Among the thousands of headstones in the Cedar Hill cemetery of fallen Confederate soldiers, just outside Vicksburg, Mississippi, there is one with a Confederate flag and a headstone with the etched image of a camel.
It is Old Douglas, a camel.
He was an important character in the Siege of Vicksburg, as we learn during a special event at Vicksburg National Military Park.
Old Douglas was the mascot for the 43rd Mississippi Infantry, used to carry musical instruments. Douglas fell victim to a Union sharpshooter during the siege of Vicksburg.
We visit the cemetery but the story fleshes out when we visit the Vicksburg National Military Park - an expansive field and today the most densely monumented in all the world by foremost American and European sculptors. It is a sort of "Art Park" of the world, historian Terrence Winschel tells us.
The monuments pay homage to the thousands of souls who fought and died here.
But on this day, there is a special program by Doug Baum of the Texas Camel Corps, who brings with him a camel just like Old Douglas, and tells this fantastic story of how it came to be that there was a camel at the siege of Vicksburg.
"The real mystery isn’t how Old Russell died, but how a camel ended up in Mississippi."
Indeed, the idea of using camels in battle came from Jefferson Davis, himself, the President of the Confederacy who has a connection to Vicksburg because he owned plantations just outside the city. As a US Senator in the 1830s, Davis pushed for a $30,000 appropriation to purchase camels - the appropriation was literally his pet project that he had inserted into an appropriation for roads and bridges for Illinois to secure that Senator's support.
When Davis was Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce in the 1850s, he saw camels as a high-tech weapon for war - the Sherman Tank of its day - that would help fulfill his idea of Manifest Destiny, taking over the West. He thought that camels would be well adapted to the hot, dry conditions of the West.
The government purchased 75 camels from Algeria, Tunesia and Egypt. Some camels were pregnant when they arrived. "Davis was so happy with the camels he sent for more, along with the Syrian, Greek and Turk camel handlers. Haji Ali, half-Syrian, became a sort of celebrity.
"Davis was forward thinking," Baum tells us as he sits under a tree beside his Civil War era tent, the camel tethered behind him. "He envisioned the day when every southern planter would have camels."
When the Civil War broke out, Camp Verde had five dozen camels.
Seeing this military advantage of the Confederates, the King of Siam (Thailand) sent a letter to President Abraham Lincoln, saying something to the effect, "Camels. Here we use elephants." He proposed bringing elephants to the Northwest rainforests, a different kind of war machine in this extraordinary "arms race". Baum notes that even in Siam, they were watching what was unfolding in the United States.
It turns out that what doomed the camel was politics, Baum says. The horse lobby blocked the program.
Pork, lobbying, just goes to show there is nothing new under the sun.
No one knows exactly how Old Douglas came to Mississippi. But at some point, Old Douglas came into the hands of Mississippi Lt. William Hargrove who gave the camel to Col. William H. Moore. Moore assigned Old Douglas to the regimental band and the camel carried instruments and knapsacks.
During Maj. Gen. Sterling Price’s 1862 campaign at Iuka, Old Douglas spooked the regimental horses, causing a stampede in the 43rd Mississippi camp. Old Douglas served in campaigns with Price, Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn at Corinth and Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton when the 43rd Mississippi was ordered to Vicksburg. Southern soldiers became used to the sight of Douglas, and the 43rd Mississippi was often referred to as the “Camel Regiment.”
During the siege of Vicksburg, Douglas fell victim to a Union sharpshooter as he was grazing in a field. Because of the siege, the soldiers were starving, so the fallen Douglas was cooked and fed to the men of his regiment. His bones were taken as souvenirs.
I was so fascinated with the story which was so interesting on so many levels, and was glad to learn that the Texas Camel Corps will be a showcase event during special Sesquicentennial commemorations of the Vicksburg Campaign and Siege taking place during the signature event over Memorial Day Weekend, May 24-27, 2013.
There are special events between April and November which will engage and illuminate and prompt reflections of the lessons from this bloody era of American history that resonate today (as the movie, "Lincoln," so dramatically portrayed).
The signature event, May 24-27, coincides with the beginning of General Grant's assault on Vicksburg itself after battling his way through Mississippi beginning in April.
Vicksburg, because of its geography, is a natural fortress on a bluff, with command and control of the Mississippi River, so vital for the North's trade that the South's control of shipping was eroding Northern support to continue the Civil War. Had Grant's audacious and risky campaign failed, President Abraham Lincoln, who called Vicksburg "the key" to unlocking the South, may have been forced to capitulate to the South instead of dictating terms of surrender to end the war, still the bloodiest in American history.
Grant mounted an assault on May 22 but that failed, causing Grant to realize Vicksburg could not be taken by force. He decided to lay siege to the city. Slowly his army established a line of works around the beleaguered city and cut off all supplies and communications from the outside world, as we learned from Historian Terrence Winschel and Superintendent Mike Madell at the Vicksburg National Military Park.
Beginning May 26, Union forces constructed 13 approaches along their front aimed at different points along the Confederate defense line. Their objective was to dig up to the Confederate works, then tunnel underneath them, plant charges of black powder, and destroy the fortifications. Union troops would then be able to surge through the breaches and gain entrance to Vicksburg.
"Throughout the month of June, Union troops expanded their approaches slowly toward the Confederate defenses. Protected by the fire of sharpshooters and artillery, Grant's fatigue parties neared their objectives by late June. On June 25, along the Jackson Road, a mine was detonated beneath the Third Louisiana Redan, and Federal soldiers swarmed into the crater attempting to exploit the breach in the city's defenses," the National Park Service site relates.
"The struggle raged for 26 hours during which clubbed muskets and bayonets were freely used, as the Confederates fought with grim determination to deny their enemy access to Vicksburg. The troops in blue were finally driven back at the point of bayonet and the breach sealed. On July 1, a second mine was detonated but not followed by an infantry assault.
"Throughout June the gallant, but weary, defenders of Vicksburg suffered from reduced rations, exposure to the elements, and constant bombardment of enemy guns. Reduced in number by sickness and battle casualties, the garrison of Vicksburg was spread dangerously thin. Soldiers and citizens alike began to despair that help would ever come."
The Confederate army made a grave miscalculation and never sent reinforcements in time. At Jackson and Canton, General Johnston gathered a relief force, which finally took up the line of march toward Vicksburg on July 1. But by then it was too late, as time had run out for the fortress on the Mississippi River.
On the hot afternoon of July 3, 1863, a cavalcade of horsemen in gray rode out from the city along the Jackson Road. Soon white flags appeared on the city's defenses as General Pemberton rode beyond the works to meet with his adversary — General Grant. The two officers dismounted between the lines, not far from the Third Louisiana Redan, and sat in the shade of a stunted oak tree to discuss surrender terms.
Unable to reach an agreement, the two men returned to their respective headquarters. Telling Pemberton he would have his final terms by 10 p.m., Grant was true to his word, and his final amended terms were forwarded to Pemberton that night. Instead of an unconditional surrender of the city and garrison, Grant offered parole to the "valiant defenders" of Vicksburg. Pemberton and his generals agreed that these were the best terms that could be had, and in the quiet of his headquarters on Crawford Street, the decision was made to surrender the city.
At 10 a.m., on July 4, white flags were again displayed from the Confederate works, and the brave men in gray marched out of their entrenchments, stacked their arms, removed their accouterments, and furled their flags. The victorious Union army now marched in and took possession the city.
Vicksburg National Military Park Civil War Sesquicentennial Events
Events at the Vicksburg Military Park are among a score of reenactments and special events at key places that figured into the Vicksburg campaign, the largest and most complex campaign of the war, which began with a series of battles and maneuvers starting in April: Port Gibson (which has a major celebration Apr. 19-20), Raymond, Champion Hill and of course the Military Park and the city, itself.
Key events are scheduled from April through July 4, coinciding with the actual events of the largest, most complex campaign of the Civil War, but there are others that extend into the rest of the year.
During our visit to Vicksburg, we were treated to a preview of some of the special events that are in store, and were able to tour the key venues.
Congress established Vicksburg National Military Park in 1899 to commemorate the campaign, siege, and defense of Vicksburg, and to preserve the history of the battles and operations conducted on the ground where they were fought. In 1990, Congress expanded the park's interpretive mandate to include the campaign and siege of Vicksburg from April 1862 to July 4, 1863, and the history of Vicksburg under Union occupation during the Civil War and Reconstruction.
From 2011 through 2015, the nation will be observing the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War, and beginning in the Fall of 2012, Vicksburg National Military Park will initiate its commemoration of the campaign and siege of Vicksburg, culminating in several signature events planned for April and May of 2013.
Vicksburg National Military Park, 3201 Clay Street, Vicksburg, MS 39183-3495, 601-636-0583.
Vicksburg, Surrounding Areas Mark Civil War Sesquicentennial with Events through 2013
Apr. Wednesdays-Saturdays: Tapestry: The Pilgrimage to Vicksburg. Experience the rich Tapestry of early Vicksburg life. Explore the fabric of Vicksburg society with tours of our historic homes and hallways. Enjoy interpretive presentations of Vicksburg’s history that bring to life the heritage and culture of this remarkable river city. 15 of Vicksburg’s most historic properties will tell their stories from antebellum grandeur to the Siege of Vicksburg to the turn of the 20th Century. (Tickets are available at each venue and at the Vicksburg Visitor Information Center, 52 Old Hwy 27, 601-636-9421 or 800-221-3536.)
Apr. 19-20: Battle of Port Gibson Sesquicentennial Commemoration. The Battle of Port Gibson Commemoration includes a living history presentations, a cemetery tour and a battlefield tour in the city that was “too beautiful to burn.” A Living History will be presented at Grand Gulf Military Monument throughout the weekend. “Whispers in the Cedars,” a tour of Wintergreen Cemetery featuring local people who were active participants in the War Between the States, will take place at 7 pm on Friday, April 19 and at 5 pm and 7 pm on Saturday, April 20. Speakers will range from Major General Earl Van Dorn, who fought Comanche Indians before gaining fame capturing Holly Springs from the Yankees, as well as lieutenants who lost their lives in the Battle of Port Gibson; also, Dr Richard Goode Wharton will discuss the scourge of Yellow fever. Women featured will include Kate Butler reading letters she wrote to her father, a prisoner of war; Ruth Guthrie who recalls the Yankee raids; and Mildred Maury Humphreys who describes how her husband, Governor Benjamin Humphreys, was removed from office. Also, AK. Shaifer, whose home was the setting for the first shot heard during the Battle of Port Gibson, but who was able to bring Confederate and Yankee soldiers together after the war (tickets $10/adults, $5/child, tours begin at City Hall).
A battlefield tour led by Brig. Gen. Parker Hills will take place from 10 am until noon on Saturday(a shuttle bus takes visitors to the various points of interest; $10 ) Also, Grand gulf Military Monument Park (7 miles from Port Gibson) will feature Civil War reenactors from both Crystal springs and Natchez from Friday afternoon to noon on Sunday. (Port Gibson/Claiborne County Chamber of Commerce, 601-437-4351 or email email@example.com.)
May: Midnight March to Shaifer House, Port Gibson. To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Port Gibson (which took place on May 1) participants will gather for a midnight march from the bottom of a hill along the old sunken road used by the Federal troops to reach the Shaifer House. With local men engaged in battles elsewhere, only women, children and their servants remained at the Shaifer House as the enemy approached. With no horses left behind to transport them to safety, the women managed to pull their loaded wagon to the Confederate line at Magnolia Church where help was found to carry them into Port Gibson. Those same women and children would return to the Shaifer House which has been used first as a headquarters and then as a Union hospital during the battle (601-437-4500).
May: Rivertown, Port Gibson. Rivertown, a story set in Vicksburg where the Mississippi River played a big part in all lives, revealing three cultures found there (Black, Jewish and Christian) as well as tales told by ghosts “living” in the Vicksburg National Military Park (601-437-4500).
May: 150th Anniversary Memorial of Battle of Raymond St. Mark's Episcopal Church. A somber reflection and commemoration for veterans of the American Civil War and all wars of the United States (www.friendsofraymond.org).
May 18: 150th Anniversary of Champion Hill. The all-day sesquicentennial event on the Champion Hill battlefield will begin at 8 am on the grounds of Champion Hill MB Church. The historic site between Edwards and Bolton, Miss. was the home of the Champion Family and later used by General Grant as headquarters during the Battle of Champion Hill. Bertram Hayes-Davis, a great-great grandson of President Jefferson Davis, will be the featured speaker at the 10:00 am opening ceremony. He will be introduced by Michael Madell, superintendent of the Vicksburg National Military Park. Souvenir medallion will be awarded to those whose ancestors fought in the May 16, 1863 battle. You must be present to the medallion. Following the program, Lunch on the Lawn will be served ($10.00 a plate). Highlights of the afternoon will feature a stroll to the “Hill of Death” followed by a reenactment and a historic marker dedication at the Champion Hill Crossroads. Admission is free. Visit www.battleofchampionhill.org for more information.
May 19: Commemoration of First Assault on Vicksburg. First Assault programs begin at 10 am with the Confederate perspective at Stop 12, Stockade Redan in the Vicksburg National Military Park. The Union perspective begins at 1 pm at Stop 5, Stockade Redan Attack (601-636-0583, www.nps.gov/vick).
May 22: Second Assault of Vicksburg Defenses. Second Assaults programs begin at 10 am at three separate locations in the Vicksburg National Military Park: Stop 5, Stockade Redan Attacks (The Forlorn Hope), Second Texas Lunette Attack and Assault on the Great Redoubt. At 1 pm the Assault on Rail Road Redoubt will begin (601-636-0583, www.nps.gov/vick).
May 23: Vicksburg Sesquicentennial Commemoration: Shadows of the Past, a historic walk around the Vicksburg National Cemetery will be presented from 7 – 10 pm. The program highlights veterans’ lives that are buried in the National Cemetery. For more information, contact the Vicksburg National Military Park (601-636-0583, www.nps.gov/vick).
May 24-27: Vicksburg Sesquicentennial Commemoration: Signature Event. A series of free, open air concerts will take place in front of the Vicksburg National Military Park Visitor Center, 3201 Clay Street. There will be special programs on Civil War engineering and siege tactics and on African-Americans and the Civil War exploring the roles of freeman, US Colored Troops and enslaved peoples. There will also be ranger lead walks and talks during the weekend highlighting significant events during the Vicksburg Campaign. Soldiers Through the Ages will be presented near the USS Cairo and Vicksburg National Cemetery located inside the Vicksburg National Military Park, 3201 Clay Street on Saturday and Sunday. A timeline of the military will be presented through static displays and programs. For more information, contact the Vicksburg National Military Park at 601-636-0583 or visit www.nps.gov/vick.
June-July, Fridays-Tuesdays: Living History Presentations. Living history presentations will be presented at 10 am and 3 pm at the Vicksburg National Military Park, 3201 Clay Street. Reenactors will give cannon demonstrations and explain the everyday life of a Civil War soldier during the Siege of Vicksburg (601-636-0583, www.nps.gov/vick).
Jul. 3 & 4: Surrender Interview commemoration. For more information call 601-636-0583 or visit www.nps.gov/vick.
Jul. 3: Grande Illumination. A luminary will be placed at each state monument for each casualty from that state during the Vicksburg Campaign. Approximately 20,000 luminaries will be placed throughout the park and on Confederate Avenue in the city. Visitors will drive/walk through the park in the evening to observe the luminaries. For more information call 601-636-0583 or visit www.nps.gov/vick.
Jul. 4: Vicksburg 4th of July Celebration. Fireworks and live music will be presented at 7 pm in front of the Old Depot Museum, 1010 Levee Street.
Karen Rubin, National Eclectic Travel Examiner
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