Mississippi’s January 1861 secession inaugurated a four-year struggle that profoundly affected the state’s citizens. Although support for leaving the Union was not universal, when war came, tens of thousands of men attempted to enlist in various military units. Most did so unaware of the potentially deadly consequences that awaited them, either in camp or on the battlefield. They left behind wives and children, many of whom would become widows or fatherless. Yet aside from excitement engendered by the creation of the Confederacy and war preparations, life followed familiar patterns for many Mississippians, especially those living in rural areas and during the first year of the war. Change subsequently came rapidly, as the government sought to limit cotton production and encouraged the transition to food crops such as corn and wheat. Enterprising agriculturists recognized cotton’s enduring value, and production declined but never entirely ceased. As the war progressed, a thriving cotton trade with the enemy ensued, sometimes with the blessing of state and Confederate authorities. Movement toward a sustenance economy faltered in 1862, when drought severely curtailed corn yields, and again in 1864, when the northern part of the state endured another prolonged dry spell. The government encouraged livestock production, but the scarcity of salt posed a major problem for beef and pork growers.
Although antebellum amusements such as horseback riding, fishing, and hunting continued for some residents, at least early in the war, social life increasingly came to revolve around soldiers and their needs. The elite held balls and parties, and hasty courtships and marriages were conducted before regiments departed. News of disease striking within the ranks soon began filtering back, and in April 1862 casualties from the fighting at Shiloh were transported to communities throughout North Mississippi, offering a glimpse of the human toll that such battles exacted.
Mississippi’s lack of industry meant that residents had to make adjustments early in the war. Home manufacture of clothes began soon after the outbreak of hostilities, with old looms and spinning wheels pressed into service. As the war continued, medicine and other necessities became increasingly scarce. Inflation sent prices of basic commodities soaring. Federal troops began to reach parts of Mississippi in 1862 and gained control over large portions of the state by the next autumn. Some areas saw repeated visits from Confederate and US forces, with both sides eager to appropriate crops and livestock and to raid chicken coops and smokehouses, although Union troops were more likely to loot and torch dwellings. Urban areas did not escape unscathed, with Jackson, Meridian, Oxford, and Prentiss, among others, suffering extensive damage. By early 1864 the state’s railroads were wrecked and its textile mills destroyed.
Conscription and heavy taxation eroded support for the Confederacy. Some regions of the state had never supported secession, and opposition grew as the war continued. Both state and Confederate authorities attempted to round up deserters, stanch opposition, and enforce conscription, but these efforts often led to open violence. War weariness set in, and the fall of Vicksburg generated doubts about the Confederacy’s prospects. Hardships increased. In December 1863 the legislature ordered county boards of police to compile lists of enlisted soldiers and their dependents and assessed a special tax to aid with relief efforts. The next August it empowered county commissioners to impress provisions for distribution to the indigent. Assessing the success of these efforts is difficult, since much of the state was under US control and many local governments had ceased to function.
Women bore many of the burdens as the war dragged on. White women not only fulfilled their traditional child-rearing and housekeeping duties but sewed, nursed sick and wounded soldiers, and managed farms and plantations. Some affluent women were forced to shoulder tasks they had never anticipated, especially late in the war. With husbands absent, many women attempted to manage and care for slaves. Petitions sent to Govs. John J. Pettus and Charles Clark worried that not enough able-bodied men remained in some locales to keep the slaves subdued. Thousands of women learned that their fathers, husbands, sons, or other male relatives had died in faraway locales. Despair must have gripped many such women. Women banded together, often with other kinfolk, for mutual support. Some fled to live with relatives in safer areas, including other states.
Numerous southern postwar accounts stress the faithfulness and loyalty of beloved family slaves, and some undoubtedly existed. But enormous numbers of slaves fled when Union boats or columns appeared. So many African Americans left their masters that they became a headache for Federal commanders, who resorted to placing them in contraband camps in Corinth, Natchez, Vicksburg, and elsewhere. Some Union officers discouraged females, children, and old slaves from leaving their plantations but encouraged younger males to flee, recognizing the economic impact of their absence. Some slaveholders responded by sending their bondsmen away from threatened regions.
In 1863 the US War Department authorized Adj. Gen. Lorenzo Thomas to recruit African Americans throughout the Mississippi Valley into the ranks. Former Mississippi slaves enrolled in various locales, including Helena, Arkansas; Louisiana; Memphis; and Vicksburg. Eager to play a part in their own liberation, thousands served under white officers in US Colored Troops regiments. Although they were subject to racial discrimination and often employed in menial pursuits, black men in Union uniforms epitomized the shocking transformation of Mississippi society that the war unleashed. Emancipation destroyed the cornerstone on which Mississippi’s antebellum prosperity had rested, and losses in slaves and other property devastated the state’s economy.
The war disrupted the normal contours of life. Most but not all clergy supported the Confederacy; the most famous exception was James A. Lyon, a Presbyterian minister in Columbus. Higher education came to a standstill. By 1864 only one daily newspaper, the Meridian Clarion, still published in the state. Agricultural production plummeted. Levees broke and water flooded much of the Delta in 1865, causing further misery. Although defeat embittered some Mississippians, by mid-1865 most wanted peace under any circumstances. Estimates suggest that more than a quarter of all Mississippi’s Confederate soldiers perished. Others returned with physical or psychological wounds to a landscape that was drastically altered, matching their devastation both physically and psychologically. One of the most prosperous states in the Union in 1860, five years later Mississippi was shattered.
- John K. Bettersworth, Confederate Mississippi: The People and Policies of a Cotton State in Wartime (1943)
- Mississippi, Governor, Correspondence and Papers, John Jones Pettus and Charles Clark, Mississippi Department of Archives and History
- James W. Silver, ed., Mississippi in the Confederacy: As Seen in Retrospect (1961)
- Timothy B. Smith, Mississippi in the Civil War: The Home Front (2010)