Nicholas Gray Jr: The Wexford Lodge Survives a Yankee Siege

The Mississippi Territory existed from April 7, 1798, until December 10, 1817. The Territory had the usual frontier problems of land claims and the establishment of law. The attraction of vast amounts of high quality, inexpensive land ideal for growing cotton attracted hordes of settlers. From 1798 through 1820, the population increased from 9,000 to more than 222,000. After the War of 1812, there was a flood of immigrants, from 1815 through 1819. The  migration was mainly because of the high prices for cotton, the elimination of Indian titles to much land, new and improved roads, and the acquisition of new direct outlets to the Gulf of Mexico. The first migrants were traders and trappers, then herdsmen, and finally farmers. In 1817, the Territory was separated into the states of Mississippi and Alabama.[1]

Photo above, Wexford Lodge - Shirley House during the Siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi. [Library of Congress]

Nicholas Gray and his wife, Eleanor, survived the rebellions in Ireland and the War of 1812 in the United States. Nicholas had been a successful attorney in Wexford, prior to his participation in the 1798 and 1803 rebellions in Ireland.  The following information is taken from an article written by Sir David Goodall, titled" A Divided Family in 1798: The Gray's of Whitefort and Jamestown,"  located at the Wexford Historical Society. After 1798, Gray, with other rebel leaders, were sentenced to execution. Father Philip Roche, Mathew Keogh, John Colclough, Beauchhamp Bagenal Harvey and Cornelius Grogan were tried and executed, and their heads stuck on spikes over the Wexford courthouse. It is remarkable Nicholas Gray and his brother-in-law, Henry Hughes, escaped death. Captain James Boyd interceded for a pardon and saved Gray's life. They had been friends since Gray's childhood, and he had served as a Yeomen under Captain Boyd. Throughout the 1798 Rising, Nicholas was instrumental in saving the lives of many loyalists in Wexford, including his brother Joseph, a captain in the Wexford militia.

After immigrating, Gray rose to the rank of inspector general in the U.S. Army, and honorably discharged December 3, 1814. On March 30, 1815 Nicholas Gray was appointed register of the land office in the Mississippi Territory. [2]  This would prove to be the family's next adventure. His wife, Ellen, became pregnant during the 1803 Rising but her baby died. Henry Gray, their son born in Ireland, served as a midshipmen in the U.S. Navy during the War of 1812 and was promoted to lieutenant April 1, 1818. His last appearance in Navy records indicates that Lt. Henry Gray, residing in Albany, New York, in 1818, and had died, without property.  Nicholas and Ellen's children in Mississippi were Nicholas Jr. and Sophia Eleanor.  Nicholas Gray Jr. married Ellen N. Rogers in Adams County, on December 18, 1832.  Sophia Eleanor married William Moore on August 29, 1821.

Nicholas was assigned to the district west of Pearl River, with its land office at Washington near Natchez. The close of the war brought an influx of settlers and demands for the sale of public lands. Joshua Meigs was the commissioner of the General Land Office. “Meigs arranged for a sale of public lands in Washington in October 1815. On the appointed day the village was overflowing with men interested in the land business. The crowd demanded that Nicholas Gray, the recently arrived register, permit private entries of lands before the formal close of the public sale. The inexperienced register vacillated, unsure of himself and uncertain where to turn for advice, and finally consented. Gray’s conduct of the sale provoked a storm of protest and many charges against his official conduct.” [3]

Gray wrote to Meigs, stating "every man appeared to be only waiting for an opportunity to help himself to his neighbor's settlement."  Gray was an outspoken man, full of confidence and inclined to ignore those whose opinions did not agree with his. He defended himself in spirited fashion against the charges of misconduct; and while the commissioner sought the details of the case [on which few could agree], relations among the conflicting parties in Mississippi worsened. The register saw himself surrounded by "a desperate gang of Villains here," and regretted the lack of official protection. In the middle of the investigation, Gray's chief adversary, the former governor, assaulted him in his office. Meig's attitude toward the illegal sales was ambivalent. He was anxious to let affairs quiet down around the Washington land office.[4]

Gray's experience as an attorney prior to the 1798 Rebellion enabled him to adequately defend himself. He wrote a letter to the editor of the Natchez Intelligencer, defending his conduct as register of the the land office, signed and dated "Nicholas Gray, July 5, 1817. [Supplement to the Natchez Intelligencer]  "It may be necessary for me to notice a publication signed by Robert Williams [the former Governor] , which appeared in your last paper, addressed to 'The People West of Pearl River.' Intending to take no farther notice of any newspaper publication, I will to my friends, and for the information of such of the people of this Land District as have a knowledge of the land laws, and of the registers duty as an Officer of the treasury, the merits of each case separately, as they have appeared as charges. Nicholas Gray states that no illegal sell of land was done by him or his son Nicholas Gray Jr. who was a clerk at his father's land office. My son has undoubtedly every right to purchase lands -- the arrange of lots he can have no knowledge of, persons who were present at the time of drawing, know the truth of this. Nicholas Gray also denies showing favor to Irish buyers and states no sales took place, but at the same time he states it would give me pleasure to sell a good piece of land to an Irishman."[5]

Former governor Robert Williams had invested heavily in land and had accused Nicholas Gray of favoritism toward his friends. In 1816, Williams "attacked the land register, Nicholas Gray, in his office with a knife.  But Williams forgot to take the knife from its sheath, just bruising Gray.” [6]  Williams was born in North Carolina. He studied law and became an attorney. In 1803, then-President Thomas Jefferson appointed Williams to the federal commission to determine the legitimacy of land claims in the recently acquired Mississippi Territory. Jefferson appointed Williams governor in May 1805, and he served until the end of Jefferson's term in March 1809. During his term as governor, Williams became unpopular as the result of a dispute with territorial secretary Cowles Mead.

“In spite of the controversy over Gray’s conduct, sales increased. By July 1816, only seven townships in the district remained unoffered. Gray wrote, “The  demand for lands since the 1st July seems as great as ever; all payments are made in the Mississippi Stock.” [7]  In 1816, a notice was printed in the Niles Weekly Register, published in Baltimore, that  Gray, " after having consulted with the governor of the Mississippi Territory, was authorized to invite any number of industrious emigrants into that Country where they would be provided with lands, rent free, for three years and with cattle and corn at the usual rates."[8]

Gray suffered from what was described as consumption. He received harsh treatment in Kilmainham and Wexford prisons after the 1798 and 1803 rebellions in Ireland. While in Kilmainham, "Gray as an attorney knew his entitlements as a State prisoner and wrote regularly to the authorities complaining about the prison conditions."[9]  Ellen had made pleas for her husband's life and for better living conditions after both of the rebellions. After the 1803 Rising, "Nicholas Gray was imprisoned for over two years and nine months without giving a confession".[10]  His life in America was not always easy or comfortable, as well. None the less he states in his letter to Mr. John Patten. [Thomas Addis Emmet married Jane Patten on Jan. 11, 1791, the daughter of John Patten.]  "I should prefer slim visage and empty pockets here, than full ones and fat cheeks in the martials.”[11]  Nicholas Gray after living a truly adventuresome life, died in 1819, at the approximate age of 45.

Nicholas Gray Jr. was nominated by John Quincy Adams to be register of the Land Office at Washington, Mississippi, on May 9, 1826. His appointment was confirmed May 10, 1826. [12]  “ Rev. Newitt Vick resided in the Open Woods, but his plantation was where Vicksburg now stands. The first settler in the town was his son, Hartwell Vick. He and Nicholas Gray Jr., from Adams County, [son of the old Surveyor General] established a large commercial business. Gray was a man of education. Vick was a man of fine mind, full of enterprise, but ahead of the times. The concern failed.” [13]

In numerous letters written by Nicholas Gray Jr. to Thomas O. Larkin, a relative of his wife [cousin Eleanor Rogers],  Nicholas Jr. writes on March 2nd, 1848:  "I have resided here since boyhood, have practiced farming, and the cultivation of cotton, sugar and tobacco. I have also practiced surveying and engineering. Now as I have given you a slight sketch of my life, perhaps you can judge how I could succeed in a country like California." [14] In a letter dated February 15th, 1851: "In answer to your enquiry as to my qualifications will say that in early life I was chief clerk in the Surveyor General's Office in Mississippi, and with the preparation for the sale of lands according to the practice,of the Government, familiar with Spanish grants, and others of lands. I am and I have practiced surveying both for the U.S. government  as a deputy surveyor, and I have also served in a private capacity, as well as a city engineer and surveyor. During the administration of General Taylor I was highly recommended as I thought for the office of Surveyor General of California. But unfortunately General Taylor died, and a new administration came to power." [15]

In 1851 after California had became a state, Nicholas Gray Jr., then-U.S. deputy surveyor, moved to California to survey Larkin's ranches. Larkin had acquired several land grants and was considered by some to be the richest man in America. Larkin in 1844 was appointed the U.S. Consul for California and was very involved in the politics that preceded the war with Mexico.

Nicholas Gray Jr. discovered gold and quartz gold deposits on several of Larkin's ranches. Nicholas Jr. surveyed the Bay of San Francisco. Map of a survey of lands situated between San Leandro and San Lorenzo Creeks, the Bay of San Francisco and the range of mountains to the east, exhibiting the boundaries of the "Rancho San Leandro" and adjoining lands : [Calif.] / as surveyed by Nicholas Gray, Deputy Surveyor, U.S., November 1855. [16]  Gray's Map; by Nicholas Gray; 1856; 4 pages; the map was recorded at the County Recorder 's office as 4 separate pages and each page is available here: NW NE SW SE. This map is of the land in Rancho San Pablo. James Forbes was also associated with the project and sometimes this map is referred to as "Forbes's Map." [17]   Nicholas Gray Jr's son Capt. Emmet Gray was the tide observer at Sausalito, Bay of San Francisco, for 25 years. Emmet Gray's obituary states he was born in Mississippi 84 years ago. He came to California in 1849 and has resided here ever since. He leaves a wife and two daughters and was very much esteemed by all who knew him.

Nicholas Gray Jr. purchased land in Vicksburg on August 1, 1837 from his cousin Thomas Henry Goodall on which he built the  Wexford Lodge. [ Named in honor of Co. Wexford, Ireland. Located in the “ Vicksburg National Military Park". The only structure in the park to survive the battle of Vicksburg].  Nicholas Gray Jr. deeded the property to Ben Johnson, who in turn deeded it to James Shirley on January 1, 1851. [18]  Thomas Henry Goodall was the son of James Goodall and  Catherine Isabella [Gray] Goodall of Wexford, Ireland. Another son George O'Neil Goodall also lived at Vicksburg at the time.  James and Catherine's daughter Catherine Emily [Goodall] Roberts lived at Vicksburg  she had married Abraham Roberts on June 6, 1827 in Wexford, Ireland.

Sir David Goodall who helped negotiate the Irish Peace Agreement is a descendant of this same Goodall family of Wexford, Ireland.  During the 1980s, Goodall was one of the most senior British officials representing the United Kingdom negotiating with the Irish government on Northern Ireland. "David Goodall seconded to the Cabinet Office, was the senior Foreign Office representative: a creative but tenacious negotiator of immense intellectual energy and commitment, a gifted water-colorist, with perhaps a deeper knowledge of certain aspects of Irish history - notably Wexford in 1798, whence some of his ancestors had come - than any of us on the Irish side of the table."[19]  Goodall was President of the Irish Genealogical Research Society, 1992 -2010 and also Chairman of the Leonard Cheshire Foundation, 1995-2000. The Grays were closely connected to the Goodalls in Wexford, Ireland. The connections between the Goodall and Gray families are described in an article written by Sir David Goodall  " A Divided Family in 1798: The Grays of Whitefort and Jamestown".  [Journal of The Wexford Historical Society 1994-'95]

James Shirley who purchased "The Wexford Lodge" was a native of Goffstown, New Hampshire and was a wig with a firm allegiance to the Union. While traveling in Mississippi, he met his second wife Adelaine Quincy. She was a native of Boston, Massachusetts. The Shirley's had three children, Quincy, Frederick and Alice. During the Siege of Vicksburg Adelaine refused to abandon the Shirley House. She and Quincy stayed in their home until the battle was over, even though the house was badly damaged. Frederick had fled to Indiana to escape southern hostility toward Union sympathizers. Alice Shirley kept a diary of her experiences during the siege of Vicksburg. [20]

President Lincoln recognized the significance of the town situated on a 200-foot bluff above the Mississippi River. He said "Vicksburg is the key, the war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket." Capturing Vicksburg would sever the Trans-Mississippi Confederacy from that east of the Mississippi River and open the river to Northern traffic along its entire length.[21] 


Lt. General John C. Pemberton (left)

Commander of the Confederate Army at Vicksburg.

Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton was a native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and a West Point Military Academy graduate. It was because of the influence of his Virginia-born wife, and many years of service in the southern states before the Civil War, that he became devoted to the South. Pemberton was made a Lieutenant General in the Confederate Army and assigned to defend Vicksburg and the Mississippi River. Upon Vicksburg's surrender, he voluntarily resigned his commission and served as a lieutenant colonel of artillery for the remainder of the war, a testimonial of his loyalty to the South.[22]

Maj. General Ulysses S. Grant (right)

Commander of the Union forces during the siege of Vicksburg.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Grant was working in his father's leather store in Galena, Illinois. He was appointed by the Governor to command an unruly volunteer regiment, where he took immediate control and turned the men into a disciplined group. By September 1861, he had risen to the rank of brigadier general of volunteers. Seeking to win control of the Mississippi Valley, he captured Fort Henry and attacked Fort Donelson in February 1862. When the Confederate commander asked for terms, Grant replied, "No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted." The Confederates surrendered, and President Lincoln promoted Grant to major general of volunteers. [23] 

The Wexford Lodge - Shirley House was In the center of the conflict that raged around Vicksburg in the year 1863. It was the plantation home of Captain Shirley (a native of New Hampshire and a noted Union man).  When war came to Vicksburg the fiercest of the fray was around  the “Wexford Lodge,” which was called the “White House” by the Federals;  and the battery posted there was known officially as the “White House battery.”  This house, the only one of the ante-bellum houses now standing on the battle grounds, is known as “The Shirley House,” and is considered the most precious relic of the siege of Vicksburg, and by direction of the Secretary of War will be restored as nearly as possible to its condition at the beginning of the siege. The House formed a familiar landmark to both armies, both from its elevation and color, standing as it does at the point where the first important attack was made May 19, 1863, and where the siege operations began a few days later.[24] 

It has been conceded that “Shirley House” is the only truly historic building within the limits of the Vicksburg National Military Park area.  The apex of the Confederate lines of defense was also near the Shirley House; and in front of it was the “Third Louisiana Redan.” A Redan is described as a triangular shaped fort with its point sticking out into the battle. This allowed occupying troops to fire into the flanks of an attacking army. The name Third Louisiana Redan comes from the fact that it was manned by the Third Louisiana Infantry Regiment. The fort guarded the Jackson Road, one of the routes to Vicksburg. There were two failed direct assaults on the Confederate lines May 19 and 22, 1863. [25]

After the two battles had taken place on May 19 and 22, there was a truce for a short period of time. "Although his nose had been bloodied a second time, Grant was not yet willing to toss in the towel and lay siege to the city. As he contemplated his next move, Grant left behind his dead and wounded, including many who had been lying exposed since May 19. Exposed to the sun and heat, the bodies of the dead began to bloat and turn black; the stench was sickening. On May 25, white flags appeared along the Confederate line and Union soldiers were hopeful that the city would soon be surrendered. Those hopes were dashed as word quickly spread that a note was passed from Pemberton to Grant "imploring in the name of humanity" that Grant bury his dead as the odor had become quite offensive. A truce was granted for two and one-half hours during which time men in blue and gray mingled between the lines. While the gruesome task of the burial details was completed, it was almost as if there was no war in progress. At the appointed time, however, the flags were taken down and everyone ran for cover. The siege of Vicksburg began in earnest that day."[26]

The siege of Vicksburg lasted from May 19th to July 4th, 1863. Most of the battle took place in front of the Shirley House. General Grant and other Union commanders often used the Shirley House to observe the Third Louisiana Redan. Grant would observe the Confederate movements from the second story windows of the house. The Redan was located approximately 400 yards directly opposite the house. There were small dug outs around the Shirley House where General Logan's men could rest and sleep from Confederate fire. The house was used as the headquarters of the 45th. Illinois. The terms of a surrender where discussed by General Pemberton and General Grant under a tree located on the Shirley property.

General Grant decided to lay siege to the city and wait for the Confederates to run out of ammunition and food. To avoid the slaughter of his own troops Grant's new strategy was to dig trenches towards the Confederate forts. When close enough dig a tunnel underneath and pack it with gunpowder and the blow a hole in the wall of the fort so that Union troops could rush in and take control. The first trench project of the siege was aimed at the Third Louisiana Redan, starting from near the Shirley House, which can easily be seen from the redan.  [27]

Union troops were digging trenches to the redan from near the Shirley House                           

 The view of the Shirley House from the Third Louisana Redan   [ Steve Markos ] 

It took two weeks for the trenches to reach the fort. Once there, a forty foot tunnel was dug underneath and packed with 2200 pounds of black powder. Detonation occurred on June 25th, creating a crater 40 feet wide and 12 feet deep. Union troops were lined up in the trenches all the way back to the Shirley House. As soon as  the smoke and debris had settled enough to fight, they rushed into the crater area only to be met with Confederate fire. Fighting went on for twenty four hours, but the Union troops could not move forward due to encountering a second wall. As a result of the bloody hand-to-hand fighting in the narrow confines of the crater, it later came to be known as the  "slaughter pen". Eventually they retreated back to the Shirley House. Another tunnel was dug and on July 1st 1800 pounds of gunpowder was detonated. However, no attempt to assault the fort was made. The Confederates surrendered the city on July 4th, 1863. [28]

Vicksburg was the last major Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River. With no reinforcement, supplies nearly gone and after holding out for more than forty days, the garrison finally surrendered. The Confederate surrender following the siege at Vicksburg is sometimes considered, when combined with Gen. Robert E Lee's defeat at Gettysburg by Maj. Gen. George G Meade the previous day, the turning point of the war.[29] 


1. Mississippi Territory - Wikipedia 

2.Catalogue of the Papers of James Monroe by Daniel Preston

3. The Land Office Business by Malcolm J. Rohrbough

4.The Land Office Business by Malcolm J. Rohrbough

5. Letter by Nicholas Gray, to The Natchez Intelligencer, July 2nd, 1817. Early American imprints. Second Series. Call Number: MCFICHE  16,676  No. 40952. Letter to the editor, defending his conduct as register of the Land Office. The University of Texas at Austin - University of Texas Libraries  

6. Arming America by Michael A. Bellesiles

7. The Land Office Business by Malcolm J. Rohrbough pages 113-115

8. Niles Weekly Register - The South in the building of the Nation-Volume 5, page 599

9.The Emmet Rising in Kildare by Seamus Cullen

10.The Emmet Rising in Kildare by Seamus Cullen

11. Letter from Nicholas Gray to Mr. Patten. Trinity College Library Dublin. Ref Ms 873, [276] researched by Paula Hayes

12. American Memory Journal of the executive proceedings of the Senate of the United States of America, 1815 - 1829

13. Mississippi, as a Province Territory, and State: Volume 1 by Francis Hamtramck Claiborne

14.The Larkin Papers by Thomas Oliver Larkin, UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library-BANC MSS C-B 37-45

15.The Larkin Papers by Thomas Oliver Larkin, Anna Marie Hager and Everett Gordon Hager, page 391

16. UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library, Collection: Maps of private land grant cases of California

17. Gray's Map: by Nicholas Gray, 1856: 4 pages. El Cerrito Historical Society P.O. Box 304, El Cerrito, Ca 94530

18. Alice Shirley and the story of Wexford Lodge by Terrence J. Winschel

19. Edging Toward Peace : A Report on Peacebuilding in Down District, Northern Ireland - Centre for Peace studies,      

University of  New England, 1998

20.Eaton-Shirley Family Papers, 1790-1939  Manuscripts Division- William L. Clements -Library University of Michigan

21. Battle of Vicksburg - History Net  

22. Vicksburg | National Military Park - Pemberton and Grant 

23. Vicksburg | National Military Park - Pemberton and Grant

24.Mississippi Genealogical and Historical Research

25.Vicksburg National Military Park

26.Vicksburg Campaign: Unvexing the Father of Waters by Terrence J. Winschel

27.Vicksburg National Military Park | Third Louisiana Redan

28.Vicksburg National Military Park | Third Louisiana Redan


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Tags: American Civil War, Genealogy, History of Ireland, Military History, United States


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