The well-worn, crimson-colored velvet album of the Broome family contains many family photos from the turn of the century as well as some photos and tintypes from the Civil War era. But one curious photo loosely stashed alongside other less curious photos in the back of the album caught my attention.
The photo, small and faded, pictures a scaffold which holds several hanged men — their coffins awaiting them on the ground. The handwritten inscription on the back of the photo reads, “Scaffold on which 9 negroes were hanged. (1861)” The name of John T. Broome, my great, great grandfather, was also handwritten on the back. The photo was taken by Joslyn, Smith & Co., Washington Gallery, Vicksburg, Miss.
The photo is morbid at best, but I could not help wondering why this photo had been saved in the family album. That concern is still only answerable by speculation, but I did go on a search for the story behind the photo. What I found was a saga that revealed the ravages and the horrors of enemy occupation and examples of human nature at its lowest and highest points.
The hanging of nine African-American Union soldiers took place in 1865 during the occupation of Vicksburg. They were hanged after being found guilty of the murder of Mrs. Minerva Cook of Hardtimes Plantation that was located seven miles east of Vicksburg.
Wide-spread harassment of citizens and the looting of their property had occurred consistently during the Union occupation of the city and the surrounding area. Three civilian murders by Union soldiers had already occurred in Vicksburg since the occupation began in the summer of 1863, but General Henry Slocum, the Union general in charge at that time did nothing about the crimes. But in late 1864 a no-nonsense major general by the name of Napoleon Jackson Tecumseh Dana assumed command.
Before Gen. Ulysses Grant was transferred from Vicksburg, Union and Confederate officials agreed on a neutral zone three miles wide along the railroad between Vicksburg and the Big Black River. Hardtimes Plantation, owned by Jared Reese Cook was within this neutral zone. No hostilities or weapons were allowed within this zone. Gen. Grant even gave to the Cooks a paper guaranteeing their safety and protection from further harassment.
But one night in early April 1865, some Union soldiers left their Vicksburg camp unauthorized after the evening roll call “to go catch some Rebels.” What began as another looting spree of a plantation home, ended with the murder of Mrs. Cook and the attempted murder of Mr. Cook.
It was nine o’clock and the Cooks and their three sons had gone to bed when Mr. Cook heard voices outside. Soon the men were demanding entrance into the home to take the Cook’s silver of which they had no more. The soldiers stuck lit candles into the barrels of their guns to be able to search the dark house. The soldiers were very demanding, even going into the children’s rooms and tossing the boys out of their beds to search the mattresses.
When the soldiers could not find what they were looking for, they became angry and wreckless, threatening the Cooks. One of the soldiers pleaded with his cohorts not to fire their weapons on the family because that is not what they came there to do. But anger won out and shots rang out. Mrs. Cook fell to the floor.
After she was shot, more shots rang out and Mr. Cook was shot in the shoulder knocking him to the floor. Presuming Minerva dead, Mr. Cook grabbed one of their sons who was standing close by and escaped through a window running to a neighbor’s home. Mrs. Cook lay bleeding on the floor. The soldiers ran back to camp carrying their plunder. Mrs. Cook was found later still alive with her other children weeping over her. She was able to identify her assailants saying she had been “shot by negroes dressed in uniform.” Mrs. Minerva Cook died later that morning.
When the murder became known, Major General Dana offered a reward of $500 for “the apprehension of the guilty.” Thirteen arrests were made and the court martial began May 1, 1865 in the courthouse. It continued and on May 4th moved to the scene of the crime. After the case was heard, nine of the men were found guilty. The sentence was read by judge Gen. Jasper A. Maltby, “To be hanged by the neck until dead, at such time and place as the Major General commanding may direct.” For three of the 13 men there was a stay of execution and their sentence was converted to five years in the penitentiary. One soldier was found not guilty of murder because he tried to stop the other soldiers. He was returned to his regiment for duty. The condemned men were kept in the tall brick-walled jail located across from the courthouse.
Each day family, friends and gracious citizens went to visit the inmates. Sister Mary de Sales, Reverend Mother of the Sisters of Mercy came to tend the spiritual needs of the men and also to extend friendship and guidance. One of the condemned men, a former carriage driver for the Cooks, made his confession to the Sister and was baptized.
A large sturdy scaffold was built by military authorities in O’Neals Bottom, a grassy area located between Harrison, 1st, and South Streets. On May 26, the day before Gen. Dana would retire from the military, the condemned men rode from the jail house to the site of the execution — each in the back of a wagon sitting atop his coffin.
As the men took their places on the gallows, but before the nooses were placed around their necks, Pvt. Henry Johnson, the soldier who was baptized by the Reverend Mother, made a final statement: “I hope my sins are washed away by the precious blood of the Savior.” Moments later Federal soldiers sprang the traps and the murder of Minerva Cook was avenged.
My great, great grandfather valued this photo enough to inscribe his name on it and to stow it away in the back of his family album. As a Mississippi native and a Confederate soldier, he may have kept it because it gave him some sort of satisfaction, or he may have been present at the execution. I may never know…
For a detailed account of this event read the book by Gordon A. Cotton entitled “The Murder of Minerva Cook.” I am grateful for the help of Mr. Terrence Winchell and Dr. David Slay at the Vicksburg National Military Park, the book by author and past curator of the Vicksburg Old Courthouse Museum Gordon A. Cotton, and current curator, George Bolm for their assistance in helping me discover the mystery behind this curious photo.