1863: “I’ve Lost My Nerve”

June 20th. – The gentleman who took our cave came yesterday to invite us to come to it, because, he said, “it’s going to be a very bad to-day.” I don’t know why he thought so. We went, and found his own and another family in it; sat outside and watched the shells till we concluded the cellar was a good a place as that hill-side. I fear the want of good food is breaking down H_. I know from my own feelings of weakness, but mine is not an American constitution and has a recuperative power that his has not.

June 21st. – I had gone upstairs to-day during the interregnum to enjoy a rest on my bed and read the reliable items in the “Citizen,” when a shell burst right outside the window in front of me. Pieces flew in, striking all round me, tearing down masses of plaster that came tumbling over me. When H_ rushed in I was crawling out of the plaster, digging it out of my eyes and hair. When he picked up a piece large as a saucer beside my pillow, I realized my narrow escape. The window-frame began to smoke, and we saw the house was on fire. H_ ran for a hatchet and I for water, and we put it out. Another [shell] came crashing near, and I snatched up my comb and brush and ran down here. It has taken all the afternoon to get the plaster out of my hair, for my hands were rather shaky.

June 25th. – A horrible day. The most horrible yet to me, because I’ve lost my nerve. We were all in the cellar, when a shell came tearing through the roof, burst upstairs, tore up that room, and the pieces coming through both floors down into the cellar. One of them tore open the leg of H_’s pantaloons. This was tangible proof the cellar was no place of protection from them. On the heels of them came Mr. J_ , to tell us that the young Mrs. P_ had had her thigh-bone crushed. When Martha went for the milk she came back horror-stricken to tell us the black girl there had her arm taken off by a shell. For the first time I quailed. I do not think people who are physically brave deserve much credit for it; it is a matter of nerves. In this way I am constitutionally brave, and seldom think of danger till it is over; and death has not the terrors for me it has for some others. Every night I had lain down expecting death, and every morning rose to the same prospect, without being unnerved. It was for H_ I trembled. But now I first seemed to realize that something worse than death might come; I might be crippled, and not be killed. Life, without all one’s powers and limbs, was a thought that broke down my courage. I said to H_, “You must get me out of this horrible place; I cannot stay; I know I shall be crippled.” Now the regret comes that I lost control, because H_ is worried, and has lost his composure, because my coolness has broken down.

Mrs. Dora Miller, excerpts from “A Woman’s Diary of the Siege of Vicksburg”

Civilians & The Siege of Vicksburg

As the Union soldiers and river vessels closed in around Vicksburg, Confederate soldiers and civilians were trapped inside the city. For the civilians, the crashing artillery, limited food supply, constant danger, and lack of hope for a military success created grim days and experiences.

Since the city’s buildings and homes were under artillery fire, many civilians took refuge in man-made caves, burrowing into the dirt of the hillsides. Here, they huddled, afraid to go out, afraid to starve, wishing for the siege’s end.

Vicksburg Siege Map – notice the city’s location (By Map by Hal Jespersen, http://www.posix.com/CW, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5881121)

Not all civilians had caves, though. Mrs. Miller and her husband didn’t have place of refuge other than the cellar and had several near-death moments as cannon shot torn into their house. Some of their neighbors and many other civilians became casualties of the siege.

Dora Miller

Dora Miller had married in January 1862 in New Orleans and moved with her husband to Arkansas, where he practiced law. However, the war forced them to move, and the young couple arrived in Vicksburg, just before the Battle of Chickasaw Bayou at the end of 1862. They managed to rent a house in the city, but there was no opportunity for law practice as the war closed in on the city.

Throughout the campaign and siege month’s Dora kept a journal which was first published in 1885 in the The Century Illustrated Magazine.

Historical Musings

Throughout Mrs. Miller’s journal entries a steady theme is her efforts to be brave. She endured much hardship during the siege, trying to avoid worrying her husband about her fears and concerns. Finally, on June 25, 1862, when an artillery projectile crashed into her cellar refuge and nearly killed her husband, she panicked and “lost nerve.” She had been under fire and in danger for nearly two months.

Dora Miller wasn’t the only one in Vicksburg, loosing nerve as the siege conditions worsened. The Confederate defenders suffered too. A little more than a week was left in the siege, and Confederate General Pemberton would ask Union General Grant for terms.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, editor, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
This entry was posted in 1863: In Their Words, American Civil War and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to 1863: “I’ve Lost My Nerve”

  1. Pingback: 1863: “Vicksburg Surrendered To General Grant” | Gazette665

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