“Honey, it’s too hot out there to walk,” said the ranger behind the information desk at the Vicksburg National Military Park. In the south, honey isn’t just for diner waitresses. She looked at us like she doubted our sanity for even suggesting it. “You should take the driving tour.”
But being in a car wouldn’t give me that history high I get when I tromp around a battlefield. Plus, we’d driven 500 miles from Marietta, Georgia to Vicksburg (via Selma) the day before and we were so ready to not be in a car.
So, against the ranger’s better judgment (“OK, honey, but don’t say I didn’t warn you”), we set off on a morning hike through the southern half of the Vicksburg battlefield. It was 98F with 60% humidity.
Vicksburg, Mississippi was an important port on the Mississippi River during the Civil War. “…Vicksburg is the key,” Abraham Lincoln had said. “The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket.” So in May 1863, Union General Ulysses S. Grant marched his troops to Vicksburg, to take the key.
The heavily fortified Vicksburg sat on a high bluff, protected by General John Pemberton and four divisions of his Confederate Army of the Mississippi. Grant attacked Vicksburg twice, and twice he failed. So he decided to starve them out. What’s now known as the Siege of Vicksburg started on May 25 and ended on July 4, when the town surrendered.
My favorite monument was the one from Illinois. Made of Georgia granite, it’s modeled after the Roman pantheon. There are 60 bronze tablets lining its walls, naming all 36,325 Illinois soldiers who participated in the Vicksburg campaign. At certain times of day, the sun shining through the oculus illuminates the name of officers carved just beneath the dome.
Next to the Illinois monument is the circa 1850 Shirley House (the white one in the first group of photos). It’s the only house remaining on the battlefield that existed during the Civil War, when it was the headquarters for the 45th Illinois Infantry. Now sparsely furnished with reproductions and four not-particularly-engaging staff in costumes, it’s open to visitors.
The photo below is of the dedication, in 1909, of the Mississippi memorial. Do you know what I found interesting about it?
All the flags in the photo — this is just a section of the photo but the flags in the rest are the same — were US flags, not Confederate. And this was a dedication in Mississippi, of a monument to Confederate soldiers, with Confederate veterans in attendance. Which supports a common argument that Confederate flag flying, post war, started as a mid 20th century phenom.
Five miles after we started, we were both moving puddles of sweat. We decided to drive to the other two places I wanted to see at the park: the USS Cairo Museum and the Vicksburg National Cemetery.
The USS Cairo was a Union ironclad sunk in the Mississippi River near Vicksburg. It was discovered in 1959 and raised in parts through the years. It’s been partially reconstructed and is exhibited next to a museum that contains recovered Cairo artifacts .
The Vicksburg National Cemetery was next to the USS Cairo but by the time we finished at the ship, it was mid-afternoon and we were both beyond ready to eat. So I did the unthinkable: skipped the cemetery in favor of lunch.
Vicksburg is now the standard to which all extremes of heat are compared.
“How hot is it?” one of us will ask the other.
“Well, it isn’t Vicksburg hot.”