Warren County, perhaps best known for the significance of the Siege of Vicksburg during the Civil War, was one of Mississippi’s original counties. Located on the bluffs above the Mississippi River in the southwestern part of the state, Warren County lies due west of Jackson. To paraphrase a famous statement by Mississippi writer David Cohn, the Delta starts in Memphis and ends in Vicksburg, the Warren County seat. Before European contact, the area that became Warren County was home to mound-building people with connections up and down the river. The French negotiated with small numbers of Tunica and other Native American groups when establishing a small settlement, Fort St. Pierre, in 1719. They abandoned the fort after the Natchez War in the 1730s.
The county formed in 1809 and was named for Revolutionary War general Joseph Warren. In 1820 Warren County had a population of 1,406 free persons and 1,287 slaves. Like most frontier societies, Warren was overwhelmingly agricultural, with just 37 manufacturing workers. Cattle were important in early Warren County, and cotton was becoming the area’s dominant crop. By 1830 Warren County had a population of 7,861, including 4,483 slaves, the state’s fourth-highest total.
Vicksburg developed quickly into Mississippi’s second-largest community, trailing only Natchez. By 1840 Warren had, by standards of antebellum Mississippi, an urbanizing population. Its total of 15,820 people ranked fourth in the state. About two-thirds of residents were slaves, and Vicksburg had a large slave market. As a river town engaged in considerable commerce, Vicksburg, a popular steamboat stop, had far more people employed in trade (289) than any other Mississippi county, and its 472 manufacturing workers also outnumbered any other county in the state. Free African Americans tended to congregate in Vicksburg and other river towns, and Warren was one of only three counties in Mississippi with more than one hundred free African Americans.
By 1860 Warren County’s population had grown to 20,696, including 13,763 slaves. The number of free African Americans had declined to 37. The county’s twenty-four manufacturing establishments employed 477 people, including 245 men working on steamboats and others making boots, shoes, and clothing and dealing with lumber and shingles. The county’s 1,041 foreign-born residents, many of them Irish and Italian, ranked second-most in the state behind Adams County.
Agriculture thrived in Warren County on the eve of the Civil War, with slaves comprising two-thirds of the population. Warren ranked thirteenth in the state in the production of cotton, first in orchard products, and second in potatoes but near the bottom in corn.
In 1860 Warren County was home to eighteen churches: eight Methodist, six Baptist, two Episcopal, and single Catholic and Presbyterian churches. A Catholic group, the Sisters of Mercy, began a unique educational and religious mission in Vicksburg in 1860. Mississippi’s second Jewish congregation started in Vicksburg in 1841. Prominent Mississippians from antebellum Warren County included Jefferson Davis, a planter and West Point–trained military leader who served as a US congressman, head of the War Department, and a US senator before becoming president of the Confederate States of America. Alexander McNutt, Mississippi governor and author of stories about the southwestern frontier, was a Warren County planter. Henry Stuart Foote served Mississippi in the US Senate and as governor.
Vicksburg, sometimes called the Gibraltar of the Confederacy, was crucial to Civil War military strategy. As early as 1861 Abraham Lincoln said, “Vicksburg is the key.” Union attempts to take Vicksburg failed in the summer of 1862, in part because of the difficulties of geography, with the city resting high above the river, and in part because of the success of the CSS Arkansas, a Confederate ironclad. Late that year, Union general Ulysses S. Grant started planning another, more sustained effort to take Vicksburg that included building a canal so that troops could move beyond the range of Confederate guns; complicated efforts to surround the city; and the gathering of a large force. A series of battles led Grant’s troops to the outskirts of Vicksburg, where Confederates led by John C. Pemberton held out from May until 3 July 1863, when they surrendered. Union troops entered the city on Independence Day.
As a consequence of its military importance and of the sacrifices made by so many people, Vicksburg became a symbolic center for memorializing Civil War soldiers. Efforts to honor soldiers began when the federal government created a national cemetery for Union soldiers in Vicksburg in 1865. A broad area known as Soldiers’ Rest is the largest Confederate burial ground in Mississippi. In the 1890s women in Vicksburg started one of the first chapters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and in 1899 Congress established the Vicksburg National Military Park, with more than 1,300 monuments commemorating specific moments in the Vicksburg Campaign.
Warren County became one of the key areas for contests over the meanings of freedom during and after the war. Vicksburg was home of one of the larger camps for escaped slaves, called contraband by Union forces, and Grant’s troops included some of the first African American soldiers to fight in Mississippi. During Reconstruction, some whites in Vicksburg formed the Mississippi White Line, which opposed African American voting and office-holding through violence and other intimidation. And Warren County natives Isaiah Montgomery, Joshua Montgomery, and Benjamin Green, all of whom were former slaves from the Davis Bend plantation, became leaders in the all-black settlement at Mound Bayou in the 1880s.
After the Civil War, Warren remained one of Mississippi’s largest counties, with a population smaller than only Hinds and Yazoo. While the number of whites in the county increased steadily, the number of African Americans increased dramatically, and in 1880 22,516 of the 31,238 residents (72 percent) were African American. With 1,105 foreign-born people, Warren had by far the state’s largest population of immigrants, including more than 400 natives of Ireland and almost 400 Germans as well as smaller but significant numbers of natives of England, Scotland, and France.
Like most of Mississippi, postbellum Warren County remained heavily agricultural. Its farmers ranked twelfth in the state in producing cotton and much lower in most other categories. Yet part of what distinguished the county was its 59 manufacturing establishments, employing 315 men, 17 children, and no women—the third-most industrial workers in the state. In 1880 Warren ranked second in the state in total industrial production, trailing only Copiah County.
By 1900 Warren County had 40,912 residents, three-quarters of them African American. The county’s 1,490 industrial workers were the second-most in the state, with the second-highest total industrial wages. Only 72 of those workers were women. The Knights of Labor had some successes organizing Warren County lumber workers in the late 1800s, mounting one major strike in 1887 and playing a role in Vicksburg politics. Nearly 800 foreign-born men and women lived in the county, most of them from Germany and Ireland, with other groups coming from Italy, England, and Sweden. A small but significant group of Syrians and Lebanese lived in Vicksburg. Outside Vicksburg, the county remained heavily agricultural, with more than 4,000 farms. Only 181 of the 3,481 African American farmers owned their land, compared to 313 of the 577 white farmers. Warren had one of the highest numbers of sharecroppers and tenants in the state.
Religious census reports for 1916 and 1926 show the distinctiveness of Warren County. Its largest group were Missionary Baptists, and its second-largest was the Roman Catholic Church. Warren had the third-highest number of Catholics in Mississippi, trailing only the coastal counties of Harrison and Hancock. Other large groups included the Methodist Episcopal Church, South; the African Methodist Episcopal Church; the Southern Baptists; the Episcopalians; and the Presbyterians. Joseph Brunini, born in Vicksburg in 1909, became an important Catholic bishop in Mississippi.
Warren County has produced an impressive array of visual artists. Andrew Bucci, born in Vicksburg in 1923, studied with Mississippi’s Marie Hull and achieved renown as a painter. Carver Victor “Hickory Stick Vic” Bobb and quilter Martha Skelton, an Oklahoma native, did their work in Warren County, and in the 1970s self-taught artist Earl Simmons began Earl’s Art Shop in Bovina. In the 1980s H. D. Dennis turned his wife’s business outside Vicksburg into a singular work of art, Margaret’s Grocery. William Ferris, a scholar of folk traditions in music, speech, and visual art, grew up outside Vicksburg, and innovative fashion designer Patrick Kelly was born in Vicksburg in 1954.
Numerous innovators in literature, film, and music also have roots in Warren County. Ellen Gilchrist, author of poetry and novels such as In the Land of Dreamy Dreams, was born in Vicksburg. One of the early leaders of silent film, actor and director Larry Semon, was born in Vicksburg in 1889. Actress Beah Richards, born in 1926, had a long and impressive career as an actress, while filmmaker Charles Burnett, best known for such unconventional films as Killer of Sheep, was born in Vicksburg in 1944. Playwright Mart Crowley, another Vicksburg native, is most famous for his long-running Broadway play, Boys in the Band. Chicago blues musicians Willie Dixon and Walter Barnes had roots in Vicksburg, and the Red Tops, led by Walter Osborne, operated from Vicksburg from the 1950s to the 1970s.
By 1930 Warren County had a population of 35,785, including 22,943 urban residents and 12,842 rural residents, making it one of only six Mississippi counties where most of the population did not live on farms. African Americans comprised 58 percent of the population. Warren County’s 1,685 industrial workers ranked fifth in the state. Outside Vicksburg, the county remained heavily agricultural, with three-quarters of its 2,604 farms operated by tenants, most of them African American. Compared to most Mississippi counties, Warren had a substantial degree of ethnic diversity, with more than 400 people born outside the United States and more than 1,500 people with parents born abroad. The largest of those groups were Palestinian and Syrian, followed by Italians, Russians, and Czechs.
By the mid-twentieth century, like other counties with urban centers, Warren County experienced a population increase, growing to 42,206 people by 1960. In a significant change from 1930, 53 percent of the residents were white. Warren County ranked in the top 10 counties in Mississippi in per capita income. About 20 percent of the county’s workers were employed in manufacturing—furniture and timber, machinery, transportation equipment, and food products. More people (1,200) worked in health care than in agriculture (900).
Warren County’s civil rights movement stretches as far back as 1918, when Vicksburg’s African Americans established the state’s first chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Though that chapter disbanded, Vicksburg was one of the first places where African Americans demanded school desegregation immediately after the US Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. In 1964 civil rights activists in the county began publishing the Vicksburg Citizens’ Appeal, which emphasized news about the African American freedom struggle. Civil rights figures with roots in Vicksburg included Ed King, a chaplain at Tougaloo College and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s candidate for lieutenant governor, and Jackson State University educator Jane McAllister.
The county’s population exceeded 50,000 for the first time in 1980, and in 1991 Vicksburg builder Kirk Fordice became Mississippi’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction. Tourism, related especially to the Civil War, antebellum homes, and casino gambling, has become an important part of Vicksburg life. Unlike most of the counties along the Mississippi River, the county’s 2010 population of 48,733 was predominantly white and had grown significantly during the last half of the twentieth century.
- Mississippi State Planning Commission, Progress Report on State Planning in Mississippi (1938)
- Mississippi Statistical Abstract, Mississippi State University (1952–2010)
- Charles Sydnor and Claude Bennett, Mississippi History (1939)
- University of Virginia Library, Historical Census Browser website, http://mapserver.lib.virginia.edu
- E. Nolan Waller and Dani A. Smith, Growth Profiles of Mississippi’s Counties, 1960–1980 (1985)