Following the end of the Siege of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863, the city was placed under martial law by the Federal forces. Vicksburg was to become the model for the reconstructed south, but for the local populace, it was a period of hardship and uncertainty leaving a bitter impression that would echo throughout their future generations. Civilians that had openly supported the United States in the wake of secession now faced a decade long experiment in which their lives and liberties would be put to the test. Detailed records of this period were kept by the Provost Marshal, who was responsible for overseeing the military police stationed here at Vicksburg. Upon withdrawing from the city, those records were abandoned at the Provost headquarters, Warren County’s Courthouse, and were not rediscovered until nearly a century later when Gordon Cotton found them in the attic among other county ledgers.
The Provost Marshal played a crucial role in maintaining order, enforcing military law, and facilitating the transition from wartime to post-war conditions. His duties included keeping the peace, enforcing the law, gathering intelligence on potential threats to Union control of the region, issuing passes and permits for civilian travel and business, assisting in the restoration of local government functions, and overseeing the military police and jail. Throughout reconstruction, these powers were expanded and reduced depending on the stage and progress of occupation. Each of these tasks were well documented in the Provost ledgers, giving a day by day account of what took place in town. What was likely seen as bureaucratically mundane record keeping survived to become one of the most impressive and complete primary source records of Vicksburg from 1863 – 1874.
Stories passed on to the descendants of the reconstructed civilian populace about that period of time tell of the oppression brought upon the people of Vicksburg. Any property that held value could be confiscated if it was believed that it could be used to support the Confederate cause, speaking negatively about the United States government was a justified reason for arrest and imprisonment, businesses could be shut down entirely or sold without the owners permission to a “more reputable” citizen, Union officers could annex a home as their personal quarters displacing the families living there, or their property could be destroyed for reasons of malice by the occupying troops. For nearly a century, they were just horrid stories passed down through the generations until the Provost records were discovered. Within those pages were itemized lists of property taken from individuals (several items were valueless such as a spoon or a hairbrush), lists of people arrested including a description of the law they were breaking, constantly shifting general orders or rules issued to the people of Vicksburg, and details relating to the day to day business of the city. The records corroborate several of the stories passed down over the years, and in some cases, reveals an even harsher truth about the condition of the people during Reconstruction.
The Provost Marshal’s records are the most academically valuable pieces of primary source material in Vicksburg. We are unsure as to why they were left behind when Union forces left the city. Perhaps they were lost in the shuffle over that decade, simply forgotten about when the administration shifted, or they were not deemed of importance by the military. They exist in three volumes, one of which was recently discovered within a Warren County Chancery Clerk ledger. All three volumes have been digitized and can be accessed by researchers at the Old Court House Museum.See a typo? Report it here.