by Karen Rubin
After retracing much of the route taken by General Ulysses S. Grant during the spring of 1863 in his audacious and bold campaign to take Vicksburg, a natural fortress giving the South control over the Mississippi River which both sides recognized as crucial to victory, we finally come to Vicksburg National Military Park.
Our trip started in the city of Vicksburg, itself, with many antebellum homes and structures that have survived to tell their story of a 47-day siege that terrorized the civilian population. Our trip continued on to Grand Gulf, the Ruins of Windsor, the Shaifer farmhouse, Port Gibson, the Raymond Battlefield, Raymond and Champion Hill.
Now, we stand in the national military park, which hugs the city.
As it happens, we are here on the 150th anniversary of the firing on Fort Sumter, the attack that set off the Civil War. It would be two more years before Vicksburg’s campaign that sealed the fate for the Confederacy.
Until this visit, I thought of Vicksburg as a major battle like Gettysburg and Shiloh; now I understood it was a complex, longest campaign that went on for months, involved many battles, and culminated in a 47-day siege of the city, and its surrender, on July 4, 1863.
This year, from April through November, there are events and reenactments to mark the Sesquicentennial of the Vicksburg Campaign and the Siege of Vicksburg, with the signature events taking place over Memorial Day weekend.
President McKinley signed the legislation establishing Vicksburg National Military Park in 1899. It is one of the oldest and largest of national military parks. There is a sense of reverence here, and the signs of effort at reconciliation.
One hundred thousand troops from 28 states fought for control of Vicksburg and the Mississippi River; 17,000 Union soldiers are buried here, of which 13,000 are in graves marked “unknown.”
Vicksburg National Military Park is one of the most heavily monumented parks in the world with over 1325 monuments, markers, tablets, and plaques – all 28 states that were engaged in the battle have built monuments here. The finest European and American artists sculpted the monuments, prompting one Civil War veteran to call Vicksburg National Military Park, “the art park of the world.”
Besides the monuments and markers, it has 20 miles of reconstructed trenches and earthworks, a 16 mile tour road, antebellum home, 144 cannon, restored Union gunboat-USS Cairo (phenomenal to see), and the Vicksburg National Cemetery (awesome to behold).
Spanning 1,795 acres, the battlefield at Vicksburg is in an excellent state of preservation. Vicksburg is distinctive because of the accuracy of recreating the battle, of keeping so much of the battlefield intact, and most spectacularly, the restoration of the USS Cairo, an ironclad gunboat that was sunk in December 1862, the first in history to be sunk by an electronic detonating device.
To establish the park with accuracy, the planners conducted correspondence with Civil War veterans, who were part of the 98-day Vicksburg Campaign, from March 29-July 4, 1863.
Terrence J. Winschel, National Park Service historian, guides us through the park and continues the story of the campaign as Grant comes to the city itself.
By May 18, Grant arrives at Vicksburg with 40,000 Union troops; Vicksburg, a fortress with 9 major forts guarding the entrance, is defended by 30,000 Confederate troops and 172 big guns.
Grant realizes that for Vicksburg to fall, it would have to be by combined land and water assault
On May 19, Grant mounts his first assault on Vicksburg’s defenses, but the attack repulsed with the Union losing 1000 men.
Grant tries again on May 22 with more than 200 cannon, but the Federals were again driven back, sustaining losses of 3000.
Grant leaves behind the dead and wounded, forming a thick blanket of blue, exposed for days to sun, heat, flies. “Their aim is to stink us out of Vicksburg,” Confederate General John Pemberton declares.
On May 25 Pemberton waves a white flag, pleading in the name of humanity to be able to bury his dead.
In one of the extraordinary events of the Civil War, the men of blue and the grey mingle – drinking coffee; two Union and two CSA play cards together.
“Grant realizes Vicksburg could not be taken by force, and decides to lay siege to the city. Slowly his army establishes a line of works around the beleaguered city and cuts off all supplies and communications from the outside world. Commencing May 26, Union forces construct 13 approaches along their front aimed at different points along the Confederate defense line. Their objective is to dig up to the Confederate works, then tunnel underneath them, plant charges of black powder, and destroy the fortifications. Union troops would then be able to surge through the breaches and gain entrance to Vicksburg.”
On June 25, along the Jackson Road, a mine is detonated and Federal soldiers swarm into the crater attempting to exploit the breach in the city’s defenses.
“The struggle raged for 26 hours during which clubbed muskets and bayonets were freely used, as the Confederates fought with grim determination to deny their enemy access to Vicksburg. The troops in blue were finally driven back at the point of bayonet and the breach sealed.”
On July 1, a second mine is detonated. The explosion throws a black Confederate soldier into the air and he lands behind Union lines unscathed. The incredulous soldiers ask, “How high did you go?”
“I don’t rightly know how high,” he is said to respond. “I think three miles.”
The man is introduced to General Grant and is sequestered. The soldiers pay 50 cents each to gawk at “The Man Blown to Freedom.”
The soldiers fight from distances ranging from several feet to just a few yards.
“In some cases, they could have stood and touched shoulder on other side of parapet,” Winschel says. Lit cannonballs, are tossed back and forth like a game of “hot potato.”
To make life for Confederates as miserable as possible, the Union side even uses biological warfare. Vicksburg’s water originates behind Union lines. The men are ordered to poison the streams with rotting carcasses.
“The Confederates didn’t realize they were being poisoned – some 10,000 got dysentery and malaria – spread . By July 1, Pemberton’s forces went from 30,000 to 18,000 effective soldiers.”
Throughout June “the gallant, but weary, defenders of Vicksburg suffered from reduced rations, exposure to the elements, and constant bombardment of enemy guns. Reduced in number by sickness and battle casualties, the garrison of Vicksburg was spread dangerously thin. Soldiers and citizens alike began to despair that help would ever come. At Jackson and Canton, CSA General Johnston gathered a relief force, which finally took up the line of march toward Vicksburg on July 1. But by then it was too late, as time had run out for the fortress on the Mississippi River,” the NPS site relates.
“On the hot afternoon of July 3, 1863, a cavalcade of horsemen in gray rode out from the city along the Jackson Road. Soon white flags appeared on the city’s defenses as General Pemberton rode beyond the works to meet with his adversary – General Grant. The two officers dismounted between the lines, not far from the Third Louisiana Redan, and sat in the shade of a stunted oak tree to discuss surrender terms.
“Unable to reach an agreement, the two men returned to their respective headquarters. Telling Pemberton he would have his final terms by 10 p.m., Grant was true to his word, and his final amended terms were forwarded to Pemberton that night. Instead of an unconditional surrender of the city and garrison, Grant offered parole to the valiant defenders of Vicksburg. Pemberton and his generals agreed that these were the best terms that could be had, and in the quiet of his headquarters on Crawford Street, the decision was made to surrender the city.
“At 10 a.m., on July 4, white flags were again displayed from the Confederate works, and the brave men in gray marched out of their entrenchments, stacked their arms, removed their accouterments, and furled their flags. The victorious Union army now marched in and took possession the city.”
General Grant sent President Lincoln a key as his way of informing the President of the fall of Vicksburg.
“The war can never be brought to a close until the key is in our pocket,” Lincoln had said.
When Lincoln received the key, President Lincoln is said to have exclaimed, “The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea.”
The fall of Vicksburg, coupled with the defeat of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in the Battle of Gettysburg fought (coincidentally) over July 1-3, 1863, marked the turning point of the Civil War.
We stand in front of the Illinois Memorial – the largest among the 28 state memorials at Vicksburg. It cost $195,000 to build in 1904 – “chump change today, but in 1904, it represented 20% of the state’s budget.”
The memorial is modeled after the Roman Pantheon, deliberately to be a “temple” paying homage to those soldiers. Half of the Union soldiers fighting at Vicksburg came from Illinois.
It was built with 47 steps – one for each day of the siege.
Inside, bronze tablets are etched with the names of 36,325 soldiers from Illinois who served at Vicksburg.
Among the names is that of Albert D. J. Cashier who enlisted into the 95th Illinois Infantry on August 6, 1862, and became part of the Army of Tennessee under General Grant, fighting n 40 battles, including Vicksburg, the Red River Campaign and Guntown, Mississippi.
Only years later, in 1911, was it revealed that Albert was actually a woman. An Irish-born immigrant, Jennie Irene Hodgers, reportedly pretended to be a man to get higher-paid jobs, and when she left the military, continued to live as a man in order to collect the soldier’s pension of $13 a month. Albert’s tombstone has both names.
The Vicksburg National Military Park has numerous exhibits and displays, in addition to the memorials and monuments.
One of the most fascinating is the exhibit to the USS Cairo, a Union ironclad gunboat in the “Brown Water” navy. On December 12, 1862, in the Yazoo River north of Vicksburg, Cairo struck two underwater torpedoes and sank in just 12 minutes; all 175 men survived.
To me, the boat looks like something out of Jules Verne or “Wild, Wild West” and in fact, it was state-of-the-art, high-tech weaponry of its time. It is fascinating to behold.
Preserved by mud and silt, the Cairo sat on the bottom of the river for 102 years. She was raised in 1964 and was later restored along with many of the objects that were found aboard, which are now part of a fascinating indoor exhibit.
This exhibit highlights one of the Civil War’s pivotal struggles, the battle for control of the Mississippi. It features life in Vicksburg, Mississippi during the devastating 47-day siege of 1863. It depicts hardships of civilians and soldiers in a besieged city.
The exhibit also gives richly illustrated insights into life aboard the U.S.S. Cairo, and the recovered objects give a unique window into daily life and leisure time of Union officers and sailors during the Civil War.
“The Navy played a prominent role in the Vicksburg Campaign, to transport the troops,” Winschel tells us. “They got by the defenses on April 13. Then the Navy kept away, supplied the troops and bombarded the defenses.
“On July 4, as Grant entered Vicksburg, he rode down to the Court House to see the change in flag, and then to the waterfront, to thank and congratulate Admiral Porter.”
In 1917, Congress appropriated $200,000 to US Navy for a heroic sized statue to Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter.
In the exhibit, I learn of James Buchanan Eads (1820-1887), “an inventive self-taught engineer living in St. Louis and familiar with the Mississippi River” who proposed that the U.S. government invest in the development of steam-powered, ironclad warships. He had recognized that the emerging conflict would, in large part, focus on the control of the country’s river systems. His idea was coolly received. But when hostilities began, he was summoned to offer the U.S. government advice on how to wrest control of the lower Mississippi River from the Confederacy.
Life in a Cave during the Siege
What most intrigued me about the Siege of Vicksburg was the image of women and children living in caves for the 47-days of shelling from the Union gunboats on the river below the city.
Here at the Visitor Center, you can get a sense of what it was like to live in a cave during the siege:
“To escape relentless shelling from Federal artillery, many citizens of Vicksburg took refuge underground. They dug caves into the hillsides of loess soil, a fine-grained clay deposit indigenous to this area. Single family caves had only one or two rooms, others were huge and said to have accommodated as many as 200 people. To avoid entrapment and induce air circulation, caves often had several entrances. Cooking took place outside the entrances.
“Amenities were preserved in the caves with carpets, furnishings, and wall niches for books, candles, and flowers. Jane Bitterman described her underground quarters as ‘far more pleasant than the people imagine.’ Thanks to widespread use of caves, only a very small number of Vicksburg citizens were killed or wounded during the 47 days of sustained bombardment.”
The furnishings shown in the exhibit are original pieces of the Civil War era, typical of household articles brought into the caves during the siege. There is even a rocking chair that was used in one of the Vicksburg caves.
The Park also offers Living History programs. Presented every summer from the first week in June through the first week of August, rangers and volunteers offer demonstrations and interpretive talks of Civil War life, activities, and professions. You can watch artillery and rifle firings performed using the drills taught to the soldiers and sailors of the era, and listen and participate in various ranger programs presented throughout the park along the 16-mile tour.
This summer’s program are particularly enriched by a focus on the Sesquicentennial of the Vicksburg Campaign and Siege of Vicksburg.
Vicksburg National Military Cemetery
The Vicksburg National Military Cemetery is the largest civil war cemetery, where there are 17,000 US soldiers, their upright headstones making neat rows along the rolling hillside, just above the river. The ones that have been identified have small square blocks, but the majority, 13,000, are “Unknown”.
During the Civil War, the soldiers did not wear dog tags; 56% of all Civil War soldiers are unidentified
A 16-mile auto tour, paralleling the Union siege and Confederate defensive line, takes you past 15 designated tour stops, wayside markers and exhibits, short spur trails to points of interest – key sites related to the Siege of Vicksburg.
Vicksburg, Vicksburg National Military Park (www.nps.gov/vick/index.htm), and surrounding areas including Raymond and Port Gibson are all marking the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War and the Vicksburg Campaign this year with special events.
Vicksburg Convention & Visitors Bureau, 1010 Levee Street, Suite 2B, Vicksburg, MS 39181, 800-221-3536 or 601-636-9421, www.visitvicksburg.com, Facebook: www.facebook.com/visitvicksburg, Twitter: @VisitVicksburg.
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