Just as Vicksburg, Mississippi, was a very sought after and fought over location during the Civil War, it serves today as a beacon to history and a very significant destination for discovering some of the reasons for its importance. The picturesque city of Vicksburg sits on a high bluff overlooking a bend in the Mississippi River. Its very location was important during Civil War times and was looked upon as the main obstacle of Union domination. The Vicksburg National Military Park bears many memorials to lost soldiers and unnamed heroes during that bloody conflict and sad chapter in America’s history. But nevertheless, Vicksburg today remains a desirable destination for history buffs. The Civil War and its Southern charm are the major attractions of this city on the bluff of the Mississippi River.
The National Battlefield and the Civil War are the focal points of Vicksburg’s history. The battlefield is situated in and occupies a major portion of northern Vicksburg. Notable buildings and museums are scattered throughout the city, mostly in the downtown district. Two self-guiding scenic tours are clearly marked and are listed in the Vicksburg Visitors Guide, which is readily available at most visitor centers along Mississippi’s interstates and in several locations within Vicksburg. The markers for the self-guiding tours lead visitors through the historic downtown district. The Visitors Guide explains the significance of each stop along the tours.
The most prominent building along the self-guiding tour is the Old Court House Museum, which was constructed in 1858 by slaves. Many great Americans were hosted in the building in its history – Jefferson Davis, Theodore Roosevelt, Booker T. Washington, William McKinley and Ulysses S. Grant. Here the U.S. flag was raised while the Confederate flag was lowered on July 4, 1863. Other museums not associated with the Civil War include the Biedenharn Museum of Coca Cola Memorabilia, Yesterday’s Children Antique Doll and Toy Museum, and the Lower Mississippi River Museum. Many nineteenth century homes along the self-guiding tour routes have been restored and now serve as bed and breakfast inns. Each has a colorful story to help piece together the history puzzle of Vicksburg.
Visitors can see why Vicksburg was such a strategic point when they walk along the high bluffs along the Mississippi River. There are several points overlooking the river from which the visitor can watch the river and its traffic. Just gazing upon the mighty Mississippi allows the imagination to wander. Riverfront Park offers the best view of the bridges across the Mississippi River and the river itself. The park is at the Navy Circle, another strategic point during the war.
There are four casinos along the river for entertainment and contain great restaurants. All operate twenty-four hours. The Ameristar, Lady Luck, Diamondjack's, and the Riverwalk Casino are located on Vicksburg’s riverfront.
The Vicksburg National Military Park is more than just a cemetery for soldiers killed in action. It is the battlefield where two armies of Americans fought and shed blood and many lives were lost. The park identifies strategies and strongholds of the winners and uncovers weaknesses and plights of the losers. Generals and heroes are memorialized. Monuments mark historical battles and pay tribute to states represented. The park consists of a 16-mile route beginning at a visitor center and circling through the battlefield. There are numbered stops with explanations in the guide handed out at the entrance (entrance fee is $8.00 per car). During the tour there are red and blue metal markers along the way. Red markers denote Confederate lines and emplacements. Blue pertains to Union forces.
Just outside Vicksburg there are a couple other notable spots contributing to the area’s history. Grand Gulf Military Park is about twenty-five miles south of Vicksburg on US Highway 61. The former thriving town of Grand Gulf has an interesting history. It was settled in the 1700s by the French and remained a small and unimportant outpost during much of its early times. But when cotton became “king” in the early 1800s, because of its location on the Mississippi River, Grand Gulf became a major port city. By the mid-1800s its population had grown to nearly 1000. Unfortunately, a few ill-timed tragedies struck the thriving town. In 1843 an outbreak of yellow fever claimed several lives. Ten years later a devastating tornado ravaged Grand Gulf. Then the fatal blow – the currents of the Mississippi River (the source of the town’s importance) ate away the entire business section of the town (fifty-five city blocks!). By the outbreak of the Civil War, the population had been reduced to a mere 158 people.
But during the Civil War, the town left its claim to fame. It was the last stand of the Confederate Army under General Pemberton in an attempt to ward off the Union’s approach by General Ulysses S. Grant to take Vicksburg. The Confederates made a valiant stand but General Grant’s army outflanked the Southerners and the end to the stronghold was approaching.
Grand Gulf Military Park, a memorial to the city’s history and to the last effort by the Confederates to hold Vicksburg, contains four hundred acres and has relics from the town’s prominent past and interesting items on display from that period.
The town of Port Gibson is near Grand Gulf Military Park and is significant historically. Many buildings remain preserved in this serene town “too beautiful to burn” (according to General Ulysses S. Grant during his occupation of the town in 1863). There are also eight historic churches along Church Street.
It is difficult to imagine the size of some of the plantation homes of that era without actually seeing them up close. The Ruins of Windsor are located about 9 miles west of Port Gibson. Windsor was a large plantation home built in 1860 and was obviously not too beautiful to burn. However, it did not burn until 1890. All that remain of the stately house are its spectacular columns that supported the structure of the building. Huge, tall columns give some indication of the size of the main house in its heyday.
After its surrender in July 1863, Vicksburg became an occupied city until after Reconstruction. A force of 5000 United States Colored Troops, who patrolled the streets, occupied it. The civil liberties of the Vicksburg inhabitants were practically non-existent during this time, as the townspeople were required to give loyalty oaths. Failure to take the oath resulted in either arrest or banishment from the city. Plantations owned by the “enemies” of the government were confiscated. Mississippi was readmitted to the Union in 1870, but troops were not removed until President Rutherford Hayes ordered them out in 1877.
Vicksburg was also the exchange point for prisoners of war. On April 24, 1865, more than 2300 released Union soldiers embarked on the steamer Sultana for the journey upriver toward home. Three nights later near Memphis, the over-loaded boat exploded and more than 1800 died. The Sultana incident is the greatest maritime disaster in American history but its importance was lost due to the little attention it received. It occurred the same time as the surrender of the Confederate generals and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
To get to Vicksburg from the East, use Interstate Highway 20. Vicksburg is fifty miles west of Jackson. Interstate 55 goes through Jackson and brings visitors from the North and South to the central section of Mississippi. From the West I-20 crosses the Mississippi River from Louisiana. US Highway 61 parallels the river through the state. The Natchez Trace Parkway (the 450-mile route from Nashville, Tennessee, to Natchez, Mississippi, that is part of the National Park System) passes within a couple miles of Port Gibson. Port Gibson and Grand Gulf are about 20-25 miles south of Vicksburg along US 61.
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For more information:
Vicksburg National Military Park
3201 Clay Street
Vicksburg, MS 39183
Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau
Clay Street at Old Highway 27
P. O. Box 110
Vicksburg, MS 39181
The Old Courthouse Museum
1008 Cherry Street
Vicksburg, MS 39183
Grand Gulf Military Park
12006 Grand Gulf Road
Port Gibson, MS 39150