Remembering the Battle of Vicksburg 150 Years Later

June 11th, 2013 § 1 comment

Last year, I wrote two pieces on visits that I made with my father to the Battle of Shiloh and Battles of Ft. Henry and Ft. Donelson battlegrounds.  Although we have yet to visit the Battle of Stones River site yet (despite living only just over an hour’s drive west/northwest from Murfreesboro), we did make the trek this past weekend to the Battle/Siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi National Park.  Outside of Gettysburg (fought during the same early July 1863 timeframe as the final struggle at Vicksburg), the battle/siege of Vicksburg is perhaps the most singular turning point in the Civil War.  In fact, a case could be made that the loss of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863 (and Port Hudson in Louisiana five days later) did more damage to the Confederate cause than any single military event in the war.  There certainly are a lot of important developments that took place in Vicksburg:  one that particularly presages the devastation of World War I just over 50 years later was the early use of trench warfare.

There is a lot about the December 1862-July 1863 campaign that makes Vicksburg an appealing study for amateur and professional historians.  There are the technological feats of the Union army (and its failures), including the attempted diversion of the Mississippi River in order for Union gunboats and cargo ships to bypass one of the two remaining Confederate strongholds on the Mississippi River, in try to break through the defenses of a naturally fortified town that some then referred to as “The Gibraltar of the Mississippi”; the political maneuverings among the various generals on both sides; the foolhardy charges against redoubts that would put the Charge of the Light Brigade to shame; the trickery employed to get supplies to General Grant’s forces, including a dummy “ironclad” that led to the scuttling of an invaluable captured warship; and the rudimentary use of explosives in an attempt to breach the redoubts.  For those wanting to read more about these exciting events, William L. Shea & Terrence J. Winschel’s Vicksburg is the Key:  The Struggle for the Mississippi River, is the book I read on my way back from the battleground.  It manages to balance historical insight with a gripping narrative to create a non-fiction book that will appeal to both amateur and professional historians alike (or at least this former professional historian).

Below are some of the pictures that I took with my camera phone as my dad, middle brother, and I drove through the site.  I should note that I did not take many pictures of the individual monuments, as roughly 1300 memorial/monuments may be a bit overkill even for such an important battle:

The facade that greets visitors as they enter the military park.

The facade that greets visitors as they enter the military park.

Illinois Memorial from a distance.

Illinois Memorial from a distance.

Inside of the Illinois Memorial.  Footsteps echo as the open atrium magnifies all sounds, leading visitors to be solemn as they read the plaques of those who fought - and died - there from the state of Illinois.

Inside of the Illinois Memorial. Footsteps echo as the open atrium magnifies all sounds, leading visitors to be solemn as they read the plaques of those who fought – and died – there from the state of Illinois.

The Union campfield, just below the Shirley House, which was HQ during the siege.

The Union campfield, just below the Shirley House, which was HQ during the siege.  Notice the broken terrain.  Not pictured to the right are the slopes that led up to the Confederate redoubts.

The Pennsylvania Memorial.  If I understand my family history well enough, my maternal grandfather's family was from West Pennsylvania and some may have fought in the Civil War.

The Pennsylvania Memorial. If I understand my family history well enough, my maternal grandfather’s family was from West Pennsylvania and some may have fought in the Civil War.

The USS Cairo museum.  The Union gunboat that was sunk during the weeks leading up to the final battles was raised up and reconstructed.  Did not stop to tour it, however.

The USS Cairo museum. The Union gunboat that was sunk during the weeks leading up to the final battles was raised up and reconstructed. Did not stop to tour it, however.

Park sign that describes the importance of Vicksburg for the Confederates.

Park sign that describes the importance of Vicksburg for the Confederates.

View of the nearby Yazoo River just before it flows into the Mississippi.  Much of the earlier fighting took place in this region and this is what the Confederate forces under General John C. Pemberton would have been stationed in force.

View of the nearby Yazoo River just before it flows into the Mississippi. Much of the earlier fighting took place in this region and this is what the Confederate forces under General John C. Pemberton would have been stationed in force.

Park sign describing the Confederate defenses.

Park sign describing the Confederate defenses.

Back of the Tennessee Memorial.  Although I did not have any ancestors from Tennessee who fought here, I thought I'd include a picture of the memorial that my native state had placed in the military park.

Back of the Tennessee Memorial. Although I did not have any ancestors from Tennessee who fought here, I thought I’d include a picture of the memorial that my native state had placed in the military park.

Unfortunately, due to the nature of the roads and our desire to get back to our hotel, we were unable to get a good picture of the view of the slopes beneath the Confederate defenses.  But I will note that they were impressive to see, as envisioning Union soldiers charging upwards of 300 feet uphill in the midst of murderous Confederate fire evokes a plethora of emotions, including sadness that so many lives were wasted in such suicidal charges.  Those slopes might not have the immediate power of Shiloh’s Bloody Pond, but they certainly bring home to those who view them the devastation wrought during this war to determine whether certain states had the legal right to enslave other human beings (and a host of other issues).  It should be noted that there were several African American regiments that saw some fighting here, namely the 9th and 11th Louisiana Infantry and the 1st Mississippi Infantry, but that nearly 150 years after Confederate General John C. Pemberton surrendered his nearly 30,000 troops, there are still vociferous arguments regarding the role of African Americans in the fighting around the city.  But that is part of a complex local history that perhaps this native Tennessean should not touch with a ten-foot pole…ahh, forget it:  let’s just say there are still remnants of racial divides that I noticed in my brief time in the city, although nothing really overt as it likely was even a couple of decades ago.

But as a footnote, this trip also included a stop at the local Coca-Cola Museum.  In an odd twist of fate, the nephew of the surrendering general, also named John Pemberton, was the founder of Coca-Cola.  Turns out that for the first eight years, Coke was sold only as a fountain drink until a Vicksburg retailer, Joseph A. Biedenham, hit upon the idea of bottling it and selling it in the countryside.  Here are a few relevant photos for those interested in a history that doesn’t include as many dead people:

Description of the history of the first Coca-Cola bottling plant, established in Vicksburg in 1894.

Description of the history of the first Coca-Cola bottling plant, established in Vicksburg in 1894.

The first Coke bottles, developed in 1894.  The bottles were corked rather than capped.

The first Coke bottles, developed in 1894. The bottles were corked rather than capped.

Hope these pictures and brief descriptions were of interest to readers.  More later this year on other sites, once I get around to visiting the Stones River and maybe Lookout Mountain sites.

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