Vicksburg: a famous battlefield where the Civil War is never forgotten
By Sam Hartshorne
As the plane landed at the airport in Jackson, Mississippi and I saw the verdant trees and green fields on the ground I had that distinct feeling one gets when you know you are about to set foot somewhere you have never been before.
As we pulled into the terminal the flight attendant announced in a southern drawl ‘Thank you for flying American Eagle, part of the One World Alliance.’
‘One World Alliance?’ one of the passengers asked. “Is that some kind of Obama thing?” It was the moment I knew I was in the sunny south.
Yazoo and Mississippi Rivers
As an avid history buff, I jumped at the chance at going to Vicksburg when they held a conference commemorating the beginning of the Civil War 150 years ago. Vicksburg, located on the Yazoo and Mississippi rivers, was a crucial port for goods and a railroad station during the Civil War.
The town’s massive bluffs were why a 47-day siege took place there in 1863, and why to many Civil War buffs, it’s an integral part of knowing the events of the most bloody conflict in US history.
The first thing I noticed as a got out of the plane was the heat. Where April was barely arriving in my home state of Massachusetts, Mississippi was in full bloom. I walked out toward the exit and met our tour operator Denton Gibbes and the heat hit me.
As we drove toward Vicksburg on State Highway 61 we talked about the long history of this city of 25,000 residents. In recent years they have seen a boom in gaming revenue from the riverboat casinos.
In fact, the Mississippi area is the third-largest gaming area in the nation. As we drove out to Vicksburg I was struck by the rural nature of the landscape with an abundance of farmland and small rural houses on blocks. We passed the military park on the outskirts of town and soon made our way downtown to the historic Vicksburg courthouse.
“This building used to scare me as a kid,” our driver Denton said, and it was easy to see why. The courthouse is an imposing edifice with the Mississippi and American flags draped on the front. The old courthouse is now a museum and as we came in one of the first things I noticed was the abundance of old relics and flags.
Mississippians value their history and have long memory. When Vicksburg finally fell after General U. S. Grant’s 47-day siege and bombardment of Vicksburg, on July 4th, 1863, the holiday was not celebrated in the city until after World War II!
In the main hall where we were treated to refreshments and invited to take a look around the museum. Almost every room in the old courthouse is a showcase for some kind of relic such as clothing, old shells, and Confederate battle flags.
One flag in particular I noticed was an old battered Confederate flag downstairs. It was tattered and torn with bullet holes and had on it the names of the battles in which that regiment had fought.
I read on that bottom that this was ‘the flag that was never surrendered. ‘Now that is badass! I thought.
After touring the museum a bus brought us over to the Duff Green Mansion. Built in 1856 by businessman Duff Green for his wife, it managed to escape destruction during the siege by serving as a hospital for both Union and Confederate soldiers. The mansion is open to the public and provides a glimpse into the long-gone elegance of Mississippi plantation life, complete with the luxury of free slave labor.
A Southern Ball
As we entered, waiters served us appetizers on trays and I soon felt as if I was at an old-time southern ball. In the main hall, a band played old-time bluegrass tunes with a stand-up bass and guitar and fiddle.
All across the south in 2011, celebrations are being planned to commemorate the start of the Civil War nearly 150 years to the day. As we ate dinner I talked briefly to Terry Mansfield who mentioned he was going down to Manassas, Virginia in July 2011 for festivities planned there.
Old-time musicians play Civil War-era tunes in Vicksburg MS
For anyone interested in this period of history, across the south this year will be many events and battle re-enactments to satisfy any level of Civil War interest. Visit www.civilwar.org for more details on the ongoing events.
After dinner, the buses took us back to our respective B&Bs. I stayed at the Annabelle B&B, located in the heart of historic downtown Vicksburg. We came in and the proprietors George and Carolyn Mayer greeted us. They took me to my room which also had a kitchen a large bed and a living room. It was like I had my own little apartment!
The next day I woke up bright and early, a guest who had stayed there earlier had left a small amount of coffee in the kitchen so I made myself a pot. Sitting on the porch drinking a cup of black coffee I felt like a Union soldier preparing for a long day. We had a typical southern breakfast of grits and eggs and soon after our shuttle bus came in to begin our first long day of the campaign.
It was a fine Mississippi morning as the bus took us over to the Southern Cultural Heritage Foundation the site of the old St. Xavier convent.
The building was also used in the George Clooney movie O Brother Where Art Thou? Across the street was the headquarters of General James Pemberton, the Confederate commander at Vicksburg during the siege.
In the auditorium, we listened to a lecture by Dr. William Ferris, author of the book Give My Poor Heart Ease, in which he describes his experiences as a teenager traveling up and down Mississippi and documenting the music and cultural traditions of the people he met along the way.
Southerners have a strong sense of historical and geographical identity. Also, he spoke of the many rich traditions and histories Mississippi has to offer such as the blues trail, the Civil Rights trail, and many more, it was clear that I was experiencing a place with a lot to offer anyone interested in cultures.
In documenting the roots music and hymns of the people, he sought to preserve these songs and traditions for posterity. For more info on the blues trail and more visits go to www.visitmississippi.org.
Next, we headed out to Port Gibson for the start of our journey which would trace the route of Grant’s Vicksburg campaign. The air was calm and with a soft breeze as we pulled into the small country town of Port Gibson and over to the courthouse.
Meeting the Mayor
We were greeted there by Fred Reeves, the town’s mayor, who welcomed us into town. Port Gibson was known as ‘the city too beautiful to burn,’ As Grant, after conquering the city, is said to have remarked.
We headed out to the trail with Parker Hills, a retired National Guard officer, and Civil war expert. As we drove out on the road Parker explained the genesis of the Vicksburg campaign and how it came to be.
A Tough Fix
The Union and Lincoln were in quite a fix in the winter of 1862-63. The Union had suffered 13,000 casualties during the battle of Fredericksburg in mid-December and the people at home were clamoring for peace. General William T. Sherman, one of Grants’ closest generals, had tried to take Vicksburg on December 29, 1862.
He had been repulsed as Parker put it with ‘the patriotic number of 1776 casualties.’ Sherman had advocated going back to Tennessee, which Grant opposed, as it would be seen as a retreat to the politicians in Washington.
As we drove I was struck by the very rural scenery with an abundance of one-room country shacks and old cars. We drove down an old sunken dirt road out to the woods where we came to the ruins of the Windsor Mansion.
Large columns that came up from the ground greeted us we came to a clearing in the woods. The columns stood nearly fifty feet high. Built in 1860, the Windsor Mansion was once part of a plantation that covered over 2,600 acres.
A sign within the ruins read ‘danger ruins unstable do not go inside’ so we walked around the edge taking pictures. Still, it was quite an impressive sight.
Looking at the imposing Greek columns I could easily imagine the massive opulent mansion it once was. The mansion survived the Civil war intact likely owing to the fact that it served as a hospital for both Confederate and Union forces during the war. It was decades later in 1890 during a party when a guest was lighting a cigarette and absentmindedly tossed it in the wastebasket that it was destroyed by fire. What a shame.
Next, we came to the Shaifer House where the first shots of the battle of Port Gibson were fired. The old house was abandoned and as I walked upstairs I felt that eerie feeling that one gets when you know you’re in a place with a lot of history. The front porch was used as an operating room and the house was the starting point of the battle of Port Gibson.
Hardtack and Coffee
We headed down to the town square in Port Gibson and were greeted by the mayor and several city officials and we had a fine lunch of grits and stew and sweet tea. As we ate, a band ‘Hardtack and Coffee’ played songs from the Civil war. One of them had a blue coat and an old-timey hat and I remember one song in particular:
T’was at the siege of Vicksburg, of Vicksburg, of Vicksburg, T’was at the siege of Vicksburg, the parrot shells were whistling through the air, listen to the parrot shells, listen to the parrot shells, the parrot shells were whistling through the air.
Grand Gulf Military Monument
With fine tunes and fine fare like this who could ask for more? The next site on our Civil War tour was Grand Gulf Military Monument, where Admiral Porter’s gunboats fought and were repulsed by Confederate artillery positions who fired at them from the bluffs. As we were walking around clouds started to gather in the sky and the rain that was promised earlier arrived.
We headed to the Raymond battlefield site where they had set up cannons in a field where the battle was fought. Parker said that they had restored the cannons specifically to be non-functional as he explained in the event that a few good ol’ boys after a few beers come out there one night and start setting them off.
Grant’s siege and bombardment of Vicksburg lasted 47 days and was fought on the hills and bluffs of the city. The citizens of the town eventually sought shelter in caves in the city’s bluffs to avoid bombardment from the shells.
As Emma Balfour, a resident of the city at the time described: The general impression is that they fire at the city in that way thinking they will wear out the women and children and sick, and General Pemberton will be obliged to surrender on that account. But they know little the spirit of the Vicksburg women and children if they expect this.
It was another impressive sunny day as we began our tour by bus led by Terry Winchell of the National Parks Service. Terry took us around and told us a bit about the background of the park.
The park was founded in the late 19th century and most of the first monuments built there were from the Union States as each of the states had to provide funding to erect memorials to their respective states.
The Restored USS Cairo
States from the Confederacy were at first reluctant to pitch in for such edifices because Vicksburg was such a devastating defeat. Winchell took us to the various monuments to the regiments finally ending at the U.S.S. Cairo, a restored Union gunboat.
It was the first ship to be sunk by a land mine in war. The Cairo was sunk on December 12, 1862, in 36 feet of water without any casualties, and ship was forgotten underneath the mud and silt. The Cairo was discovered again in the late ’50s when Ed Bearss, a historian at Vicksburg National Park, began researching her location.
In the mid-’60s the ship was recovered from the depths. In the museum, you can see relics and artifacts from the crew as well as weapons and equipment. Also, you can go aboard the ship and walk the deck.
Vicksburg is a fascinating destination for anyone interested in the Civil war. Over the next two years, Vicksburg will be celebrating the Sesquicentennial with more events and celebrations beings planned.
When I got back to Massachusetts, my trip inspired me to write this poem:
Charging with valor, through shot and shell, amid thundering cannon, and menacing hell, in trenches and breastworks, they fight and they kill, laying siege to the city to wear out their will, through skirmishes and battles, through hardship and pain, many march from their home but so few that remain.
For anyone interested in Civil War history Vicksburg is not to be missed. As Lincoln once said ‘Vicksburg is the key.’
For info about Civil War battlefields and preservation visit www.civilwar.org.