VICKSBURG, Miss. - Visitors will find this Mississippi river city much more welcoming than did Ohioans Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman 150 years ago this summer. Although overshadowed by events 1,000 miles to the northeast in a little town called Gettysburg, the Vicksburg campaign was a major turning point in the Civil War, one that ultimately spelled doom for the Confederate cause.
VICKSBURG, Miss. — Visitors will find this Mississippi river city much more welcoming than did Ohioans Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman 150 years ago this summer.
Although overshadowed by events 1,000 miles to the northeast in a little town called Gettysburg, the Vicksburg campaign was a major turning point in the Civil War, one that ultimately spelled doom for the Confederate cause.
Abraham Lincoln famously called the town of Vicksburg, from which shipping up and down the Mississippi River could be controlled, “the key” to the war.
Grant, Sherman and the Union army finally entered the city after months of battles, skirmishes and a siege. Eventually hunger and disease did what Union assaults and bombardments could not, and, on July 4, 1863 (the day after the Battle of Gettysburg ended), Confederate forces at Vicksburg surrendered the city.
Vicksburg National Military Park forms a large arc around the town, following the defensive positions from which the Confederates — dug into trenches and earthen embankments — clashed with and, for weeks, repelled Grant’s army.
The park is one of the most beautiful historic Civil War battlefields I’ve visited and one of the easiest at which to picture the action.
The rolling terrain is mostly clear of forest and brush, just as it would have been during the battle. But the once-scarred and barren ground is now green and grassy, dotted with lovely flowering trees and peppered with more than 1,300 historic markers and monuments to the men on both sides who fought here.
With a few exceptions, the monuments are each dedicated to the soldiers of a specific state that supplied troops to the campaign. Most states chose to erect one major ornate monument in Vicksburg, with additional, more humble, markers commemorating individual regiments.
Illinois, for example, went all out with a 62-foot-tall columned and domed structure based on the ancient Pantheon in Rome. Bronze tablets lining the interior walls list all 36,325 Illinois soldiers who participated in the campaign.
The classical Roman design might seem over the top to a 21st-century visitor, but there is undeniable beauty here and an unmistakable air of reverence that lingers even now, more than a century after the monument was constructed.
Ohio, uniquely, didn’t build a large state monument. Instead, the state honored each of its 39 individual regiments at Vicksburg with a moderately sized, specially designed marker of its own.
The best way to see the park is by driving the 16-mile loop through the battlefield. The loop contains 15 designated tour stops, each marking a significant area of action.
For $40, visitors can hire a trained guide to accompany them on the ride for two hours and explain the sites. I planned to linger longer, so I bought the excellent driving-tour CD at the park’s gift shop. The CD — which can be paused at each stop for as long as it takes to look around, walk the grounds and inspect the many monuments — features an hour of narration, authentic Civil War music and sound effects.
Along the drive is the USS Cairo Museum. The Cairo, a Union ironclad gunboat, was sunk in the Mississippi during the Vicksburg campaign and raised a century later. The partly restored ship — the most technologically advanced weapon of its day — is on display as are many of the artifacts recovered from the wreck.
Near the Cairo museum is the peaceful Vicksburg National Cemetery, the final resting place of more than 17,000 Union soldiers — the most at any one site. Many of the soldiers buried here fell elsewhere in the region and were moved here after the war.
The identities of more than 75 percent are unknown. (Most of the Confederate dead from the Vicksburg campaign are buried in the Vicksburg City Cemetery, which was behind Confederate lines.)
Elsewhere in Vicksburg, visitors will find several other must-see attractions.
The lovely old Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Railroad Station, near the river, is now a museum with exhibits about the Civil War and local transportation history.
A block from the station is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Lower Mississippi River Museum, where visitors can learn about the centuries-old effort to tame the river for navigation, flood control and — in the modern era — wildlife and environmental management. The museum includes the Mississippi IV, a massive five-deck towboat that was the flagship for the federal government’s Mississippi River Commission from 1961 to 1993.
But the foremost historical attraction in downtown Vicksburg is the Old Court House Museum, operated by the Vicksburg and Warren County Historical Society. The museum is filled with local artifacts, including jars of “Minie ball” bullets, and display cases full of projectile shells that once fell on the city from Union guns. The museum also has a room devoted to Jefferson Davis, who began his first political campaign at the courthouse and served as a legislator from the Vicksburg area before becoming president of the Confederacy.
The main attraction, though, is the courthouse itself, built in 1858 on one of the highest points in the city.
Although the courthouse was the target of Union mortar rounds, it survived the siege mostly intact and eventually became a museum after a new courthouse was built in the 1930s. Framed by flowering dogwoods and other ornamental trees, the Greek revival courthouse is one of the few major antebellum structures surviving in Vicksburg and is a tangible reminder of what was lost — and gained — in the Vicksburg campaign.