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1863: Sherman comes to Clinton

By Dr. Walter G. Howell

In the weeks after the Battle of Champion Hill, as the Union army lay siege to Vicksburg, the people of Clinton had a brief respite from war. Walter Hillman continued classes at the Central Female Institute and held a commencement on June 26. Those students who could returned home. Alice Shirley and her father remained in Clinton until the fall of Vicksburg.
There was confusion in Clinton on the status of slaves, who were now officially “contraband.” Slaves would no longer work in the fields. Those physically able followed the Union Army to Vicksburg. The very young and the infirmed remained on farms and plantations.
The people of Clinton faced a shortage of food in the summer of 1863. Drought had devastated food crops, and Union soldiers had taken all canned foods, chickens and livestock they could find. Confederate patrols were always searching for food supplies, so people continued hiding what they had.
Vicksburg fell on July 4, 1863, and General Grant ordered Sherman to march on Jackson and drive Confederate forces across the Pearl River. Sherman’s advance column was led by General Steele, who fought a skirmish west of Clinton on July 8. Sherman entered Clinton for the first time on July 9. Military records show Sherman was in Clinton as late as July 11, so he was there at least three days before continuing his pursuit of Confederates.
General Sherman met with Walter Hillman, William Dunton, and a Mr. Tanner, the railroad agent, shortly after his arrival. The three explained the food situation to Sherman and asked for relief. Sherman set conditions the three agreed to in a letter to Sherman, dated July 23, 1863, from Clinton:
“We, citizens of Clinton, Mississippi, having received from the United States fifteen thousand rations for subsistence for destitute people in Clinton and vicinity, pledge our honor that the same shall be equitably distributed, and that none of the stores shall be convertible to the use of the troops of the so-called Confederates States.” Signed: M. Tanner, W. W. Dunton, W. Hillman.
Southerners do not see General William Tecumseh Sherman as a man of compassion, but the Union general saved the people of Clinton from starvation that summer. He made certain the Union Army continued supplying Clinton with army rations for several months. In August 1863, Sherman reported to General Grant that Wirt Adams, a Confederate cavalry leader, had ridden through Clinton “and the rascals ate some of our bread, under the protest of the people.”
Clinton tradition says General Sherman made his headquarters at a house on Jefferson Street on the site of present-day City Hall. Sherman was in Clinton three days, and it was a good location in the center of town. Sherman also took possession of the Chapel building on the college campus for hospital use. The bottom floor was ideal for wards and surgeries.
Sherman left Clinton on July 11, moving to Canton, when the Confederate army was reported to be. A few days later, a group of six hundred Confederate prisoners, guarded by Union soldiers, camped outside Clinton on a march to Lake Station, where they were to be paroled. One of the prisoners wrote to The Confederate Veteran in 1899 that “One day a beautiful lady, accompanied by her little daughter, came to our camp and entertained with the most beautiful music I have ever heard. Who was she?”
She was one of the mysteries of the war.


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, recently named the City Historian, 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. For this piece, Dr. Howell established General Grant and General Sherman’s movements in and out of Clinton on military records found in The Official Records of the War of the Rebellion.

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