The American Civil War can be a rather depressing subject matter. The war divided the country, pitched family members against each other, and produced the most casualties of any American war.
But, to National Park Ranger Andrew Miller, the Civil War offers lessons that are much more diverse than what we learn in school. He’s traveled the country working at national parks, but he’s been planted at Vicksburg National Military Park in Mississippi for the last two and a half years and his passion for the battlefield is evident.
“It really is an amazing place,” Miller says as he gives us a tour via blue tooth from his car to ours, since social distancing is in order. “There are many stories to explore, and you discover new ones every day. It’s an incredibly important place. There’s not a day I wake up and am not happy to go to work.”
In a nutshell, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant saw the capture of the Mississippi River as a way to cut the Confederacy in two, plus instrumental in transporting guns, ammunition and supplies.
“It’s (the river) basically the lifeblood of the United States for both North and South,” Miller explains.
In 1863, New Orleans has fallen, cities north of Vicksburg are under Union control and Natchez has acquiesced so all that’s left is the cosmopolitan city of Vicksburg and the fortification at Port Hudson downstream. Grant is on the west side of the river in Louisiana but enlists the U.S. Navy to move troops into Mississippi. He surrounds Vicksburg but faces Confederate guns where the battlefield exists today. From March 29 to July 4, 1863, Grant bombards the city until the Confederates surrender.
When Vicksburg falls, Port Hudson follows and the Mississippi is entirely under Union control, a turning part in the conflict.
Vicksburg was one of “the crucial battles of the Civil War,” Miller says.
But before your eyes start glazing over from too much military history, here are a few facts gleaned from our tour that make a trip to Vicksburg intensely interesting, not to mention a peaceful outdoors excursion.
Great Peace Jubilee
At the end of the 19th century, veterans on both sides of the Civil War petitioned the government to preserve the battlefields and Congress agreed, establishing sites at Chickamauga, Antietam, Chattanooga, Shiloh, Gettysburg and Vicksburg. In 1933, all six were transferred to the National Park System.
In addition, Congress appropriated $100,000 for the Great Peace Jubilee of 1917, a massive gathering of veterans at Vicksburg. With money left over, a memorial arch was created, a “personification of the reconciliation of the veterans of Vicksburg,” Miller says, and it stands today at the park entrance.
“This is what people see upon entering the park,” he says, “this remarkable memorial to reconciliation.”
Of Monuments & Men
The park contains more than 1,300 monuments and statues honoring those who fought and died here, many of which had conflicting loyalties. One such man is Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton, Confederate commander of the Army of Vicksburg. Pemberton hailed from Philadelphia and was trained at West Point and decorated for gallantry serving the United States in the Mexican War. When Southern states succeeded, he chose to fight for the Confederacy, mainly because his southern-born wife insisted he do so.
He wasn’t alone.
“Several of the Confederate military leaders were from the North but they married southern women who told them who they should fight for,” Miller says.
Pemberton surrendered on July 4, 1863, but served the remainder of the war as a lieutenant colonel of artillery, still loyal to the South.
The majority of men who served with Grant came from Illinois, so it’s no surprise that one of the largest monuments in the park is the Illinois Memorial perched high on a hill. Visitors can walk inside and read the names of troops, plus quotes from the “sons of Illinois.”
What’s unique about this memorial are the busts of Abraham Lincoln, Grant and Richard Yates.
“It’s ironic,” Miller says, “because all of those guys aren’t from Illinois.”
Animals in Battle
A female bald eagle sits atop the Wisconsin State Memorial to honor the mascot of the 8th Wisconsin Infantry. “Old Abe” was carried into battle at the top of a staff and would fly overhead screeching, much to the dismay of the opposing side. The bird returned to Wisconsin and sat upon a perch in the capital at Madison. Old Abe later became the screaming eagle icon on the patch of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division.
On the Confederate side, the Mississippi 43rd Infantry enlisted a camel named “Old Douglas” to their cause. The camel helped carry supplies and participated in the battles of Iuka and Corinth before being shot on June 27, 1863, in Vicksburg. The Union soldiers ate Old Douglas and Confederates shot the man who killed their beloved animal. Old Douglas is buried with honors at Cedar Hill Cemetery in Vicksburg.
Shirley House, A Reflection of Mixed Politics
Next to the Illinois Monument is the Shirley House, the sole surviving antebellum house within the park, Miller tells us. It’s also a great example of how the Civil War can’t be explained in simple terms.
James and Adeline Shirley lived in the white structure on a hill to escape the yellow fever that ravaged Vicksburg in summer, Miller explains. James Shirley was a northern-born judge and merchant and sided with the Union.
“They were died in the wool Wigs,” he says. “They were adamant Unionists. They were also slave owners. The Civil War is incredibly diverse…and the Shirley family is a good example of that.”
Albert was a Jennie
Woman were not allowed to fight in early American wars but many disguised themselves as men and took up arms. Albert Cashier was born Jennie Hodgers but kept that a secret as he fought as an infantryman in the Illinois 95th. (He spent his life as a man so we’ll use that pronoun here.) After the war was over, Cashier received a veteran’s pension, working various jobs and voting in elections. A car accident and a trip to the hospital revealed his gender. Regardless, most of his fellow soldiers supported him. After Cashier’s death in 1915, he was buried in full uniform and the tombstone carried his male name.
“She’s an iconic female soldier of the Civil War,” Miller says.
Brother vs. Brother
At one point in the Vicksburg battle, two Missouri troops, one Confederate and one Union, faced each other. Since a Missouri family had two sons enlisting on different sides of the war, one regiment called out to the other to see if his brother was on the other side. He was. The two embraced over a flag of truce.
“They were literally fighting each other at this place,” Miller says.
Some Other Unique Happenings…
Vicksburg existed at a hairpin turn in the Mississippi River, so Grant attempted to dig a canal to divert the river away from the city, giving him control of the Mississippi. The plan failed, but in 1876, one day before Grant’s birthday, the river switched courses on its own. Visitors to the park can view the original river pattern from Fort Hill, today a manmade diversion canal from the Yazoo River to connect Vicksburg to that elusive Mississippi.
A Confederate fortification existed within the park at Clay Street, the site of fierce fighting. A year after Vicksburg’s surrender, the Anshe Chesed Congregation purchased the property for a Jewish cemetery. Today, visitors can view the lovely old tombstones resting on a hill.
Come for History, Stay for Reflection
The Vicksburg National Military Park offers a varied dose of American history but the massive park also features large expansive fields, woods, hills and ravines, bayous and breathtaking overlooks of the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers and the flatlands that lie westward in Louisiana. It’s a remarkable place to enjoy the outdoors, but also to reflect on the importance of reunion and appeasement.
“This park allows us to work in reconciliation in the steps of the veterans,” Miller concludes. “We don’t take that lightly.”
This article was written by Cheré Coen, who writes about the unique and sometimes odd aspects of the South in her blog, Weird, Wacky & Wild South.
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