During the War for Southern Independence, maintaining control of the Mississippi River was an absolute must for the Confederacy to survive. Likewise for Ulysses S. Grant, commander of U.S. armies in the West, it was imperative to keep the Confederates from being able to ship supplies up and down the river. After Memphis and New Orleans had been captured, only one major obstacle stood in Grant’s way: Vicksburg, the Gibraltar of the Mississippi.
For 2 years, this important port high on the Mississippi’s bluffs had been impenetrable. Now that Memphis and New Orleans were in Union hands, Vicksburg became a prized target. Grant and Admirals David Farragut and David Dixon Porter concentrated every resource they had upon its capture. It proved to be a daunting task. They began shelling the town on March 31, 1863, and did not capture it until July 4. While General Meade was turning Lee’s forces away at Gettysburg, Grant had opened up the Mississippi River completely to Union control. In the process, he had cut off Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas from the rest of the Confederacy; he had cut the Confederacy’s lifeline. Although not as well known, the victory won that day at Vicksburg was probably more important to the outcome of the war than was the battle of Gettysburg. Because of this success, Lincoln appointed Grant as commander of the Army of the Potomac. Lee would soon meet his match and the war would be over in less than 2 years.
Today, Vicksburg National Military Park stands as a memorial to the brave men and women (Confederate and Union) who withstood the 47-day Siege of Vicksburg. Upon entering the park, you will be charged $4/car admission fee. Your first stop here is the visitor center, which gives you a good orientation of the battlefield and lots of background information on the history of the battle. A short film about the battle is shown, and several exhibits are on display. They also have a gift shop, which includes postcards, books, and other souvenir items. You can also purchase a $5 tape here, which guides you on your auto-tour of the battleground. The tape was very informative, but I often found myself getting ahead of the narrator, despite the fact that I was only going 25mph, as it suggested.
As you leave the visitor center, you will drive through the Memorial Arch and proceed into the area of the Union battle lines. Because this area was the Union position, many memorials erected by Northern states are located along the route here. The Shirley House, known to Union troops as the "White House," was occupied by the 45th Illinois Infantry. It was not opened when we were there. Just past here is a very impressive domed structure with four large columns and a bronze eagle perched atop a gable. This is the Illinois monument.
The area that served as Grant’s headquarters is marked by a life-sized statue of the general. Once you pass this area, you begin to travel toward the river. At one place in this wooded area, we could see a trailer park through the woods. Although it probably cannot be see in the summer months when leaves are on the trees, it seems the National Park Service was not able to totally salvage the battlefield from all development. Near the river is the USS Cairo Museum. This museum is dedicated to a Union ironclad, which sank in the river. It was closed at that time due to renovations.
Just past the USS Cairo Museum is the Vicksburg National Cemetery. 17,000 Union soldiers from the Siege of Vicksburg, along with 13,000 more from later wars are buried here. Once you have passed the National Cemetery, you begin to enter the Confederate portion of the battlefield. Now, you will see memorials from Confederate states to honor their heroes. Several earthworks and fortifications constructed by Confederate forces are located along this route as well. Near the Great Redoubt, a Confederate earthwork, a monument marks the spot where John C. Pemberton surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant. Pemberton could no longer watch the suffering of his troops and the citizens of Vicksburg, who had been cut off from the rest of the world for 47 days. We found some tables, near a statue of Jefferson Davis, to have a picnic on. Shortly after this, the road brings you back to the Visitors Center and you are done with the tour.
Give yourself plenty of time to see everything there is to offer here. We got out of the car and read most of the historic markers and looked around. It took us about 2.5 hours to go all the way around the loop. For more information, visit www.nps.gov/vick.