It was with a heavy heart that we had finished our Elvis homage in Memphis and Tupelo and were heading back to our US base in Houston. However, we had one more special stop to make on our road trip, and one that was a surprising highlight – Vicksburg, Mississippi.
Vicksburg may not be on most people’s travel bucket list, but believe it or not, it has actually been on my list for 25 years! It all started when I studied the American Civil War at school and read about the tactical genius of General Ulysses Grant and his capture of this key Confederate city in 1863, sat as it is, at a strategic point on the mighty Mississippi.
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It was a complicated campaign taking six months to conduct during which the city was besieged for 47 days. The campaign included impressive manoeuvring and river crossings from the Union army, and in some ways threw out some of the conventional military wisdom of the time, something that was to mark out Grant as one of the most brilliant Civil War generals. Although not necessarily the most decisive battle of the Civil War, the taking of Vicksburg by the Union forces almost ensured their mastery of the vital Mississippi River and allowed Grant to concentrate on the Confederacy heartland, which led to success in the Chattanooga Campaign, and then, ultimate victory.
Today’s Vicksburg is a quaint city, perched high on a bluff overlooking the Yazoo and Mississippi Rivers, with period houses and exquisite Southern architecture. For a city of just over 25,000 inhabitants, it has many attractions and a long weekend could quite easily be spent here. Unfortunately, we only had half a day in Vicksburg, so we endeavoured to cram as much in as possible.
The Vicksburg National Military Park
Our first stop was the Vicksburg National Military Park. This sprawling park is actually almost as big at the city itself, and lets you appreciate the sheer size of the battleground. We would suggest driving around the park, but if you had time on your hands and a good pair of running shoes, it would make a great adventure on foot.
There is a small visitor centre at the entrance to the park, and it is a great place to start. We found that the film presentation especially, really explained the campaign well, helping you to understand the battlefield as you tour around it.
As you drive around the extensive battlefield, the reconstructed forts and trenches evoke memories of this bloody siege, which resulted in the death of around 10,000 Union and 9,000 Confederacy soldiers. The park includes 1,325 historic monuments and markers, 20 miles (32 km) of historic trenches and earthworks, a 16-mile (26 km) tour road, a 12.5-mile (20.1 km) walking trail, two antebellum homes, 144 emplaced cannons, the restored gunboat U.S.S. Cairo, and the Grant's Canal site, where the Union Army attempted to build a canal to let their ships bypass Confederate artillery fire.
The Illinois State Memorial
Each State, both North and South, that was involved in the battle has its own memorial. They are placed throughout the park. The most impressive of them all was the Illinois State Memorial. The memorial was dedicated on October 26, 1906. As we found out, there are forty-seven steps in the long stairway, one for each day of the Siege of Vicksburg. If you are thinking that it looks like the Roman Pantheon, you wouldn’t be wrong, since architect W. L. B. Jenney based his design on this classic structure. The monument has sixty unique bronze tablets lining its interior walls, naming all 36,325 Illinois soldiers who participated in the Vicksburg Campaign. The monument stands sixty-two feet in height, and originally cost $194,423.92, paid by the state of Illinois.
The U.S.S. Cairo Museum
At the north western end of the Vicksburg National Military Park is the interesting U.S.S. Cairo Museum which displays the partially reconstructed remains of this large gunboat. The U.S.S. Cairo was one of seven ironclad gunboats named in honour of towns along the upper Mississippi and Ohio rivers, each mounting thirteen big guns. These gunboats were crucial in the Union’s control of the Mississippi River. The U.S.S. Cairo was constructed at Mound City, Illinois, and commissioned in January 1862. The Cairo's skipper, Lt. Commander Thomas O. Selfridge, Jr., was rash and ambitious, and on the cold morning of December 12, 1862, Selfridge led a small flotilla up the Yazoo River, north of Vicksburg, to destroy Confederate batteries and clear the channel of torpedoes (underwater mines). However, the Cairo was rocked by two explosions in quick succession which tore gaping holes in the ship's hull. Within twelve minutes the ironclad sank into six fathoms (36 feet) of water without any loss of life. The Cairo had become the first ship in history to be sunk by an electrically detonated torpedo.
Over the years the gunboat was soon forgotten, as was the location of her watery grave. By the 1950s however, Edwin C. Bearss, Historian at Vicksburg National Military Park, researched accounts of the gunboats sinking and was able to plot the approximate site of the wreck, but it wasn't until 1965 that the ship was raised from its resting place. In June of 1977, the vessel was transported to the park and partially reconstructed on a concrete foundation near the Vicksburg National Cemetery. The recovery of artefacts from the Cairo revealed a treasure trove of weapons, munitions, naval stores and personal gear of the sailors who served on board. The gunboat and its artefacts can now be seen along the tour road at the U.S.S. Cairo Museum.
The Vicksburg National Cemetery
On the other side of the museum car park is the Vicksburg National Cemetery. It embraces 116 acres and holds the remains of 17,000 Civil War Union soldiers, a number unmatched by any other national cemetery. Covering ground once manned by the extreme right of Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman's XV Army Corps during the siege of Vicksburg. A road winds around the cemetery, and we found that this was a good way to see the whole site.
The Vicksburg Riverfront Murals
From the cemetery, we took a five-minute drive down to the Vicksburg riverfront so that we could walk through the historic centre of the city. The first thing to catch the eye is The Vicksburg Riverfront Murals. This project is a series of murals painted on the Mississippi River flood walls. The murals depict the city's historical significance, as well as its envisioned future role in the region's commerce and culture. Artist Robert Dafford was commissioned to complete the first series of 12'x 20' panels along the flood wall facing Levee Street. The first mural in the series was unveiled in 2002. In all, 32 panels completed the first phase of the project. They are certainly an entertaining way of showcasing the city’s history.
The Biedenharn Coca-Cola Museum
A two-minute walk up to Washington Street, one of the main arteries of the city, takes you to the highly significant Biedenharn Coca-Cola Museum. Coca-Cola had been invented in 1886, but it was in this building during the summer of 1894 that this soda fountain drink was first bottled by Joseph A. Biedenharn. Originally, Joseph ran his wholesale candy company from the building, but he had the profitable idea of bottling the drink so that he could sell Coca-Cola to the surrounding district and increase his customer base. Subsequently, he expanded this business, creating a model of bottling-distributor franchises and built his company through the state of Mississippi, as well as Louisiana and Texas.
Biedenharn was so successful he bought a crop-dusting business in 1925 with some other entrepreneurs, developing it into what would become Delta Air Lines, the world’s largest carrier! The museum itself is dedicated to the Coca-Cola brand and industry, using historic photographs and various exhibits to interpret the drinks heritage. We thought the museum was well worth checking out, and of course, even stopped to have a well-earned Diet Coke!
It was certainly a busy half-day in Vicksburg for us, and had we had time, we would have loved to take a Riverboat cruise, or visit one the many museums, such as The Old Depot Museum (railroad memorabilia & local history), The Lower Mississippi River Museum (the rivers natural history and its flood control measures), or the Old Court House Museum (local history). As it was, we had enough time to grab a yummy late lunch at The Mad Baker and then prepare ourselves for the long drive back to Houston.
Join us next time when we continue our road trip to the bustling city of Houston.
Until then, happy reading and safe travels.
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