Thursday, August 9, 2012

Day 7: Vicksburg

Our day started with an unexpected but nice detour to the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site in Tuskegee, Alabama. Sadly, we didn't realize that we'd switched to Central Time, so instead of a short wait for the museum to open, we had to satisfy ourselves with reading the (quite good) interpretive signage and appreciating the view.

Moton Field, training ground for the Tuskegee Airmen
We arrived in Vicksburg in good time, and began in the Visitors' Center with a decent overview film of the campaign and siege. For the first time, I felt a bit uncomfortable as a Northerner, and disagreed with some of the characterizations in the film. In particular, the film seemed to paint Grant's repeated bloody attempts to take the city as a last-ditch effort to save his career, and talked repeatedly about the bravery of the Confederate defenders.

We then set out on a driving tour of the battlefield area itself, using for the first time a cell phone tour that was really quite good. At our first stop, a Park Ranger was waiting for visitors and gave us a great overview of the field from where we were standing. He explained that the unique qualities of the soil in the area made the incredible terrain features that we were seeing, and also made it a highly defensible position for the troops at Vicksburg. He also added quite a few things to our cell phone tour about the artillery tactics of both sides.

Our very patient and helpful Ranger pointing out a Confederate position across the way.
The tour itself took us about two hours, and was really quite fun. It was well laid-out in that it took us first along the line of Union emplacements, then along the Confederate line, so we were able to see the vantage points from both sides and appreciate how the ground made such a huge difference.

The Vicksburg National Military Park has recently embarked on a series of clear-cutting projects to make that ground even more obvious. During the siege, the vegetation would have been stripped bare; as the audio tour explained to us, the forest covering the hills was planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps, believing that it would help keep the land from eroding. Since then, the Park Service has discovered that grass is a more effective vegetation to keep the soil in place. In the first area of the battlefield, the clear-cutting was mostly complete, and it made a huge difference. In the second area, the project was still underway, and it was immediately obvious how much better it made the view and interpretation of the battlefield.

The results of the recent landscape preservation/clear-cutting.
Cutting back vegetation in some cases also revealed the remnants of the tunnels and earthworks dug out by Union soldiers as they made their way through the lines. The last bit of the tour included some remarkably well preserved remnants, such that from a certain vantage point you could see the zigzag of the tunnel as it approached the Confederate lines. Soldiers dug them in those meandering patterns to confuse Confederate sharpshooters.

Zigzag remnants of earthworks.
The last piece of the Vicksburg park (or rather, midway through the tour, but last thematically) was the restored USS Cairo, which is apparently pronounced like the city in Illinois, not like the city in Egypt. The ship itself, her timbers, and her conserved metal portions, was outside under a huge tent, and alongside the ship was a small museum with artifacts salvaged from the Mississippi. The Cairo was sunk even before the siege properly started, and her crew evacuated to land with several of their guns and proceeded to set up shop as if they were still on the ship while taking their place in the Union artillery line. Apparently they cleaned off the emplacements each day as if they were swabbing the deck, kept to the bells system of timing, and were a great source of amusement for the regular army men.

The USS Cairo and her museum.
That night, we visited the other side of Vicksburg. After the Mississippi river shifted its course in a flood after the war, Vicksburg lost most of its economic prosperity. In recent years, it has turned to legalized gambling to alleviate some of its poverty. Casinos, not history, are now Vicksburg's main draw. I had never actually visited a casino until we visited the Ameristar, and likely will not repeat the experience. It mostly struck me as sad, rather than exciting, and left me wishing that there were some way to make history and cultural tourism fill up the gap, rather than gambling.
Ameristar Casino in Vicksburg

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