to the people of the town of Dover and the Federal soldiers. I told the people of Vicksburg that if they returned to their homes and obeyed the laws in place, they would not be bothered and that their property would not be disturbed. I also told them that they were not to jeer, insult, or harass the Federal soldiers, and if they were bothered by Federal soldiers to let proper authority know of the problem and it would be dealt with swiftly. I made it clear to the Federal soldiers in attendance that they were to follow the same directives I had just given the civilians. Swift punishment would be the result of any transgression by any soldier.
I then stated we would be looking for property that could be used as war materiel, and that WE would determine what was or was not useful for an army. Military stuffs would be confiscated and destroyed. That was a shifting of position for Grant from a “hands-off personal property in occupied areas” policy. He had come to feel, through experience, that it was necessary to take out of the hands of the people anything that could be used against Federal soldiers. His position was hardening.
It was a brief statement overall. However, the thick emotion present, even unto tears in the crowd and the Confederate soldiers, was profound History can, without a doubt, can be brought to life.
Strategy and tactics were not so evident at Vicksburg because the siege took place there, not the battles leading up to the siege. The futility of doomed and bloody assaults on May 19 and 22 , however, are clear to the park visitor. Walking the ground at Vicksburg is important but I saw, as Grant, that it should be accompanied by knowledge of how the campaign got to that battlefield. The battlefield, as preserved, is so easily seen as an abstract because the scars and clear-cut fields-of-fire are no longer visible. The aesthetics of Vicksburg will obscure what was done there. The rolling hills and sharply plunging ravines and gullies covered in kudzu and ivy have covered the grim ugliness of what happened there. The lovely park terrain now lulls the military senses and keep the starkness of siege warfare at bay. Vicksburg is exceedingly difficult now to see it as Grant saw it then.
I was honored to have portrayed Grant at the 150th of Vicksburg. I tried, as noted, to see it as he saw it and had much difficulty doing so. However, I left Vicksburg with a keen sense of Grant’s patience in coordinating the many battles of the Campaign that brought him to surround the city and the 47-day siege. I left Vicksburg with a sense of Grant’s patience in conducting the siege and his magnanimity toward the surrendering Confederates demonstrated in his generous surrender terms. I learned that ‘Unconditional Surrender Grant’ is by no means an accurate title. His generosity was extended to orders for no cannon salutes, bands playing, or jeering and teasing of the surrendered Confederates. None of the actions involved in the Vicksburg surrender support the Grant image we see too often.
In tomorrow’s segment, the Sesquicentennial continues as Curt visits Appomattox for the 150th anniversary of Lee’s surrender.
For more on Curt’s work, check out the ECW Podcast/YouTube video with Curt, or read about the “Fridays with Grant” series sponsored by the Civil War Roundtable Congress. And, of course, you can find Curt on the web on the web at generalgrantbyhimself.com.