Walker Evans (1903-1975). ‘Ante-bellum House, Vicksburg, Mississippi’, 1936. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress. The photo reproduced at the bottom of this post is from the same photographer and source.
Nowhere have I been able to find any detailed identification of this ruined ante-bellum house in or near Vicksburg, Mississippi. The only extant photographs I have found were all taken in 1936 by an American photographer named Walker Evans (1903-1975) as part of a really heroic effort on the part of the U.S. government to document examples of historic southern architecture before it was lost forever. Like many others photographed in the government survey, this particular house is in very sad shape. But I find its lines especially pleasing, the entire effect massive and imposing, but the elements which comprise it simple in the extreme: thin Doric columns; high but unadorned pediment; graceful tripartite chimneys; the front façade built very low to the ground, so that the house seems to soar up out of the earth in a series of narrow upthrust shafts of construction. I would like to know much more about this place, including whether or not any of it remains today.
What eventually became Vicksburg, Mississippi began as a Spanish military outpost known as Fort Nogales, a name taken from the walnut trees (‘nogales’ in Spanish) which grew in the area. The Americans took possession of the site in 1798 and changed the name to Walnut Hills, which in 1825 was renamed Vicksburg after a Methodist minister named Newitt Vick who had established a mission there. Located 234 miles northwest of New Orleans, Vicksburg is situated on a high bluff overlooking the confluence of the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers, both important trade and communications routes before rail and paved roads became widespread in the South. But the city is best known as the scene of the Siege of Vicksburg in the American Civil War when, between May 18 and July 4, 1863, it was both bombarded and starved into submission by Union General Ulysses S. Grant and his Army of the Tennessee, driving the Confederate forces of Lt. General John Pemberton into defensive outlying areas. The combination of the Confederate surrender on July 4th and General Robert E. Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania the previous day is often seen as the decisive turning point against the South in the Civil War. After that, the entire Trans-Mississippi area was cut off by the Union from the rest of the Confederacy for the remaining two years of the war.
You can read a fascinating account of life in Vicksburg in George Washington Cable’s ‘Strange True Stories of Louisiana’ (1889), in the section entitled ‘War Diary of a Union Woman in the South’. I have been unable to determine exactly how much first-hand documentary material was utilized by Cable in this piece. He presents the entire account as the diary of a woman from the North who has married into a southern family of mostly Unionist sympathies and finds herself stranded in first Louisiana, then Mississippi, during the war. After abandoning her own Louisiana home, fearing that her husband would either be taken prisoner by Union forces or conscripted into the Confederate army, she and her family eventually make their way to Vicksburg, where they spend much of their time under bombardment by Union warships in a fine mansion much like the one depicted in the photos reproduced in today’s post. Perhaps it is even the same house. If any of my readers can tell me, I would be very grateful indeed.