Graffiti carved into the slate of the Old Court House by Union soldiers in July 1863 is still visible today. Many are simple markings of initials that look as if they were quickly scribbled down, and some more elaborate etchings of their names and units they served in. What originally was seen as vandalism of Warren County’s brand new Courthouse became a historical artifact and record showing that these men stood here on these grounds at a moment in time that signaled the turning point of the Civil War.
One name, in particular, was recently discovered in the slate by their descendant, Brad Hamilton of Parrish, Florida. Captain William M. Baker, a chaplain of the 97th Illinois Infantry Volunteers, engraved “W. Baker” on the Northwest side of the building’s portico. Hamilton’s father, Eugene Hamilton, had donated a Ketchum Hand Grenade to the Museum some years ago that was recovered by Captain Baker during the Siege of Vicksburg and sent home to his wife as a souvenir. Along with the grenade was a letter written by Baker to his wife stating, “I send a hand grenade which was thrown against our men as they were at work in the rifle pits here. It did not explode. It was filled with powder, and on the forward end where the lead is there was a cap so placed that it must inevitably strike upon it as it fell and explode the powder. The stick behind had paper wings in the clefts so that however it was thrown it would inevitably fall on the right end.”
Baker wrote extensively to his wife throughout his time during the War, sometimes sending multiple letters a week before there was time to receive a response for the first. The affection he had for his wife is obvious upon reading through them, often teasing her with little jokes and flirtatious quips. Not a single letter is absent of his yearning words to be reunited with her and their children, but the duty of a chaplain imposes the responsibility to serve as a volunteer for the duration of the War.
The family kept his letters, transcribed them, and compiled them into a book of 170 pages of material. Hamilton donated these to the museum recently along with a map of the 97th Illinois’ approach of Vicksburg in December of 1862 drawn by Baker that was also sent home to his wife for safekeeping. Among the vast volume of letters is the account of Captain Baker’s experiences throughout the Siege of Vicksburg, detailing the harsh conditions of siege life and the devastation inflicted on the city he witnessed upon entering it after the surrender.
These materials add further depth to the story of Vicksburg and will benefit researchers for many generations to come. The map will be placed on display in the Old Court House Museum, and the letters will be added to the Museum’s Civil War manuscript collection in the McCardle Library.
Vicksburg and Warren County Historical Society
If you enjoyed this story about Captain William M. Baker and want to learn more, please consider visiting the Old Court House Museum here in Vicksburg, MS. We’ve been a museum for 74 years now, and all items on display were donated by families from here. We also have a vast archive in our McCardle Research Library that is accessible by appointment. Members of the Historical Society have free admission to the museum, so please also consider becoming a member. All proceeds raised through membership go directly to the preservation of the museum and its contents. For more information visit our website at www.oldcourthouse.org or give us a call at 601-636-0741. You never know what you’ll find at the Old Court House!See a typo? Report it here.