Vicksburg National Military Park
By John H. Ostdick
All Photos Copyright 2015 The Write House: John H. Ostdick
Reliving A Critical Civil War Campaign
Vicksburg National Military Park Provides Long Gaze into Key Historical Window
Billowing, bright cotton ball clouds dot a pale blue sky above the Vicksburg National Military Park as my wife and I turn into its parking lot on the back half of a soft, fluttering day being pursued by a swamping fall storm.
Originally, we had planned to make the 16-mile drive through the park first thing the next morning but the slogging rain we had been driving east through was scheduled to visit here overnight, and we decided to alter our schedule. We were glad to have the leisurely, dry time here.
The Civil War imposed major scars on this nation, both physically and spiritually. Hundreds of structures were enlisted as makeshift hospitals for the wounded, private homes became battle headquarters, and a myriad of other sites directly affected. The National Park System is caretaker of hundreds of memorials, battlefields, and military parks associated with the war.
The Vicksburg National Military Park is one of the most compelling, detailing the many aspects of a critical campaign waged here on a 200-foot bluff about the Mississippi River beginning in 1862. Whether a visitor dwells over many of its 1,300 statues, buildings, and markers, or just stops occasionally for more intensive scrutiny of its highlights, there are rewards aplenty. Military strategy and historical figure buffs get plenty of juice during the tour but even the uninitiated are transformed into another historical reality.
Union president Abraham Lincoln and his Confederate counterpart, Jefferson Davis, were of the same mind on the importance of Vicksburg, Bob Zeller wrote in Hallowed Ground Magazine in 2013. (Zeller, co-founder and president of The Center for Civil War Photograph, has written or contributed to eight books on the Civil War.)
“Here is the Red River, which will supply the Confederates with cattle and corn to feed their armies,” Zeller quotes Lincoln as saying during a November 1861 with some senators and military personnel. “There are the Arkansas and White Rivers, which can supply cattle and hogs by the thousands. From Vicksburg, these supplies can be distributed by rail all over the Confederacy. Then there is that great depot of supplies on the Yazoo. Let us get Vicksburg and all that country is ours. The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket. I am acquainted with that region and know what I am talking about, and valuable as New Orleans will be to us, Vicksburg will be more so. We may take all the northern ports of the Confederacy, and they can still defy us from Vicksburg.”
Zeller also quotes Confederate President Jefferson Davis as saying. “Vicksburg is the nail head that holds the South’s two halves together … the Gibraltar of the West.”
Vicksburg’s tall bluffs and hills protected it from the raging waters of a flooding Mississippi. A local newspaper editor once described it as a “city of a hundred hills,” and its Civil-War-era residents usually spoke of going “up” or “down” to visit neighbors. In addition to providing a tremendous natural defense, it offered a myriad of spots from where Confederate troops could bombard the Union vessels deployed in the rivers about it.
Enriching The Drive
Some pre-visit National Parks site reading and a driving-tour CD of the Park (sold at the main office, an informative bargain) prove especially valuable, as the running narrative, with built-in directed stops for get-out-of-car-and-explore moments, allows the imagination to recreate places and moments critical to immersion into the history here.
- The man leading the defense of Vicksburg was not of the south at all. John C. Pemberton, a West Point-trained engineer and native Pennsylvanian, chose to fight for the Confederacy in deference to his Southern-born wife.
- Understanding the heavy fire that Brig. Gen. John Thayer’s men faced while trying to storm a Confederate-held hill is more vivid as we walk through the six-foot deep trench they dug under the road at Thayer’s Approach to provide cover from Confederate fire.
- At first blush, it is unconceivable that all of the devastation here occurred on such a tree-dotted canvass. Indeed, that was not the case: The upper terrain at the time of the siege was virtually treeless. Most ridge tops had been cleared for farming and roads prior to the war, and the remaining forests cleared for use in building the defenses around Vicksburg once the conflict started. (The trees now present in the park are the result of erosion-prevention measures taken by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.)
- Gen. William T. Sherman ordered an assault against the high ground of Chickasaw Bluffs north of the town early in the campaign, which brought nearly 1,800 Union casualties, compared to just more than 200 Confederate ones. Those losses, as well as the strong Confederate defensive position, prompted Grant to devise a siege plan designed to cut off the town from all supply (the plan that is still studied today as a classic example of how to conduct siege warfare). Reinforced to more than 70,000 strong, the Union forces for weeks dug zig-and-zag trenches to escape the aim of Confederate snipers while working steadily closer to Pemberton’s positions.
- Inside Vicksburg, civilians seeking shelter from cannon shelves huddled in hot, air-deprived caves. As food supplies dwindled week by week, horses, dogs, cats, and reportedly even rats became part of the diet for soldiers and civilians alike. Union troops were generally able to retreat into shaded areas for rest, where they enjoyed able supplies. Cut off from re-supply, Confederate troops had little shelter from the sun and eventually fed on mule meat and a tawdry staple of pea bread, a basic grounding of peas into a powder, mixed with water and salt to form a bread with a rock-hard exterior and mushy flavorless interior.
- The rose bush-splashed grounds of the Shirley House, the only surviving wartime structure in the Park, seems oddly out of place among the monuments here. The soldiers dubbed the structure the White House; it served as headquarters for the 45th Illinois infantry, who members dug hundreds of shelters around it to protect themselves from Confederate artillery fire. Mrs. Shirley, who had refused to leave her home, found herself between the two opposing forces at the outset of battle. She hung a white flag in the window but she and her son were quickly escorted to a ravine below her house, where they lived in a cave.
- There is a reason the granite-and-marble Illinois Memorial in the Park, as the state had by far the most Union soldiers involved in the campaign. The Illinois State Commission that oversaw the project mandated that no device indicative of war appear on the monument. Dedicated in 1906, the memorial walls bear 60 bronze tablets with the names of all 36,325 Illinois soldiers who participated in the Vicksburg Campaign, arranged by regiment.
Describing the Terror
A portion of a May 31, 1863, letter from Minnesota unit combatant William G. Christie, written to his father, James, illustrates the fury played out here (letters from the Minnesota Historical Society collection include misspellings that occurred in original documents).
I will try in this letter, to describe one of the Grandest sights, I ever saw.
This morning at three o’clock, the Batteries of Gen. Grant’s Army at his Place, oppened at once on the doommed city of Vicksburgh, And the effects of such a sight allmost defies description. The line extends some eight miles round the Beseiged town. There is Artillery enough on this line to shoot from one to the other.
Now just stand with me on the Point where our Battery is Placed, and see the vivid flashes of the Guns, like lightining, and the showers of shell, as they made there quick curves through the air, hissing and hurtling, and finnally explodding with a report almost as loud as the Gun. The air waved like the sea, and vibratted with a horse murmuring sound, while the valleys were filled with the loud thundering sound of the detonation of the firing of the motors Boats, on the River and the flash of there shots, were seen on the Backgroun exactly like lightening,
But still there is one phase of the scene I have not spoken of and that is the Burning of the fuse, in each shell, while they are going through the air. The fuse burns, with a blue light, and looks to say the least very Devilish.
A Costly Terror
Standing in silence next to the line of cannons at the De Golyer Battery, named in honor of Capt. Samuel De Golyer, who lost his life here while directing the 12th Michigan battery, the sheer volume of the terror unleashed at its ongoing target, the Great Redoubt on the hill above (a redoubt is an enclosed square or rectangular earthwork with four fronts and four angles).
Before Pembleton rode out to work out a surrender to Grant on July 3, 1863, the battle for Vicksburg imposed some excruciating damage: Of the about 110, 000 forces involved (77,000 Union and 33,000 Confederates), the Union forces reported 806 soldiers killed, 3,940 wounded, and 164 missing or captured, while the Confederate troops lost 805, had 1,938 wounded and 29,620 missing or captured.
The 116-acre Vicksburg National Cemetery contains the remains of 17,000 Civil War Union soldiers, a number unmatched by any other national cemetery. Seventy-five percent of the dead are listed as unknowns. Rounded, upright headstones mark the graves of the known soldiers, while small, square blocks, etched with a grave number only, designate the burials of the unknowns.
Confederate dead from the Vicksburg campaign, originally buried behind Confederate lines, were later re-interred in the Vicksburg City Cemetery (Cedar Hill Cemetery), in an area called “Soldiers’ Rest.” About 5,000 Confederates, of which 1,600 are identified, have been re-buried there.
Each state that supplied forces to the campaign was given opportunity to make its own memorial to the men who fought here. Unlike many of the southern states that suffered from crippled economies for years after the war concluded, their Union counterparts soon enacted monuments. In 1903, Massachusetts was the first state to erect a memorial to its soldiers. The styles of the various monuments differ because many were not installed until much later.
The National Cemetery System, enacted in 1862, decreed that “…the soldiers who shall die in the service of this country…” (which, at the time, meant those in the Union Army) could be in its cemeteries. In 1873, Congress extended the right of burial in National Cemeteries to all honorably discharged Union Civil War veterans. Confederate veterans became eligible for interment in National Cemeteries only if they later served the United States in the Indian Wars or Spanish-American War. There are some exceptions, which include Confederate prisoners interred in Arlington National Cemetery (originally given civilian burials), and three Confederate soldiers known to have been mistakenly buried in Vicksburg National Cemetery in the 1860s.
The cemetery also accommodated local veterans of the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, and the Korean conflict before being closed to interments in 1961.
Pemberton officially surrendered to Grant July 4. It was an excruciating day for the suffering people of Vicksburg. The city would not celebrate the Fourth of July as a holiday again until well into the 20th century.
Standing on the hills here on lazy afternoon, the only sounds hints of the outside world faintly making their way from surrounding highways, the aura of loss rides on the buffeting breeze. This is not a place for celebrating, but honoring.
For more information, visit Vicksburg National Military Park.