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Siege of Vicksburg: The Newspaper Printed on Wallpaper

Ron is a student of the American Civil War and writes about it frequently. His focus is not so much on the battles as on the people.

Vicksburg Daily Citizen

In the spring and summer of 1863, Union General Ulysses S. Grant laid siege to the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg, Mississippi. During the 47 days of the siege, the city was bombarded every day, and civilians and the rebel soldiers defending the town struggled to keep their spirits up.

One main means of bolstering morale as the siege dragged on was the town's last remaining newspaper, the Vicksburg Daily Citizen.

A Confederate Newspaper Helps Keep up Morale

The publisher of the Daily Citizen was J. M. Swords, a man thoroughly committed to the Confederate cause. He understood the role his paper played in maintaining morale among citizens and soldiers alike, and was determined to keep publishing even as the city suffered under continuous bombing from the Union army and navy.

The Vicksburg Daily Citizen, July 2, 1863.

The Vicksburg Daily Citizen, July 2, 1863.

As the siege continued, with the Union forces maintaining a blockade that prevented any supplies from getting into the city, the shortage of food for both citizens and soldiers became acute. When all available beef had been consumed, the population turned to other sources of meat. As inhabitants were reduced to eating first mules, then dogs, cats, and even rats, the Daily Citizen did its best to keep up their will to resist by making light of their predicament:

We are indebted to Major Gillespie for a steak of Confederate beef alias meat. We have tried it and can assure our friends, if it is rendered necessary, they need have no scruples at eating the meat. It is sweet, savory and tender, and so long as we have a mule left we are satisfied our soldiers will be content to subsist on it.

— Vicksburg Daily Citizen, July 2, 1863

Publication of the Newspaper Is Threatened by a Lack of Newsprint

The shortage of food was a severe trial for the inhabitants of Vicksburg in the final weeks of the siege. But what was even more dismaying for the Daily Citizen's publisher was that he ran out of newsprint. With the best will in the world, he couldn't publish a newspaper without paper on which to print it.

From the beginning of the Civil War, getting enough paper for all uses had been a severe problem for the Confederacy. In 1860, the year before the war started, there were 555 paper mills spread throughout the nation, but only 24 of them were in the South. Once the war began all supplies from the North were cut off. Now, with Vicksburg under siege, even the meager amount of paper the Confederacy could produce on its own could no longer make its way into the city.

The wartime shortage had already taught Southern editors to be resourceful in finding supplies of paper, and J. M. Swords was no exception. When he ran out of newsprint, he immediately began searching for a substitute, and soon found one. The one source of printable paper still available in Vicksburg was unused rolls of wallpaper, with a design on one side, and the other side blank.

So, Swords cut up the wallpaper into sheets suitable for his press, and continued publishing his newspaper. From June 16, 1863 until the end of the siege on July 4, the Vicksburg Daily Citizen was printed on the back of wallpaper.

The Vicksburg Daily Citizen printed on wallpaper, July 2, 1863

The Vicksburg Daily Citizen printed on wallpaper, July 2, 1863

The Editor Issues a Challenge to General Grant

The most famous edition of the Daily Citizen was its last. J. M. Swords, along with most of the white inhabitants of Vicksburg, was confident that although General Grant had been besieging the city for weeks, he could never take it, and would soon be forced into ignominious retreat by the arrival of a Confederate army under General Joseph E. Johnston. The Daily Citizen’s publisher, hoping that a public expression of contempt for General Grant would encourage his readers to maintain their defiance, included the following column in the July 2 edition of the paper:

On Dit.--That the great Ulysses--the Yankee Generalissimo, surnamed Grant--has expressed his intention of dining in Vicksburg on Saturday next, and celebrating the 4th of July by a grand dinner and so forth. When asked if he would invite Gen. Jo. Johnston to join he said 'No! for fear there will be a row at the table'. Ulysses must get into the city before he dines in it. The way to cook a rabbit is 'first catch the rabbit' &c.

A Taunt Becomes a Prophecy

Swords, secure in his belief that General Grant could never conquer the city, made a mistake that continues to haunt his name after a century and a half. He meant his note to be a sarcastic taunt. Instead, it turned out to be prophetic. Just two days after it was published, on the 4th of July, 1863, General John Pemberton, the Confederate commander, surrendered Vicksburg to Grant. The Union general did indeed eat his dinner in Vicksburg on the 4th.

When Union forces got to the office of the Daily Citizen on that 4th of July, they found Swords' last edition of the paper, with his provocative note to General Grant, still in type. Deciding to have a little fun with the former publisher's prideful but mistaken advice about rabbits, the Union soldiers added the following note, then printed their own version of the paper:

Two days bring about great changes, The banner of the Union floats over Vicksburg, Gen Grant has 'caught the rabbit;' he has dined in Vicksburg... The 'Citizen' lives to see it. For the last time it appears on 'Wall-paper.' No more will it eulogize the luxury of mule-meat and fricasseed kitten--urge Southern warriors to such diet never more. This is the last wall-paper edition, and is, excepting this note, from the types as we found them. It will be valuable hereafter as a curiosity.

Copies of the Amended Daily Citizen Are Sold to Union Soldiers

Southerners believed that one of the defining characteristics of their Northern adversaries was that Yankees could be counted on to take advantage of any opportunity to make a buck. In this case, the Union soldiers who published the final edition of the Daily Citizen proved the point. They printed about 50 copies of the paper carrying their response to Swords’ taunt, and sold them to their fellow soldiers as souvenirs of their victory in the Battle of Vicksburg.

Many decades later, in 1929, one of the men who helped get out that last edition of the Daily Citizen read an article about it in the New York Herald Tribune. He was W. T. Gardner, and he had been a printer’s apprentice before joining the army. Proud of what he and his fellow soldiers had accomplished as impromptu newspaper publishers on that long ago 4th of July in Vicksburg, he wrote a letter to the editor explaining how they did it:

"I am the Grant soldier who set up the type of the item dated July 4, 1863, and did the press work on an old Franklin press. The item was written, if I am not mistaken, by Sergeant Lanfield (or Landfield), Company G, 97th Illinois Volunteers...When we entered the little one-room printing office we found everything as it had been left on July 2. Mr. Swords, the proprietor, was not in, but he had kindly cut up a quantity of wallpaper and sprinkled it and piled it on the floor ready for use....we used it all and then, dividing the papers up, started out to sell them at 25 cents a copy."

Another Prophecy Comes True

The Sgt. Lanfield (or Landfield) who composed the copy in that final edition of the Daily Citizen, and assured readers that “It will be valuable hereafter as a curiosity,” spoke more accurately than he could have known. Specimens of that July 4, 1863 edition of the Vicksburg Daily Citizen have indeed become quite valuable.

In 1992 the Sotheby’s auction house in New York sold a copy of the July 4 Daily Citizen for $3,500. Ironically, the original July 2 number of the paper, which of course lacks the column added by Union soldiers on July 4, is even more valuable. An authenticated copy of that edition sold in 2003 for $6,572.

© 2018 Ronald E Franklin


bhattuc on August 05, 2020:

Interesting article. Well presented.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on September 22, 2018:

Thank you.

femi from Nigeria on September 22, 2018:

nice article

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on September 18, 2018:

Thanks, Robert. For me, it's another of those little incidents that remind us that the Civil War was lived by real people who were not unlike ourselves.

Robert Levine from Brookline, Massachusetts on September 18, 2018:

Well-written, informative, and fascinating Hub about an aspect of the Civil War I knew nothing about.