Vicksburg is Mississippi’s battle-tested Southern belle

The Washington Post
Sunday, April 14, 2013

Which of the following destinations does not belong on AAA Southern Traveler magazine’s list of the top 13 travel spots for 2013: Christchurch, New Zealand; the Dominican Republic; Ireland; Mexico; Madagascar; Orlando, Fla.; Panama; San Francisco; South Korea; Spain; Sri Lanka; Turkey; Vicksburg, Miss.; or Las Vegas?

You choose Vicksburg? You sure? Really sure? Because, well, you’re wrong.

Vicksburg is a full-fledged member of this class; Madagascar is not. The designation, though, was a surprise, even to some residents of the warm and welcoming Southern town about 45 miles west of Jackson.

But one sweet-as-Tupelo-honey Vicksburger chirped with delight at the news, asking me to repeat the announcement to her father, who was busy cooking in the Tomato Place’s kitchen. “This is just a real honor for our little town,” she said. “What I love about Vicksburg is that it’s slow – front porch rocking chair” slow.

If AAA’s criteria included wit and charm, Vicksburg would have dominated the list. But the publication didn’t factor in colorful characters, basing its decision on the Civil War Siege of Vicksburg and its sesquicentennial. The town is holding special events throughout the year, with most activities scheduled through July 4, the day Confederate Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton waved the white flag of surrender.

The 1863 battle, a big score for Team Union, replays day after day in the hearts and minds of visitors to Vicksburg and its national military park. Here, you can imagine the gunfire exploding across the bluffs as the residents huddled in caves for safety. As a Jackson day-tripper later explained to me, Southerners hold onto the war because so much of the action occurred on their turf, the bullets grazing their homes and endangering their lives and livelihoods. Beneath the pocked cupola of the Old Court House Museum, I vowed to no longer tell my Southern friends to “get over it.”

After the brief overview at the Vicksburg National Military Park Visitor Center, you can dig a little deeper in the museum gallery.

I read about Lyston Druett Howe, a 10-year-old who fought alongside his father and brother, Orion Perseus Howe, a drummer boy and one of the youngest recipients of the Medal of Honor. Beside me, a grandfather stood with his grandkids, who were about the same age as the sibling soldiers. The elder man seemed to be silently chastising his pint-size charges: Look, boys, these kids risked their lives for their country, and you can’t even pick up your dirty socks.

Two-thirds of the battle sites rest in the park, sprinkled along a 16-mile touring road. I mulled the four strategies for exploring the route: the national park brochure and map, with numbered stops; the free cell phone tour; the CD audio tour; and a guided tour in your own vehicle.

The ranger told me that it would take about an hour and a half to complete the ribbony 15-stop route. But he must have been referring to individuals who treat the park like a drive-thru window to history. I, on the other hand, was compelled to stop at nearly every monument, statue, cannon, gunboat (the USS Cairo) and road sign with small print. I also lost time chasing a grasshopper around the inside of my car. I reached the Confederate side just as the park was closing.

The Civil War presses its stamp on myriad attractions and conversations in Vicksburg. In addition to several tours of 19th-century residences, there’s the Old Court House Museum, which contains many war artifacts, including Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s chair, the stuffing bursting out of the seams, and the inauguration tie of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

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