On a recent cross-country road trip we stopped for the night in Vicksburg, Mississippi. The next morning we woke up and set off to explore Vicksburg National Military Park. And, although we love National Parks, we had never been to a National Military Park.
This park is on the site of a major battle during the U.S. Civil War. It was here that the Union and Confederate armies converged to battle for control of the Mississippi River.
We started at the Visitor Center, where we watched an informative video that helped us understand the conflict that happened on this land so many years ago. There was also an informative exhibit with an interactive map that fascinated the kids. After picking up our junior ranger booklets and stamping our passports, we grabbed a map of 16 mile tour road.
The road winds through the park, first down the Union siege lines and then back down the Confederate defensive lines. There are over 3,000 markers indicating the places where various regiments were posted and monuments honoring the fallen from the states who sent men and boys to fight. Because the park was established on February 21, 1899, many of the veterans who fought in the 47-day battle returned to Vicksburg to identify the location of their positions.
Since Vicksburg is a driving tour, you can pull your car over on the side of the one-way road and explore any part of the park that strikes your fancy. There are several monuments and statues that, while lovely from the road, are stunning up close.
As you drive through the park, there are designated and numbered tour stops. You can read about the importance of these locations on your map, or you can use your phone to call a number and hear an audio guide give insights and information on the monument you are viewing. (Although the Visitor Center sells a CD tour to play in your car and gives you the opportunity to hire a tour guide to ride in your vehicle with you, we found the call-in audio tour was perfect for our kids.)
At the end of the Union side, before you begin to follow the Confederate defensive line, you have the opportunity to stop and see another treasure. The U.S.S. Cairo was one of several ironclad gunboats that carried 13 cannons down the Mississippi River in attempt to divide the Confederacy in two. On the morning of December 12, 1862, the Cairo was hit by a torpedo while sailing down the Yazoo River. It sank completely in under 12 minutes.
In 1960, the resting place of the Cairo was discovered beneath the water and silt that had preserved it, perfectly intact, for almost 100 years. It was eventually cut into three pieces and brought to the surface. After it was cleaned, reassembled, and braced, it finally found a permanent home at Vicksburg in 1977.
Continuing on the tour of the park, the route now takes you down the Confederate side. It becomes easy to see the great task the Union army had, trying to ascend the natural landscape to the Confederate positions during the heat and humidity of a Mississippi summer, while wearing their wool, long-sleeved uniforms. Our kids, wearing shorts yet still sweating during our July visit, were able to empathize in some small way with these men who felt so strongly about their beliefs that they were willing to endure the heat and the terrain to fight for their ideals.
It also became clear just how close the fighting became. Throughout the park, blue signs indicated the position of the Union front line and red signs showed the location of the Confederates. There were several places in the park where these signs were back to back, showing the close proximity of the soldiers to each other.
After we finished our drive through the park, the kids were sworn in as Junior Park Rangers and we were even able to catch a demonstration of a cannon being fired by park rangers in period costumes. It wasn’t until I saw the smoke that lingered in the ravine after the cannon shot that I understood the term “fog of war”. Being in the place where it actually occurred, you can imagine the cannon smoke that must have seemed permanent as shot after shot was constantly fired across this area. These were young men – men with mothers, wives, and families praying for their safe return. These were men fighting their neighbors; brother against brother in the ugliest period of our nation’s history.
Touring these grounds was a sobering look at the reality that existed during the Civil War. Matt and I felt it, but more importantly, the kids did, too. We were able to have conversations about things that we would be willing to fight and die for; we talked about federal laws versus states’ rights; and then, they recounted the whole experience to their grandparents with the passion that I hope all our travels stir up in them. Even though we have studied the Civil War in school, learned the names of the generals and the positions of the two sides, it didn’t truly become real until this day in Vicksburg, Mississippi.