Civil War Sesquicentennial: Following the Trail of the Vicksburg Campaign

The Raymond Battlefield, with 22 cannons placed just where they were May 12, 1863 © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

by Karen Rubin

I was standing on the Vicksburg National Military Park battlefield the very day in April 2011 that marked the beginning of the Civil War Sesquicentennial – the 150th anniversary of the first shots fired at Fort Sumter.

Vicksburg’s own Sesquicentennial would not be for another two years; indeed, it is just getting underway now, with special events in Vicksburg, at the Vicksburg National Military Park, and in towns that all played a part in the Vicksburg Campaign like Jackson, Raymond, Port Gibson, from April through November, 2013.

Before coming to Vicksburg, Mississippi, I thought of it as a single, sensational battle, like Gettysburg or Shiloh.

But being here, I realize that Vicksburg was a massive campaign over several months and multiple battles waged through the region – in fact, Vicksburg was the longest, most complex of the war, and filled with drama. And it did not just take place on a battlefield. Most dramatic to me was learning that the city itself was under siege for 47 days, with women and children forced to live in caves as cannon fire from Union gunboats below exploded overhead.

Vicksburg, a natural fortress that commanded control of the Mississippi River from bluffs 300 feet high, was considered crucial to both sides of the war.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who is from Vicksburg area, called it the “nail” that held the two halves of the South together; President Lincoln called Vicksburg the “key” to a Union victory.

The campaign is filled with drama: visualize 17,000 Union soldiers secretly crossing the Mississippi River – the largest amphibious operation in American military history until the Allied invasion of Normandy during World War II; the soldiers marching four abreast into the night, a line 15 miles long, confronting the Confederates at midnight at a farmhouse outside Port Gibson; Union gunboats slipping through the gauntlet below Vicksburg’s fortress-like defenses, taking advantage of a ball underway in the city; in 1862, the Union ironclad USS Cairo, becomes the first in history to be sunk by an electrically detonated mine (the restoration of the gunboat is one of the most incredible exhibits on view at Vicksburg National Military Park).

The Duff Green Mansion, Vicksburg. The family abandoned the home during the siege to live in a cave, where a baby, named William Siege Green, was born © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Most dramatic of all, is the 47-day siege of the city, in which the civilians – women and children mainly – had to live in caves dug into the bluffs; a baby born in a cave during the siege was named William Siege Green (the Duff Green Mansion can be visited).

To really understand the Vicksburg Campaign, you should start your travels outside of Vicksburg, outside the Vicksburg National Military Park, and retrace the steps of General Ulysses S Grant and his 17,000 troops.

Only then do you realize how audacious, how daring, how risky this whole enterprise was, and how much luck played a role. I begin to wonder whether the latent sympathies of many of Warren County for the Union (Warren County voted to stay in the Union), might not have played a part, because deception was a key part of Grant’s plan and at critical times, it would not have been hard to send ahead a scout to alert the Confederate Generals where Grant’s forces were. Instead of sending out the alarm, farmers provided Grant with a map.

I think of the slave who crossed the river to tell Grant, “There are no soldiers at Bruinsburg,” giving the Union General the best place to cross the Mississippi from Louisiana (an audacious route). And I think of a fortuitous height of the river which enabled Grant’s forces to be ferried further inland than they could have otherwise.

We embark on our Civil War Heritage Trail from the Southern Cultural Heritage Foundation in downtown Vicksburg, being guided by Parker Hills of Battle Focus (www.battlefocus.com), a retired Brigadier General with an extraordinary command of the military strategy, who tells us the story of the Vicksburg campaign as our bus rolls through the same places. It is thrilling, and illuminating, to put the events into context.

Amazingly, because the area is still largely rural, it is not much changed – you can visualize as he tells the story:

Military strategists still study the Vicksburg Campaign, he tells us, but Grant was more than a military strategist, he understood “the Big Picture,” which included the politics of war.

“Follow the money,” he says – the flow of commerce from the Midwest, the merchants, manufacturers and farmers who needed to get their goods to the Gulf of Mexico ports. They couldn’t do it because a big chunk of the river in the South still has guns; it stops civilian commerce.”

The Midwest was strangling economically, and in early 1863, there were rumblings about joining the South: Copperhead Democrats who opposed Lincoln were gaining seats in the Congress and state houses, building up to the 1864 election.

This was important because troops came from the state (the US did not have a standing army, which is the basis for the Second Amendment).

Lincoln needed the support of the Midwestern states, and he needed to get the port at Vicksburg open.

Knowing his plan was audacious, Grant went so far as to deliberately withhold his plans for battle – sending a message by a slow boat, so that another General who had ambitions to challenge Lincoln in 1864, would not be able to take credit, nor stop him. He is being pressured to return to Memphis, but he wants to take Vicksburg, and he realizes this will require a combination of land and water assault.

The risk that Grant was taking was extraordinary. “He would be out of communication with his superiors in Washington, who no doubt would be severely troubled that one of their main armies had disappeared from view. Grant would have to live off the land, maneuver in hostile territory — likely against superior numbers — and hope for the best. It was a terrible risk, and his own trusted subordinate, General William Sherman, was against the plan, but Grant felt he had no other option,” write Brooke C. Stoddard and Daniel P. Murphy, Ph.D.

From January – March, 1863, Grant attempted to bypass the city of Vicksburg by building a canal that would divert the Mississippi River away from the city, so the boats could get through without being shot at. He abandons the plan on March 27.

The USS Cairo, a Union gunboat that was sunk on December 1862. Admiral Porter was asked to undertake a suicidal mission by General Grant, to sail his gunboats passed the Vicksburg gauntlet © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

He calls upon Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter to undertake a suicidal mission: to slip his gunboats through the Vicksburg gauntlet so that the boats would be south of the city and in position to ferry his men across from Louisiana.

On April 16, while Grant’s army marched south through Louisiana, Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter prepares to run by the Vicksburg batteries.

In the dead of night, Porter sends his gunboats drifting downriver with their engines muffled and lights extinguished – the Ironclads move at 6 knots,  the Mississippi river at 4 knots for a total of 10 knots – once they get to a certain point, there is no going back.

“As the boats rounded De Soto Point, they were spotted by Confederate lookouts who spread the alarm,” the National Park Service site relates. “Bales of cotton soaked in turpentine and barrels of tar lining the shore, were set on fire by the Southerners to illuminate the river. Although each vessel was hit repeatedly, Porter’s fleet successfully fought its way past the Confederate batteries losing only one transport, and headed downriver to the rendezvous with Grant on the Louisiana shore south of Vicksburg.”

Grand Gulf Military Park

Grand Gulf Military Park is like a ghost town © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Grand Gulf Military Park, a state park, which today marks the beginning of 50-mile Grand Gulf Scenic Byway, is actually a ghost town of buildings and artifacts set amid farmland and woods that make it easy to visualize what it was like 150 years ago.

Today, you experience Grand Gulf as a kind of a ghost town – which makes it all the more interesting and makes it easy to visualize the events of so long ago. It has an excellent Civil War exhibit with wonderful artifacts.

Here, Grant would have loaded 150 wagons – all the wagons they could steal – with 7000 pounds of supplies.

I am amazed to learn that even in the heat of these grizzly battles, Grant almost always has a family member with him – his wife is almost kidnapped; at Vicksburg, he has his 12-year old son, Frederick, with him.

“Grant knows he has a weakness for drinking,” Hills says. “He drinks when he is lonely or bored, so he always keeps a family member with him.”

Confederate General Van Dorn, most famous for his success using guerrilla tactics, heard that Grant’s wife was there and sent guerrillas to try to capture her three times. She got out the night before from Holly Springs with her young son on lap, in a box car.

“It was Grant’s intention to force a crossing of the river at Grand Gulf, and move on ‘Fortress Vicksburg’ from the south. For five hours on April 29, the Union fleet bombarded the Grand Gulf defenses in an attempt to silence the Confederate guns and prepare the way for a landing. The fleet, however, sustained heavy damage and failed to achieve its objective. Admiral Porter declared, ‘Grand Gulf is the strongest place on the Mississippi.’

“Not wishing to have his transports loaded with troops attempt a landing in the face of enemy fire, Grant disembarked his command and continued the march south along the levee.

The battle at Grand Gulf was a Southern victory, but their success would be short-lived.
General Grant quickly developed a second plan and moved his men overland through Louisiana to a point below Grand Gulf.

Secret Crossing at Bruinsburg

There was no bridge across the Mississippi – Grant had to use gunboats to transport 500 men at a time.

“The landing was made unopposed and, as the men came ashore, a band aboard the U.S.S. Benton struck up “The Red, White, and Blue.” The Hoosiers were quickly followed by the remainder of the XIII Union Army Corps and portions of the XVII Corps — 17,000 men.

“This landing was the largest amphibious operation in American military history until the Allied invasion of Normandy during World War II. Elements of the Union army pushed inland and took possession of the bluffs, thereby securing the landing area. By late afternoon of April 30, 17,000 soldiers were ashore and the march inland began.

“It’s like D-Day without a single shot,” Hills tells us.

The landing downstream from Grand Gulf gave the Union General the foothold he needed to move on Vicksburg.

Ruins of Windsor

All that remains of the Ruins of Windsor are 23 ionic columns, burned in an accidental fire in 1890 © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

We come to Windsor Plantation, now known as the Ruins of Windsor – a magnificent, haunting sight. Twenty-three iconic columns are all that remains of what was once one of the grandest homes in the region.

“Moving away from the landing area at Bruinsburg, the Federal soldiers rested and ate their crackers in the shade of the trees on Windsor Plantation. Late that afternoon the decision was made to push on that night by a forced march in hopes of surprising the Confederates and preventing them from destroying the bridges over Bayou Pierre.”

When Grant came here with his men, this was a grand house on a 2600-acre plantation, built at a cost of $175,000 ($4.5 million in today’s dollars) in 1861 by slave labor. The owner, Smith Coffee Daniell II only lived in the house a few weeks before he died at the age of 34. Mrs. Daniell is said to have been cordial to the Union soldiers; Grant’s forces camp in her cornfield.

Though it is easy to presume that the mansion was burned in the Civil War, it actually survived the war Grant is said to have felt it “too beautiful to burn.” and it was used as a hospital. After the war, Windsor was used for social gatherings – Mark Twain stayed here.

But on February 17 1890, a guest carelessly tossed lighted cigar ignited a fire that burned the house down. All that’s left today are 23 columns of the 29 columns, looking eerie.

The Union columns resumed their advance at 5:30 p.m., but instead of taking the Bruinsburg Road — the most direct road from the landing area to Port Gibson — Grant’s columns swung onto the Rodney Road, passing Bethel Church and marching through the night toward Port Gibson. It is April 30, 1863.”

We drive past the Bethel Presbyterian Church. The congregation of the Bethel Presbyterian Church was organized in 1826. The building, that we see today, was built in the mid 1840s.

The Shaifer House comes into view from the road where Grant’s forces marched. A battle began just after midnight © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

We travel by bus over the same road Grant’s troops would have taken to come upon the Shaifer House, just outside Port Gibson, stuck out in the woods even today and the road not much better than the dirt road that Grant’s troops marched on. Apparently, because Mississippi is largely agrarian, these historic roads have been saved from development.

It’s hard enough road by bus in the daylight, I try to imagine what it was like being a soldier, carrying 40 lbs of gear, now hiking uphill in the dark at a fast march.

We finally come to a modest white farmhouse tucked into the woods.

The first shot of The Battle of Port Gibson was fired here, at the Shaifer House on May 1, 1863.

“Shortly after midnight the crash of musketry shattered the stillness as the Federals stumbled upon Confederate outposts near the A. K. Shaifer house. Union troops immediately deployed for battle, and their artillery, which soon arrived, roared into action. A spirited skirmish ensued which lasted until 3 a.m.”

Later, we meet Libby Holllingsworth, whose great great grandfather built house. She still has the portrait from the house that day which was struck by a bullet.

She tells us that her great grandfather went to prison but when he came back said. “We were wrong, it never should have happened,”

“Reconciliation started with my great grandfather,” she says.

Port Gibson

We arrive at Port Gibson, where Grant’s soldiers would have come on May 1, 1863 – desperately hungry because they exhausted their rations. They ransacked the town, took books from the library (the paper served as toilet paper). But the town Grant said “was too beautiful to burn.” It is still gracious and beautiful – even cinematic.

The battle of Port Gibson on May 1 cost Grant 131 killed, 719 wounded, and 25 missing out of 23,000 men engaged. This victory not only secured his position on Mississippi soil, but enabled him to launch his campaign deeper into the interior of the state. Union victory at Port Gibson forced the Confederate evacuation of Grand Gulf and would ultimately result in the fall of Vicksburg, according to the NPS notes.

The First Presbyterian Church in Port Gibson, built in 1860, is famous for its Gold Hand reaching to heaven © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

We stop in Port Gibson to visit the First Presbyterian Church, built in 1860, famous today for its Gold Hand reaching to heaven, and inside, chandeliers from the steamboat, the Robert E. Lee.

What particularly interests me is that across from the church is the Gemiluth Chaset Synagogue –built 1891 in a Moorish style, the oldest synagogue in Mississippi, and listed on the National Register.

Grant’s strategy is to draw out the Confederates from Vicksburg, where they had had 30,000 troops, force the Confederates to spread out. His plan works, though it is not clear why the Confederates did not reinforce their troops.

We continue on to the field where the Battle of Raymond was waged.

Local citizens have raised enough money to buy back the battlefield and bring back 22 cannons, lined up just as they were. It is extraordinary to have an actual field preserved in this way. It is astonishing to realize how close the Union and Confederate forces would have been.

On our way into the city of Raymond, we pass the Confederate Cemetery – neat rows of headstones.

In Raymond, we see something that I find one of the astonishments that was actually common during the Civil War: Raymond Courthouse is across the street from the Episcopal church. Both became hospitals – one for Union soldiers, the other for Confederates, and the ladies of Raymond cared for them all.

There are still bloodstains on the floor of the church, and considerable resentment today of how the Union soldiers seemed intent to demolish Episcopal churches, the religion of the Southern aristocracy.

There were several other battles still to come before Grant finally gets to Vicksburg: Jackson (May 14), Champion Hill (May 16), Big Black River Bridge (May 17).

5,000 Confederates and Old Douglas, the camel, are buried at Soldier’s Rest at Cedar Hill Cemetery, Vicksburg © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

There’s another stop to make before you go to the Vicksburg National Military Park: Cedar Hill Cemetery, where the Confederate dead are buried. The graves are maintained by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

Known as “Soldiers’ Rest,” the plot in Cedar Hill Cemetery is the final resting place for 5,000 Confederate soldiers, as well as Old Douglas, a camel who was the mascot of the 43d Mississippi Infantry, killed by Union sharpshooters and eaten by the ravenous Confederates.

Later, we will visit the Vicksburg National Military Park and the national cemetery, one of the biggest, where 17,000 Union soldiers are interred, of which 13,000 are listed simply as “Unknown.”

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.

See slideshow

See next:

Civil War 150th: Siege of Vicksburg marked at Vicksburg National Military Park and slideshow

See also:

Vicksburg Civil War Sesquicentennial shows value in seeing history first-hand and slideshow

Staying in Vicksburg bnb is best way to experience Tapestry for Civil War 150th and slideshow

Civil War Sesquicentennial of Vicksburg Campaign marked with special events and slideshow

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Vicksburg Civil War Sesquicentennial Offers Poignant Reminder of Value in Seeing History First-Hand

Vicksburg’s Old Court House Museum includes a Confederate flag that had never been surrendered, 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

by Karen Rubin

Vicksburg is just about to mark the 150th anniversary of the part this city and region played in the Civil War. The Vicksburg Campaign stretched over months and multiple battlefields culminating with the Siege of Vicksburg, a 47-day ordeal that began, appropriately enough, on what we now mark as Memorial Day, and ended coincidentally enough on July 4th, 1863, with the surrender of General Pemberton to General Ulysses S. Grant.

It was the longest, most complex and arguably crucial campaign of the Civil War.

“Vicksburg is the nail head that holds the South’s two halves together,” said Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, who came from this area, and launched his political career from Vicksburg’s Court House.

“Vicksburg is the key. The war can never be brought to a close until the key is in our pocket,” said President Abraham Lincoln,  which is why General Grant sent him a key after Vicksburg’s surrender was secured.

The war could have – should have – ended after the surrender of Vicksburg. That Confederate defeat followed its defeat at Gettysburg and the Confederacy knew it would never win the war. The Union would prevail. But what sort of Union?

The Confederates calculated that the longer the war dragged on, the more likely it would be able to negotiate favorable terms.

Instead, the most lethal war in American History, which took the lives of 625,000 -2% of the entire population, the equivalent of six million Americans today and half of all American soldier deaths in all our wars combined – went on for two more horrendous years.

The recent movie, “Lincoln” brought extraordinary insight into that time, but what was most remarkable for everyone was how similar the political backdrop is today.

A photo of Jefferson Davis and his wife, Varina Banks Howell Davis, in the Old Court House Museum in Vicksburg. Davis, whose plantation was just outside Vicksburg, launched his political career on the grounds © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Being here in Vicksburg, immersed in the Sesquicentennial where you can see the context, the lay of the land, even sleeping in their homes and visiting the same buildings – you get a better understanding of that time and its connection to our time. You don’t have to believe in ghosts to sense the ghostly presence of the people who have come before.

I have been following several Civil War Heritage trails these past few years, and I can’t get away from feeling a sense of utter tragedy that the War and all its horror could have been, should have been, avoided.

The Civil War was fought over the big issues left unresolved by the Founders – a nation founded on “We the People,” and “all are created equal,” nonetheless enabled slavery and tolerated an ambiguity between federal and states’ rights. And today, it seems, the issues are still unresolved – wounds still not healed – from the Civil War. It is eerie, indeed, to hear again calls for “secession”, “nullification” and “states rights.” States like Texas are again calling for secession, and several like Wyoming have put out the order to shoot federal agents who attempt to enforce federal gun control laws. Even provisions of the 14th amendment are being questioned, and on the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the US Supreme Court heard arguments to overturn provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that specifically targeted the practices of the former Confederacy to prevent blacks from voting.

It is a good thing, an important thing, to visit places like Vicksburg. Walk for a spell in the shoes of those who walked here. Sense the ghostly shadows of soldiers on the battlefields and feel the spirit of those women and children huddled in caves in fear for their lives. In the stories of the people and places, you realize the consequences of policies and politics taken to extreme.

“Wars are started by politicians, not soldiers,” says Parker Hills, who leads Battle Focus tours of the area. but it is the soldiers who fight and die, and, as we see in Vicksburg, the civilians who suffer the deprivations and the terror.

Being here, you realize that in many ways, the wounds of that time seem to have been reopened – more likely they never healed. Much of the discourse is as heated, partisan, bitter and divisive.

The Civil War is still referred to as “The War of Northern Aggression,” as if the South was not the initiator, So you have to remind yourself who fired the first shot at Fort Sumter, who seceded from the Union (rather than take Lincoln’s Grand Plan to wean the South off slavery), who placed the fledgling nation at risk of being overwhelmed by a return of colonial powers like England and France, chomping at the bit to regain their foothold in the New World. And who prolonged the war when it was already clear that victory was lost.

Blood in the wood floor of Cedar Grove from when it was used as a hospital during the Siege, was the home of John and Elizabeth Klein and now a bed-and-breakfast inn © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

As you travel, you see a subtle glorification of the Noble Cause. At Cedar Grove, a mansion home that survived the siege and is today a bed-and-breakfast inn, a blood stain on the wood floor is enshrined in a case; the cannonball that lodged in a wall, framed.

A Noble Cause?

And the burning question for me is why the war was fought at all. That’s the thought that comes to mind in the brinksmanship and intransigence of today, with threats to take up arms against the government rather than allow an assault weapons ban. We might not be fighting a war to end slavery, but in many ways, these are still struggles over life and death, equality and opportunity.

It was here at Vicksburg that General William Tecumseh Sherman came into his own, and from here that he launched his campaign of terror as he marched to the sea. I think it was here that he realized that the only way the South would surrender was if the civilian population suffered the pain. That was the lesson after 47 days of firing upon the city of Vicksburg, blockading the city from food and supplies, forcing the surrender on July 4th.

Civil war is different from wars among nations, but the American Civil War, I submit, was like no other – Not only was “the enemy” not foreign but the enemy was often a family member, friend, classmate, neighbor or partner. Lincoln and Grant, both from Illinois, both married women from Kentucky slave-holding families; General John Pemberton who commanded the Vicksburg army, was from Philadelphia, a West Point graduate (as was Robert E. Lee), who wound up on the side of the Confederacy because of his wife, Martha Thompson of Norfolk VA.

Union General George Meade’s sister, Elizabeth Ingraham, who married a Virginia planter and moved to Mississippi, became an ardent rebel and lost two sons . During the Vicksburg campaign, her home, Ashwood, became the headquarters for Union Generals John McClernand and James McPherson; she is famous for having kept a diary.

On July 23, 1863, Elizabeth wrote to her brother. “My dear George,” she began, “We have been despoiled of everything, our crops ruined, our home literally gutted, but the Federal soldiers under Gen’l Grant & McClernand, Gen’l McPherson being in my parlor during a portion of the time & to whom I applied personally without effect.

“My sons are dead. Edward murdered at Farmington [MS] after he had surrendered, he’s buried near Corinth. Frank, killed at Chancellorsville on 3rd May, the very day this house was despoiled, is buried on Mary’s Hite, without even a winding sheet, it being one of the barbarous usages of this cruel & unnatural war to strip the dead—God help me.”

Elizabeth Klein, whose husband John Alexander Klein built their Vicksburg mansion home Cedar Grove, was the niece (by marriage) of General William Tecumseh Sherman. She was pregnant during the Vicksburg Siege and General Sherman offered to transport Elizabeth, her mother and children back East until the war was over if Cedar Grove would serve as a hospital. That saved the home (it’s a magnificent bed-and-breakfast today). Elizabeth named the child she bore during the siege William Tecumseh Sherman Klein; her neighbors said the child would be cursed (he was killed at the age of 16 when his friend accidentally shot him).

And then there are the stories of the Vicksburg mansion homes being turned into hospitals – caring for Confederates on the upper floors (probably because they most prone to shelling), and Union soldiers on the lower floors. They would fly a yellow flag to alert the Union gunboats.

General Grant made a decision when he was on the march to Vicksburg, fighting battles along the way, to leave his wounded behind knowing that the local women would care for the Union soldiers. In Raymond, we see two structures across the street from one another – one which was used as a Union hospital and the other for the Confederates. The Union soldiers stayed on for months during their recuperation. Some came back after the war and married their nurse.

And there are these oddities – amidst the horror and carnage, gentility and fellowship. During the siege, General Pemberton called a brief truce in order to bury the dead; the soldiers of the blue and white shared coffee together; two Confederates and two Union soldiers played cards together. And then the truce was over and they went back to murdering each other from a distance of a few yards, and in hand-to-hand combat.

Vicksburg: The South’s Gibraltar

Set on a high bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, the city was a natural fortress; soldiers could pick off any of the boats that came down from the upper Midwest to the Gulf Ports. So Vicksburg was able to strangle shipping from the upper Midwest, which was causing Northern support for Lincoln’s struggle to waiver.

Larry Clowers portrays General Ulysses S. Grant. There will be many reenactments and special events during Vicksburg’s Sesquicentennial of the Siege and campaign © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

General Grant attempted to take away Vicksburg’s control by ordering the building of a canal, Grant’s Canal , beginning in June, 1862, with the objective to alter the course of the Mississippi to bypass the Confederate guns. But it failed. (It is ironic that in a twist of nature, on April 26, 1876, the day before General Grant’s birthday, no less, the Mississippi shifted direction away from Vicksburg, but the US Army Corps of Engineers managed to construct access on the Yazoo River, so Vicksburg remains a river port.)

General Grant embarked on a different tack that from the beginning to end was audacious, risky and depended as much on luck as planning.

After two months of marching and fighting, Grant’s forces came to Vicksburg, but could not penetrate the defenses. So Grant had another idea – to mount a siege, blockade the city, and force a surrender.

The shelling began on May 26, and went on for 47 days. Families huddled in caves, cannonballs whizzing overhead.  The siege of Vicksburg finally ended on July 4, 1863 – the city would not celebrate Independence Day again until after World War II.

The Union’s victory at Vicksburg sealed the Confederacy’s fate, but had the Confederacy prevailed it is very possible that Lincoln would have been forced to negotiate an end to the hostilities by giving in to the South’s demands. That is because, as I learn during this visit, Vicksburg controlled access on the Mississippi to the Gulf ports – the Midwest was cut off and the farmers and manufacturers were pressuring Lincoln to end the war.

And you realize that had Vicksburg gone differently – if the audacity that Grant showed and the risks he took and the luck hadn’t turned his way, Lincoln would have very possibly been forced to negotiate terms favorable to the Confederacy. The ‘Noble Cause’ of preserving the South’s way of life – based on a slave economy and the social structure that convinced one human being they had the right over life and death over another human being – would have continued.

There likely never would have been a 13th Amendment – it would have taken generations more for slavery to die of its own putrefaction. In the meantime, the South would have continued to dominate the Congress, because of its 3/5 rule that counted slaves for the purpose of representation but did not allow them to vote (not unlike the illegal immigrant situation today). And on and on.

These revelations emerge during our visit to Vicksburg – it for such epiphanies that we travel, seeing first-hand, in context is so powerful.

Old Court House Museum

The Old Court House Museum, opened in 1860, it is locus and witness to the history of Vicksburg © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Our first stop on our own Civil War Heritage Trail of the Vicksburg Campaign starts in the heart of Vicksburg, the Old Court House Museum.

The Old Court House Museum-Eva W. Davis Memorial (named for its first curator) is a significant National Historic Landmark with a superb collection that tells Vicksburg’s story and Civil War history.

The building itself has been the scene of major historic events – it is locus as well as witness, and houses the artifacts as well as actual records of the people and events.

Vicksburg was founded by Burwill Vick and became a city in 1826. The Court House was built on land donated by the Vick family on one of the city’s highest hills; 100 highly skilled slave artisans made the brick and erected the magnificent building, with its four porticos and 30-foot tall Ionic columns. The building was completed in 1860 for a cost of $100,000, a monument to the city’s prosperity.

The Court House was where Jefferson Davis, who had a plantation nearby, launched his political career.

The Court House was brand new when the Civil War broke out – and suffered through shellings from the Union gunboats on the river, but suffered only one major hit – you can still see a cannon ball that landed inside.

It was here on July 4, 1863 that the Stars and Bars were lowered and the Stars and Stripes were raised as General U S Grant reviewed his victorious army.

Later on, notable figures such as Zachary Taylor, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt and Booker T. Washington gave speeches from here.

Today the Court House is an outstanding museum that tells the story so well of the city and its people. There is a fascinating display of everyday objects, photos and other artifacts that give you a sense of the community here before the Civil War. It was here that I first learned and began to appreciate that the Vicksburg community was much more diverse than I ever imagined, with a large immigrant community of Jews from Eastern Europe, people from the Middle East, and others. Indeed, this riverport city became prosperous largely because of merchants and banking; the planters, including Jefferson Davis who had a plantation nearby, did very well under the Union. And when it came time to vote for secession, Warren County voted to stay in the Union.

I think about this later, during our visit to the Ruins of Windsor, where Grant sneaked his 17,000 troops across the Mississippi. The locals could have sounded an alarm, sent scouts to alert the Confederates at Vicksburg, 42 miles away; instead, they let the troops rest and provided a map. This suggests to me there was latent sympathy for the Union.

I was fascinated to see the rooms which depicted the life and times of Vicksburg’s early inhabitants – including John Alexander Klein whose homes we visit (Cedar Grove, Annabelle Inn where we stay).

In one small room in the back of the Court House there is an exhibit – almost a shrine – to Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy (until then, I had not realized he was from here). It is a simple exhibit, but absolutely fascinating, that extols the virtues of the man.

The exhibit humanizes Jefferson Davis – who I subsequently learn was released from prison and led a free and normal life until his death in 1889 (another extraordinary aspect of the Civil War, which was alternately one of gentility and humanity and brutality and carnage).

One part of the exhibit  in particular, struck me: there is a photo and a description about his relationship to his plantation slaves (which I find is part of the Southern propaganda wherever I travel):

“Every colored man he ever owned loved him,” William Sanford, a former Davis slave, is quoted saying on a card in the display.

Other cards note Jefferson was “Master and friend,” slaves had “free time to earn money,” “families kept together,” “many were taught to read  and write.”

Another card notes, “When Davis was president… Mrs. Davis gave money to a former slave, 100 years old, who had been robbed by Yankee soldiers.”

The Jefferson Davis exhibit includes a card relating the story of a slave named Jim Limber © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Then there is a photo and description of Jim Limber: “a little black boy in Richmond was rescued by Mrs. Davis from a savagely cruel father. She healed his cuts and bruises and virtually adopted him. When Richmond fell, Jim Limber went with the Davis family only to be taken from them by Union soldiers. Mrs. Davis wrote that he ‘fought like a tiger.’ The President asked a Union officer to look after the child and see to his education But what became of Jim Limber is unknown…He died in the north in 1889 at 81.”

Another story presented is about a loyal slave, named Holt Collier, who was “very educated” and served General Hines. He was 13 years old when the Civil War started and became a Confederate soldier; he killed a Union officer during the occupation of Vicksburg but was acquitted. He went on to lead Teddy Roosevelt on a bear hunt.

I learn of Varina Anne (“Winnie”) Davis, the youngest of the Jeffersons’ six children, born in the White House of the Confederacy in 1864, who was dubbed “The Daughter of the Confederacy.” After the war, she fell in love with the son of a Northern Abolitionist, but they did not marry (possibly because of the outcry); she died while visiting Rhode Island at the age of 34.

Archives in the Court House Museum © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The Court House also has a fascinating room containing all the records – property owners, census, yellow fever. (Old Court House Museum- Eva W. Davis Memorial, 1008 Cherry Street, Vicksburg, Mississippi 39183, 601-636-0741 or by e-mail at societyhistorica@bellsouth.net).

At the Court House, finally someone else articulates my confusion over how the South reflects on the Civil War and the contradictions here that are somehow invisible or not acknowledged.

“Civil War communities have a long memory,” Walt Grayson, writer photographer and television personality, tells us. He quotes William Faulkner who said that here in the South, “The past is never dead; not even past.”

“The sense of place is paramount in the South. ‘Where are you from?’ is the question that will be asked of any stranger. It’s not the literal place, but a place of the heart. Southerners – more than any other – fall in love with the places they live,” he says.

What is impressive is that here in Vicksburg, at least, people seem to recognize and acknowledge the inherent contradiction – very possibly reflecting that (dare I say) “liberal” strain that caused Warren County to vote against secession.

Grayson reflects on the South as being “the most American and un-American” of places.

“The South forged Thomas Jefferson who crafted Declaration of Independence and the writers of the Constitution. But the South also is very un-American: institution of slavery; in 1960s, Civil Rights. It is a mix of beautiful and nightmarish.”

Reflecting on the Civil War and the South, he says, “One prism to look through is that the South lost the Civil War. But who lost? While the South lost, Black south was liberated.”

The South is known for myth-making, its tall tales, he says.

General Beauregard, for example, when the Civil War broke out, is purported to have said, “We can wup those Yankees with cornstalks.”

Four years later, huddled in a cave and worse for wear, he said, “Sons of bitches wouldn’t fight with cornstalks!”

Myth envelops the South to its detriment, Grayson says, in a remark that merges past and present.

Here in Vicksburg, they are hoping that the Sesquicentennial will bring people like me, from the North, whose image is shaped by the Civil War and the 1960s civil rights struggles, in order to puncture some of the myths of our own.

Indeed, my visit to Vicksburg is a revelation – plunging into history is sobering, humbling, a kind of reality check. You see yourself more as a link in a chain. You see our problems today as less “special” and “unique” when viewed through the larger prism of history. And I come away with a great appreciation for the people of Vicksburg and Warren County, no more a caricature or stereotype.

And so we begin our personal march along a Civil War Heritage trail that was the Vicksburg Campaign.

Vicksburg, Vicksburg National Military Park (http://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.

See slideshow

See next:

Civil War Sesquicentennial: Following the trail of the Vicksburg Campaign and slideshow

Civil War 150th: Siege of Vicksburg marked at Vicksburg National Military Park and slideshow

See also:

Staying in Vicksburg bnb is best way to experience Tapestry for Civil War 150th and slideshow

Civil War Sesquicentennial of Vicksburg Campaign marked with special events and slideshow

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