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FIRST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH IN VICKSBURG, MS – Part 2

08 Jul
FIRST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH IN VICKSBURG, MS – Part 2

Part 2 of 2: Continuation of July 2, 2015 blog of First Presbyterian Church in Vicksburg, MS.   To read Part 1, please click here before picking up the story below.

A DISTANT STORM HITS HOME

The Civil War consisted of nearly 10,500 battles, engagements, and other military actions including nearly 50 major battles and about 100 others that had major significance. The remaining minor battles were skirmishes, reconnaissance, naval engagements, sieges, bombardments, etc. The engagements were fought in 23 different states and resulted in a total of over 650,000 casualties. The battles are divided amongst designated theaters including the Eastern Theater, Western Theater, Trans-Mississippi Theater, Gulf Coast and Sioux (Dakota) Uprising. (from www.history.net)

After Fort Sumter was fired upon in April of 1861 to start the war, the first major battle to take place was in (West) Virginia. Other 1861 battles like Manassas, Bull Run, Port Royal, and Wilson’s Creek were in far-away places like Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri and in the Indian Territories.

In the beginning of 1862 the war moved closer to Vicksburg with battles in North Carolina and Georgia but a great deal of the fighting was still in far-away Virginia and Maryland. But in April of 1862 the war was suddenly closer with major battles along the Mississippi River, Shiloh, TN (only 250 miles away) and finally in their home state in Corinth, MS in the Battle of Corinth (see June 2, 2015 blog on Corinth).

Strategists from both sides knew that the key to the South remaining viable was the control of the Mississippi River. Vicksburg knew that they were the lynch-pin in retaining the advantage of the river and so knew that war in the old Walnut Hills region of Mississippi was inevitable. With the fall of New Orleans to Admiral Farragut, quickly followed by the fall of Baton Rouge, then Natchez in May of 1862, and then Memphis in June, it was clear that the war was soon to come to Vicksburg with a major confrontation.

From the City of Vicksburg’s website, www.vicksburg.org, we learn of the first assault on the city.

The first advance Union units arrived off the coast of Vicksburg on May 18, whereby Commander Samuel P. Lee of the USS Oneida delivered an order for the surrender of the city. The city’s reply, delivered five hours later, was “No!” According to Colonel James L. Autry, Military commander of Vicksburg, “Mississippians don’t know how and refuse to learn how to surrender to an enemy.”

After a period of intermittent bombardment from the river, Farragut conceded that he could not run his fleet past the “Gibraltar of the Mississippi.” As he was not equipped for river combat, his guns could not be elevated high enough to strike the city, and 1,400 troops would be hard pressed to scale the hills to overtake the garrison. Farragut withdrew his ships and returned to New Orleans.

Vicksburg BombardmentFarragut arrived off Vicksburg again on June 25, with a force including 3,200 troops on transports and several mortar schooners designed to bombard the elevated shore batteries. The following two days of bombardment marked the city’s first concentrated assault and provided her first casualties.

According to the FPC Church History’s telling, the bombing started at 3 a.m. and it was concentrated. “It was a night of terror and many went screaming through the streets, some dressed and some almost nude, seeking whatever shelter was available.” But after a clash with the Confederate warship Arkansas, which wreaked havoc among the Union fleet, Farragut decided it was futile to try to take the city from the river and withdrew his fleet.

The city was battered. It was reported by an eyewitness, “the principal part of the town has been much damaged scarcely a house has escaped.” The Methodist and Catholic Church buildings were struck by shells, but seemingly the Presbyterian Church building remained undamaged.

General William T. Sherman landed his Union troops near Vicksburg on Christmas Day. On December 29 he attempted an assault of Walnut Hills but the strong Confederate position beat him off and Sherman withdrew to await the coming of General Ulysses Grant’s army. The failed offensive resulted in heavy Union losses and about 200 Confederate casualties. So, 1862 came to a close with many wounded and in need of care, a battered town, and an expectation that the worst was yet to come.

THE BEGINNING OF THE END

To make a long story short I will summarize from Wikepedia.

vicksburg battleThe Siege of Vicksburg (May 18 – July 4, 1863) was the final major military action in the Vicksburg Campaign of the American Civil War. In a series of maneuvers, Union Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and his Army of the Tennessee crossed the Mississippi River and drove the Confederate Army of Vicksburg led by Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton into the defensive lines surrounding the fortress city of Vicksburg, Mississippi.

The city finally had to surrender during the Siege of Vicksburg, after which the Union Army gained control of the entire Mississippi River. The 47-day siege was intended to starve the city into submission. Otherwise its location atop a high bluff overlooking the Mississippi River proved impregnable to assault by federal troops. The surrender of Vicksburg by Confederate General John C. Pemberton on July 4, 1863, together with the defeat of General Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg the day before, has historically marked the turning point in the Civil War in the Union’s favor.

Union casualties for the battle and siege of Vicksburg were 4,835; Confederate were 32,697 (29,495 surrendered). The full campaign, since March 29, claimed 10,142 Union and 9,091 Confederate killed and wounded. In addition to his surrendered men, Pemberton turned over to Grant 172 cannons and 50,000 rifles.

Vicksburg caveThe FPC Church History describes that during the final siege, the townspeople were forced to flee their homes and live in caves to escape the bombardment. Miss Savilla Shafer, a 20-year old Presbyterian reported:

“As is well-known, caves were the chief places of safety during these times; and during the lull in the shelling, frequent visits were paid from cave to cave. The basement of the Presbyterian Church at Clay and Walnut Streets was also utilized as a place of safety during the siege.”

Another young woman said of the times:

“The churches are a great resort for those who have no caves. People fancy that they are not shelled so much, and they are substantial and the pews good to sleep in. We had to leave this house last night, they were shelling our quarter so heavily. The night before, Martha (the maid) forsook the cellar for a church.”

The FPC Church History goes on to give an account of the fierce bombardment:

“A total of 22,000 shells were exploded into Vicksburg continuously day and night. This destructive force averaged 524 blasts per day, 22 per hour, and one every two and one-half minutes. This, of course, was added to the extensive destruction from the summer of 1862.”

As noted, it was reported that the sturdy Presbyterian Church was struck by shells and fragments without major damage.

AFTER THE FALL OF VICKSBURG

The FPC Church History indicates that there was no record of the Presbyterian Church’s activity from the fall of Vicksburg until after the war ended when General Lee surrendered to General Grant in Appomattox on April 9, 1865. The first few skimpy recordings were of a few baptisms and a few deaths, two recorded to have died “during the siege.” And as he history book records:

“On Sunday November 12, 1865 Daniel Swett, Clerk of the Session, got out his old minute book for the first time in almost two and a half years, dusted it and turned to page 108 where the last entry had been made on April 17, 1863, immediately preceding the Siege. At the top of the next page 109 without any intervening notation or explanation he precisely recorded the Session meeting as if nothing had happened during the interval.”

A few months later the meeting on June 10, 1866 was the last to be attended by Rev. E. H. Rutherford as pastor. His reasons for leaving Vicksburg are not known. He had served the Presbyterian Church for eight years and two months.

“Certainly he had endured great hardships through the war and siege but he had steadily and faithfully carried out his effective and notable work of service. He had ministered to his people and others in the community regardless of denomination. He had kept the church building open during heavy bombardment as a shelter and refuge.”

The church would see membership sway up and down and several new pastors over the next few years. They also added a Board of Deacons on May 12, 1867. Noted as well, that in 1871 the Presbyterian Church deeded a portion of their property for the building of a church edifice, using the east wall of the church as a common-use wall, which was built for the use of a “Negro” church.

The years 1871 and 1872 were difficult. The population of Vicksburg grew but that was not necessarily reflected in the church growth. The reconstruction government was irresponsible, taxes were unfairly imposed and the officials were corrupt. During the last month of 1874, an incident occurred that would result in what is known as the Vicksburg Riots in which twenty-nine black and two whites were killed.

During the latter half of the decade, life in Vicksburg became a bit more constructive. The church membership increased again to 133 although Sunday school attendance declined. No Presbytery reports were files from 1874 to 1877.

And then in 1876, another natural disaster struck Vicksburg that changed the city when the Mississippi River’s course was altered, severing Vicksburg from the river. For the next 25 years, the waterfront would be a stagnant mass of mud and dry bottom.

For the church, the years brought more pulpit changes, church building repairs, a General Assembly at the Vicksburg Presbyterian Church, a choir director, a parsonage, and a determined effort to reach out to members that had “habitually neglected worship and communion.” The out-reach effort bore good results bringing the total communicant count to an all-time high of 207 and by the spring of 1891 had grown to 243 communicants. In April of 1892 the congregation had reached 282 and they church called an organist to serve at a salary of $15/month. Before the end of the century, the church would have several more pastors and would see membership rise and fall several times. It should also be noted that in 1886, the Yokena Presbyterian Church was established about 15 miles south of Vicksburg Presbyterian. Yokena Presbyterian today is also an EPC church.

Vicksburg entranceIn 1899, the Vicksburg National Military Park was created. Today it is a beautiful and very informative site that includes a museum, a drive-through tour of the battlegrounds and a national memorial that is the burial-place for 17,000 Union soldiers, many unknown. Vicksburg CairoAlso on the grounds is the restoration of  The U.S.S. Cairo, an ironclad gunboat recovered from the Mississippi river between 1959 and 1977. On display in the Cairo museum are artifacts from the Cairo including weapons, munitions, naval stores and personal gear of the men who served on the Cairo at the time of her sinking. The gunboat and its artifacts can be found along the park tour road. The park is well worth the visit if you enjoy learning history!

As mentioned, the Church History of First Presbyterian Church of Vicksburg ends at the turn of the century. The last page of the book has a photo of the current church building completed in 1908 on Cherry Street. But obviously the story does not end; just a lot of the detail.

THE RISE OF A DENOMINATION

After the Civil War Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America changed its name to the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) of which Vicksburg Presbyterian was a part. A first attempt to restore relations between the north and south Presbyterians was made right after the war at the General Assembly of the northern church in Pittsburgh. The Southern Presbyterians went to the Assembly only to find that the Northern Presbyterians were not interested in unity. In fact, they considered the South a mission field.

Another attempt was made almost a hundred years later in 1950 but again failed because the Southern Presbyterians were unwilling to submit to the idea of centralized power on a national level rather than a local level. Then in 1964, the Southern Presbyterians, as already done in the Northern Presbyterian church, approved the ordination of women. In addition they accepted the same book of confession adopted by the Northern church in 1967. So now, along with other changes, there was nothing standing in the way of total reunion of the two churches. Many of the conservatives left both denominations, and formed other denominations: The Presbyterian Church of America (PCA) in 1973; and later the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in 1981. Eventually, in 1983, the “Plan of Union” came up to a vote, with 53 of the southern, PCUS presbyteries voting in favor of union, and 8 opposed. On June 10, 1983, the reunion between the northern and southern Presbyterians was celebrated in Atlanta with the new denomination taking the name of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) or PC(USA). The reunion was reported in the New York Times by Charles Austin on June 11, 1983:

ATLANTA, June 10— A new church for the nation’s more than three million Presbyterians was created here today, ending a North-South split that dated from the Civil War.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) came into being as 12,000 people gathered for a holy communion service that was transmitted by satellite to 24 places around the country.

Earlier today, 1,000 delegates to the General Assemblies of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., the Northern wing, with 2.4 million members, and the Presbyterian Church in the United States, the Southern group, with 815,000, voted their denominations out of existence and celebrated the creation of the new church with a parade down Peachtree Street.

The merger, which Presbyterians here speak of carefully as a ”reunion,” heals a split that occurred in 1861, when Presbyterians in the Confederate States severed ties with churches in the North.

There was some talk of reuniting Presbyterians immediately after the Civil War, but serious negotiations did not begin until 1937. By 1954 a plan had been approved, but the widening debate in the churches and the nation over civil rights and concern over theological liberalism in the Northern church led to defeat of the proposal by the Southern church. There were no signs of old animosities in the convention halls today.

RECENT CHANGES

First Presbyterian Church, Vicksburg (1907-08), R.H. Hunt and F.B. Hull Construction Co.

First Presbyterian Church, Vicksburg (1907-08), R.H. Hunt and F.B. Hull Construction Co.

The Vicksburg Presbyterian Church was incorporated in 1830 making it the oldest incorporated church in Mississippi. In 1961 the corporate name was changed to First Presbyterian Church of Vicksburg, MS. One of the major policies that came from the north/south reunion was a declaration that the denomination (Presbytery) owned all individual church property. I learned from a story in The Layman online (written by Jason Reagan, May 23, 2012) that in 2006, Mississippi became one of the first PCUSA Presbyteries to renounce the denomination’s property-trust clause. Its policy states the Presbytery will not fight a member congregation that “would ask the courts of the State of Mississippi to clear its property of any claims made by higher governing bodies against that property.”

Consequently, First Presbyterian of Vicksburg, along with two other churches, filed suit to test the policy in 2007. The presbytery voted to instruct its attorney to resolve the suits amicably. But the property issue was not the only concern. Five churches in the Presbytery claimed that the PCUSA no longer supported the authority of Scripture when making denominational decisions on issues like same-sex marriage, ordination standards and the Lordship of Jesus Christ. So in 2012 all five of the churches: First Presbyterian of Vicksburg; First, Pascagoula; First, Ocean Springs; First, Port Gibson; and Yokena Presbyterian Church of Vicksburg requested to be dismissed from the denomination to unite with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. On 5/17/12 presbytery voted without dissent to approve the request of the congregations to leave the PCUSA and join the EPC.

Today, the membership of The First Presbyterian Church of Vicksburg is around 360. In recent years, the session and the congregation initiated a complete renovation of its church buildings named “Project 175” at a cost in excess of $655,000. They have a dynamic pastor, Rev. Tim Brown. I love to visit First, Vicksburg and I consider Tim a great friend with a lovely wife, Le, and three children. The church lives by their mission statement, “To know Christ and make Him known” by being involved in a lot of local mission work including Meals on Wheels, Salvation Army projects, Habitat for Humanity, food pantry and meal ministries. Internationally they participate with Rivers of the World targeting the Dominican Republic, World Outreach of the EPC, mission support in Mexico, Brazil and Samahil, and they partner with Living Waters of the World. Their campus also hosts a Preschool and Kindergarten as well as a Boy Scout troop.

If you find yourself in the Vicksburg area to explore the history and battlegrounds or just to enjoy the city, be sure to plan a Sunday with First Presbyterian. You will be warmly welcomed!

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