During the four years we have lived in Vicksburg, I have taken pictures of a lot of houses, including most of the antebellum mansions. Up until a couple of weeks ago, I had overlooked one of the most interesting houses — the Balfour House.
It is a beautiful house, built in the mid-1830s, featuring elements of Greek Revival and Federalist styles of architecture.
In preparation for this post, I researched the history of Balfour House, and discovered that one of the most dramatic historical events leading to the Siege of Vicksburg occurred at the Balfour House. Here is the story:
Christmas Eve 1862
It was a cold and stormy night in Vicksburg on that fateful Christmas Eve, but inside the magnificent Greek Revival mansion known as Balfour House (ca. 1830), Dr. William Balfour and his wife Emma were hosting a grand Christmas Eve Ball. The guests included many Confederate Army officers and their ladies, including Brig. Gen. Martin Luther Smith, and Lt. Gen. Stephen D. Lee.
While the Balfours and their guests were enjoying the evening's festivities, the telegraph office just across the Mississippi River in Louisiana received an urgent message from Major L.L. Daniel, who was stationed at Lake Providence, about 75 miles north. Telegraph operator Colonel Philip H. Fall, incredulously, took the call:
A fleet of almost a hundred Union boats was making its way down the river towards Vicksburg!
The Mighty Mississippi at Vicksburg was dangerously turbulent on that stormy night, and the only available transport across to Vicksburg was a small skiff. It would mean risking his life, but Colonel Fall felt compelled to deliver the crucial information to General Smith, who he knew would be at the Balfours' Christmas Ball.
Shortly after midnight, Colonel Fall, exhausted and covered in mud, burst through the door of Balfour House and waded into the crowd of dancers, who gave him a wide berth. When he saw General Smith, he went directly to him and told him what he'd heard from Lake Providence.
Upon hearing the news, Smith announced loudly, "This ball is at an end! The enemy is coming down river. All non-combatants must leave the city!" The men had only a few moments to bid loved ones goodbye as they rushed away and reported to their stations.
On December 26th, the initial battle of the Vicksburg Campaign began, which was known as the Battle of Chickasaw Bayou. The Confederates won that battle, but the worst, of course, was yet to come.
Emma Balfour and her husband remained in their house throughout the 47-day siege, and Balfour House, located in the heart of town, provided her with a front row seat to all the events unfolding between May and June of 1863.
It was during that time that Emma wrote one of the most accurate accounts of the Siege of Vicksburg.
I read several excerpts from her diary, and her words paint a vivid and heartrending picture of the scenes of destruction she and her family witnessed and endured for 47 days.
The following is a picture of Balfour House as it was in 1866. Shell damage can be seen on the side of the house above the left second story window.
At some point in time, the damage was repaired, but if you click on the picture below, you can tell where the repairs were made.
On July 3, 1863, Confederate General John C. Pemberton met with his generals and made the decision to surrender Vicksburg. After the fall of Vicksburg, Balfour House was taken as military headquarters for the Union occupation force commanded by General James McPherson.
The thread of Emma Balfour's life is lost after the end of the Siege of Vicksburg, but her beautiful Balfour House still stands on the hill — a monument to the strength, determination, and faith of its mistress.
Emma died on February 25, 1887, at the age of 69. Yesterday, I visited Cedar Hill Cemetery in Vicksburg, and located the Balfour family plot.
Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord;
They rest from their labors and their works do follow them.
And a few feet away, I found Emma's final resting place.
Her epitaph reads: I know that my Redeemer liveth.
I also found two (undated) headstones for babies she lost — one for baby Annie, who died when she was five months and one day old ...
If you would like to read excerpts from Emma's diary, you can visit Civil War Women Blog.
I couldn't find any information on Emma's life after the Siege, but I would like to think that she lived a peaceful life in her beloved Vicksburg, and eventually reclaimed Balfour House as her home. If anyone who reads this knows "the rest of her story," I would appreciate your sharing it with me.