During the siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi, the Shirley House, residence of Unionist "Judge" James Shirley and his family, was caught in the crossfire of Union troops led by Ulysses S. Grant and confederate troops under John C. Pemberton. Surrendering to Union forces, the family was removed from their home to protect them from cannon fire and housed in a manmade cave, like the ones (called sheebangs) in this photograph. The siege ended after six weeks when Pemberton, who was responsible for the city's residents and more than 200,000 Confederate soliders (many ill witih disease and starvation), surrendered Vicksburg to the Union Army. The Union thereby gained complete control of the Mississippi River. The Shirleys retained their estate until 1902, when it was given to the National Park Service and became the Vicksburg National Military Park.
The photographer O.D. Finch has drifted into obscurity. Although this work brings to light the living conditions of soliders, it raises technical questions regarding methods of photography during the Civil War. As a salt print, this image represents one of the earliest photographic technologies. It soon feel out of favor as more advanced techniques were invented. It is possible that during the siege Finch lacked access to the supplies needed for the more conventional silver print preferred by his contemporaries. Probably taken toward the end of the long siege—judging by the poor state of the encampment —this has become one of the most famous images of the Shirley House during the Vicksburg battle.
Merry A. Foresta American Photographs: The First Century (Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art with the Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996)