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Thomas R. & Deborah A. Fletcher
"I like to start visitors through the Confederate Room, where we give a corrected view of the war," curator Gordon Cotton says, as we enter Vicksburg’s Old Courthouse Museum. The old courthouse sits atop a piece of Vicksburg’s highest ground, overlooking the Yazoo River Diversion and, in the distance, the mighty Mississippi River. The museum offers a rich display of historical artifacts, including a tattered Confederate flag that was never surrendered, antebellum clothing, and items of early Americana. It was the bell tower of the courthouse that saw the Union Stars and Stripes raised July 4, 1863, when the city surrendered after 47 hideous days of siege in the War between the States. It is this Civil War history that brings many. Perhaps they come for the history, and return for the charm. Such was the case with us.
The songbirds lift their voices, providing the scene-setting music for a delightful location. Spring represents an excellent time of year to see Vicksburg. Bird songs and an aromatic blend of flowery fragrance fills the air as the dogwood, azalea, and jasmine burst forth in bloom.
Vicksburg has had the flags of five countries fly over her: Spain, France, Great Britain, the Confederate States and the United States. She has been blessed with an unfortunate history. The siege of 1863 and the loss of the river in 1876, when the Mississippi decided to change its course and bypass the town (a tragedy for a town whose life was tied to the river), were traumatic events that forged the underlying character of the town one sees today. In 1903 river access was restored through the Army Corps of Engineers and the Yazoo River Diversion.
We found Southern hospitality is not an urban legend, but alive and well in Vicksburg. Untold folks of the town would offer a friendly wave or a warm "good morning," as we passed them on the street. Unusual, for a city of her size (just over 25,000).
Vicksburg’s geologically unexpected, hilly location on high bluffs overlooking a hairpin turn in the old Mississippi River led to her being referred to as "the Gibraltar of the Confederacy." Control of Vicksburg meant control of river traffic, thus making her capture one of the top Union objectives. Union forces under Ulysses S. Grant laid siege to the city in May 1863, when efforts to divert the river (and thus eliminate the problem) and two frontal attacks on Vicksburg failed. When Vicksburg surrendered July 4, 1863, Grant had met his objectives. Vicksburg was his. He had gained control of river traffic. He had divided the Confederacy.
Established by an act of Congress in 1899 Vicksburg National Military Park, tops the list of attractions. The park forms a half-moon around the northern and eastern city limits where the Confederate and Union battle lines formed. There are a total of 1,324 monuments within the park, honoring soldiers and the 28 states (11 Confederate and 17 Union) that sent troops to the battle. Thirty-four of those monuments are Tiffany bronze pieces, one reason the park is referred to "one of the finest art parks in the United States," according to licensed park guide Myra Logue. Monuments continue to be added.
The Illinois monument is the largest since that state sent the most troops. Forty-seven steps, one for each day of the siege, lead up to the impressive monument, with its 62 feet-high open-dome ceiling. Wisconsin’s monument is interesting, with the golden "Old Abe" topping it. "Old Abe" was the eagle mascot of the 8th Wisconsin Infantry Company C, and is said to have flown with the unit during 42 battles over a three-year period.
The USS Cairo, an ironclad Union river gunboat, was torpedoed and sank December 12, 1862 after less than 11 months of service. It was raised on 12 December 1964, 100 years to the day after her sinking and now sits on sheltered, static display in the park.
Vicksburg seems to be a Bed & Breakfast kind of town, featuring nearly 100 Bed & Breakfast rooms. B & B guests gain the insight of B &B owners and managers who are more than happy to share information on their town (places to dine, sites to see, recommended itineraries, etc.). The Garden District has the lion’s share of these charming establishments with 70 rooms available within the district. All are quite lovely. The Corners Mansion Bed and Breakfast was our place of stay. We found it quite cozy and the breakfasts are delicious.
Speaking of dining, a reasonably priced place to eat is The Biscuit Company. You have to try the fried dill pickles and one of their catfish specials. The fried dill pickles was a new one on us, and we found them quite tasty. Another down home place to try is Walnut Hills, specializing in Southern home cooked food. Cedar Grove offers what may be the most romantic setting for a quiet dinner. Romantic ambiance is enhanced by strains of live piano music and candlelight. However, we found the food no better than at The Biscuit Company (where the entrees are half the price, the portions larger, and one may order fried dill pickles–something not on Cedar Grove’s menu).
Vicksburg claims the first Coca-Cola bottling operation. Coca-Cola had been a fountain drink only, until 1894 when it was first bottled at the Biedenharn Candy Company, for distribution to the outlying regions. A tour of the Biedenharn Museum of Coca-Cola History and Memorabilia in the historic downtown district offers insight into how the soda was bottled and the impact that first bottling has had on the industry.
The Gray and Blue Museum (notice the word order–it’s a Southern thing), which started as a private collection, "offers the world’s largest collection of Civil War gunboat models," according to the brochure. The museum’s diorama of the siege of Vicksburg allows visitors to gain an overview of the battle lines and get a real feel for how the battles were fought. The museum is well worth the small admission price.
Housed in an 1836 building right next door is Yesterday’s Children Antique Doll and Toy Museum. Over one thousand dolls and toys are housed in the museum dating from the 1880's through the present, including a nice collection of Shirley Temple dolls. Some pretty pricey antique dolls are found in the gift shop ($2300 was a price we overheard as a visitor asked about one doll).
Great Animal Adventures Children’s Museum is rather unique in that it explores the relationship and benefits to human medical research discovered through veterinary science–not through animal experimentation. In seeking to find procedures to better cure and help animal afflictions, breakthroughs in human medical were discovered. Appropriately, the museum is housed in a building that once served as stables. Kids love this special museum designed for them. It is a place for children to play while becoming aware of how animals have aided human health. The entire facility may be rented for birthday parties or special occasions for a very reasonable price.
Vicksburg: brick streets, friendly people, resonating history, charm, and Southern hospitality–we can hardly wait for a return visit.
Text and Photos Copyright Thomas R. Fletcher / PROSE AND PHOTOS