Exhausting Pemberton’s Peas: The Siege of Vicksburg


“Since the 19th day of May, shells, balls, grape, and canister have been singing their own peculiar song over us nearly every hour of the day, but like other songs it is becoming old.” ~ Captain Robert P. Speer, Co. B, 31st Iowa Infantry on June 4, 1863

     Through the months of June and July 1863, readers of the Cedar Falls Gazette could keep up to date with the progress of Grant's siege of Vicksburg through the frequent letters penned by Captain Robert Patterson Speer of the 31st Iowa Infantry. Speer, a 35-year-old native of Westmoreland Co., Pennsylvania, had moved to Iowa in the mid-1850s with dreams of opening a law practice, but found upon his arrival that his new neighbors didn't have much use for attorneys, so he used his two years of legal studies at Allegheny College and went into land surveying. In this Speer proved quite successful, and it was by building upon this success that he was able to pursue his first love of farming and running a fruit orchard. As a matter of fact, Speer would later serve as the president of the Iowa State Horticultural Society and Director of the Iowa Agricultural College Experimental Station.   

    The outbreak of the Civil War caused Speer to lay aside his business and agricultural pursuits to buckle on his sword to defend the Union. He was commissioned captain of Co. B of the 31st Iowa Volunteers on August 7, 1862 and would spend the next two years leading his company through seven Confederate states and take part in the fighting at Chickasaw Bayou, Arkansas Post, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, and the Atlanta campaign. 

    Captain Speer was truly an "accidental correspondent;" the editor of the local newspaper George Perkins had enlisted in Speer's company and for the first few months Perkins kept Cedar Falls up to date with all of the company news. But that winter, Perkins became so ill as to be discharged and Captain Speer rather reluctantly took up Perkins' task. The descriptiveness of his letters improved through the course of the war and as will be shown in this three-part series, Captain Speer offers some wonderful insights to life and death in the trenches around Vicksburg in that momentous summer of 1863. 

    I have chosen to present Speer's letters about Vicksburg in three parts as listed below. The first part concerns the marching phase of the campaign, covering the period from late April until around May 24th when the Federal army was firmly established around the city. The second part in the series focuses on the seemingly dull month of June where the two sides spent day and night hurling shells, bullets, and epithets at each other while waiting for the Confederates to surrender or for Joe Johnston to strike Grant's rear and lift the siege. The final part covers the surrender of the city and the immediate aftermath. 

    To help place Speer's commentary into proper context, it is worth noting that the regiment was assigned to Colonel Charles R. Woods' Second Brigade of General Frederick Steele's First Division of General William T. Sherman's 15th Army Corps. During the campaign, the regiment was under the command of Irish-born Colonel William Smyth then Major Theodore Stimming. 

Part 1: Marching to Vicksburg with the 31st Iowa

Part 2: Exhausting Pemberton’s Peas: The Siege of Vicksburg


31st Iowa Sharpshooters line at Vicksburg

Walnut Hills, near Vicksburg, Mississippi

June 4, 1863


          In Chicago and St. Louis newspapers I notice that Grant’s army is occupying the attention of the country at the present time and those who live at a distance from the Rebel stronghold are more anxious and excited over the probabilities of Vicksburg being taken than we who lie within from 200-400 yards of the enemy’s works. Since the 19th day of May, shells, balls, grape, and canister have been singing their own peculiar song over us nearly every hour of the day, but like other songs it is becoming old. We still hold our first position on the extreme right. We occupy one hill and the enemy another, a valley or in some places only a hollow from 200-800 yards in width separates us. On the side of the hill which we occupy, heavy rains have cut numerous ditches or gutters which we have dug wider and deeper and when not on duty each soldier “hunts his hole” and is perfectly safe. Once in a while a reckless or careless straggler gets a “short discharge.” A large proportion of our forces in front have been entrenching since the 23rd of May, building new forts, mounting heavy guns, etc. while others perform picket duty and lie in the rifle pits on their arms.

          Last night our brigade mounted two 64-lb Columbiads and I understand four more of the same kind are coming up. A few nights ago we planted two 30-lb rifled Parrotts which have since destroyed or dismounted many pieces belonging to the enemy. And so the works goes on every night from this point to the extreme left. Since we commenced the siege of Vicksburg, the weather has been unusually warm, flies very numerous, and the water which we are obliged to use is almost at blood heat, and I often think of the spring I left behind me. But thank God, our neighbors on the opposite side of the hill are suffering much more than we are, and we will not whine. They are obliged to carry their water much farther than we do and its warmth is in proportion to the distance it is carried.

Private Clark E. Cummings
Co. B, 31st Iowa

But in one respect they have the advantage of us, to wit: they are thoroughly posted in regard to all the good and bad qualities of the mule, the flesh I mean. Undoubtedly, they have been great sinners as they have been fasting for two weeks and show no signs of returning to regular meals. In addition to the mule, they receive two rations of bread per day made of pea or corn meal, each about the size of an ordinary two-pound weight. Fast days should be observed once in a while, but it is possible to run almost anything into the ground and we hope that their stomachs may soon compel them to rest our hospitality.

I cannot enjoy a good thing so well as when my friends are present to enjoy it with me. Sometimes in the night, all our guns and mortars open on the Rebels at the same time and play on them for half an hour as fast as they can be loaded. I never witnessed anything so grand. The roaring of the guns, burning fuses like ropes of fire crossing each other in the air, and the loud hissing and bursting of so many shells make a scene which would have been invaluable to Homer before he painted the battle of the gods. At such times the Rebels do not reply to our guns, and I am of the opinion that most of them go underground. Our pickets and those of the enemy do not fire on each other during the night and many a dry joke is cracked between them. [Add link to Talking Smack with the Johnnies] The other evening one of our guns was placed so near the Rebel works that the boys could easily converse with each other. After some sociable talk, one of our gunners sent them a heavy charge of grape with the following directions: ‘Take that you damned sons of bitches and eat it with your mule beef and pea bread!’’ A few days ago a cook in one of our Missouri regiments was bringing breakfast to his company and a shot took his head off when one of his comrades ran forward exclaiming, ‘Der tifle! Ish der coffee spilt?’

Joe Johnston is near Jackson recruiting a force to attack our rear. If he comes with 50,000 men he can have a fight, but he cannot save Vicksburg. We can take the city any morning should we resolve to pay the price. He is being closely watched by our cavalry. He cannot attack us before the 15th of June and before that time Pemberton’s peas will be exhausted. We are entrenching our rear from Haines’ Bluff to the lower end of Vicksburg for the benefit of friend Johnston.

Mr. Tondro is getting better. Mr. John H. Rounds who shot off two of his fingers is also doing well. In fact all or wounded are doing much better now than our wounded did last winter on the Yazoo or at Arkansas Post. The health of the army is good and very few are dying. Nearly all the boys of Co. B are right side up and in good spirits. When I write again for the Gazette, I hope to do so in the Virgin City.


31st Iowa Monument at Vicksburg

Walnut Hills, near Vicksburg, Mississippi

June 14, 1863


          Since we commenced the siege of Vicksburg, I have written oftener than usual to lessen the anxiety of those who have friends or relations in General Grant’s army from Black Hawk County. There had been but little change in the position of our army or that of the enemy during the past week. For several days we have fired very slowly, just enough to let the enemy know that we are here and awake and it is very seldom that Pemberton replies. Nearly every man in the army has learned hour to use the pick and the spade. We continue to work every night on rifle pits and forts. We can gain but little in getting nearer to the Rebel works than we are at the present time. And to take them by assault without a fearful loss of life would be impossible.

          At some points we are within 100 yards of their works and at others we are as much as 600 yards from them. At points where we are nearest to them, both parties are obliged to shoot through loopholes in the pits. Sharpshooters are at work every day but accomplishing very little. Deserters come in every night, but we can gather very little from them that is reliable. They all say that Pemberton’s army would desert or surrender immediately if the Rebel officers were less vigilant. They receive only sufficient food to make one meal per day. We have rumors every day to the effect that Johnston is coming up in our rear with an immense army. I do not think it would annoy General Grant in the least if Johnston, Bragg, and Lee could concentrate their entire forces in our rear. Our spades and picks have been not idle either in our front or rear. Our axes have also been laying the tall timber on the bottom along the Big Black in such a shape that men cannot pass over it without considerable trouble.

Captain Joseph H. Evans
Co. G, 31st Iowa

          Our base for supplies is as good as we could wish for while their means of brining up supplies and heavy guns is very limited. Also we have destroyed nearly all the stores which they had through the country for 50 miles from Vicksburg. General Francis Herron has arrived with his army and hone to the rear. Other forces are now coming and will do likewise. And we are assured that they will continue to come. We hope to crush the rebellion in the rear of the “maiden city.” We are now guarding the lines so closely that the Rebel spies can neither pass in or out. We have had a refreshing rain, have plenty to eat, and are in the best of spirits.

          Our gunboats have accomplished but little since the Battle of Arkansas Post, although much has been claimed for them. Our infantry should have the honor of taking Haines’ Bluff and Grand Gulf. It is impossible to elevate the guns on our “turtlebacks” so as to affect the enemy’s works at this place. A few thousand Rebels attempted to capture some stores which we had at Milliken’s Bend and Young’s Point a few days ago. At the two places we had only three or four hundred convalescent soldiers and about 600 Negro recruits. Loss on each side about 200. When the Rebels came within sight, the Negroes manifested great anxiety to attack them. And when the attack was made, they exhibited more of the tiger than the man. After the battle, the Negroes pointed with pride to their fallen comrades and the wounded appeared to glory in the loss of a limb. They are willing to earn liberty and act as though “it is sweet to die for one’s country.” I am of the opinion that a few regiments of them would be sufficient to give relief to any community suffering with copperhead fever.  

          Tondro and Rounds are recovering rapidly. The health of the boys in Co. B is good. The Union loss since we commenced the siege of Vicksburg is not half so great as represented by correspondents of Chicago papers. In fact, I can find but very little truth in the accounts which they give of our movements here. I expect that they have been deceived and supposed that the heavy mortar and artillery firing which has been kept up for the last three or four weeks was “desperate fighting.” Half of them ought to be imprisoned for lying. I just now happened to think of an item which I had forgotten. One afternoon as we were marching from Jackson to Vicksburg, curiosity prompted a lady to come to the road from her residence to look at us. Someone asked her how she liked the looks of Yankee soldiers? “First rate,” she answered. “I supposed from what I had heard of your that you would look like the devil, but I begin to need a husband pretty bad, and I think after you take Vicksburg, I shall marry one of you.”

Major Theodore Stimming, 31st Iowa

Walnut Hills, near Vicksburg, Mississippi

June 21, 1863

          We are yet burrowing in the hills near Vicksburg, and I can assure it that it is a tiresome task to wait on Rebel stomachs caving in. I am afraid that many days will elapse before Pemberton’s supplies will be exhausted although they are very short now. He will not surrender as long as the bone of a mule can be found within his lines with marrow in it. The Rebels touched the right chord when they called Pemberton a coward, incompetent, etc. He will strain very power of body and mind to prove these assertions false and when every ray of light shall have disappeared, we will be thundering in front of his works. But thank God, Grant’s ears are as long as Pemberton’s and we will have plenty to eat.

          We hope to celebrate the 4th of July in the Hill City but if we should fail to do so, our friends must enjoy life and eat and drink enough of the good things provided for such occasions to make up for our loss. We have resolved that before long there shall be another sacred day upon which you can meet annually and sing the death song of treason and rebellion or point with the finger of scorn to peace Democrats, cowards, or Copperheads who would now sell their liberty and their country for an approving smile from the thoroughbred chivalry of the South.

Captain Adam Gebert
Co. F, 31st Iowa

          During the past week everything has been unusually quiet near Vicksburg until yesterday morning. We have given them a few rounds before breakfast and a few after supper to satisfy them that all is well and that are still strongly attached to them. Night before last, all hands were ordered to be in the rifle pits by 4 a.m. as all our mortars, field, and siege guns would open upon the enemy at that time and fire as rapidly as possible for six hours. The program was carried out to the letter and to all who were in the pits common thunder would appear like child’s play and sound unnatural. We do not know the result of the day’s work, but a large proportion of our grape and shells were well put in and I would guess that at least 200 Rebels who were fit for duty yesterday did not answer at roll call this morning. Only their sharpshooters reply to us.

          We keep up the eternal digging every night and if the Rebels opposite to us were not well bred and very civil, it would be unpleasant work as we of the 25th and 31st Iowa regiments are so close that officers are obliged to whisper when directing their men how to work.  At one point, General Logan has run one of his pits nearly to the top of a Rebel fort. We are being strongly reinforced and continue to strengthen our works in the rear of Haines’ Bluff and near Black River. And should Generals Bragg and Johnston see fit to meet is, we will treat them to the best in the shop without any fear of failure on our part. I have feared that the Rebels might blockade the river above us, but if they should do so now, they could not injure us much as we have a very large quantity of supplies on hand and could soon drive them back. Tomorrow our brigade will have two new 84-lb Columbiads ready to bear on three or four heavy Rebel guns which have been planted to destroy our gunboats.

          The weather during the last week has been very pleasant. We have but little sickness in the army and everybody is in high spirits; not commissary whiskey as there is none. Every hour in the day can be heard the remark, ‘when we get into Vicksburg.’



Letters from Captain Robert Patterson Speer, Co. B, 31st Iowa Volunteer Infantry, Cedar Falls Gazette (Iowa), June 19, 1863, pg. 2; July 3, 1863, pg. 2, July 10, 1863, pg. 2


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