Tuesday, November 12, 2013


Entering the Military Park
It was obvious to both sides early on in the Civil War that control of the Mississippi River was going to be essential. And controlling the Mississippi River largely meant controlling New Orleans and Vicksburg. The union was able to send the Navy in to take New Orleans in 1861 but Vicksburg was a somewhat tougher nut to crack. Several frontal assaults failed as the city was located at the top of several sets of bluffs and held superior position against any attackers. A hairpin turn in the Mississippi River right in front of the city gave the Confederate artillery lots of time to site in on any river traffic so the cannons on the heights could pretty easily blow apart any ships coming up or down the river. This problem was lessened by the production of ironclad gunboats specifically designed for river warfare. Then, in late 1862, the task of taking Vicksburg was given to a fiery young general named Ulysses S Grant.

The campaign for Vicksburg took over six months and is much too long a story to go through here, but the short (and not particularly accurate) version is that after throwing his troops against the Vicksburg fortifications
US Grant
a few times to no avail, Grant finally surrounded the city, cut off all of its supply lines and waited them out. The siege lasted for 47 days with daily pounding of the city from both gunboats and land-based artillery platforms. Grant was losing patience and had prepared for another all-out assault on July 6, but on July 4 Confederate Gen. Pemberton, realizing that no help was going to be forthcoming and with the city's population reduced to bidding for rats to put in the dinner pot, preempted Grant's attack and surrendered. On the previous day, Robert E Lee had suffered a significant setback in a little Pennsylvania town known as Gettysburg. The rest of the war would just be mop up operations.

The Vicksburg Battlefield National Military Park is a 6 mile arc around the city where the two armies faced each other for six weeks. Civil War units were recruited locally from specific states and counties and each little patch of ground around Vicksburg was the responsibility of a specific unit from a specific area. After the war, every town in Indiana and Ohio and Illinois had to put up a monument to the bravery of their local boys. States put up bigger monuments and many individual families paid to plant some marble for their individual fallen heros. The result was that at one time there were over 1800 stone monuments at Vicksburg. Over the years, about a quarter of them have disappeared through theft, neglect and vandalism leaving around 1300 at this stage. That is a lot of monuments. When you take the driving tour, they seem pretty cool for the first couple miles. They become less interesting as you proceed and by the end of the tour you never want to see another piece of marble as long as you live. In between the monuments there is a lot of woodland and you can imagine soldiers crouching behind trees taking potshots at each other. But the fact is that every tree within a 10 mile radius had been stripped to make fortifications and to burn for fuel. In 1863 the two armies were facing each other across a completely barren wasteland.

In December of 1862, one of the Union's ironclad gunboats, the USS Cairo, patrolling the Yazoo River north of Vicksburg struck a mine and settled to the bottom where it was eventually covered in silt and thereby preserved. After a diligent search with metal detectors, the gunboat was rediscovered in 1956.
Remains of the USS Cairo
The plan was to raise the ship intact however the wooden hull was so soft that the cables they were trying to lift it with cut through the wood and the ship eventually had to be recovered in three sections. These were carefully restored and in the 1970s transported to the Vicksburg Military Park where the remains of the Cairo are currently displayed under a tensioned fabric covering to try and protect it from the miserable southern weather. During the recovery, they were able to salvage a (excuse the expression) boatload of artifacts, many of which are displayed in the associated USS Cairo Museum. The armor plating and cannon are very well preserved, the wooden parts of the structure less so and significantly deteriorating after being exposed for 40 years. It is certainly one of the most interesting parts of visiting the park.
A boatload of artifacts
While in Vicksburg we took the opportunity to eat at the world-famous Walnut Hills Restaurant (you know that they are world-famous because they tell you so right on their website) where they make the best fried chicken on the planet. This is actually the third place that we have eaten the best fried chicken on the planet. The first, you will recall, was at the Kurtz Restaurant in Bardstown Kentucky. In Memphis we ate at Gus's World-Famous Fried Chicken on Front Street which is also reputed to have the world's best. It was quite a bit spicier than the Bardstown chicken and I really liked it. Gus's is a real dive where they only do one thing, but they do it really well. If you don't want fried chicken, you gotta find another place to eat.

On the porch of the Walnut Hills Restaurant
The Walnut Hills restaurant is quite a bit more upscale. It is situated in a 100-year-old house in the downtown area where you sit at a nice table with a white tablecloth and choose from a relatively extensive menu. But if you are just passing through and are only going to eat there once, forget the menu, have the fried chicken. It is not as hot as Gus's but is well seasoned, juicy and delicious. The restaurant is supposed to be very busy in the evenings but we happened to be there in the midafternoon and essentially had the place to ourselves. If you're ever in Vicksburg, don't miss it.

1 comment:

  1. Very nice job on the park! Really like your post! We were there in the spring or summer and walked through the areas. Learned a lot about the battle. I always heard it was an important one but never took the time to find out why.