Civil War stories, antebellum mansions, and historic museums acquaint visitors with Vicksburg, Mississippi.
By Pamela Selbert, F195400
We drove west toward Vicksburg, Mississippi, roughly following the route that Union General Ulysses S. Grant took during the Civil War as part of his unrelenting campaign to take the city on the hill. That last campaign was Grant’s eighth attempt to seize Vicksburg, known to Federal troops as the “Gibraltar of the Confederacy,” by river or by land.
Of course, traveling conditions were a little different than those encountered by the Federal troops. General Grant’s army came through in late spring, a steamy time in Mississippi, carving its own route and cutting trees for a corduroy road over which to haul a cannon and a wagon train of supplies. We sped along Interstate 20 on an early March day, when the air was still a bit chilly. But regardless of when you visit Vicksburg, you’ll find that you’ll leave with plenty of memories.
Vicksburg, population 26,400, is perched on the bluffs that overlook the Mississippi River. The town was founded in 1811; eight years later, it was given the name of Vicksburg.
Early in 1861, Mississippi became the second state to secede from the Union. Vicksburg was in a strategic spot, and immediately took on a new importance. It was the largest city in Mississippi at the time, with a population of 5,000. Federal occupation there would sever Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana from the rest of the Confederacy and end Southern control of the Mississippi River. President Abraham Lincoln had said, “See what a lot of land these fellows hold, of which Vicksburg is the key …. 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.”
Students of the Civil War usually examine the tactics Grant used to take the pivotal city, which for two years had seemed virtually impregnable, as well as the heroic efforts of its 37,000 defenders, both military and civilian.
Vicksburg National Military Park, located on the northern edge of town, is a must-see for anyone visiting the area, Civil War enthusiast or not. Stop first at the visitors center to watch an 18-minute video that explains the campaign and siege of Vicksburg, and pick up the self-guided tour brochure of the battlefield, which includes numbered stops along the way. The 16-mile round-trip tour passes 1,325 historic monuments and markers. Depending on your pace, it can take an hour, or all day.
Of the 34 states at the time of the Civil War, 28 had troops stationed in Vicksburg. Most state monuments are imposing, but perhaps the most so is the white marble, Pantheon-style Illinois state Memorial. Forty-seven steps, one for each day of the siege, lead up to it. Located inside the echoing rotunda are bronze tablets bearing the names of all 36,325 Illinois men who fought there.
After a series of amphibious and land assaults in 1862 and early 1863 had failed to take the city, General Grant reluctantly began formal siege operations in the spring of 1863. Batteries of artillery were set up to hammer Confederate fortifications on land, while Admiral David D. Porter’s gunboats cut off communications and blasted the town from the river. After a month, Confederate Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton knew it was only a matter of time before he must “capitulate upon the best attainable terms.”
On July 3, he met with Grant to discuss conditions. The Union leader demanded unconditional surrender, but Pemberton refused. Later that afternoon Grant modified his demands, and offered acceptable terms. At 10:00 a.m. on July 4, 1863, Vicksburg was officially surrendered. (As one might expect, the town had little taste for Fourth of July celebrations for many years afterward.) Five days later, a few miles south, Port Hudson surrendered, and the Northern objective of the war in the West — opening the Mississippi River and severing the Confederacy — was realized.
In the early 1960s one of the Union ironclad gunboats, the U.S.S. Cairo, was salvaged from the nearby Yazoo River. Visitors to the national military park can see it under a giant protective shed. Nearby is a modern brick museum that houses many of the items that went down with the ironclad after it was hit by a torpedo. The museum is first-rate.
Also on the grounds is Vicksburg National Cemetery, which was established in 1866, a year after the Civil War ended. Approximately 17,000 Union soldiers are buried there; Confederate soldiers were interred elsewhere in town in the Soldier’s Rest section at the Cedar Hill Cemetery.
Vicksburg National Military Park’s visitors center is open daily from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and features a brief video presentation and a bookstore; the Cairo Museum is open from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. daily in the winter months (November through March) and opens at 9:30 a.m. from April through October. Admission is $5 per vehicle or $3 per person; children under 16 are admitted free. As with other national parks, admission is free with a National Parks Pass, Golden Age passport, or Golden Access passport.
Licensed park guides are available to ride along with you through the park for a two-hour tour; this is a popular service, and reservations are suggested. The fee is $25 per car (higher rates for multiple-passenger vehicles). Phone the Vicksburg Convention & Visitors Bureau for availability information and to reserve your own guided tour (800-221-3536). For more information about Vicksburg National Military Park, phone (601) 636-0583 or visit www.nps.gov/vick.
Vicksburg has much more to offer visitors than a look at its pivotal role in the war. But, for us, it’s the main attraction. Each visit to the battlefield yields some new insight into General Grant’s masterful campaign and a greater respect for his magnanimity in victory.
Aside from the national military park, the Old Court House Museum is the best place to begin learning about the town’s history. An array of rifles and muskets used during the war are displayed there, as are sabers, field glasses, stirrups, clothing, portraits, and more.
Artifacts from an earlier time, when American Indians called Mississippi home, also are on display. Arrowheads, pottery, and stone implements reflect the work of Choctaw, Natchez, Chickasaw, and other Indian tribes. Another display features a frontier kitchen with iron cooking implements.
As its name implies, this museum is located inside the town’s first courthouse, built in 1858. Local planter and eventual Confederate president Jefferson Davis launched his political career on the courthouse grounds. A host of other prominent Americans spoke there as well, including President Zachary Taylor; President Theodore Roosevelt; Confederate General Earl Van Dorn; and educator Booker T. Washington.
During the 1863 siege, Union prisoners were housed in the upstairs courtroom, and Confederate troops used the cupola as a signal station. The building served as a courthouse until 1939. The Old Court House Museum (1008 Cherry St., 601-636-0741; www.oldcourhouse.org) is open Monday through Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and Sundays from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. Admission is $3 for adults and $2 for students grades 1 through 12.
A short drive from the courthouse is another Civil War collection, the Gray & Blue Naval Museum. This facility emphasizes Civil War gunboats and naval engagements, and includes a large collection of artifacts. It’s a must-see for anyone interested in Grant’s Vicksburg-by-river campaign, for it houses the only diorama of the Seige of Vicksburg. The museum (1102 Washington St.; 601-638-6500) is open Monday through Saturday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.; admission is $2.50 for adults and $1.50 for children.
Dolls and toys from bygone days can be seen at Yesterday’s Children Antique Doll and Toy Museum, housed in a four-room 1836 building. More than 1,000 antique dolls make up the collection, dating from the 1880s to the present. Doll lovers will be enchanted. Especially pretty are the French and German bisque, china-head dolls.
All the dolls the museum displays were once owned by children, and most come with touching stories. Other items on display include antique teddy bears and children’s accessories. Yesterday’s Children Doll and Toy Museum (1104 Washington St.; 601-638-0650) is open Monday through Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Admission is $2 for adults and $1 for children under 12.
Across the street is the Biedenharn Museum of Coca-Cola History and Memorabilia, the restored 1890 building where Coca-Cola was first bottled in 1894 by candy merchant Joseph Biedenharn. The walls of the museum are bedecked with old Coca-cola ads exhorting, “Drink Cola-Cola — He’s coming home tomorrow,” “The drink they all expect,” and William Allen White’s assertion that “Coca-Cola is a sublimated essence of all that America stands for … a decent thing honestly made.”
The museum contains a 1900 soda fountain and a restored 1890 candy store. You can enjoy a cool fountain treat, pick up some candy, and choose from among Coca-Cola items for sale in the gift shop. The Biedenharn Coca-Cola Museum (1107 Washington St.; 601-638-6514) is open Monday through Saturday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. on Sunday. Admission is $2.25 for adults and $1.75 for children under 12.
A few doors south of there along Washington Street is the Corner Drugstore, which was purchased by Civil War re-enactor Joe Gerache in 1961. Gerache, a retired pharmacist, portrays a surgeon in re-enactments. For the most part, the store sells items one can find in any modern drugstore, but one wall is outfitted like an apothecary from Civil War days. On the day I visited, the owner donned his gray uniform with a green sash, which indicated he was with the medical corps, and talked about 19th-century medicine. For example, Mr. Gerache said that no one knew about antiseptics until 10 years after the Civil War ended. Approximately two-thirds of the soldiers who perished during the war died from infection and disease, not bullets.
No tour of Vicksburg would be complete without a look inside the city’s elegant antebellum mansions. So many are available, you could spend days seeing them all. You may wish to consider the following information, and then plan your visit accordingly.
The Martha Vick House was built circa 1830 for the unmarried daughter of town founder Newit Vick. The one-story brick home has been restored and is full of elegant 18th- and 19th-century antiques and a collection of French paintings. The mansion (1300 Grove St., 601-638-7036) is open for tours from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 1:00 to 5:00 p.m. on Sunday. Admission is $5 for adults and free for children under 12.
The 12,000-square-foot Duff Green Mansion (circa 1856) is considered one of Mississippi’s finest examples of Palladian architecture. Famous as the location for parties before the war, the mansion was used as a hospital for Union and Confederate soldiers during the Vicksburg siege. The mansion (1114 First East St., 800-992-0037, 601-636-6968) is open from 10:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. daily. Admission is $5 for adults, $4 for children under 12, and free for children 5 and under.
Duff Green and the nearby Greek Revival Anchuca home (circa 1830) both also now serve as bed-and-breakfast inns. Anchuca, which has been restored to its original opulence, displays numerous period antiques and artifacts. The mansion (1010 First East St.; 888-686-0111, 601-661-0111) is open for tours by appointment. Admission is $5 for adults and $3 for children under 12.
Other historic homes can help fill out your tour schedule. McRaven Tour Home (1445 Harrison St., 601-636-1663) is a two-story house built in three different time periods and architectural styles — 1797 Frontier, 1836 Empire, and 1849 Greek Revival — and elegantly furnished with period pieces. Three acres of gardens on the property once served as a Confederate campsite; today they are used for battle re-enactments. The home is open for tours from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $5 for adults, $4.50 for seniors, $3 for teens ages 12 to 18, and $2.50 for children ages 6 to 11.
The white-columned Cedar Grove Mansion-Inn (2200 Oak St., 800-862-1300, 601-636-1000; www.cedargroveinn.com) was built between 1840 and 1852. It sits on four acres with a stunning view of the Mississippi River and shares the land with formal gardens, gazebos, fountains, and shaded courtyards. The home is furnished mostly with original pieces, and a cannonball remains lodged in the parlor wall. Hourly tours of Cedar Grove are available between 9:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. (no noon tour). Visitors are invited to stay for live music and dinner, beginning at 6:00 p.m.
The Corners (601 Klein St.; 800-444-7421, 601-636-7421; www.thecorners.com) was built circa 1873 as a wedding gift for Susan Klein, the daughter of John A. Klein, who owned Cedar Grove. The one-story home combines Greek Revival and Italianate styles and features a wonderful 68-foot gallery across the front that affords visitors a wide view of the Mississippi River and Louisiana beyond. The Corners is open for tours between 9:30 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. daily. Admission is $5 for adults and $2 for children under 12.
Other historical residences include Annabelle, a Victorian Italianate home (circa 1868) that serves as a bed-and-breakfast inn; the Shlenker House, a National Register home built in the Prairie style around the beginning of the 20th century; and the more recent Stained Glass Manor-Oak Hall (circa 1902-1908), a fine example of Mission-style architecture. More information about these homes is available from the Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau.
For us, a national treasure such as Vicksburg is best summed up in the words of Union General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (hero of Little Round Top at Gettysburg): “In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass … but spirits linger to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls. And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream.”
Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau
P.O. Box 110
Vicksburg, MS 39181-0110
The following listing may not be complete, so check your favorite campground directory; FMC’s Business Service Directory, published in the January and June issues; or FMCA’s online Business Directory at www.fmca.com for more information.
Isle of Capri RV Park
Lucy Bryson Road
Vicksburg, MS 39180
Magnolia RV Park, C8106
211 Miller St.
Vicksburg, MS 39180
Clear Creek Campground
415 Tiffentown Road
Vicksburg, MS 39180