Freeway Free on the Mississippi: Tying up at Vickburg
I had never paid much attention to the Siege of Vicksburg in my readings about the Civil War. Of course, the victory at Vicksburg made Ulysses Grant a hero and set him up for Appomattox later, but the other great Union victory at Gettysburg overshadows what was happening at almost the same time at the other end of the Mason – Dixon line. The Battle of Gettysburg lasted only four days, the territory of the battles is compact, and there is a clear turning point, dramatically titled “the High Water Mark of the Confederacy”.
In contrast, the Seige of Vicksburg lasted seven weeks. There were a number of small, inconclusive battles which took place miles from Vicksburg in April and May which led up to the Seige. Grant finally won his victory by cutting off supplies to the town and bombarding it from both river and land. The Vicksburg National Military Park, like the Gettysburg National Military Park, surrounds its eponymus town on three sides, but the actual battlefields are miles away. Like Gettysburg, the Vicksburg NMP has monuments scattered about commemorating different states’ contribution to the battle, but they are much less numerous and massive than those at Gettysburg, as if the city was simply too exhausted to raise many tributes to the fallen. We are, after all, in Mississippi, on the losing side of the war. The two Civil War re-enactors who talked to us at the Park seemed ruefully anachronistic, as they were both at least forty years older than the soldiers whose roles they were playing
The Old Court House Museum in the center of town is small, intimate, and indomitably Southern. It includes battle flags from the Confederate Army, but few from the winning side. It includes donations of baby shoes and quilts and beaded purses from local ladies. It includes an un-abashed depiction of slavery which defends it as a humane and mutually beneficial relationship between master and slave. It includes an exhibit of china which is exactly like the set I inherited from my great-grandmother.
The walk down to the dock on a hot afternoon was a step back in time. As we left the historic district the sidewalks became more uneven, cracked, or non-existent. Black families sat on their front porches, lazily waving palm-leaf fans. Our tour boat waited for us on a nearly deserted quai, walled off from the town by a protective barrier which marked the height of historic floods. Vicksburg seems caught in a bubble of history, waiting for the past to come around again.