Southern Exposure

 

            In the sixth week of my tour in Leesville, LA, I was anxious to explore a bit more of this part of the country and decided to take a day trip up to Vicksburg, MS, sight of the famous Civil War siege. Along the way I thought that I might see a bit of the Old South.

 

            I started out from the Landmark Inn in Leesville a bit after ten on February 18 and pointed the Chevy Malibu east along the familiar state road 8 toward Alexandria through the slash pine forests that make up most of the landscape in central Louisiana. It was a beautiful sunny day I was happy to be spending this winter day in the South rather than, say, gloomy Seattle.

 

            Upon entering Alexandria and following the signs for LA 28 I found that this route allows one to see a good portion of the seamier side of the city but eventually I was deposited on LA 28 headed east through a variety of crawfish farms, cotton fields, and other forms of flat landscape. All along this road and then onto US 84 there are the ubiquitous small towns with their equally ubiquitous speed limits. 35, 25, 20 miles-per-hour and then the famous Louisiana 45 mph in the rural areas. This is not a state where good time can be made on the road. Well, not legally.

 

            Shortly before Natchez the road changes to four lanes and the speed limit becomes a respectable 65 mph until the town of Vidalia (not the town of onion fame; that’s in Georgia) looms up and then the big bridge over the Big Muddy. It’s a big river and it requires big bridges. This one is no exception and is of the truss form most commonly used to cross the river.

 

            The landscape on the Mississippi side of the river is dramatically different than that on the Louisiana side. Louisiana is basically … flat, but the Mississippi side is all bluffs and rolling hills.  Natchez appears to be a charming enough city of fairly good size with a skyline dominated by a church steeple. On the way out of Natchez the roads are agreeably well constructed with brown gravel shoulders and reasonable speed limits. I was to find this to be true of Mississippi roads in general. Not far past Washington I saw the signs for the Natchez Trace Parkway and decided to have a look.

 

            The parkway is a well-maintained two-lane blacktop road in western Mississippi that follows the route of the old Natchez Trace trail used to get through the western frontier to the Mississippi River. The speed limit is 45 mph but I imagine that is to allow the motorist ample time to enjoy the beauty of the road. It is quite nice but would probably look better with leaves on the trees.

 

            Soon after the start (end?) of the parkway there is a sign for the Emerald Mound. I suspected that this might be an Indian burial mound so I took the detour to have a look. Indeed it was. Unlike the serpentine mounds of the “mound builder” cultures that I was expecting, this was a tabular construction where the people had started with a natural hill and expanded and shaped it to their own purpose. Covering eight acres, this is the second largest mound in North America (the largest is in Illinois) and rises to an initial height of about fifteen feet with a secondary hill on the western end rising to about forty feet altogether. At the eastern end of the mound is another, smaller hill. Overall this is an impressive example of aboriginal construction. The top of the mound could easily contain a soccer pitch.  Even from the modest height of the mound a goodly amount of the countryside is visible.

 

            Heading toward Vicksburg US 61 rises and falls through the countryside as it traverses the rolling terrain. Along the way I saw a most amazing sight. Dead kudzu. The scourge of the South has apparently been tamed a bit and there are acres of kudzu skeleton covering the countryside. The plant may have been killed but it retains its grip on the land. I have wondered why no one made a B movie about this prolific plant.

 

            Located south of Vicksburg is the town of St. Joe. This town is regionally famous as the town “too pretty to burn” as stated on the sign at the town entrance. This is in reference to the decision of General Sherman not to burn the town as he first practiced his  concept of total warfare on his march south. Later in the war he practiced his refinements on Georgia. It is fortunate that the Yankees did not burn the town as it contains many gorgeous examples of antebellum architecture.

 

            The town of Vicksburg itself is surprisingly small given its historical significance. The commercial lifeblood of the town is centered on the Mississippi River, much as it always has been. After passing through the industrial areas of the south the first stop is the Visitors Center located hard by the I-20 bridge over the river. Here the strategic importance of the town becomes clear. The town is located on a bluff several hundred feet high that formed the eastern bank of the river in 1863. The river has since changed course and now only flows past the southern third of the town, although the Yazoo River has been diverted to take up the Mississippi’s old course.  The western bank in Louisiana is notable for its low and flat topography, a condition plentiful throughout the State.

 

            The interior of the Visitors Center is done in the style of the 19th century South and the effect is very genteel. There was a chamber group playing music of the time for the enjoyment of the visitors. After collecting the standard U.S. Park Service literature on the battlefield I set out to view the area of conflict.

 

            After a slow and winding drive through the city and the viewing of several interesting buildings I arrived at the entrance to the Vicksburg National Military Park. After paying the $4.00 entry fee I embarked on the 16 mile driving tour.

 

            The park is arranged such that the visitor first tours the Northern or besieging positions and then swings around to tour the Southern or defending positions. The terrain consists of short, steep hills and hollows with both sides taking advantage of terrain to hold their respective high ground. In many places the lines are only a few hundred yards apart. Curiously, many of the emplacements on both sides of the siege line appear to be aimed into thick forest. This anomaly is a result of CCC work in the 1930’s to stabilize the soil by planting trees. During the actual siege both sides had a clear view of the other. A placard at the end of the tour says as much and also notes that efforts are underway to restore the battlefield to its original configuration.

 

            Several points of the tour illustrate the difficulty of operating in the terrain, not to  mention the weather typical of the area in Spring and Summer when the siege took place. At several places troops hauled cannon up steep grades to new emplacements and at one place in the lines, at the site of Thayer’s Approach, the Union attempted to entrench themselves up a hill to the Confederate lines. Upon viewing this area, this approach doesn’t even look like a good idea, exposed as they were to grazing and enfilading fire. It is interesting to see the preserved trenches and to note the positions of Confederate and Union positions as indicated by blue and red indicators. At no time did the Union troops actually break through the Confederate lines, but in several places they came pretty close. One place that the Union didn’t even try to assault is the Fort Hill installation located on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi. From this place there is a commanding view of the river and all Union efforts to bombard this installation with the Navy were futile and expensive.

 

            One of the highlights of the tour occurs at the turn from Union to Confederate positions at the U.S.S. Cairo museum. Here are kept the preserved remains of the U.S.S. Cairo, the first ship ever sunk by a remote controlled mine. Part of the City class of river ironclads, this unfortunate ship and her sisters were tasked with bringing Vicksburg to her knees from the river. The Cairo was raised in the early 1960’s and a large number of artifacts were recovered from her. Currently she is kept together by a framework of glu-lam that “ghosts” the parts of the ship that were not recoverable. The damage from the mine is still visible on the port bow. Major parts of the ship that were recovered include a good part of the engine machinery and a fair amount of the iron plating. A surprising amount of the original framework was recovered and can be inspected. The artifacts recovered are on display in the museum building along with an overview of the ship class and ironclads in general. It is worth noting that the museum is built in the shape of a 19th century fort.

 

            Throughout the park 28 states have erected monuments to commemorate the contributions of the several units taking part in the siege. These are in addition to the hundreds of smaller monuments and markers that delineate various actions and individuals. The Illinois monument is probably the most striking with its circular, domed, structure fronted by a Greek revival portico. I noticed that someone had placed a Confederate battle flag next to the cannon at the Texas monument.

 

            The last part of the tour includes Fort Garrot, a square fort built by the Confederates and besieged by the Union. Here you can see a really well-preserved example of how sapper operations were conducted in the 19th century. In the field immediately in front of the fort are preserved trenches zig-zagging up to the fort proper. By the end of the siege the Union troops had entrenched to within ten feet of the fort walls.