Jackson: The Capital City and the Civil War

by Timothy B. Smith / April 2010

The members of the Mississippi Legislature excitedly listened to Governor John J. Pettus’s remarkable discourse that November 1860 day in the capital city of Jackson. Facing the news of a newly elected Republican president, the governor called on the state to “go down into Egypt while Herod reigns in Judea.” Pettus was using a Biblical analogy, comparing Abraham Lincoln to Herod and referencing Jesus’s escape from that dictator by fleeing southward. Pettus was calling for Mississippi’s secession, and the legislature quickly called a convention to remove the state from the Union. That convention, also meeting in Jackson, passed the ordinance of secession in early January 1861, thus setting Mississippi on the path toward war. Little did the legislators know that they were also putting their capital city in danger. For Jackson, the American Civil War would be disastrous.

Named for Andrew Jackson, the city had been established in 1821 as the seat of state government, the site chosen because of the merging of several transportation routes, most notably the Pearl River and the Natchez Trace. Jackson quickly became the center of the political, economic, and social activity in Mississippi. Other cities such as Vicksburg and Natchez on the Mississippi River and Corinth, Meridian, and Grenada on the state’s recently built rail system were also important, but everything actually centered in Jackson. The governor maintained his office in the state house, where the legislature also met in biannual sessions and where the state supreme court heard cases appealed from all over Mississippi. Those who were delegates to the legislature or had business in the city had any number of restaurants and hotels to choose from, the most famous being the Bowman House next door to the state capitol. Nearby City Hall contained the city government, while the state Governor’s Mansion sat just down Capitol Street. The city also boasted masonic, concert, and lyceum halls.

By 1860, Jackson had a population of 3,191 citizens, but that figure dramatically increased with the coming of war. Soldiers came and went through the city, and Confederate and state manufacturing and supply depots, using the increasingly important railroads that met there, brought in much more traffic and activity. Soon, Jackson saw a great deal of war industry, including textile, weapons, and ammunition factories and arsenals.

Early war safety

Once Mississippi seceded from the Union on January 9, 1861, Jackson became a seat of war. Governor Pettus quickly began to acquire arms and supplies for the large number of volunteers coming into the state army. The legislature was busy as well, holding numerous regular and special sessions in order to deal with arming the state and paying for the war.

Pettus and the other government officials worked in safety during the first two years of the war. Fighting took place both far north and far south of Jackson and central Mississippi, although by mid-1862 the Federals had begun to make incursions into the state. They had taken Corinth in May 1862, and in the summer the Union navy had appeared before Vicksburg on the Mississippi River. By late 1862, Jackson was in greater danger as Federal generals William T. Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant moved forward. Those thrusts were blocked, however, and the governor and legislature continued their work in peace. In December 1862, Confederate president Jefferson Davis even paid a visit, speaking to an increasingly concerned legislature and population, both worried about more approaching Federal troops.

Just because the war was not yet being fought in the vicinity of Jackson did not mean the effects were not felt there, however. Situated on major river and rail lines, Jackson saw its share of wounded and sick soldiers sent home from the battle fronts. Likewise, the economic devastation caused by the war in general and the Union naval blockade in particular began to have a major effect on Jacksonians. Prices steadily rose as goods became scarcer; at times, a pair of boots cost $125, sugar was $3.50 a pound, tea sold for $7 a pound, and watermelons fetched up to $25 each. A cash-strapped legislature could do little but offer almost worthless treasury notes for the people to use as currency. And then there was actual devastation, such as when an ammunition factory in the city blew up in November 1862, killing around forty workers, mostly women and children. One Mississippi newspaper reported on the devastation, saying the “two-story brick building used as a laboratory was blown to the smallest atoms.” It also described the mangled bodies, including “a poor girl [who] was hanging by one foot to the limb of a tree; she was evidently dead, but her clothes were still burning.” And the Federal troops had not even arrived.

War comes to Jackson

Jackson’s fortunes turned markedly worse in the spring of 1863. General Grant, after several thwarted attempts to reach Vicksburg, moved his Army of the Tennessee across the Mississippi River south of Vicksburg in late April and headed northward, intending to break the railroad between Jackson and Vicksburg. He quickly decided he had to neutralize Jackson as a Confederate base in order to protect his rear when he eventually went after Vicksburg. Thus, Grant moved toward the capital city in mid-May. By May 14, two corps of his army, one commanded by General James B. McPherson and the other by Sherman, drove through Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston’s weak defenses and captured Jackson. Two Union staff officers climbed the copper dome of the state house and raised the United States flag over the capitol. Jackson was now an occupied city.

Johnston had abandoned Jackson and pulled his Confederate troops to Canton, northeast of Jackson. After scattering the motley assortment of Confederate defenders, mostly state militia infantry and artillery, Federal units spread out into the city and took full control. Grant himself registered at the Bowman House, while the 31st Iowa Infantry camped in the Senate chamber of the state house. Other soldiers held a mock session of the legislature in the House chamber, where the ordinance of secession had been passed. A member of the 30th Illinois Infantry wrote home that his unit camped in the “Public Square at Jackson Miss.”

The occupation was not the worst of Jackson’s fate, however. A military governor, Brigadier General Joseph A. Mower, acting from his headquarters in the state house, commanded a provost guard and other troops who began to neutralize Jackson as a Confederate transportation, industrial, political, and military center. Union troops destroyed or heavily damaged railroads, bridges, factories, warehouses, and the state penitentiary, institute for the blind, and lunatic asylum. Sherman described the destruction: “the arsenal buildings, the Government foundry, the gun carriage establishment, including the carriages for two complete six-gun batteries, stable, carpenter and paint shops were destroyed.” He also described the destruction to Jackson’s railroads: “4 miles east of Jackson, 3 south, 3 north, and 10 west.” Sherman concluded that “Jackson, as a railroad center or Government depot of stores and military factories, can be of little use to the enemy for six months.”

Many of Jackson inhabitants also suffered the loss of personal property. One minister remembered: “My thresholds, it is true, were spared the stain of blood; but theft and ravage, and wanton destruction marked every room in the house and every article on the premises. . . . May God forgive them for all the evil they did during the two memorable days which they spent amongst us.” Even some of the city’s foreign guests were caught up in the destruction, including a “subject of Victoria Queen of Great Britain and Ireland” and a French family who reported “they had been much ill-treated, notwithstanding their French nationality.” One onlooker described the city as “a miserable wreck” and having “a deplorable aspect.” A newspaper reported a new name for the city: Chimneyville, but modern historians contest the validity of that term.

Even more significant for the state was the disruption of the political process. Although the state house and Governor’s Mansion were not harmed, the government was sent on the run. Governor Pettus removed the treasury, archives, and various departments of the state in anticipation of Grant’s arrival, sending much of it eastward toward Meridian and even into Alabama. Although Pettus and part of the government returned a few days after the Federals moved on westward toward Vicksburg, the formal seat of state government did not return to Jackson until the end of the war. The legislature met in various locations, such as Columbus and Macon for the rest of the conflict. Pettus, who later fled again before advancing Federals, decided thereafter to remain in the safer eastern sections of the state. His successor, Governor Charles Clark, did likewise.

Jackson’s late-war vulnerability

After the state government left Jackson in May 1863, not to return until the end of the war, the city became almost a no-man’s land. Situated as it was between the major Federal occupied region around Vicksburg and the Confederate-held territory farther east, Jackson saw frequent action during the remainder of the war, and was in fact captured four more times.

After leaving in May 1863, the Federals returned to Jackson in July to finish their destruction and to make sure no gathering Confederates threatened their now-captured prize at Vicksburg. Thus, the city came under Federal control for the second time in the war. Sherman and other generals gathered at the Governor’s Mansion, where, Sherman remembered, they had a “beautiful supper and union of the generals of this army.” But that was not the end of Federal control. After withdrawing once more into their occupied cities along the river, the Federals made several raids that retook Jackson periodically. One was the famous Meridian Campaign, during which Sherman marched a large army through and recaptured the city for a third time, prompting him to write his wife, “A new burning has been inflicted on this afflicted town.”

Then, in July 1864, smaller Federal forces that included a Black cavalry regiment of formerly enslaved people returned on another raid, mainly to destroy a railroad bridge the Confederates had rebuilt across the Pearl River. Confederate resistance to the re-occupations was minimal, mostly cavalry trying to harass the enemy.

Union troops captured the city for the fifth time in May 1865. It was that final capture that put Mississippi and its government out of the war for good. The fighting in the western theater did not end until after the eastern surrender at Appomattox in April 1865. Thus, Jackson was occupied by Federal troops just as the state governor and legislature returned to the city. Governor Clark called the legislature together to facilitate the state’s re-entrance into the United States. Federal commanders were in no mood to let a hostile government operate in the city, however, and they captured the governor and the state archives while sending the legislature home under the threat of arrest. One observer noted that the legislators “did not stop to give him a vote of thanks, or even to adjourn sine die, or wait for a benediction, or farewell remarks from the presiding officers; but in an astonishingly short time they got a move on them, and in the direction of the highways leading out of Jackson.”

The effect of Jackson’s capture and continual recapture, changing hands some nine times during the war, had a larger effect than just on the decimated local population, however. Mississippians from all over the state saw Jackson as their symbolic center, and its capture had a devastating psychological effect on the people. Moreover, the continual recapture of the city, almost at the whim of the Federals it seemed, showed the people of Mississippi that their state and their government could no longer protect them. If the Federals could capture the state capital over and over anytime they chose to, it demonstrated that Confederate resistance had crumbled and that the Federals could march anywhere they pleased around the state. The Union forces had clearly won the conflict, and no Jacksonian could doubt it based on their own wartime experiences.

Timothy B. Smith, Ph.D., teaches at the University of Tennessee at Martin. He has authored numerous books and articles, many relating to Mississippi history. His most recent work is a study of Mississippi’s home front during the Civil War for the Mississippi Historical Society’s Mississippi Heritage Series.

  • General Ulysses S. Grant
    Gen. U. S. Grant decided he had to neutralize Jackson as a Confederate base in order to protect his rear when he eventually went after Vicksburg. Courtesy of the Ulysses S. Grant Association, Mississippi State University Libraries.
  • Bowman House Hotel
    The Bowman House in Jackson, Mississippi. Gen. Grant stayed here when Federal troops took control of Jackson in 1863. The hotel, built in 1857, stood on the corner of State and Amite streets, across the street from the capitol. It burned in 1863. Courtesy Mississippi Department of Archives and History, PI/SF/HS/1988.0026, No.1
  • Battle of Jackson in 1863
    Federal troops charge into Jackson, Mississippi, in 1863. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Popular Graphic Arts Collection, LC-DIG-pga-02196
  • James B. McPherson
    Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson commanded Federal forces that drove through Confederate defenses to capture Jackson. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photograph Division, Civil War Collection, LC-DIG-cwpb-07051
  • Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman
    Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman, officer of the Federal Army, described the destruction to Jackson's railroads: "4 miles east of Jackson, 3 south, 3 north, and 10 west." Courtesy of the Ulysses S. Grant Association, Mississippi State University Libraries.
  • Railroad off tracks in Mississippi forest
    Train with reinforcements for General Joseph E. Johnston, commander of the Confederate forces in the west, running off the track in the forests of Mississippi. Courtesy of the Civil War in America from The Illustrated London News; a joint project by Sandra J. Still, Emily E. Katt Collection Management, and the Beck Center of Emory University.
  • Joseph E. Johnston
    Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, officer of the Confederate forces, abandoned Jackson and pulled his Confederate troops to Canton, northeast of Jackson. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Civil War Collection, LC-USZ62-85832
  • Governor's Mansion, Jackson, Mississippi
    In July 1863, Gen. Sherman and other generals gathered at the Governor's Mansion, where, Sherman remembered, they had a "beautiful supper and union of the generals of this army." Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, HABS MISS,25-JACK,6-1933
  • Reoccupation of Jackson, Miss.
    Reoccupation of Jackson, Mississippi, by the Confederates. Illustration from the August 8, 1863, edition of The Illustrated London News. Courtesy of the Civil War in America from The Illustrated London News; a joint project by Sandra J. Still, Emily E. Katt Collection Management, and the Beck Center of Emory University.

Selected Bibliography:

Bettersworth, John K. Confederate Mississippi: The People and Policies of a Cotton State in Wartime. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1943.

Boman, Martha. “A City of the Old South: Jackson, Mississippi, 1850-60.” Journal of Mississippi History 15, no. 1 (January 1953): 1-32.

Dubay, Robert W. John Jones Pettus, Mississippi Fire-eater: His Life and Times, 1813-1867. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1975.

Fremantle, Arthur J. L. Three Months in the Southern States: April-June, 1863.
Edinburgh: W. Blackwood and Sons, 1863.

Fulkerson, H. S. A Civilian’s Recollections of the War Between the States. P. L. Rainwater, ed. Baton Rouge: Otto Claitor, 1939.

Howell, H. Grady. Chimneyville: “Likenesses” of Early Days in Jackson, Mississippi. Madison: Chickasaw Bayou Press, 2007.

Rainwater, Percy L. Mississippi: Storm Center of Secession, 1856-1861. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1938.

Smith, Timothy B. The Civil War in Mississippi: The Home Front (The Mississippi Historical Society’s Mississippi Heritage Series). Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2010.