By Dr. Walter G. Howell
When Union soldiers entered Clinton on May 12, 1863, hundreds of Clintonians witnessed what took place. Alice Shirley, a school girl at the Central Female Institute, later wrote an account of what happened that day. Alice’s father, fearing for her safety, had traveled from Vicksburg by train to Clinton on May 11 to take her home. Alice boarded at the home of James Jay Shirley, her half-brother who was married to Harriet Dunton. Alice and her father remained overnight and planned to catch a train to Vicksburg the next day.
They were still in town when the ﬁrst unit of Union soldiers marched into Clinton from the Raymond road. Alice heard the cries of “the Yankees are coming, the Yankees are coming!” Mr. Shirley was northern-born and a Union sympathizer, so he was pleased when he heard the cries. Alice remembered “the cries spreading terror throughout the streets of Clinton.”
The Union soldiers burned the depot and tore up a section of the tracks to disrupt Confederate use of the railroad. Alice watched as the soldiers heated the iron rails over an open ﬁre and then bent them around trees into what people later called “Sherman Neckties,” for the Union general Sherman.
Alice wrote: “the usually quiet town of Clinton was now all confusion. The soldiers were bent on destruction, stables were torn down, smoke houses invaded and emptied of their bacon and hams, chicken houses were depopulated, vehicles of all kinds were taken or destroyed, barrels of sugar and molasses were emptied.”
Alice and her father remained in Clinton for several weeks, since it was too dangerous to travel. She remembered her father entertaining a group of Union soldiers who stopped by asking for water. Soldiers were seizing all food supplies, and her sister-in-law hid food, chickens and turkeys in the parlor of the house. Alice played the piano in the parlor, which startled the chickens and turkeys that ﬂapped their wings trying to ﬂy through the house. The soldiers looked at each other and laughed. The John Shirley family was one of several Union sympathizers in 1863.
For three days, Union soldiers searched for food and anything usable on the plantations around Clinton. After conﬁscating anything of value, they burned the plantations and moved on. When they came to Greenwood, Cowles Mead’s plantation then occupied by his daugh-ter-in-law, they directed Mrs. Mead to get her personal possessions and leave. One soldier went into the cellar “looking for Confederate soldiers” and accidently locked himself in the small space. He had a seizure of claustrophobia and started yelling and screaming – “a howl of terror,” according to Mrs. Mead. The other soldiers broke the cellar door, and he came out covered with jam and jellies and arms laden with wine bottles and food. The soldiers had a good laugh and then burned Greenwood.
One Clinton tradition tells the story of soldiers stealing the sword of Aaron Burr from Greenwood before it was burned. Another story says Mrs. Mead gave the Burr sword to Captain Johnson Welborn before the Riﬂes left for Virginia in 1861 and that a Yankee soldier stole it from Welborn’s tent.
Cowles Mead was acting governor of the Mississippi Territory in 1807 when he arrested Aaron Burr during the “Burr Conspiracy.” Mead saw Burr’s surrender as the crowning event of his life and never ceased telling the story and claiming he had Burr’s sword. We don’t know if there was an Aaron Burr sword; but if there was, the Yankees got it in 1861 or 1863, according to Clinton tradition.
Editor’s note: 2011 marked the beginning of the sesquicentennial observation of the American Civil War. This is the ﬁfteenth in a series of pieces by Dr. Walter Howell that will follow the movements of the Mississippi College Riﬂes, the fate of Clintonians involved in the ﬁghting and other events on the home front.