Loughborough, Mary Ann Webster
LOUGHBOROUGH, Mary Ann Webster
Married James M. Loughborough, 1850s
Little is known about Mary Ann Webster Loughborough's early life or education, but it is obvious that she was a well-read and intelligent woman. Her marriage in the 1850s brought her to the South, where she spent the rest of her life. When the Civil War began, Loughborough apparently followed her soldier husband from place to place, living for a while in Tennessee and Mississippi.
Loughborough is best known for her only book, My Cave Life in Vicksburg (1864), a graphic description of the siege of that city by the Union army in 1863. Loughborough arrived in Vicksburg a few weeks before the assault began. She had been living in Jackson, Mississippi, but moved to Vicksburg in the mistaken belief that it would be safer. "Ah! Vicksburg," she recalls, "our city of refuge, the last to yield thou wilt be; and within thy homes we will not fear the footsteps of the victorious army but rest in safety amid thy hills." General John C. Pemberton, commander of the Confederate defenders, had already ordered women and children out of the city. Loughborough, however, chose to remain close to her husband and feared she would not be able to get to Mobile, the closest city of refuge.
The bombardment and siege of Vicksburg began on 17 May 1863. Shells from stationary cannons and gunboats on the river rained on the city, forcing the inhabitants to seek shelter in caves dug into the surrounding hillsides. According to the author, many of these caves were large enough to be divided into several rooms, and when furnished with beds and tables were comfortable, if not exactly fashionable. However, a heavy rain or mortar shell reminded the occupants that they lived under fragile earth.
Remarkably, life inside the caves soon became routine. Cave dwellers learned to distinguish the sounds made by the various types of shells as they exploded and could calmly predict their point of impact, although Loughborough records several near-fatal miscalculations. One night a visiting soldier picked up a guitar and all joined the impromptu party. "How could we sing and laugh amid our suffering fellow beings—amid the shriek of death itself?" she asks. They learned to take amusement when and where it came.
Shells and mortars were not the only problems faced by the cave dwellers of Vicksburg. Food became scarce as the Union army closed trade routes into the city. Fresh meat and vegetables were almost impossible to obtain, so with true ingenuity the cave dwellers found substitutes. Mule, squirrel, and rat replaced beef and pork; and peas, dried, mashed, and baked into bread became the staple diet.
Finally, the city could hold out no longer. With the army on one-quarter rations and no reinforcements in sight, General Pemberton surrendered the city on 4 July 1863. Cautiously, Loughborough and others moved out of their caves. For the first time in forty-seven days, there was no gunfire.
As soon as it was safe, Loughborough moved to St. Louis. Friends there were interested in her description of the siege and urged her to record her experiences for publication. The first edition of My Cave Life was published by Appleton and Company in 1864. After the war, Loughborough settled in Little Rock, Arkansas. There in 1883, she founded the Southern Ladies Journal, one of the first modern women's magazines. She served as its editor until her death.
My Cave Life in Vicksburg is one of the few complete, firsthand accounts of the siege and life inside the city. Although written shortly after the event, it has the immediacy of a newspaper account and the detail of a daily diary. One of the problems of Civil War historiography is that scholars have tended to focus on the political and military aspects of the conflict while ignoring the effects of the war on the noncombatants. However, recent scholarship is beginning to reverse this trend, and memoirs like My Cave Life will be invaluable in this effort.
Hoehling, A. A., Vicksburg: 47 Days of Siege (1969). Walker, P. F., Vicksburg: A People at War (1960).
—JANET E. KAUFMAN