The Balfour Christmas Ball, December 24th, 1862 Vicksburg
by Gordon Thorsby
On Christmas Eve, 1862 the Balfour Home in Vicksburg, Mississippi put on the grandest Christmas Ball. The belles were dressed in the finest gowns of 1862 and senior Confederate Officers and gentlemen of Vicksburg attended in their finest uniforms or tuxedos. Officers included Lt. General Stephen D. Lee (pictured lower left) and the Commander of the defenses of the town, Brigadier General Martin Luther Smith. Lee recounted his fond memories of that evening.
The ten days prior to the gala, a series of disasters for the Union army had occurred. There was Fredericksburg, VA, a day of slaughter for the Army of the Potomac. Confederate General Earl Van Dorn’s Cavalry had struck Holly Springs up north and destroyed over $1,000,000 in Federal supplies and General Nathan Bedford Forrest had severed Grant’s supply lines that might place his approach to Vicksburg in jeopardy.
Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Lt. General Joseph E. Johnston visited Vicksburg on December 21, 1862. They were there to see how well the city was prepared for the defense of the city against an army that would eventually descend upon the hill city. Davis called for a “Day of Humiliation, fasting and prayer to Almighty God in hopes that the city would survive the “Hand of the Destroyer.” Prayer was needed because Johnston was not impressed with the defenses and while Davis said he was satisfied he may have had doubts he never expressed.
Emma Balfour (below) was insistent to her husband that they have the ball to raise the spirits of the city in the midst of the War and had it, they did. The dancing was fantastic, the music was grand beyond any description and merriment was something only a Christmas could bring once a tear. Then at a sudden and unexpected moment, a muddied Colonel Philip H. Fall barged into the room and presented a message to General Smith.
Fall had just completed a thirty-six mile trek to deliver the urgent message. Upon reviewing the contents, Smith looked up at the guests staring on and announced, “This ball is at an end! The enemy are coming down the river, all non-combatants must leave the city. Officers quickly scattered to their commands encamped around the town. General William Tecumseh Sherman and the Union Navy were coming to call.
Nobody would realize what was to follow for the Confederacy. In a matter of days, Union infantry would be bloodily repulsed at Chickasaw Bluffs, two opposing armies would clash at Stones River in Tennessee costing over 20,000 casualties by both sides and ending in stalemate. On New Year’s Day, the Emancipation Proclamation became official.
Emma Balfour survived the siege in a cave and the rest of the war. Her house suffered serious artillery damage during the siege. The home was recently restored, and at one point on Zillow real estate. Today, the spirit of Emma Balfour is witness to a re-enacted gala on Christmas Eve each and every year.
For on Christmas Eve, 1862, Soldiers and residents in Vicksburg forgot the war to celebrate a time for peace.
Merry Christmas to all!
Stephen D. Lee, "Detail of Two Confederate Telegraph Operations, Christmas Eve," Publication of Mississippi Historical Society.
Triumph and Defeat, The Vicksburg Campaign, by Winschel, Terrence J., published Savas Beatie and the American Battlefield Trust, First Edition, 2004.
Picture of Balfour House from Vicksburg Tourism Website.