The Gibraltar of the West

After Natchez, I stayed in Vicksburg, Mississippi.

In order to understand anything about Vicksburg, understand this: just as Natchez has the highest elevation of any place adjacent to the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Memphis, Vicksburg is the second-highest point. And though lower than Natchez, Vicksburg’s hills are more extensive, which means that there is more high ground than in Natchez. This explains much of Vicksburg’s history.

Vicksburg in 1860, right before the Civil War.

Vicksburg in 1860, right before the Civil War.

Today, Vicksburg has a much larger population than Natchez, and thus has a more urban feel. I stayed at a motel nestled in one of the shopping centers. While it was a convenient location in some ways, it was a couple miles from any of the ‘tourist’ attractions. My plan was to call a taxi, but the taxi company did not answer my phone calls, so I ended up walking to downtown Vicksburg. That means I did not see the National Military Park, but it meant I got to dedicate a lot of time to downtown Vicksburg. I also got to see some of the neighborhoods full of Victorian houses. They are generally humbler than the Victorian houses of Clifton Heights in Natchez, but were nice to look at nonetheless.

While I was walking to downtown, I passed through residential neighborhoods. Both the shopping area where I stayed overnight and the residential areas I passed through were nearly entirely inhabited by African-Americans (and almost all of the employees in the shops were African-American, and most of the customers were also African-American). Therefore, I was surprised when I learned that only about 60% of the population of Vicksburg is African-American (based on what I saw in Vicksburg, I would have guessed 90% of the residents are African-American). I must have completely missed the white residential neighborhoods.

One of the first things I saw was the riverfront murals, which tell the history of Vicksburg in pictures. The murals are laid out in chronological order, so one can start with Vicksburg before Europeans arrived, and go through the murals one by one through the 1990s. You can also see all of the murals online, and I highly recommend doing that (even though, alas, the murals are NOT listed in chronological order online). I like that different community groups sponsored their own murals, for example, the alumni of several schools sponsored a mural just for their school (here is an example). While I think it is best to look at all of the murals because the sum is greater than the parts, some of my favorites were these, which I am linking in chronological order (be sure to read the descriptions): “The Painful Selection of a President”, “The Worst Maritime Disaster in U.S. History”, “World’s Longest Running Melodrama” (I would have liked to have seen Gold in the Hills but unfortunately it does not play in December), and “The Blues are the Roots, the Rest are the Fruits” (which I think is the single most beautiful mural).

Now, when I was telling people I was going to visit Vicksburg, I got two different reactions:

1) I have never heard of Vicksburg (the most common reaction)
2) Oh, you must be really into Civil War history.

Vicksburg is so strongly associated with Civil War history because one of the most important battles in the Civil War was the Siege of Vicksburg. Remember how I said one of the most important things about Vicksburg was that it was an area of high ground next to the Mississippi river? Well, that is why controlling Vicksburg was so important during the Civil War – it was nicknamed ‘the Gibraltar of the West’.

I learned in Vicksburg that, like Natchez, it was an anti-secession town. However, when the Union forces came to Vicksburg, they did not surrender because (and I encountered this quote in multiple places) “Mississippians don’t know how to surrender”. The problem with this explanation is that Natchez is also in Mississippi, and they definitely knew how to surrender. I have a theory about why Natchez surrendered right away and Vicksburg did not, but I honestly do not know why Vicksburg did not surrender right away.

This is the USS Cincinnati, a Union ship which sunk during the Siege of Vicksburg.

This is the USS Cincinnati, a Union ship which sunk during the Siege of Vicksburg.

This is an oversimplification of the Siege of Vicksburg, but this is a blog post about travel, not a book about the Civil War: in the beginning of 1863, the Union controlled New Orleans and Memphis (and Natchez), but they could not use the Mississippi River as a supply route because the Confederacy controlled Vicksburg. And because of the high ground, Vicksburg was easy to defend. The Union forces, under Ulysses S. Grant, tried to take Vicksburg four times and failed. Therefore, the Union put Vicksburg under siege by surrounding it on all sides (including both sides of the Mississippi River), cutting it off from the outside world, and constantly bombarding the city, which left it in ruins. The Confederate army and the civilians of Vicksburg had to withdraw to the hills and live in caves, and even in the caves they were not entirely safe from bombardment. Life in the caves was said to be a great equalizer – both the rich and the poor were hungry and miserable.

The entrance to a cave shelter during the Siege of Vicksburg

The entrance to a cave shelter during the Siege of Vicksburg

The only hope the Confederate army had was reinforcements from the outside, but the only reinforcements which ever showed up were Union reinforcements, who helped General Grant maintain the siege. After 47 days, Pemberton, the leader of the Confederate forces, surrendered on July 4, 1863, ending the siege. At that point, the Confederate soldiers were too malnourished to fight, or do much of anything. Thus the Mississippi River became entirely controlled by the Union, which effectively cut the Confederacy in half. Though the Civil War continued for another two years, everyone knew that the Confederacy would not be able to win without control of the Mississippi River. The 4th of July was not celebrated again in Vicksburg until 1947 when Dwight Eisenhower visited the town.

The Old Depot Museum. Photo by Peter Burka, used in accordance with Creative Commons 2.0 license.

The Old Depot Museum. Photo by Peter Burka, used in accordance with Creative Commons 2.0 license.

Due to the lack of a motor vehicle (and not wanting to take the time to walk) I only saw a little part of the battlefield, and I did not see the USS Cairo, one of the ships involved in the Siege of Vicksburg. However, I visited the Old Depot Museum, which has a diorama of the battlefield as it existed during the siege (today the battlefield is covered with trees, but it was not covered with trees in 1863). It also had many models of navy ships, with a particular empahsis on Civil War navy ships, but also models of every ship ever called the ‘USS Vicksburg’. The first USS Vicksburg was a Union ship in the Civil War – after they took control of Vicksburg, they named a ship after it to celebrate the victory. Another USS Vicksburg was built in the 1940s and was used in World War II. I also visited (outside only) Pemberton’s headquarters, where on July 2nd, 1863, the Confederate officers had a meeting and decided to surrender.

Pemberton's headquarters (though this photo was taken in the 1850s, before the civil war). It looked pretty much the same now, though it looks more weathered today than it does in this photo.

Pemberton’s headquarters (though this photo was taken in the 1850s, before the civil war). It looked pretty much the same now, though it looks more weathered today than it does in this photo.

The most remarkable building in Vicksburg is old the Warren County Courthouse. It is now a museum. I did not go inside, but it supposedly has the largest collection of Civil War relics in the south.

The Old Warren County Courthouse. Photo by Ken Lund, used in accordance with Creative Commons 2.0 license.

The Old Warren County Courthouse. Photo by Ken Lund, used in accordance with Creative Commons 2.0 license.

Photos do not capture the feeling of walking past it. It’s near one of the highest points of downtown, so it truly towers over everything around it (you can easily find it in the first photo in this post). It’s not a building that a sighted person can ignore. And yes, in addition to the United States flag, they also fly the Confederate flag.

This is the courthouse during the Civil War. Obviously, this photo was taken after the Siege of VIcksburg was over.

This is the courthouse during the Civil War. Obviously, this photo was taken after the Siege of VIcksburg was over.

While I was walking around downtown, I suddenly decided that I wanted to sit down and drink tea. So I walked to the first place I saw which called itself a ‘cafe’ and went inside. That place happened to be Anchucha, built in 1832, which makes it one of the oldest surviving buildings in Vicksburg. The people inside were not used to having someone walk in just to drink tea, but they were happy to accommodate me. Even though I did not pay the fee for entrance to the house, they still let me drink tea in the library. It was only when I was inside that I learned that the house once belonged to Joseph Davis, the half-brother of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. Jefferson Davis himself had spent much time in the house. I happened to meet the current owner of the house, who said that he had worked at the house as a teenager, and never imagined that he would one day be the owner.

After the Civil War, it was hard times for a while, but by the 1890s business was doing well again. Washington street, the old commercial street, is full of retail shop buildings dating to the early 20th century. The buildings basically are the same as the ones shown in this mural, though, unfortunately, there is not trolley now. Washington street also used to be part of Highway 61, the ‘Blues Highway’ which many African-Americans used to travel north out of the deep south.

Vicksburg also had the headquarters of the Mississippi River Commission, a government body which regulates the entire Mississippi River. Their mission is to keep the river navigable, protect communities from floods, and protect the environment. It is a difficult job. They own a museum, which I also visited. I learned a lot about the Mississippi River.

One of the most important historical events in this region was the 1927 flood, which has riverfront mural. Before the 1927 flood, the government’s policy was ‘levees only’ assuming they would be enough to protect people from any flood. However, as the levees got higher, so did the river level, leading to an arms race between the levees and the river. in 1927, the river won. Over 700,000 people were displaced from their homes, mostly African-Americans. Because Vicksburg is on high ground, it was protected, and it hosted a large refugee camp. There were many allegations than black people were treated unfairly in the refugee camps, so there was a government commission, led by Herbert Hoover, which investigated these claims. The commission found that most of the allegations were true, so the government stopped the racial discrimination suppressed the findings of the commission.

The museum presented many other bits of trivia about the Mississippi River and the Army Core of Engineers. For example, they compared transporting freight by truck, train, and river barge (river barges are more fuel efficient than trains, and way more fuel efficient than trucks, also, the Mississippi River can handle increases in traffic much better than railroads and highways).

This is a photo of the M/V Mississippi IV when it was still in service.

This is a photo of the M/V Mississippi IV when it was still in service.

The museum also has the M/V Mississippi IV, which from 1961-1993 was the flagship of the Mississippi River Commission. It was a cool boat to explore.

It’s just as well that I didn’t visit the battlefield, because there is more than enough to see and do just in downtown Vicksburg. Downtown Vicksburg also offers a more complete look into Vicksburg’s past and present than I think the battlefield could.

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2 thoughts on “The Gibraltar of the West

  1. Pingback: Memphis: The Rise of a Famous Man, and the Murder of a Famous Man | The Notes Which Do Not Fit

  2. Pingback: A Theme from my Recent Travels: Race | The Notes Which Do Not Fit

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