Ending the second adventurous week on the road, the roving travelers pursued new Civil War vistas in Mississippi. We drove south on the Natchez Trace from mid-Tennessee for more than 200 miles to Jackson, Miss., and exited the Trace heading west for nearly another 50 miles to Vicksburg — a strategic town that dominated a bend in the Mississippi River.
Beginning in May 1863, the residents of Vicksburg experienced a dreadful bombardment and privation from food shortages as Union forces under Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant conducted a six-week-long siege against the strong defenses of a 20,000-man Rebel army under Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton. Pemberton, born in Philadelphia, of Quaker ancestry, joined the Confederates when the Civil War began, evidently influenced by his wife, who was a Virginian by birth.
Grant’s attempts to capture the town by force proved costly, his army suffering more than 2,000 casualties. A combination of Union gunboats dominating the river and Grant’s siege of the Confederate fortifications eventually left Pemberton with no choice but to surrender or allow his troops and the local residents to starve.
As he had done at Fort Donelson, Tenn., more than a year earlier, Grant initially demanded that Pemberton surrender his army unconditionally. However, Grant relented and allowed the Rebels to sign paroles not to fight again until exchanged for Union prisoners being held by the Confederates.
The surrender of Vicksburg, along with Port Hudson, 130 miles to the south on July 9, gave Union forces complete control of the vital Mississippi River and divided the Confederacy in half — east and west of the Mississippi. The official surrender at Vicksburg took place on July 4, 1863, the day after the Union victory over Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army at Gettysburg.
The twin victories of Gettysburg and Vicksburg caused President Abraham Lincoln to envision a quick end to the bloody warfare. He would be sadly disappointed, however, because the deadly combat would continue for the better part of two more years — causing hundreds of thousands of additional casualties.
The visitor center at Vicksburg offers a film and displays, including a re-creation of cave-dwelling life endured by Vicksburg citizens seeking protection from bombardment during the long siege. At the bookstore, I acquired “The Struggle for Vicksburg: The Battles & Siege That Decided the Civil War” by Stephen E. Ambrose.
The steep rolling terrain of the battlefield offers convincing testimony of the natural defenses enjoyed by Pemberton’s Rebel forces, and the difficulty in mounting a successful attack against these formidable locations.
The Vicksburg National Military Park is extensive, covering large areas to the east and north of the city. It is also adorned with a multitude of statues, monuments and markers, the net effect of which is impressive, if not overwhelming.
Also located in the park is the U.S.S. Cairo Museum. Featured is the ironclad Cairo, which was sunk in the Yazoo River in 1862 and raised more than 100 years later, in 1964.
The Cairo Museum had a collection of recovered artifacts from the ship. The skeleton of the raised ironclad, along with its machinery and armaments, are on display outside the museum, perched in a brick-and-wood support structure under a protective pavilion.
A surrounding platform permits close inspection. On a hill above the museum sits a tall obelisk commemorating the Union navy that played an important role in the capture of Vicksburg. Statues of Adms. David Glasgow Farragut, David Dixon Porter, Charles Henry Davis and Andrew Hull Foote surround its base.
The National Cemetery at Vicksburg is the largest of all for Civil War battlefields. A Confederate cemetery is located within the city.
Vicksburg has a number of antebellum homes, including the Balfour House, home of Emma Balfour (a noted diarist of the siege), and the Willis-Cowan House, site of Pemberton’s headquarters, where the decision to surrender was made.
Leaving Vicksburg and driving farther south in the state of Mississippi, next on the agenda was a visit to the small, but picturesque, town of Natchez. Our goal was to learn more about the cultural capital of the Old South, which enjoys a 300-year history.
Tom Ryan is the author of the multiple award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” and “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War,” with signed copies available at Bethany Beach Books, Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach and Allison’s Card Smart in Milford. Contact him at email@example.com or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.