From today's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: Pause for Perspective On Civil War Dana D. Kelley Mention Vicksburg, Miss., and the most common word association is "siege." Since even the oldest among us are several generations removed from any personal experience with a siege, it’s a rather abstract affiliation. Just as the faded, fuzzy images from the era’s crude photography tend to dull our visualization of Civil War events, words like "siege" and even "bombardment" register as purely academic terms that we can’t really appreciate. Looking at pictures from the 1860s, we don’t think about the days being as sunny and bright as they are today. Those images are relics, and it’s easy to imagine the whole time period as being old and yellowed, like the surviving photographs. Likewise, it’s hard to fathom residential neighborhoods enduring a "shelling," even though intellectually we understand what that word means. My perspective on all this got a jolt when I stayed in Vicksburg, Miss., recently. My appetite for history is voracious, to put it mildly, and a visit to the scene of the greatest strategic battle victory for the Federals promised to be an all-you-can-eat learning buffet. Sure enough, Vicksburg serves up its history with five-star quality portions and presentation. The National Military Park there has the largest interment of Union soldiers of any national cemetery in the U.S., the bulk of whom are unknown. Of the 17,000 veterans buried there, only 5,000 were ever identified. The park, both a bargain and a bonanza, is spread out over 1,728 acres. The tour is a 16-mile stretch of road through most of the major battle lines surrounding the city chock-full of monuments to the infantry and artillery divisions on both sides that participated in the siege, all accessible for only $5 per automobile. Looking at red and blue lines on old maps of Civil War battles doesn’t come close to depicting the proximity between opposing entrenchments. There are places where Federal and Confederate lines were only tens of feet apart, well within shouting distance, not to mention pinpoint rifle range. In fact, Federal soldiers often passed the time—sieges by nature created boredom among the besieging troops—by hoisting their caps on poles above their trenches to draw Confederate fire, then counting the holes. Along with boredom, sieges contained a certain courtesy among adversaries. Vicksburg was no different, and even exemplary. Cease-fires and truces were numerous to retrieve dead and wounded, and even once to alter a Confederate line after a Federal trench was mistakenly dug inside it. During those abeyances the troops asked across enemy lines about relatives and traded tobacco, coffee, games and stories. It seems unimaginable today that battlefield hostilities can cease for such interaction, then resume with ferocious intensity. The TV sound-bite world in which we live has only enough time for simple concepts like war and peace. The overlapping complex coexistence of notions like courage and chivalry on both sides doesn’t play well on CNN or MTV. Today’s producers prefer monochrome characters and plots. The bad guys have to be all bad. Otherwise, a story requires explanation. It’s bad enough that most of us can’t conceive the implications of suffering a siege, but worse that we also can’t properly empathize with people who did. That’s the real story of human drama at Vicksburg. Mary Ann Loughborough was one of about 1,500 civilians who chose to remain in the city after noncombatants were urged to evacuate. Only 26 at the time and married to a Confederate colonel, Loughborough eloquently captured the siege—and the residents’ ensuing retreat into caves for protectionin her diary entries and letters, which were published in 1864. The book, "My Cave Life in Vicksburg," is my favorite type of historical document—immediate and of the moment, unfiltered by memory or later interpretation. The daily life was unthinkably terrifying. "Even the very animals seemed to share the general fear of a sudden and frightful death," Loughborough wrote. She recorded the "sad news of a Vicksburg day" in the following passage: "A little Negro child, playing in the yard, had found a shell; in rolling and turning it, had innocently pounded the fuse; the terrible explosion followed, showing, as the white cloud of smoke floated away, the mangled remains of a life that to the mother’s heart had possessed all of beauty and joy. "A young girl, becoming weary in the confinement of the cave, hastily ran to the house in the interval that elapsed between the slowly falling shells. On returning, an explosion sounded near her. One wild scream, and she ran into her mother’s presence, sinking like a wounded dove, the life blood flowing over the light summer dress in crimson ripples from a death-wound in her side, caused by the shell fragment." This was one day’s account. Despite the constant onslaught, Gen. U.S. Grant had more than 70,000 men surrounding the city, population 5,000 in 1860, and 220 big guns firing around the clock. Loughborough’s demeanor was faithful and enduring, even incredulous. "It seemed in this storm of missiles," she wrote during one particularly heavy attack, "that all must be killed. How strange so few casualties occur during these projectile storms!" Her observations of people—"Yet, all received their trials with cheerfulness"tell us much about her and those she interacted with, and it’s a redeeming theme in an otherwise tragic tale. Heroism, bravery, compassion all occurred with a frequency equal to the incoming mortar shells. Even the conquering Union troops, her husband told her, "had acted splendidly." If ever there were excuses for bad behavior, Vicksburg had them. Yet in the midst of total deprivation, human goodness flourished. That’s pause for perspective, especially in our time of unparalleled abundance. • Dana D. Kelley is a free-lance writer from Jonesboro. This story was published Friday, October 31, 2003.