Grand Gulf and Port Gibson keep memories of the Union general alive.
By Gerald C. & Sharon L. Hammon, F275831
We’re not sure what caught our attention first: the statement that the Grand Gulf Military Park museum was, according to Reader’s Digest, one of the best small museums in the country, or the fact that we could stay in an RV park right there on the site. That it was also a Civil War battlefield sure didn’t hurt. In any event, we found ourselves winding down a tree lined road to the military park. It was a good decision.
Grand Gulf, Mississippi, was a town you could only term star-crossed. Its location alongside the Mississippi River guaranteed it a share of the thriving river trade and early on, its population climbed to about 1,000. A yellow fever outbreak in 1843 was the first harbinger of ill fortune. Next came an 1853 tornado. They hadn’t much more than rebuilt when the Mississippi River changed course, and eventually carried off 55 square blocks of Grand Gulf right into the Gulf of Mexico. There were only 163 residents left there when General Ulysses S. Grant and the Union Army showed up.
Grant’s Failure And Success
In 1863 the Confederacy was locked in a do-or-die struggle to maintain its foothold on the Mississippi at Vicksburg, about 30 miles north of Grand Gulf. Union General Grant was just as determined to capture Vicksburg. The stakes were high. If he succeeded, the Confederacy would be split in half. The river, long the lifeline of midwestern farmers, would once again be open to commerce.
After several unsuccessful attempts to take Vicksburg from the north, Grant led his army past the citadel on the opposite side of the river, intending to cross back over the Mississippi and attack Vicksburg from the south and east. His choice for a crossing point was Grand Gulf. After washing away the commercial heart of Grand Gulf in the 1850s, the river ran along the base of the high bluffs where the cemetery was located. (It has since shifted course away from the bluffs.)
Unfortunately for Grant, the Confederates had mounted cannons on the bluffs behind massive earthworks. Ironclad gunboats attached to Grant’s army successfully ran past the Vicksburg guns and proceeded to attack the batteries at Grand Gulf. The vessels mounted 81 guns. The Confederates had eight. The attack went on and on but the gunboats could not put the well-protected Confederate batteries out of action. At last Grant acknowledged his troops could never cross there, and called off the attack.
With Grant’s retreat, Grand Gulf faded from history. Grant’s army found a place farther downstream that was unprotected, crossed with his army, and set out north. He didn’t even bother to attack the fortifications at Grand Gulf. The Confederate troops took their guns and headed toward Vicksburg where they could do some good. The town’s population dwindled to almost nothing.
Preserving The Past
Grand Gulf Military Park, opened in 1962, protects the gun emplacements and preserves the rich history of the area. The museum that drew us there fulfilled its promise. In a relatively small space, the museum has assembled a substantial collection of weapons, shells, and uniforms (including some still stained with blood), as well as diagrams of the attack on Grand Gulf. The exhibit that impressed us the most was a rocking chair made by a Union veteran of the Vicksburg campaign and given to a Confederate veteran of the same campaign when they became friends. The chair has embroidered on the seat and the back maps of the movements of the two armies. It is, simply put, an incredible exhibit.
Not everything in the museum is geared to the Civil War. The outdoor exhibits range from a whiskey still in rather forlorn condition to a one-man submarine originally powered by a Model T engine that was used to ferry bootleg whiskey to Vicksburg, and a lovely 1868 Roman Catholic church that once stood in the ghost town of Rodney. A carriage house holds several exquisite wagons, including an authentic Civil War ambulance wagon and two ornate horse-drawn hearses.
The cemetery near the top of the ridge bears poignant reminders of the many tragedies that befell Grand Gulf. Among the headstones are the graves of two African-American Union army soldiers who had been part of a detachment of troops eventually sent there to occupy the gun emplacements. Grave markers for a man killed by the tornado and a man who died of yellow fever are side by side. Along the rear of the cemetery are trenches dug to hold Confederate infantry. The trenches must have done their job and protected them well, since the Confederates had only three killed and 15 wounded by the Union gunboat attack. According to park literature, you can get a great view of the river and surrounding country from the lookout tower near the cemetery, but we elected not to climb it.
While staying at Grand Gulf, we encountered Ulysses S. Grant again at the little town of Port Gibson, a few miles inland from the park. After crossing the Mississippi River, Grant and his army headed north, unopposed until he reached Port Gibson. There a sharp firefight developed, but the Confederates were too weak to stop the Union troops. By 1863 any chivalry or compassion of one side for the other had been lost, and the question was put to the General whether they shouldn’t just burn Port Gibson to the ground. Grant’s apparent response was that the town was too pretty to burn.
Given that incentive, we knew we had to spend some time in Port Gibson. It’s probably the only town in Mississippi if not in the entire former Confederacy to use a quote from one of the most hated men in their history as the town’s motto: “The Town Too Pretty To Burn.” As you enter the town, you’ll find the advertisement prominently displayed.
Port Gibson has several impressive homes that date back to Grant’s visit and before. Even more impressive for us were the churches. U.S. 61, the main highway between Vicksburg and Natchez, becomes Church Street in Port Gibson and as you pass church after church, you can understand why. The most unique has to be the Presbyterian Church, built in 1859 and visible from many vantage points throughout the town. Its steeple is topped by a huge golden hand with its index finger pointing up toward heaven. The church literature admits that the original hand was made out of wood, and the local woodpeckers loved it. After they had nearly demolished the original, the church leaders opted for a metal replacement. Inside, the sanctuary is lit by chandeliers that once graced the famed steamboat Robert E. Lee, which was often portrayed racing the steamboat Natchez in 1870 up the Mississippi, with flames, sparks, and smoke pouring from their respective stacks. A portrait of the famous general himself on horseback can be seen at the center of the chandeliers. Fortunately, the church is open to visitors most days.
Other architectural gems include the 1884 Episcopal church, designed by a New Englander. Its design apparently won few friends. One person wrote that it was more appropriate to a New England town than Port Gibson. The Roman Catholic church, built in 1849, was supposed to be open, but never was when we were there. It meant we did not get to see the beautifully carved altar rail dividing the chancel from the nave, reputedly carved by a teenaged boy, or experience the blue tint the light inside takes from the stained glass windows. If you find the church open, a visit would seem well worthwhile.
One of the most famous antebellum homes in the area is now composed solely of 23 towering Greek-style columns. When General Grant’s troops passed, Windsor was the largest Greek Revival mansion in the state of Mississippi. As was the case with Port Gibson, Grant was persuaded not to burn the place, but in 1890, a careless guest left a lighted cigar on a balcony, which ignited carpenter shavings, and the house burned to the ground. Only the columns were left. They in turn became almost as famous as the house had been, and have been used in several movies. The ruins of Windsor are approximately 12 miles from Port Gibson on Rodney Road (State Route 522). The only depiction of the home before it burned was a rough drawing made by a Union soldier during the Civil War.
A Fine RV Park
The RV park at Grand Gulf Military Park was a real winner, in our opinion. It is built on two levels; the lower, set in a small canyon, is for larger motorhomes, and the upper, on the bluff, has smaller sites and a steep access road, but a better view. Sites, at least in the lower section, have full hookups and would handle up to a 40-foot coach. And the price was right when we were there. Recent checks on the park Web site stated the rate as $16 per night.
If you are traveling along the Natchez Trace, the RV park at Grand Gulf Military Park makes a convenient place to stop for a night or three. There is no interstate nearby with the constant noise of 18-wheelers, and the Kansas City Southern Railroad train does not come by at 3:30 a.m. You will have plenty of peace and quiet. We were there for a week and enjoyed every minute of it. We ended up using it as our base to explore not only Grand Gulf and Port Gibson, but also Vicksburg and Natchez.
We will caution you that we missed seeing the RV park, which is visible from the road, and then roared right on by the entrance to the military park 100 yards beyond; it also serves as the entrance for the RV Park. The road deteriorates rapidly beyond the park and we had an adventure getting our 35-foot motorhome turned around. We then found that park staff had seen us go by and had run out, trying to stop us. As long as you don’t have tunnel vision like we did and miss the RV park, you will do just fine.
In the final analysis, we didn’t run into many people who named their boys Ulysses, but by and large, the old hostilities have long since disappeared. The park staff at Grand Gulf was wonderful and the folks we met in Port Gibson seemed happy with their relationship with the general who invaded their territory. If you are a Civil War buff, you will find plenty of history here. But even if you couldn’t give a hoot about old battlefields or the Civil War, this is still a pleasant place to get a glimpse of a way of life that isn’t visible in most of Mississippi, or anywhere else for that matter.
Grand Gulf Military Park
12006 Grant Gulf Road
Port Gibson, MS 39150
The campground has 42 full-hookup concrete sites with 30/50 amp electric. It is open year-round, and the museum and site is open daily year-round, except for major holidays.
To get there, from U.S. 61 or the Natchez Trace, we recommend taking Grand Gulf Road, which turns off Highway 61 north of Port Gibson. It is well signed. Anthony Street out of Port Gibson also goes to Grand Gulf but is signed “No Trucks” and has a series of speed bumps near two schools that will rearrange your dishes and glassware. Grand Gulf Road is not a high speed road and at first, you may worry about tree limbs. We found that the trucks that service a nearby nuclear electric generating plant took care of anything that might affect an RV.
Grand Gulf is composed of the military park, a few homes, and nothing else. There is no shopping or fuel there. As our Mississippi guidebook said, it doesn’t even merit its own ZIP code! But Port Gibson is only a few miles away, with two grocery stores and most businesses you’ll need.
Port Gibson Chamber of Commerce
P.O. Box 491
Port Gibson, MS 39150
The visitors center, located at the south end of town on Church Street, is open seven days a week except for December and January, when it is open five days a week. Hours are 8:00 to 4:00 p.m. Monday through Friday, 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Saturday, and noon to 4:00 p.m. on Sunday.
From here, you may like to visit Vicksburg National Military Park, 37 miles away from Port Gibson. Natchez and the southern end of the Natchez Trace is only 50 miles away. Natchez Trace construction at Natchez was completed in 2005.