As a big history buff with an interest in the Civil War, I wanted to see Vicksburg, Mississippi that played such an important part in that conflict. But even if you are not a fan of history, like my wife who joined me, there are reasons to visit this city on the shores of the Mississippi River. But let’s talk history first…
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At the beginning of the Civil War, General-in-Chief of the U.S. forces Winfield Scott, made a plan called the Anaconda Plan. It called for blockading Confederate ports and advancing down the Mississippi River to cut the South in two. The Navy made good progress in blockading the ports, but 2 years after the start of the war, the Union seemed no closer to clearing the Mississippi because there was one barrier left, Vicksburg.
Even today, Vicksburg sits on high ground next to the Mississippi River. Well technically, now much of the downtown is along the Yazoo River. One day in 1876, the residents of the city woke to discover that the river had cut a new channel which left the city high and dry. In 1862 and 1863 the Union Army had tried unsuccessfully to do the same thing, that the river eventually accomplished on its own, by building a canal to bypass Vicksburg. Ironically it was again the U.S. army in the shape of the Corps of Engineers that restored the waterfront of Vicksburg in 1903 by redirecting the course of the Yazoo River.
You can learn about the campaign to take Vicksburg at the visitor center of the Vicksburg National Military Park. Take the time to see the movie that describes the campaign which was probably one of the boldest campaigns made by Ulysses S. Grant during the war as he marched away from his supply lines. This would give General Sherman some big ideas that led to his eventual march from Atlanta to the sea later in the war.
The road from the visitor’s center loops along the old Union lines and then continues back along the Confederate lines.
The battlefield today contains a number of monuments to the various men and units that fought here. The monument built by the state of Illinois to the 36,325 Illinois soldiers who participated in the Vicksburg Campaign is particularly elaborate. It has 47 steps for the 47 days of the siege of Vicksburg and brass plaques naming every soldier from Illinois who fought here. The monument cost $194,423.92 to build in 1906 which was 20 percent of the state’s budget.
In an interesting side note, we learned from Bill Seratt, who is the Executive Director of Visit Vicksburg, one of the soldiers in the 95th Illinois whose name is on the 60 bronze plaques in the monument was later determined to be a woman who fought through the Civil War disguised as a man. Jennie Hodgers, aka Private Albert Cashier, was charged much later in life with defrauding the government in order to receive a pension but Jennie’s/Albert’s comrades in the 95th Illinois rallied around to the defense of this small but brave soldier.
One of the highlights of the Vicksburg National Military Park is the USS Cairo Gunboat and Museum. The USS Cairo (pronounced KAY-ROW after the Illinois City) was sunk during the battle for Vicksburg. It was actually the first ship in history to be sunk by an electrically detonated torpedo (mine).
The ship was one of a fleet of U.S. Navy gunboats built to navigate the often shallow waterways of the Mississippi River. The ship was an ironclad, that is to say, it was a wooden ship clad with iron armor. It is one of those transitional ships between a wooden navy and a steel one. The ship lay buried by mud and silt until it was raised in the mid-1960s. I had often read about these boats and how they were used in battles from Shiloh to Vicksburg but it was fascinating to see the remains of one. Take time to visit the small museum where many of the items found in the Cairo are on display.
The U.S. Army has still not left Vicksburg although their presence is much more welcome these days. The Army Corps of Engineers has a major presence in the area where they work on flood control and the navigation of the Mississippi. The Lower Mississippi River Museum is a small but interesting museum that explains some of this work.
Among other things, the museum documents some of the major floods that have hit the Mississippi River basin over the years. For instance, the worst modern flood was the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 which left 27,000 square miles of the U.S. underwater up to a depth of 30 feet. In response to the flood, Congress passed the Flood Control Act of 1928 which created the Mississippi River Commission which to this day works to prevent similar disasters. From 1932 to 1946 the Corp took out some of the curves of the river and ended up shortening the Mississippi by 25% between Memphis, Tennessee, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. This aids navigation but also makes the water flow more quickly to the Gulf of Mexico to prevent floods.
You can create your own flood of a model town and you can also visit the boat that was the previous floating headquarters of the Mississippi River Commission. We enjoyed the scavenger hunt for different things on the boat and kids of all ages should also enjoy it.
We enjoyed a quick visit to the museum in the Old Court House in Vicksburg which pre-dates the Civil War. The museum has a surprisingly large collection of artifacts from local life in Vicksburg. It also has a somewhat more Southern approach to the history of the Civil War. Many of the references to the Union forces are shorthanded as “Yankees” and the Civil War is often referred to as the “War Between the States”. At least they did not use the term “War of Northern Aggression”.
There was also one room upstairs which told at some length the story of Jefferson Davis. During the time when Davis served in the U.S. Congress (both the House and the Senate) and was the Secretary of War, his primary residence was Brierfield Plantation just south of Vicksburg. So while many in the U.S. remember Davis only as the president of the Confederacy, Vicksburg has fonder memories of this native son of the South. We learn that his slaves thought him a fine man and that he even taught some of them to read (ignoring the fact that he ran a country where such an action was illegal).
We peeked in the windows of the Biedenharn Coca-Cola Museum but it was closed on Sunday which was the main day for our visit. This museum is closed in the building where Coca-Cola was first bottled. When it was introduced Coke was originally only available at the soda counter, but here in Vicksburg, the Biedenharn family created the legacy of selling the beverage in bottles. This museum contains the history of the family and the process. It also has a reproduction of the equipment first used for bottling as well as displays about Coke advertising and memorabilia.
The Old Depot Museum
The museum in Vicksburg’s old train depot by the waterfront was also closed during our visit. The museum has dioramas of the siege of Vicksburg as well as a collection of railroad memorabilia, model trains and model military, and river ships.
The Vicksburg Tourism Board put us up in the historic Bazsinsky House (see reviews) which is across the street from the Old Court House. The Bazsinsky house was completed in 1861, just two years before the siege of the city.
The house is in what now looks like a nice neighborhood, but according to co-owner Andrew Dawson, the neighborhood had its share of drug dealers and prostitutes when he and his partner bought the house a decade ago. Vicksburg has the air of a city on the rise to me. It lost many historic houses not to the Yankees but to white flight late last century. But now there are lines at a couple of great restaurants downtown with more restaurants scheduled to open.
Dawson seems more interested in art and neighborhood renewal than in just making a profit from the Bazsinsky House. They only rent out a couple of rooms in the large house, with the downstairs overflowing with parlors (which are rented out for events) and a personal collection of artwork.
Dawson lays out a breakfast spread as if he were hosting royalty. If you say at the Bazsinsky House, get some time to sit down with Dawson and talk about the history of the city he has adopted as well as the history of the Bazsinsky family, founded a Jewish Prussian immigrant who made his fortune hauling fresh seafood by wagon.
The rooms rent for $115 a night without breakfast or $140 a night with breakfast. The breakfast is worth it!
If a historic B&B is not your style or budget there are a number of other hotels or Airbnbs near the downtown.
Vicksburg has seen better days but it has also seen much much worse. It is a city worth visiting today and will be an even better place to visit in the future… especially if you value history.
Check out more of my pictures from Vicksburg