Vicksburg, Mississippi and Vicksburg National Military Park

Despite my interest in history, I was not enthusiastic when Tom penciled a stop at Vicksburg battlefield into the itinerary: I envisioned a day spent walking around looking at signs with regiments and dates, ducking into exhibits to read summaries of “who was where, when” and then dashing back to the truck so as to not leave Allie for too long. But as usual, Tom was right when he said I’d enjoy it.

Prior to touring the military park however we spent the afternoon walking around the small city of Vicksburg, for which the battle was named. Located on a bluff above the Mississippi River, the historic downtown was quite charming, full of old brick and stone and public art. After strolling the main street we headed down the steep grade to river and spent almost an hour perusing the series of murals painted on the floodwalls. With the exception of I think one abstract panel, all the paintings illustrated scenes from the history of Vicksburg from which we learned about the industry, the impact of the Civil War, the great flooding in 1927 that led to the Army Core of Engineers taking over the control of the lower Mississippi River, the sinking of the Sultana and the loss of 1,700 passengers, and the incident in which President Teddy Roosevelt refused to shoot a captured bear – which led to the creation of stuffed teddy bears. Having worked up a thirst walking, we then proceeded back uphill to Key City Brewing where we sampled some excellent beers.

The military park commemorates the campaign and siege of Vicksburg during the Civil War, the result of which was a critical turning point in the war. In summary, the control of Vicksburg was vital to the survival of the Confederacy. Supplies and soldiers traveling east and west were funneled through it’s port and railroad hub – and maintaining access to the Gulf of Mexico via the Mississippi River was equally crucial. The Union Army spent 18 months attempting to attack the city defended by forts, earthworks, and over 170 cannons but it wasn’t until May 1863 that Union General Grant was able to begin direct attacks on the ‘key city.’ After a brutal 47 day siege, the Confederate forces surrendered, effectively cutting off the states of Arkansas, Texas, and Louisiana from the Confederacy and allowing the Union to regain complete control of the Mississippi River.

Our visit to the park was largely spent touring the battlefields and earthworks – exactly the thing I hadn’t been looking forward to – but it was anything but dull thanks to the excellent information and interpretation of events provided throughout by the National Park Service. Walking the land allowed us to easily understand how say, this ravine was used as cover or for an ambush, or that hill was used as a stronghold, and we very quickly began to sense the movement of soldiers and places of interaction as the battle progressed. In addition, the battlefield featured emplaced cannons and monuments erected by each state to commemorate their soldiers. Cliched as it might sound, the events of the siege were brought to life, and I found myself really enjoying our visit – as did Allie, who was quite pleased to be walking for so long.

Our last stop before leaving was a visit to the USS Cairo, an ironclad gunboat that was instrumental in recapturing the city of Memphis for the Union before being sunk by a remotely-detonated mine while on a mission north of Vicksburg in 1862. The Cairo was the first in a class of armored ships that allowed the Union to regain control of waterways such as the Mississippi, her iron casing able to withstand heavy fire. Today the 175-foot behemoth is displayed at the park in a mostly intact state due to her hull being sealed under thick mud for so long, allowing visitors to walk her decks 160 years after being sunk.