Incoming shell! Whenever ten-year-old Lucy McRae heard that distinctive sound, she froze, allowing the explosive to fly on over her. Then she hurried into the safety of the family’s cave.
It was 1863 and Vicksburg, Mississippi, was being bombarded by Union artillery. It was located strategically on the Mississippi River. All along the waterfront, Confederate cannon prevented Union ships from taking control of the river and using it to invade the South. President Lincoln said that for the North to win the war, those cannons must be silenced. He selected General Ulysses Grant to force Vicksburg to surrender.
Grant’s army sieged the city of 5,000, cutting off food supplies and fresh water. Then he rained shells day and night on the Confederate troops defending Vicksburg and on its terrified civilians. But townspeople had no intention of giving up. Most of their men were off fighting, but those remaining were stalwart: there would be no surrender.
Instead, they dug more than 500 caves into the sides of Vicksburg’s many hills, where they took refuge. Everyone lived side by side, rich and poor, masters and slaves. Cooking tents were set up outside the entrances, and during lulls in shelling, residents hastily prepared whatever food they had. Lucy always stayed outside until the moment shelling started again.
The caves were hot, dark, dank, and crowded, and were home to spiders, scorpions, lizards, mosquitoes, and snakes. “It was living like tree roots,” one woman said. People brought in rugs, bedding, books and favorite artwork to make their surroundings more tolerable. Sometimes there were close calls when a shell hit a cave. Once Lucy was buried under a mound of sliding dirt for several minutes. When her frantic mother pulled her out, she gasped for air, her mouth and nose full of dirt.
Although the town was severely damaged by the shelling, because of the caves only a dozen people died in the forty-seven-day siege. Townspeople wanted to hold out, but daily rations of water and food were almost gone, forcing the city’ surrender on July 4, 1863.
The South’s loss of Vicksburg helped the North win the war. But the bravery of townspeople like Lucy, who held fast in the face of overwhelming odds, was never in dispute.
Howard Pyle painting of terrorized people spotting a rocket shell.
Photo of a cave entrance after the siege., Note the unexploded shells.
If you’d like to know more about the Siege of Vicksburg, Andrea Warren tells the whole story of Lucy and other children caught up in that dramatic event in her award-winning book Under Siege! Three Children at the Civil War Battle for Vicksburg. For more on her books, visit her website at AndreaWarren.com.
Andrea Warren is a member of Authors on Call. Here's a link to her interactive video conference: What Children Experienced in the Civil War: Three Young People at the Siege of Vicksburg. (Note to teachers: you may have to register at CILC to reach this website. It's free and it's a GREAT resource).
MLA 8 Citation
Warren, Andrea. "Living in Caves to Survive the Siege of Vicksburg." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 3 Jan. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/Living-in-Caves-to-Survive-the-Siege-of-Vicksburg.
Nonfiction is the new black
The onset of spring, summer, fall, and winter every year is precisely measured, depending on the sun’s position. But there’s no similar astronomical or scientific reason for celebrating New Years on January 1.
Many people don’t. The Chinese New Year occurs on the second new moon after the winter solstice, between late January and mid-February. Muslims mark the occasion on the first day of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar. That calendar is based on the lunar cycle, 11 or 12 days shorter than the solar calendar. So their New Year comes a little earlier every year. Rosh Hashanah, the start of the Jewish New Year, is a two-day observance that begins 163 days after Passover and varies between September 5 and October 5. Unlike other New Year’s celebrations, Rosh Hashanah is holy, a time for piety rather than parties.
There was just as much variation in ancient times. In Babylon, the first new moon after the vernal equinox marked the New Year. Egyptians celebrated it in early August, when the annual Nile River flooding began. In Greece, Athens and Sparta couldn’t get along, so their respective new years didn’t occur at the same time. In Athens, it was the first new moon after the summer solstice, while the Spartans waited until early fall.
So how did January 1 become the most widely accepted start of the New Year? The answer: Julius Caesar. For centuries, the Roman calendar was in a state of chaos, with the number of days in the year fluctuating widely. In 46 BCE, Caesar worked with the brightest Egyptian astronomers to retool the calendar. He wanted the year to begin on the first of January, a month named after the god Janus. Janus had two faces: one looking backward (at the year just ending) and the other facing forward. For the Romans, it was party time!
Caesar didn’t stick around very long after his innovation. On the Ides of March—March 15, 44 BCE—he went to the Roman Senate as usual. While one senator distracted him, others swarmed around him with knives they’d hidden inside their togas, hacking and gashing. He collapsed and died.
His calendar proved more durable. When Roman legions conquered new territories, the natives had to adopt the Roman calendar. Every day, especially at the start of the new year, it was a reminder of Roman power.
You've been hearing from Jim Whiting almost weekly, so we thought you might want to know more about him. He's an interesting fellow:
Children's book author. Acclaimed multi-genre freelance editor. Entertaining and informative classroom visitor. Middle school running coach. Award-winning magazine publisher. Workshop presenter. Sportswriter. Light versifier. E-commerce and e-book writer. Teacher. Runner. World traveler. Sailor. Scuba diver. Photographer. Actor. Patron of the arts. Hometown Hero. And of course Voracious Reader.
For more about Jim, read his biography and background.
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "Happy New Year--in August?" Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 2 Jan. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/Happy-New-Year-in-August.
The Explainer General
Gigantic earthquakes rocked the Midwestern United States between December 16, 1811, and February 7, 1812. A fault in our continent’s stone base runs beneath the Mississippi River near what is now New Madrid, Missouri. Unequal pressures built up on both sides of this fault and the sides slipped to ease the pressure. Whammo—the first of 3 earthquakes from these slips was felt as far away as New York City, Washington, DC, and Charleston, South Carolina.
There were no scientific instruments to measure the New Madrid Quakes in 1812 so geologists have sifted through widespread accounts from old journals and newspapers for data. Putting the accounts together on a map, we know the quakes were felt over an area of 1,930,000 square miles. They earthquakes began with a pair of terrific shocks at 2:15 and 7:15 local time on the morning of December 16, 1811, both measuring 7.2 - 8.1 on the Richter scale. They were followed by a 7.0 - 7.8 quake on January 23, 1812, and a 7.4 - 8.0 event on February 7, 1912.
The quakes were violent, earth-shifting events. There have been even more powerful earthquakes in Alaska and Hawaii, both vulnerable to deep geological pressures, but the New Madrid quakes are the largest to ever occur in the original forty-eight states. Yet little damage or loss of life was reported. The region was then part of Louisiana Territory, sparsely inhabited with small villages and only a few multi-story masonry buildings. We can’t know how many log cabins or small home chimneys were thrown down, or how many Native Americans were affected.
Coincidentally, the first steam paddle-wheeler on the Mississippi, the New Orleans, invented by Robert Fulton, was making its first trip south during the quakes. Land heaves caused massive waves to travel up and down the river. When the little southbound New Orleans met one of these waves it seemed that the great Mississippi was running backward. Some land rose, riverbanks crumbled, some land subsided and formed new lakes. The river’s course was so changed that maps were useless, and the steamboat did a remarkable job of “feeling its way” through the new channels to dock at New Orleans on January 10, 1812.
We’ve come to expect earthquake and volcanic activity around the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” and other hot-spots of geologic shift, but the New Madrid Quake was the product of an unexpected fault in earth’s crust we now call the New Madrid Seismic Zone. And, yes, there is the possibility of similar earthquakes from this zone in the future. The Earth that seems so solid is secretly restless.
Jan Adkins is not only a writer, but also a wonderful illustrator. His personal website is under construction at the moment, but if you would like to find out more about him and see a list of his very well known books, click here.
Adkins is a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through Field Trip Zoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 Citation
Adkins, Jan. "Earthquakes on the Mississippi?" Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 25 Sept. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/earthquakes-on-the-mississippi.
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