For more than 60 years,
a publication centered on life in Mississippi.
Today is December 6, 2022

Mississippi Seen

While other homes blazed, Shirley House survived due to stroke of luck

While other homes blazed, Shirley House survived due to stroke of luck

It took quite a war to purchase all of this peacefulness. The imposing Illinois Memorial is flanked with a survivor of the Siege of Vicksburg, the Shirley House in the Vicksburg National Military Park. Photo: Walt Grayson

    You can get a real good look at the Shirley House in the Vicksburg National Military Park now that they have started clearing out the mass of trees planted there by the CCC during the Great Depression back in the 1930s. There were so many trees that as an eighth grader on a field trip to Vicksburg in the 1960s, I wondered how in the world they ever managed to have a war there. You couldn’t see 10 feet in front of your face, much less get a shot at anybody.
    Probably one of the most prominent places where the deforestation has occurred is shortly after you enter the tour road. Beyond a few twists and turns you round a rather sharp left the other side of a little rise. When the road opens up again, before you is a wonderful vista of rising hills and gullies crowned by the magnificent Illinois Memorial, a round domed building modeled after the Pantheon in Rome, about a half-mile away.
    But sitting next to the Illinois Memorial is a house that at first may seem out of place in a military park. And had it met the same fate as its neighbors, it wouldn’t be here.
    One hundred fifty years ago this spring during the Civil War, Union Gen. Grant trapped Confederate Gen. Pemberton in Vicksburg and laid siege to the city, eventually starving out the Confederates. As the Confederates rushed into Vicksburg, time was of the essence because the Union troops were right behind them.
    One of the orders given by the Confederate commanders was to burn all the houses out where the battle lines were likely to end up, so that the Union could get no use or shelter from them. The other homes around the Shirley House had already been torched, and this one was about to go. The only thing that saved it was Adeline Shirley, wife of Judge James Shirley, owners of the home, who begged the soldier sent to burn it not to do so. Just as he was starting to set it ablaze anyway, the Union army topped the rise to the east. The soldier ran away and the house was saved.
    Well, it may have been saved but it was never lived in again. After being caught in the crossfire for 47 days during the siege, the house was pretty much torn up. The Union army used it as a smallpox hospital for a short while after the fighting ended. After that, the house was deserted and left to the elements.
     But when plans for the Vicksburg Park were under way, Alice Shirley, one of the Shirley children, donated the house to the War Department for inclusion in the park. She stipulated that the house be restored to the way it looked before the war, and that her parents’ bodies be moved from the Vicksburg Cemetery to graves in the backyard. It was and they were.
    The Shirley House is rarely open for tours. Just not enough staff for that. However, chances are you may catch it open more often over the next few weeks as the park observes the 150th anniversary of the siege that took place from May until July 1863 with special events, including a big reenactment of one of the battles set for Memorial Day weekend.
    The Shirley House was a serene country estate before the war. Originally it was called Wexford Lodge. Now, 150 years later, it is still in a serene setting, only now it has a model of the Pantheon in its side yard.

    Walt Grayson is the host of “Mississippi Roads” on Mississippi Public Broadcasting television, and the author of two “Looking Around Mississippi” books and “Oh! That Reminds Me: More Mississippi Homegrown Stories.” Contact Grayson at walt@waltgrayson.com.

Site designed by Marketing Alliance, Inc.