Visiting Vicksburg National Military Park
From the outset of the Civil War, both sides realized that control of the Mississippi River was essential to victory. The Union army and navy had success on the river in the first half of 1862, capturing Memphis, New Orleans, and the Confederate garrison at Island Number 10 near New Madrid, Missouri. But taking the fortifications at Vicksburg, Mississippi would prove to be a much bigger challenge for Major General Ulysses S. Grant.
Grant tried various approaches to get around Vicksburg from late 1862 until March 1863, none of which were successful. Finally, in April 1863, Grant marched his army south on the Louisiana side of the river while Union gunboats and transports steamed south past the Confederate batteries at Vicksburg. South of Vicksburg, the army met up with the navy and the soldiers embarked on transports, crossing over to the Mississippi shore. From there, the army marched northeast to Jackson, Mississippi, engaging in several battles along the way. From Jackson, the army marched west towards Vicksburg, engaging in an important battle at Champion Hill on May 16th that ended in a Confederate defeat. The Federals arrived at Vicksburg on May 19th.
Grant tried to take Vicksburg by assault on both the 19th and 22nd. Both attempts ended in failure. Grant then began siege operations that were ultimately successful. On July 4th, Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton surrendered his forces to Grant, and after the smaller Confederate garrison 100 or so miles south at Port Hudson, Louisiana surrendered on July 9th, the Union regained control of the Mississippi River and split the Confederacy in two.
Visiting Vicksburg National Military Park
As is the case with other National Park Service military parks and battlefields, the best place to begin a visit to Vicksburg is at the park’s visitor center. The visitor center has a film about the battle field, several exhibits, a bookstore, and knowledgeable people to answer questions. From there, take to the park road for a 15 stop 16 mile trip through the battlefield.
There are over 1350 monuments at Vicksburg, and they are everywhere, including some in areas outside of the National Military Park. Many of these are monuments to individual units for both sides, and were generally placed where that unit was positioned by veterans themselves. In addition, there is a large monument to the U.S. Navy, a monument to African American soldiers, and monuments honoring troops from individual states, some of which are quite large and
elaborate. Some of the Confederate state’s monuments are located outside of the park boundaries on appropriately enough, South Confederate Avenue. The Union state monuments are located within the National Military Park boundaries, although one is located across the river in a small detached site in Louisiana. Perhaps the most recognizable monument in the park is the large Illinois Memorial. For more on the Union state monuments, see my post here.
Most of the stops along the tour route are locations of significant fortifications and locations of the assaults of May 19th and 22nd. There is one building remaining on the site that was present during the siege. The large white Shirley House was a Union headquarters during the siege, and though damaged, it survived and is restored to its 1863 appearance. Considering
its proximity to the Confederate lines, it’s amazing it wasn’t destroyed by artillery fire during the six week siege.
One of the high points of a tour of the park is the U.S.S. Cairo Museum. The Cairo was one of seven City Class ironclad river gunboats that saw extensive service on the rivers in the war’s western theatre. On December 12th, 1862, the Cairo was operating on the Yazoo River about 13 miles north of Vicksburg when it was sunk by an electrically detonated mine (or torpedo as they were called at that time), the first ship to be sunk by such a weapon. In the 1960s, the ship was raised and the years long process of restoration began. In June of 1977, the restored vessel was placed on display in Vicksburg National Military Park. Cairo went down in a hurry, and although the crew all survived, most of their belongings went down with the ship. Many of these items were recovered and are on display in the museum next to the ship. For more on the Cairo, click here.
Near the Cairo is the Vicksburg National Cemetery, which contains the graves of almost 17,000 Union soldiers, plus the graves of other war veterans through the Korean War. The graves of many of the Confederate soldiers killed during the siege are in Cedar Hill Cemetery, located about a half mile outside the park on the north side of Vicksburg.
For more information, see the Vicksburg National Military Park Website.