After a delectable morning meal, the host at my bed and breakfast in Vicksburg, Mississippi, the Baer House Inn, provided an audio guide for me to borrow for my car when I told him I was on my way to Vicksburg National Military Park, just a 10-minute drive from downtown and its architectural treasures.
On my way there, I absorbed the background of what happened here in 1863. Vitally important Vicksburg, atop a bluff, became the site of one of the bloodiest (and one of the most decisive) battles in the internecine Civil War, with Union General Ulysses S. Grant eventually defeating Confederate Lieutenant General Pemberton on some absolutely suicidal terrain. The city suffered 47 days of siege (with citizens living in caves at one point) and eventually surrendered on July 4.
Established in 1899 to commemorate the siege and defense of Vicksburg, the park today encompasses nearly 2,000 peaceful acres. Walkers, joggers, hikers, and bicyclists will appreciate the morning and late-afternoon hours set aside specifically for them, when cars are banned from the roads that snake their way around the park. But if you’re in your vehicle, you’ll follow the one-way, 16-mile loop that hits many of its highlights, including battlefields, the only surviving wartime structure in the park, and some of the more than 1,400 monuments, tablets, and markers that have garnered the park the title “the largest outdoor art gallery in the world.”
I began at the Memorial Arch, a Georgia granite memorial dedicated “to the national reunion of Union and Confederate veterans of the Civil War, October 16–19, 1917.” One of the park’s defining characteristics is all those other monuments and memorials, and you’ll be stepping out of your car often to see them close-up. Their disparate sizes and forms—some classical, others modern; some small and simple, others large and grandiose—as well as the objects of their commemoration lend a wonderful variety, but they’re all thoughtful and visually appealing.
Among the individuals memorialized, I found the statues of Pemberton without any weapons, Grant mounted on his horse, and Confederate President Jefferson Davis clutching the flag. Lesser-known, but just as important, figures include U.S. Navy Admiral David Glasgow Farragut (of “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” fame) and Lieutenant General Stephen Lee, who went on to become the founding president of Mississippi State University. The nation’s first monument to African Americans who fought in the Civil War depicts three black men atop a base of black African granite—on the left, a Union soldier looks forward, toward the freedom that the war ushered in; on the right, a field hand looks back, at the decades of slavery about to come to an end. Both support the figure between them, a wounded Union soldier, symbolizing the sacrifices made by African Americans during the war.
The state memorials impressed me even more. Nearly every state that participated in the Civil War (Delaware, Maine, New Jersey, and Vermont seem to be missing) is represented with a monument, the sole exception being Ohio, which chose to erect 39 smaller monuments, one for each of the units that participated in the Vicksburg Campaign.
The monuments for the other 29 states are remarkably varied in form. Alabama’s, for instance, comprises a sculptural group of seven soldiers being inspired by a woman representing the state, while the simpler memorial for Arkansas portrays the United States and the Civil War as a tower of marble split down the middle by a sword.
Kansas’ monument is newer (1960) and very simple—three interconnected circles, one atop another: the bottom circle represents a united United States before the war; the center circle, broken, signifies a divided country; and the top reconnected circle acknowledges the country’s reunification. Louisiana and New York also contributed simple monuments, the former with an 81-foot Doric column topped by a granite brazier with an eternal flame, the latter with a 43-foot obelisk.
Illinois and Iowa can claim the grandest of all the state monuments. A wide staircase of 47 steps at Illinois’ monument leads up to a temple based on Rome’s Pantheon, topped by a bronze eagle. Inside, bronze tablets list the names of all 36,325 soldiers from Illinois who fought at Vicksburg. The semicircular white-granite monument for Iowa features Doric columns and six bronze relief panels of battles.
In many ways, Kentucky’s monument best summarizes the entire war. Bronze statues of Union President Abraham Lincoln and Confederate President Jefferson Davis stand facing each other, hats off. In this confrontation between dueling leaders, it’s important to note that both men were native Kentuckians—a microcosm of the war itself and how one can easily divide into two. In this split between north and south, with states rapidly falling in line to support one side or the other, Kentucky provided the sole exception at the start of the war by abstaining and declaring its neutrality.
This balance between Yanks and the Rebels found throughout the park comes to an abrupt end at the somber 116-acre Vicksburg National Cemetery, definitely a one-sided affair. As the final resting place of 17,000 Union soldiers (13,000 of whom are unknown), it’s the largest Union cemetery in the United States. Slightly rounded, upright headstones mark the graves of those identified; all the unknowns are remembered only by small, white square blocks, etched with a grave number. Look hard and you’ll find one oddity and two exceptions: Doug the camel is buried here (the military was experimenting with employing camels in battle in the same capacity as horses) as well as only two Confederate soldiers, whose tombstones are pointed, unlike the Union soldiers’ rounded tops. Since the War Between the States, however, the cemetery has become more equitable, open to service members from all states who died in the Mexican-American War, Spanish-American war, both world wars, and the Korean War. The last burials were held in 1961.
Way up in the northwest corner of the park, I emerged from my car to take in another of the park’s major attractions—the USS Cairo Museum. The Cairo was one of seven ironclad gunboats that the Union hoped would help it regain the lower Mississippi River and split the Confederacy in two. Commissioned in 1862 and mounted with 13 cannons, the Cairo saw little action until her bitter end, when, later that year, it came under fire. Torpedoes ripped huge holes in the hull, and the Cairo sank within 12 minutes, with no loss of life, in the Yazoo River, becoming the first ship ever to be sunk by an electrically detonated torpedo. Forgotten for a century, the Cairo was raised in 1964 and now forms the fascinating heart of the museum, which also displays a bonanza of weapons and personal gear of the sailors who served on board.
As you motor around the park, you’ll be driving through the grassy hills, dales, trenches, and valleys where 3,202 Confederate soldiers were killed, wounded, or went missing. Staggering though that figure is, the number of casualties suffered by the Union on its way to victory exceeds it: 4,559 killed, wounded, or missing. By the time the smoke cleared, nearly 30,000 Confederate soldiers surrendered in the battle that changed the course of the war.
Now, in this quiet and tranquil setting, the carnage that occurred here is impalpable, even though the cannons beside me hinted at the massacres that had transpired before me. In a United States that is growing ever more fractured in just about every conceivable way, this is a highly appropriate and significant place to remind us why united we stand, divided we fall.