Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Vicksburg Is The Key

Vicksburg National Military Park

Gathering his Cabinet and military leaders to discuss strategies for winning the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln examined a map of the nation and placed his finger on Vicksburg, saying, "See what a lot of land these fellows hold, of which Vicksburg is the key.  The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket."

General Ulysses S. Grant, President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of Defense Edwin Stanton

Yesterday morning Tim and I left Foley, AL, bound for Vicksburg, MS, on the banks of the Mississippi River, the city called by Confederate President Jefferson Davis "the nail-head that held the South's two halves together."

We pulled our RV, the Dawntreader, into its spot at the Ameri-Star Casino's RV Park, grabbed some lunch and headed out the door to explore Vicksburg National Military Park, once a Confederate stronghold and now maintained by the National Park Service.

The 15 years we lived in Virginia turned us into Civil War buffs.  We've visited all the battlegrounds within a 90-mile radius of Washington, D.C. and hope to add more to our 'been there/done that' list.

The grandest monument of the 1,300 markers placed on the grounds of the Vicksburg Military Park is the Illinois Memorial.

From its doorway, one may view the hilly terrain of the battlefield

Its dome gives a window to the sky.

The Illinois Seal is the focal point of the rotunda's floor.

I was a history major in college.  Primary sources such as quotations and diaries are the tools a historian uses so bear with me as I list a few here.

The cantilever bridge that carries Interstate 20 over the Mississippi River at Vicksburg

Mid-nineteenth century biographer and newspaperman Lloyd Lewis called the Mississippi River the "spinal column of America...the symbol of geographic unity."  He added that the river could be considered "the trunk of the American tree, with limbs and branches reaching to the Alleghenies, the Canadian border, the Rocky Mountains."

To further employ that analogy, if the Mississippi River is like a tree, then its sap would be the agricultural produce that pooled down its trunk en route to markets overseas.  Terrence J. Winschel in his article, "The Fall of Vicksburg, published in Hallowed Ground Magazine in 2004, wrote, "Indeed, the silent water of the mighty river was the single most important economic feature of the continent, the very lifeblood of America."

A line of cannons arrayed in front of the park's Visitor Center

No wonder control of the Mississippi became a major objective of the Union and Confederate leaders who focused their military might on Vicksburg and brought war to the city, the "Gibraltar of the Confederacy," situated high on bluffs above the river. 

The park's statue of General Ulysses S. Grant

Union General Ulysses S. Grant, along with Major General William T. Sherman, made several unsuccessful attempts to possess the city before he conceived a brilliant plan to march his soldiers in a circuitous march south of the city for a surprise attack against the defensive lines of Confederate General John C. Pemberton.

Confederate General John C. Pemberton

The terrain surrounding Vicksburg favored the Confederates who held the high ground and repulsed the Union attacks until finally Grant laid siege to the city, a siege that lasted 47-days.

The 47 steps to the top of the Illinois Memorial recall the 47 days of the siege.

Union gunboats continued to fire upon the city whose citizens moved into caves to try to escape the barrage.  "Terror strikes, we remained crouched in the cave, while shell after shell followed each other in quick succession," wrote Mary Loughborough in her diary. 

The park's Visitor Center has this representation of a citizen's cave.

Food supplies dwindled.  "Our provisions were becoming scarce," resident Lucy McRae wrote, "and Louisiana soldiers were eating rats as a delicacy, while mules were occasionally being carved up to appease the appetite."  

Battery De Golyer was the largest concentration of cannon in the Union's siege lines around Vicksburg.

Another citizen, Will Tunnard, stated, "It is a difficult matter for persons surrounded with abundance to realize the feeling produced by extreme hunger...It must be felt to be realized; and if once felt, the idea of eating dogs, cats, rats or even human flesh would contain nothing repulsive or repugnant to the feelings."

Pemberton's Headquarters near Vicksburg's historic downtown.

Finally, on July 4th, 1863, the same day the battle at Gettysburg ended, Pemberton surrendered the city.  Together, both battles are considered the turning point of the war.  

Vicksburg National Cemetery

That evening as Tim and I watched the sun set from the bluffs over the Mississippi, we tried to imagine the river as it had been during the siege.  Neither of us could not conceive the devastation the siege brought to this fair city, the city that was the key to winning the war.  



  1. You are getting to see some amazing places on your journey, Cindy. Of course, the sunset and the rolling green grass framed by the doorway spoke to me, but I enjoyed "visiting" this national park vicariously through your words and photos.

  2. We are so very grateful for this opportunity to travel! I'm glad you "came along for the ride!"