Vicksburg, Mississippi was a hellish place to be in 1863. By late May the Confederates were hunkered down, sandwiched between Union forces on the Mississippi River and those that formed a semi-circle east of town. There was sickness and rations were running low. On a regular basis, boats on the Mississippi would indiscriminately lob cannon balls into the city – hitting both the Confederate fortifications and homes of civilians. To this day there are homes in Vicksburg with cannon balls still lodged in their walls and floors.
Today when you visit the city of Vicksburg, there is change. The Mississippi River no longer flows by the city, it changed course at some point after the Civil War. It left behind a smaller tributary that feeds into the main channel somewhere south of Vicksburg. Although there are some historic buildings downtown, the bustling hub that existed before the Civil War is long gone. What was once grace and prosperity is now dust laden ruin. The city has a feel of abandonment and poverty despite elegant older homes and a beautiful courthouse on a hill.
Just outside the city, in the area where once the Union and Confederate lines abutted against one another, is the Vicksburg National Military Park. Driving through it today, everything is neat and manicured. Huge, costly statues commemorate states, regiments and key figures from the battle. Most of them were financed by Northern states, with only a few Southern states represented. In fact, most of the Southern line isn’t even in the park. You can find traces of it identified by small signs that dot the east and south side of Vicksburg.
What were once dug out caves and treeless hills, now are covered by forest. You can still make out the earthworks created during the siege here and there, but the authenticity of the place is masked by the textbook perfection of the park. This was not a neat and orderly place in 1863. It was dirty, frightening, and harsh. Men were sick and dying from hunger and exposure to the heat and the hellish misery only found in the swampy lowlands of south Mississippi. Women and children, caught up in the siege, shared what little resources were available. They made the best of it by adding furniture to their new cave homes, but there they lived in fear each time they stepped outside.
This went on for two months before the Confederates were forced to surrender. The siege had effectively left them no choice and reinforcements never arrived. Once they laid down their arms and marched out of the city, a new occupying force took over. The Stars and Bars was lowered and the Stars and Stripes raised high on courthouse hill. A new sheriff was in town and the South was on its way to a long, agonizing defeat – one which we have never quite gotten over.
All photos by the author.