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"Vicksburg is the key to end the Civil War in the United States of America," concluded Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States. Anyone interested in understanding the North/South dichotomy that lingers in the United States will wish to visit this place during the sesquicentennial commemoration of that formative event.


One hundred and fifty years ago on April 12, 1860 the United States experienced the beginning of the bloodiest and most heartbreaking event in its history. It was the American Civil War, a fratricidal conflict where friends were to fight friends, and brothers were to fight brothers over a period of four long years.

Even though the northern states, known as the Federalists, appeared the likely victors with three times the men plus superior weaponry, both sides were killing men by the hundreds of thousands, and the dreadful conflict continued with no end in sight as the burial mounds grew.

Barely more than a generation had passed since the new nation of the United States of America had been born through the hard thought battle of ideas and the genius of a handful of men who put forth the concept that all men are created equal. Furthermore, they should have the right to liberty and to seek happiness in this life according to their own desires.

Then something began brewing in the southern states. While doing enormously well for themselves, a group of successful slave-owning cotton plantation masters in those southern states eyed the situation from their cat-bird seats and decided on a radical course of action. The best thing for them they reckoned would be to make their position of wealth and power permanent by seceding from the United States and pulling together southern states to create the most powerful pro slavery nation in the world--governed by themselves. This notion of separation to benefit the few could not be tolerated by those who were striving for a more perfect union. The Confederates never dreamed the north would fight them over this bold and totally arrogant idea. They were wrong.

Two years into the war, President Abraham Lincoln, ordered his commanding General Ulysses S. Grant to take control of the Mississippi River, a tactical position he felt was crucial to winning the war. It was concluded that the campaign must be centered on the town of Vicksburg, Mississippi, pivotal in controlling the gateway for transporting much-needed supplies to the southern states of the Confederacy. President Lincoln concluded that, Vicksburg would be the key to ending the Civil War in the United States of America.
Sitting atop high bluffs leading down to the water's edge, Vicksburg was known as the Gibraltar of the West, and the job of taking it would be considerable. The campaign lasted a year.

Eventually, Vicksburg was surrounded, and a concentrated 47-day battle ensued. After the battle of Champions Hill, perhaps the bloodiest battle of the war, Vicksburg lost all hope of sustaining its stronghold and fell to the Federalists army of the North on July 4, 1863. The war continued, but without renewable supplies the soldiers of the Confederacy would have even less weaponry, clothes and food. It was only a matter of time before General Robert E. Lee of the Confederacy decided that losing more lives for this war was pointless,. He sent word to General Grant to accept his surrender.



The Civil War that tore the United States apart lasted between 1860 and 1865 while both sides battled each other with a kind of courage and determination difficult to imagine. After the terrible loss of more than 600,000 lives and the surrender of the Confederate General Robert E. Lee, the political idea of an undemocratic slave state had been soundly defeated, the slaves were free, and the battered United States began its slow and painful mending process. This very freedom for the enslaved black people was likely the beginning of years of positive progression leading in 2009 to the inauguration of Barack Obama as 44th president of the United States.



Exploring Vicksburg:



Vicksburg today is a quiet, charming, southern town where a visitor would find it difficult to imagine the conflict that took place on its gently rolling green hills. Most of its countryside is virtually unchanged since the conflict, uninterrupted by High-rise apartments, or shopping malls. However, the echoes are still there. The original unpaved country roads where horse-drawn wagons rattled back and forth to small yeoman farmsteads are there, as well as the sad ruins of once beautiful and grand Ante Bellum homes caught in the conflict and destroyed. The story of the war is there, spread out in front of you as a virtual living history book. And the tell-tale relics like the lead balls fired from soldier’s muskets as they shot back and forth at each other are discovered without much difficulty resting where they fell on the ground those many years ago among the dried leaves of Dogwood, Ash and Live Oak trees.

As you walk the streets of Vicksburg today, you will be walking where a battle took place. It seems that no part of the area was spared. Some of the large lovely homes served as hospitals for Federal and Confederate soldiers, or to house Federal officers. During the war, the Vicksburg women had to be tough and resourceful. They guarded their homes, tended the fields, and protected their children while on the verge of starvation. Many of these women, left alone to manage and take care of their homes during the war, fled to live in caves.




The Old Court House:

Situated on a pleasant street lined on both sides with Mulberry trees exuding their sweet aroma is the oldest historic building in Vicksburg. It is the Old Court House Museum built in 1858. It smells wonderfully of generations of waxed wood floors and scented dry flowers as do so many well-loved old buildings. On one side of the room you'll notice four rows of comfortable rocking chairs that were provided for the jurors as they listened to lawyers deliberate. No stiff-backed seats for them. Besides, airy rocking chairs were much cooler on a sweltering, southern, summer afternoon, and no doubt there were palm hand fans provided as well.
Up a flight up creaking wooden stairs with its original ornate iron banister, are several rooms full of artifacts and relics of the area from pre-Columbian times to present day.

In the month of April, there is an organized tour that winds its way through some of Vicksburg's historic homes with interpretive presentations of its early society and history and stories that tell of antebellum grandeur followed by the siege of Vicksburg. They call it "Weaving the Tapestry of Vicksburg."



RiverFest


Also taking place every year in the downtown area during the month of April is RiverFest. This a lively time on Washington Street with blocks of river artisans displaying local handmade arts and crafts, live bands, street entertainment with jugglers and clowns, a variety of ethnic foods, and a lively GospelFest. There are activities for the kids, and the new children's playground and fountain are only a stones throw away. However, save your strength for after sundown when the pace picks up and "the revelers start to jump, and pound the bricks."



The Birthplace of Coca Cola:



Perhaps it's time for a cool drink. Take a walk down Washington Street to the Biedenharn Coca Cola Museum. In1894 this is the where Joseph Biedenharn, a candy merchant and soda fountain operator, was struck with a brilliant idea. He took the Coca Cola beverage he was serving at the fountain, put it in bottles and began delivering the drink around the countryside--and the rest is history. The museum is small but packed with Coca Cola memorabilia. Biedenharn's soda fountain is there, and you can order a bottle of coke, or other Coca Cola drinks including a Coke Float, popular in the forties and fifties. For those too young to remember this cooling summer afternoon treat, a Coke Float is a cola with a large dollop of ice cream floating on top.



Coffee and Biscuits:



Next door to Biedenharn's is the Attic Gallery. Downstairs is a coffee shop looking very much like a 60's meeting place for young hippies. Upstairs is an artist's gallery with an amazing collection of diverse art. The shop abounds with pottery, jewelry, sculpture, paintings of all kinds, and some interesting pieces one could use in voodoo ceremonies. A few steps down from Coca Cola, is "Yesterday's Children", a toy and doll museum; and the Corner Store is a real find for those who collect Civil War artifacts.

Walk down a block on the way to the Mississippi River, and you will pass the old National Biscuit Company building, now Monsour's at the Biscuit Company restaurant. Ask for a table upstairs so you can watch the best show in town. That would be a spectacular flaming sunset disappearing into the Mississippi River




The "Wall of Murals" and Catfish Row:



Along the flood wall on Levee Street, is the famous "Wall of Murals" with thirty two paintings by artist Robert Dafford depicting points of historic interest about Vicksburg. Across the street is Children's Art Park at Catfish Row, with its cooling splash fountain. Turn around and you will be headed in the right direction to step aboard an old time paddle boat where you may gamble the night away.



Vicksburg National Military Park:



Even though the total of Vicksburg is a living museum, the Vicksburg National Military Park Commemorates the Campaign, siege and defense of Vicksburg. There are over 1,340 monuments, a restored gunboat, "The Cairo", and National Cemetery highlighting the 16 mile tour. The gunboat Cairo, a Union ironclad sunk in the muddy waters of the Yazoo River rested there for 102 years with its entire inventory fairly much intact until dug up in 1964. In the museum across from the boat, you will see the collection from the boat. There is a chance that General Grant (impersonator Larry Clowers) will be at the main building of the Military Museum to fill you in on some of his strategic ploys in the war or regale you with true stories about Mrs. Grant.

The Union siege lines and Confederate defensive lines were marked during the first part of the 20th century by many of the veterans who fought at Vicksburg. Because of this, the National Military Park is the one of the most accurately marked Military parks in the world.




Camels in the Military?



Would you believe that camels took part in the Civil War? If so, you may have heard about Douglas the camel mascot. The use of camels in the military is quite natural if you think about it. Vast numbers of horses and mules died from dehydration during the war, and camels could manage during the heat of battle with very little water. Both sides owned specific animals they thought represented loyalty or bravery to accompany them in the field. Some mascots went into battle with the soldiers, while others stayed safely behind the lines.

Well, Old Douglas belonged to the 43rd Mississippi, carrying the regimental band instruments. No one knows for certain how he died, but one tale tells us that Douglas was shot by a Union sharpshooter and that Union soldiers carved him up and ate him. The other story is that he was buried with honors along side his soldier keeper for he was brave and true.



Birth of the Blues:

Now about the sound of Vicksburg that resonates around the world. "The Blues" began in the rich Mississippi Delta region where black slaves would sing away their despair or sing and chant stories of daily life while picking cotton in the field or digging trenches in the infamous chain gangs. There didn't have to be special lyrics, just words that fit the moment. When they weren't singing spirituals in church, they were singing the Blues at night at the local Juke Joints accompanied by a guitar, strumming a washboard or plucking strings stretched the length of an old broomstick handle.


Shown above are B.B.King, Willie Dixon and John Lee Hooker, three giants of the Blues. King and Dixon were born in Vicksburg along with many other Mississippians who sang the Blues "to give their heart ease." B.B.King says, "Everything I'm connected with--life itself-- is the Blues. The Blues are the three L's, living, loving, and (hopefully) laughing." Singing was the way of communicating their life experiences, mirroring the lives of the people who came to hear them sing.


Willie Dixon says, "The Blues don't have to be sad. They can be happy as well as sad." Much of the Blues are bawdy and sassy and irreverent, and all give you something that nothing else can.



You don't have to be an historian to appreciate what happened in Vicksburg during the Civil War, especially when there are experts at hand to guide you along the way. Besides the battles, there are many other stories they will tell you. Many tell of friendships formed as enemies met one another in times of a lull in the conflict of violence. Some tell of soldiers singing old commonly known songs of loneliness and family back and forth across a river from each other as they rested at night by campfires. That is the Vicksburg of yesterday. Now all of its people together are actively shaping the Vicksburg of today.


Click on the photo to view "Why Vicksburg" film...


PHOTO CREDITS:

Vicksburg Chamber of Commerce, Mary Ashcraft, Wikimedia Commons

"Why Vicksburg" film courtesy of VicksburgCVB / www.visitvicksburg.com







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