Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A House Under Siege

The Balfour House

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
Vicksburg, Mississippi.

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.

Emma Harrison Balfour, mistress of Balfour House

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.

Pictured borrowed from Civil War Album, Vicksburg Homes

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.

I first came across Dr. Balfour's grave ...

His epitaph reads:

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 ...

And a little girl named Emma, who was 2-1/2 years old when she died ...

Emma and Dr. Balfour also had a son named William T. Balfour ...

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.


Deb said...

you have such history in your area...I enjoying the way you tell us about it...

Marjorie (Molly) Smith said...

Amazing story, I love how you not only capture the pictures but research the history.

nancygrayce said...

OH, what wonderful history!

Marlene said...

Wonderful post, as always, and thank you so much for the link to the Civil War Women Blog. Love the history of your area and your incredible pictures as always. Thank you!

Merisi said...

Thank you for this interesting glimpse of history and the beautiful pictures!

Lisa said...

What a tragedy! I hope, like you, that she was able to return to Balfour.

Lori said...

I love history and I never knew about the Civil War Women blog. In the fall semester I teach a course, Foundations of Nursing Education. This course includes a study of the history of nursing. I will now refer my students to this blog to bring life to what was happening to the development of nursing during the Civil War. When the weather is better, I'll try to post some pictures of houses on this end of the Mississippi!

Sue said...

Janie, this was sooo interesting to me,my dh and I love to read accounts of the Civil War like this. If Balfour House could talk, what stories she could tell.
We also enjoy visiting, and reading old grave sites. As always your photos are simply beautiful.

Carolyn said...

Mrs. Emma was an amazing woman.I hope someone out there knows the rest of her story. Thanks for making history come alive.

Janice said...

I just discovered your blog and absolutely love it! As a native Mississippian, I also treasure the history and the beauty of my home state. I hope you don't mind that I have linked your blog post about Balfour House and Balfour family buried in Vicksburg cemeteries to a post about the Balfour Family on my genea-blog, Mississippi Memories.

berberry said...

You asked about what happened to Emma Balfour after the Civil War. The research I'm doing now brought me to this blog.

By at least one reliable account, she and Dr. Balfour managed to cross enemy lines near the end of the Siege and lived for a short time in Alabama. They soon returned, with their family and servants, to Balfour House.

Dr. Balfour died in December 1877. Soon after, Emma moved to Asheville, NC. She died there of pneumonia in February 1887. Her body was returned to Vicksburg and, as you discovered, buried at City Cemetery.

Keep an eye on wikipedia. I wrote the article on Balfour House, and I intend to write another soon on Emma Balfour. She was a fascinating woman. Had she been on the right side of history, her name might well be as commonly known today as even a First Lady of the 19th century. In any case, she was a Vicksburg VIP at a time when Vicksburg was one of the most important places on the American continent.

berberry said...

I wanted to say something else about the Christmas Ball at Balfour House, something that you or your readers might be able to help me with: in the wikipedia article, I mention the strange similarity between the story of this Ball and that of the 1815 Duchess of Richmond's Ball held in Brussels, Belgium - a Ball interrupted shortly past midnight by news that Napoleon's army was advancing nearby. As at Balfour House, the officers in attendance were compelled to quickly bid their loved ones good-bye, under circumstances which each and every one of them understood to mean that they might never meet again.

Now consider the barbecue party at the Twin Oaks plantation, down the road from Tara, in 'Gone With The Wind'. The festivities were interrupted, weren't they, by news that the Union Army was crossing into Georgia from South Carolina?

Here's what I need help with: a quick bit of research will reveal to you that several contemporary critics of GWTW remarked on the similarities of the Twin Oaks barbecue sequence and the 1815 Duchess of Richmond's Ball. Partly because the William Makepeace Thakeray novel 'Vanity Fair' uses a fictionalized version of the DOR Ball in a manner similar to that in which the Twin Oaks barbecue is used in the plot of GWTW, some of those critics charged that Margaret Mitchell had in some manner plagiarized 'Vanity Fair'.

Ms. Mitchell, in return, protested that she'd never read 'Vanity Fair'. Beyond that, I've been able to find nothing, but the similarities between the Twin Oaks party and the two historical Balls ARE pretty striking. To this day, some critics think Ms. Mitchell was lying.

I don't. I think that perhaps she had heard the story of the Balfour House Christmas Ball. Because the story of that Ball is so similar to the much more famous DOR Ball, it's natural that the DOR Ball occurred to the critics, and it is thus understandable, though unfair, that they make the connection to Vanity Fair.

This is my theory. I need something to back it up so I can add it to the article on Balfour House, and maybe somehow even work it into the article on GWTW. If anyone reading this can help, I'd very much appreciate it.

Southern Lady said...

Berberry: Thank you so much for the interesting follow-ups on the history of Balfour House and the Balfour family.

As I wrote about the Christmas Ball, I, too, was struck by the similarities between it and the scene in GWTW. I agree with your theory that Ms. Mitchell may have been inspired by the Balfour House ball instead of the DOR Ball, and wish you luck documenting it.

I will definitely watch for your new Wikipedia article on Emma.

diane b said...

A great story without an ending.