Cave Life- Civilians of Vicksburg

picture showing the constant bombardment of Vicksburg
The civilians of Vicksburg faced constant bombardment from land and river for over 47 days.
 
drawing of civilian woman in a cave
Drawing showing women living in caves in Vicksburg during the siege of 1863.
Surrounded by the enemy on all sides. Attacked from river and land for months. The only place to hide is in the ground itself. Taking shelter in hand dug caves became the new way of life for the civilians of Vicksburg.

Cave Life

Throughout Vicksburg National Military Park remnants of trenches and cannon emplacements dot the landscape, presenting a vivid reminder of the thousands of soldiers who endured the 47 day siege. Yet one other prominent remnant of the siege has almost completely disappeared from the landscape. During the siege the city of Vicksburg appeared to be, in the words of one citizen, “so honeycombed with caves that the streets look[ed] like avenues in a cemetery.” Despite the abundance of caves around the city during the war, today almost none remain. Only depressions in the ground provide any indication that once hundreds of citizens sought refuge under the soil.
 
drawing of woman in vicksburg cave
Artist drawing of life inside a Vicksburg cave.

Need for protection


The citizens of Vicksburg knew a battle could descend upon their town at any moment after Grant crossed the Mississippi River on April 29, 1863. However, most could not bring themselves to leave their homes and possessions. They had already weathered one bombardment by Flag Officer David Glasgow Farragut’s fleet during the summer of 1862. This time Acting Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter relied on his mortar scow flotilla to regularly shell the town. Each scow carried a 17,120 lb. mortar with the capacity to lob a 200 lb. shell 4,300 yards. Despite being inaccurate, the bursting shells sent large chunks of iron raining down onto the street as well as crashing into buildings. While not completely bombproof, caves provided the citizens a safe haven to weather the deluge of flying metal.
 
profile of Hough's Cave
Sketch of Hough's Cave

Cave Profile


These caves varied in size and comfort depending on how the cave was dug and the amount of people they were designed to hold and who did the digging. At the start of the siege cave digging became big business.

Following the siege, a wife of a soldier who followed her husband to Vicksburg, Mary Loughborough, wrote a memoir of her experiences during the siege entitled, My Cave Life in Vicksburg. She believed that, “… so great was the demand for cave workmen, that a new branch of industry sprang up and became popular – particularly as the personal safety of the workmen was secured, and money withal.”

A typical cave resembled the one Mrs. Loughborough lived in describing the cave as, “… an excavation in the earth the size of a large room, high enough for the tallest person to stand perfectly erect, provided with comfortable seats, and altogether quite a large and habitable abode (compared with some of the caves in the city), were it not for the dampness and the constant contact with the soft earthy walls.”

Some caves, like Hough’s Cave, formed a “Y” shape with the foot facing out and the two arms branching out into the hill. Others, like Mrs. Loughborough’s, were “T” shaped with the two branches inside the cave.

The caves also varied depending on how many people were expected to take shelter within them. Of course when the shelling started most citizens headed for the nearest available cave and did not concern themselves with the cave’s capacity just so long as they could find some protection.

Following the war, the author Mark Twain interviewed a citizen of Vicksburg who remembered that, “Sometimes the caves were desperately crowded, and always hot and close. Sometimes a cave had twenty or twenty-five people packed into it; no turning room for anybody; air so foul, sometimes, you couldn’t have made candle burn in it.”

The poor conditions of the caves meant that most people stayed in them only during bombardments and at night. In spite of the poor conditions, most cave owners furnished these temporary dwellings with some of the comforts of home. While this reduced the capacity of the caves, the furnishings provided a semblance of normalcy during the siege.

 

Life after the Siege


However they were designed, they were practical but temporary. Scattered throughout the town and the surrounding countryside, these caves appeared to be one of the defining features of the city. Yet despite their seeming abundance during the war, today almost all of these caves have vanished from the landscape. At the end of the siege, the citizens moved out of their caves back into the city, leaving the caves to the elements. By the early 1970’s only a few caves remained mostly intact, with the majority mere depressions on the hillsides.

One of them, Hough’s cave, remained in such a good condition throughout the early 20th century that the Mississippi Department of Archives and History nominated it for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972 and approved by the National Park Service on March 14, 1973. Yet only forty years later the entrance to this cave has begun to crumble and one of the arms of the “Y” is inaccessible.

None of the remaining caves today are accessible to the public and are dangerous to enter due to their unstable nature.

Besides being stuffy and damp to live in, the caves did not always provide the best protection. If hit by a direct shot from a mortar a cave would most likely collapse, burying anyone who had sought refuge in it. Even if a person stayed in the cave all the time, there existed a chance for a life-threatening accident to occur right at the cave entrance.

 

Last updated: March 16, 2018

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3201 Clay Street
Vicksburg, MS 39183

Phone:

(601) 636-0583

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