By Sid Salter
One of my fondest memories of the time I spent with writer Willie Morris in the early 1980s was a day spent walking the Vicksburg National Military Park with Willie and his aging black lab, Pete, and later to Raymond to the graves of his ancestors there.
For all his enlightenment on matters of race and Mississippi’s bewildering history, Willie had a boy’s fascination with the history of the Civil War and he cherished the friendship he shared with esteemed Ole Miss historian David G. Sansing. Sansing, an accomplished writer in his own right, captivated Morris with the poignant story of Company A of the 11th Mississippi Infantry Regiment in the Confederate Army, the vaunted “University Greys.”
The “University Greys” were Ole Miss students who withdrew from college to fight for the South in the Civil War. While the “Greys” fought with the Army of Northern Virginia in many notable and important Civil War battles — First Manassas, Second Manassas, Gaines’ Mill, Sharpsburg, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, Talley’s Mill, Spotsylvania Courthouse, Bethesda Church, Petersburg and Hatcher’s Run — it was during Pickett’s Charge on Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg that the “Greys” became legendary figures. In that bloody assault, the “Greys” suffered 100 percent casualties with every man either killed or wounded.
In those days, Willie’s son, David, was about the same age as the Ole Miss students who marched off to war never to return. That reality was not lost on Willie.
During the recent Neshoba County Fair, I had the pleasure of visiting with Ole Miss Chancellor Dan Jones and with Sansing. Both will take part in a “Mississippi Day at Antietam” ceremony at the Antietam National Battlefield in Sharpsburg, Md., on Aug. 19.
On that day, the 11th Mississippi Infantry Regiment Memorial will be dedicated. More than a decade ago, the Mississippi Memorial Association placed a monument at the Gettysburg National Military Park in honor of the regiment. As the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam approaches, the 11th Mississippi Association will dedicate a marker on private property within the Antietam National Battlefield park boundary.
The dedication will be held on Cornfield Avenue at Antietam National Battlefield at 4 p.m. Aug. 19. The Mississippi Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission will join the ceremony.
Antietam was the single bloodiest day of battle in American history. On Sept. 17, 1862, 23,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or missing during 12 hours of fighting.
Joining the “Greys” in comprising the 11th Mississippi Infantry Regiment were: Company B, Coahoma Invincibles, Friars Point; Company C, Prairie Rifles, Okolona; Company D, Neshoba Rifles, Philadelphia; Company E, Prairie Guards, Crawfordsville; Company F, Noxubee Rifles, Macon; Company G, Lamar Rifles, Oxford; Company H, Chickasaw Guards, Houston; Company I, Van Dorn Reserves, Aberdeen; and Company K, Carroll County Rifles, Carrollton.
Sansing will chair the proceedings. Jones will deliver official greetings from Ole Miss. Many of the Mississippi Memorial Association members who will honor these Confederate soldiers are also leading figures in the effort for racial reconciliation in this state and have fought for civil rights. Some — like Mississippi State University archivist and historian Mike Ballard — have no connection at all to Ole Miss. Ballard works daily with the U.S. Grant Presidential Library collection at MSU.
But the story of the 11th Mississippi Infantry deserves to be remembered.