Vicksburg, or “All the things I should have learned in school about the Civil War, but didn’t”

After our aborted attempts at sightseeing in Vicksburg on Thursday, we were hopeful that things would be back to normal on Friday. Thankfully, most of the ice had melted and everything seemed to be open. Following a better-than-average EconoLodge breakfast (the requisite waffles, but yogurt and boiled eggs too), we checked out of the hotel and headed for the Vicksburg National Military Park.

The Military Park, run by the National Park Service, covers about 1800 acres, including a 16-mile Tour Road. We began our tour at the Visitor’s Center. Although at first it looks like any other park visitor center, this one boasts some nice media. The main exhibit room has a “storytelling map” that depicts the siege of Vicksburg. There is a recorded script, and the map has lights that indicate troop movement and conflicts as they are described. It was incredibly effective at bringing the battles to life. Together with the museum-style historical reenactment movie (actually quite well done), it left this visitor with a much clearer understanding of the siege and importance of Vicksburg than I ever got in U.S. history class. The other interesting exhibit here was the cave model. During the siege, regular citizens of Vicksburg lived (or at least slept) in caves to avoid danger from Union troops shelling the town. I had no idea.

The Storytelling Map

The park is labeled throughout with the locations of Union (siege) and Confederate (defense) lines during the siege and the regiments that served in each location. Along the lines are monuments to the regiments, erected by their home states after the war. Here are some from my home state.

The Tour Road travels past the site of General U.S. Grant’s field headquarters and his statue. (The Confederate General Pemberton’s headquarters was in town, in a house that we did not tour.) 

Nearby are the Kansas monuments (on of my favorites, but hard to capture because of the trees without leaves) and a monument to the African American troops who began joining the Union army in July of 1862. Nearly 200,000 men of African descent fought for the Union at a time when recruiting white soldiers was becoming difficult. This influx of troops surely made a huge difference in the war.

The next big attraction on the tour road is the U.S.S. Cairo. The Cairo and its six sister ships were ironclad gunboats constructed for the U.S. Navy during the Civil War for service on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Sunk by a remotely-detonated mine in 1862, the Cairo was raised in the mid-1960s and moved to the Vicksburg National Military Park a decade later. It has been restored and supported and sits under its own tented roof. Many of the items recovered from the wreckage are displayed in the nearby museum. Unfortunately, the previous day’s ice prevented close access to the boat, but it was still impressive. Plus, I’m sure I learned in school that there were naval conflicts in the Civil War, but it was never real to me before this visit.

Adjacent to the U.S.S. Cairo is the Vicksburg National Cemetery. Most of the soldiers there were re-buried after the war, so almost 13,000 of the more than 17,000 (not all from the Civil War) buried there are unknown.

At this point on the tour road, you cross over onto the ground where the Confederate lines stood. Thus, the monuments are now all from Confederate states. We noticed that some of the monuments, like the one from Arkansas below, were of a much different style. We learned later that because each state erected its own monuments, the southern monuments were often built much later (and thus in more modern styles) because those states lacked funds during Reconstruction.

By this point, we had seen a lot of monuments, so we decided to finish the main part of the loop and move on. Overall, though, I would definitely recommend a visit to this park. I was impressed by its scope and learned a lot about the Civil War and the role of Vicksburg in its outcome.

After a quick McDonald’s lunch, we went back to our new favorite Kroger store. Then it was off to our final Vicksburg stop, the Biedenharn Coca-Cola Museum. This is the site where Coca-Cola was first bottled. We had decided not to do the museum and just wanted to get a Coke float at the fountain. The woman behind the counter took our orders and made our floats (with hand-dipped vanilla ice cream and Coke from a plastic bottle), but she was one of the least friendly people we’ve encountered in Mississippi. She was like this with everyone, so Maureen thought perhaps she was grumpy about either having to work this day or missing a day’s pay on the snow day before. Oh, well, the float was good anyway.

We returned to Rebbe and the car and headed back to the Natchez Trace and towards Jackson.   We stopped at one historical marker and then at the Parkway Information Cabin, which was unfortunately closed, apparently for the season or longer.

We found our way to Extended Stay America and checked in. I took advantage of on-site laundry facilities while Maureen used our kitchenette to make yummy potato-leek soup. These were the main draws of this hotel–and really its only redeeming attributes. Otherwise, it’s just another cheap motel. And we’ve known so many already…

2 thoughts on “Vicksburg, or “All the things I should have learned in school about the Civil War, but didn’t”

    • The Kansas memorial is just like the other state memorials. Kansas put it up to honor their soldiers that served in the Union army at Vicksburg. I liked it because it has a bird (an eagle?) on top and is constructed from thick, wire-like material, which is what makes it hard to see with the bare trees in the background.

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