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Vicksburg History

The old city cemetery: Headstones under the house

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(Photo by Gary Bridgman - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1892607)

The first city cemetery in Vicksburg was located roughly in the area north from Grove Street, south to Stouts Bayou, and from First North Street east to Second North Street. The cemetery was moved sometime around 1840 because Vicksburg needed room to grow eastward.

Map showing the approximate area of the first city cemetery in Vicksburg. Click the image to expand it.

I used to work at the Old Court House with Gordon and Blanche Terry, and believe me, between the two of them, things were never dull. One day Charles Riles came in, and I was telling him about the old city cemetery. He had never heard of it, then Blanche chimed in that one of her ancestors had bought some property with headstones on it. He didn’t feel it was right to remove the stones, so he built a house over them. Charles got all excited and wanted to see the house, so after work that afternoon, we went to Second North Street to show him.

A few days later, Charles showed up at the museum and proclaimed that he had found the headstones. He had found an older lady sitting on her porch and asked her if he could look under it, and of course, the lady was curious as to why this chubby, white fellow who was dressed in a suit wanted to look under her house.

Charles explained to her that the area used to be a cemetery and that there were headstones under her house. She got all excited and exclaimed, “All this time I’ve lived here, I’ve never been able to get greens to grow, and now you’re telling me that I live in a cemetery. I’m gonna move.”

When he returned a few weeks later, Charles said there was a for-rent sign in the window of the house, and he felt kind of bad about it owing to the fact that it was the wrong house and the stones were under another one.

At the Historical Society meeting that year, Charles brought one of the headstones from under the house to the meeting. It was a tall, thin stone for a young girl. Unfortunately, I cannot remember the name, but he put it back after the meeting, so if anyone is curious, I’m sure it is still there to see.

Vicksburg History

The dueling Black Knight

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This story comes from the book “Invocation to Death: The Final Hours of Col. Alexander Keith McClung” by Howell, H. Grady, Jr. Madison, Miss., 2014, and is used with permission. The story also appears on the Mississippi Department of History and Archives website. 

Information was also gleaned from the Southern Marksman, Clinton, Mississippi, January 1, 1839.

The story has been lightly edited for clarity.


One of early Jackson’s most colorful citizens was Col. Alexander Keith McClung (1811-1855), also known as the Black Knight.

A contemporary of Charles Henry Manship, mayor of Jackson during the Civil War, McClung was known as a Mexican War hero, orator, statesman and duelist. He arrived in Jackson in the early 1830s to establish a law practice. Originally from Kentucky, McClung was active in Whig politics, although not very successful as a lawyer, and he fought gallantly in the Mexican War with Jefferson Davis.

McClung was perhaps best known—and feared—as a duelist. Dueling in the early 1800s was a formal, ritualized method of settling matters of honor. McClung was reputed to have fought in as many as 14 duels and to have killed 10 men. He committed suicide with his own dueling pistol in the Eagle Hotel in 1855.

One of McClung’s most famous duels took place on Dec. 29, 1838, across the river from Vicksburg. The Southern Marksman in Clinton, Miss., reported the event on Jan. 1, 1839, as follows:

“The following are the particulars of the duel between McClung and Menifee, given us by a person who was present at the fight.

THE DUEL AT VICKSBURG. – The duel between McClung and Menifee came off on Saturday the 29th ist., they were to have fought at 11 o’clock A. M. the time specified, and many started across the river as early as day break, thinking that the time reported was to evade the multitude that would be assembled, and that the fight would take place at sun rise, and boats were continually crossing from that time until the parties met on the ground for combat.

There were as many as 35 skiffs and yawls crossing and recrossing at one time, until a quarter past twelve o’clock M. at which time there were assembled from six to seven hundred persons to witness the scene.

Menifee and his party were on the ground before eleven o’clock – McClung and his party arriving about 12. Both parties appeared to be very collected, and in fact, in high spirits.

The prevailing opinion was that McClung would be killed, as he had practiced but a few days with a rifle; whereas, Menifee is considered a proficient in the use of that weapon. McClung took his station 2 or 3 minutes previous to the arrival of Menifee on the ground laid out. On perceiving his opponent (Menifee) dressed in light summer coat buttoned close, he threw off his green blanket coat, and taking a bowie knife and a large pistol from his belt, deposited them on the ground, and went through the preliminaries of the duel in his shirt sleeves, when his coat was replaced by his second.

At the signal, both fired, Menifee’s party having won the word, McClung fired first, Menifee in a second afterwards; McClung’s ball passing over Menifee’s head, and Menifee’s ball passing within an inch of McClung’s body, in the range of the abdomen as was discovered by examination, as Menifee’s ball lodged in the fence in the rear of McClung, and directly in a range of the line where he stood.

McClung appeared to be very much vexed after the first fire, and threw his gun (which was a United States Yauger) four or five feet from him, exclaiming that he had fired in the air, as it went off before he had taken aim-but for myself I thought he had brought the gun to a dead level; and Menifee and some of his party heard the ball as it whizzed by them, and it passed as they supposed within 2 or 3 inches of Menifee’s head.

After this, both parties retired to their respective cabins, and were on the grounds in fifteen minutes after, all prepared, the word given, McClung fired and Menifee fell-and for one minute, all supposed him dead; the wound being directly above the right eye, was supposed by many to have passed through the head; but it was different, as it was only a scale of the ball, the ball having struck the extra guard that protects the tube of Menifee’s rifle, broke it off, knocked off the cap, and broke the hollow part of the hammer that presses on the tube, thereby glancing and striking him as above stated, the ball being split.

It was the opinion of many, that had not the ball struck the guard it would have passed over Menifee’s right shoulder, and would not have injured him. In about ten minutes after Menifee fell he was on his feet and expressed a wish to walk to the boat, which his Physician and friend Jackson would not permit.”

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Vicksburg History

Old Hig’s body: ‘as fresh as a new blown rose’

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Arnold advertised embalming in this ad from the late 1800s.

Matthew Higgins earned a place in local history, but he had to give up his life to do it. His body was the first in Vicksburg to be embalmed by the current method.

And according to the Vicksburg Daily Herald on Saturday, Sept. 30, 1882, he looked “as fresh as a new blown rose.”

Though the Egyptians had mastered the science of embalming centuries ago, knowledge of the process had been lost. Consequently, funerals were usually held within a day of a person’s death.

When the Herald ran the story about Higgins, he had been dead almost a week. He had practically become a poster figure for John Quincy Arnold’s funeral home, for his body, in a wooden coffin, had been on display for all to see.

He was a pauper, “a man of large muscular development, about fifty years of age;” the Herald stated, “and accustomed during life to all sorts of rough treatment, and the severest physical tasks.”

He had died at City Hospital on Sept. 25 at 3 a.m. after a congestive chill. Dr. William T. Balfour was his attending physician.

Frank Fisher was the undertaker for John Quincy Arnold (Fisher later owned the funeral home). Fisher said he was proud of “Old Hig,” as he referred to the corpse, and he nonchalantly removed the lid to the coffin so the reporter could view the body.

“Here’s your stiff,” Fisher said, and then he encouraged the reporter, “Feel him,” which he declined to do. But he was curious: How could a body be kept so long in such warm weather? Fisher told him that he had just returned from a course in the new process of arterial embalming, and Higgins was his first project. The new embalming method had become popular the year before when the body of Pres. James A. Garfield was embalmed. He had been murdered in 1881.

“In the case of Higgins, the demonstration is perfect,” the reporter wrote. “The face has a glow about it such as is noticeable on the countenances of the dead an hour or so after death, and it wears a peaceful and quiet smile as though in sleep. The skin is soft and velvety, and the body is as cool as though it had been in a refrigerator. There is not the faintest suggestion of an odor of any kind arising from the body.”

The reporter said that Fisher had mastered the art of embalming and “is now ready to preserve dead bodies, and to ship them any distance, or at any season of the year. … Call and see his present subject.”

Fisher said he planned to keep the body on display for several more days and said he was confident it would remain in its present state for at least a year. In six or eight months he said, he planned to disinter it to make sure of the result.

A few weeks later Fisher had a chance to prove his ability again when a Mr. Judd from Dubuque, Iowa, died unexpectedly at a local hotel. A note in the Herald on Nov. 24, 1882, from Judd’s widow reported that the embalming and shipping the body home was a complete success.

Matthew Higgins was·buried in Potter’s Field in Cedar Hill Cemetery on Oct. 3, 1882, no doubt more famous in death than he had ever been in life.

The advent of chemical embalming greatly changed the role of the undertaker. He often went to the home of the deceased, especially in the country, with a portable embalming kit. He usually had in the buggy a portable “cooling board” on which to lay the body, and his home embalming case contained special instruments, embalming fluids, combs, razors, and sheets. He might also supply badges for the mourners: black for the elderly, white for the young, and a combination of the two colors for young adults.

Sometimes he provided coffins, though many were homemade and country stores usually kept a supply on hand. Traditionally, sawdust and wood shavings from homemade coffins were placed inside the box as superstition taught that if those bits of wood were tracked into the house, they would endanger whomever they touched.

Aunt Malena loved to tell the story of someone who died on the Hunt place in Campbell’s Swamp. A cooling board was placed, the end sticking through a crack between logs of the cabin, extending for a foot or more, and the other inside resting on the back of a straight chair. The body was placed on the board by the neighbors, who waited for Mr. Arnold to arrive. A courting couple, on the porch, sat down on the end of the cooling board, which caused the body and board to rise. Those inside the cabin fled the building. They had witnessed a resurrection!

The undertaker often had some shrouds on hand which were gown-like coverings made to be draped over the body to resemble a dress. Like a hospital gown, shrouds had no back, prompting my friend, the late Lenora McAlpin, self-proclaimed mayor of Grand Gulf, to say, ”l don’t want to be buried in a shroud. I don’t want to meet the Lord with the back of my gown out!”

Funeral customs have changed a lot since Matthew Higgins earned his place in history. It was probably the first time in his life he had been dressed up—and had nowhere to go.

Despite all the free advertising poor Old Hig garnered for the funeral home, the undertaker still charged the county $5 for the burial.


Gordon Cotton is the curator emeritus of the Old Court House Museum. He is the author of several books and is a renowned historian.

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The remarkable life of Ben Montgomery

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This pastel portrait, made from a photograph of Ben Montgomery, is in the Black History display in the Old Court House Museum. The portrait is by Mary Helen Sims.

Benjamin Montgomery was one of the most exceptional men in Warren County history. Though born a slave, his achievements are phenomenal.

He was born in Loudon County, Virginia, in 1819, and when he was 17, he was sent overland to the slave market in Natchez. Despite the horrors of slavery, he was fortunate in that he was bought by Joseph Emory Davis of Warren County (older brother to future Confederate president Jefferson Davis) though he could not have realized it at the time.

Bitterly resentful that he had been taken from a city environment to an isolated plantation in Mississippi; he ran away but was soon apprehended and returned to Hurricane Plantation at Davis Bend.

Joe Davis didn’t punish the youth but instead talked with him about the reasons for his unhappiness. The late Janet Sharp Herman, historian and professor of history at the University of California at Berkley, felt that Davis saw in Ben Montgomery the exceptional potential he possessed. He explained to the young man the many opportunities before him and issued a challenge.

In later years, Montgomery’s son Isiah wrote that master and slave “reached a mutual understanding through their long and eventful connection.”

Ben Montgomery made the most of his situation. He could read, and he had access to the plantation library and was soon copying letters and legal briefs as office clerk for his master, who was an attorney.

He learned land surveying and construction plans for levees, essential to protecting to the plantation during floods. (The levees he designed are still holding today.)

He drew plans for several plantation buildings and was the architect for the garden cottage, or library.

Ben Montgomery designed the garden cottage, which became known as the library on Hurricane plantation. This photo, with many of Joe Davis’ slaves in front of the building, is from the Old Court House Museum collection and was taken ca. 1860.

He became an accomplished mechanic who kept the steam engines that operated the cotton gins running, and he invented a boat propeller to improve the paddle wheels of river steamboats. (Ironically, he could not claim a patent under United States law, but he was granted a patent under Confederate States law.) Joe Davis wrote his brother Jeff that Montgomery had “few Superiors as a Machinist.”

Montgomery was multitalented, and he also proved his ability as a merchant. Slaves on some plantations were allowed to do extra work to earn money, and Montgomery had saved enough so that in 1842 he established a store at Hurricane, selling dry goods and staple items to other slaves, bartering for wood, chickens, eggs and vegetables they had produced on their own time.

He maintained his own line of credit with New Orleans wholesale markets. He provided fresh produce and fruit for steamboats. The store proved popular with both black and white residents, and one lady from the mansion bought as much as $1,000 worth of goods in a year.

Montgomery became an agent for his master, buying supplies and shipping the cotton crop. Davis eventually named him business agent for Hurricane.

At Christmas in 1840, Montgomery married Mary Lewis, daughter of the plantation’s skilled millwright. He was 21, and she was 18. He had built a riverfront store, and his income was such that he was able to pay Joe Davis the equivalent of her worth as a servant, so Mary was able to stay at home and rear the four children they eventually had. She did some sewing for white women in the community and helped Ben in the store.

Davis always encouraged Montgomery to undertake new challenges, and the two often sat in the evenings and discussed the books they were reading, usually books of political theory and philosophy.

Ben Montgomery (date unknown)

The secession of the Southern states and the ensuing war changed all this forever, but it did not destroy the friendship between the two men. Davis took most of his slaves to Hinds County and then to Alabama to escape the ravages of war, but Ben Montgomery stayed behind to try to guard both Hurricane and Brierfield plantations as best he could. Despite his efforts, Yankee soldiers burned Hurricane mansion. He remained on the plantation, and in 1863 wrote to President Davis of the situation. After the fall of Vicksburg, he took his family to safety in Ohio.

After the war, Montgomery returned to Warren County, but it was hardly the home he had known, for the Davis plantations had been confiscated by the Yankees and were being used as headquarters for the Freedmen’s Bureau. Joe Davis and Ben Montgomery worked together to successfully rid the Bureau of its commander.

In 1867 Montgomery took on a new responsibility when the commander of the military government named him justice of the peace for Davis Bend. With genuine humility, he said he felt unqualified for the job, but he felt it was his duty to accept.

On Dec. 31, 1874, he was helping demolish an old building on Hurricane when a wall collapsed, falling on him. It broke a rib, and his spine and hips were so badly injured that he could not walk for months. Dr. Charles Mitchell, Joe Davis’ son-in-law, treated him, but he was terribly racked with pain and never really recovered.

He died at age 58 on May 12, 1877, and the next day a metal casket costing $75 was bought for him from John Quincy Arnold in Vicksburg. He is probably buried on Davis Island, but his grave has no marker.

He should be remembered for many reasons, but mainly because he was the first black person to hold public office in Mississippi and possibly in the South.

If Warren County had a hall of fame, Ben Montgomery’s name should be in it.


Gordon Cotton is the curator emeritus of the Old Court House Museum. He is the author of several books and is a renowned historian.

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