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For more information, contact the Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau, 1-800-221-3536; Grand Gulf Military Monument, (601) 437-5911; Port Gibson-Claiborne County Chamber of Commerce, (601) 437-4351

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Breaking Gibraltar
A Civil War sojourn through Mississippi recounts Grant’s Vicksburg campaign

Story and photos
by Carolyn Thornton
Published: Nov/Dec 2001

A visitor to Vicksburg National Military Park (above) pauses at the De Golyer Battery; A road near Port Gibson (right) is a somber remembrance of Grant’s march on Vicksburg in 1863.
To follow Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s march to capture Vicksburg, Miss., the best place to begin is at the end. Battlefields, historic sites and museums tell the story of the grueling campaign to capture Vicksburg, also known as the Gibraltar of the Confederacy.

In December 1862, Grant launched a series of amphibious operations aimed at reducing Vicksburg. Grant knew the capture of Vicksburg meant control of the Mississippi River and railroad junctions. If Grant could thus divide the Confederacy, the Union could stop the supply of ammunition, beef and troops coming from Arkansas, Texas and Louisiana. However, swamps, lakes, bayous and virgin forests protected northern approaches, and Confederates were on guard elsewhere.

“Grant tried to capture Vicksburg several times unsuccessfully,” said Dan Richardson, curator for the Gray and Blue Naval Museum in Vicksburg. Grant’s schemes included digging a canal to bypass Confederate cannons, blowing up the levee north of town–even tunneling beneath the Mississippi River. Finally, he did three things that should have never been done.

“Grant crossed into enemy territory. He had no supply line. And he was outnumbered,” Richardson said.

Viewing the Vicksburg siege diorama at the Gray and Blue Naval Museum (1102 Washington) sets the scene for touring the grounds at the Vicksburg National Military Park. A short film about the Vicksburg campaign is shown at the visitor center. Take the 16-mile driving tour on your own.

While at the park, board the remains of the Union gunboat, the U.S.S. Cairo, which was sunk in 1862. The boat is temporarily closed due to construction, and is expected to reopen in February 2002. The ship was raised in 1964, and the adjoining museum explains the salvage operation, the life of Civil War sailors and has items recovered from the ironclad gunboat.

To glimpse the personal hardships endured by Vicksburg’s citizens before, during and after the siege, see “The Vanishing Glory,” a 30-minute historic dramatization. The eclectic collection–Civil War artifacts, steamboat photographs, Confederate President Jefferson Davis memorabilia and Vicksburg history–in the Old Courthouse Museum fills in details missed elsewhere.

Beginning of the end

After touring the national park, head south on U.S. Highway 61, detouring west toward the river on state Highway 462 to reach Grand Gulf Military Monument, 10 miles northwest of Port Gibson.

Long before the Civil War, Grand Gulf was doomed. Plagued by yellow fever and cholera epidemics, two steamboat explosions at the docks, a tornado and finally erosion from the Mississippi River, Grand Gulf was little more than a ghost town by 1863. Yet, it commanded a site 100-feet above the Mississippi.

For 5 1/2 hours on April 29, eight Confederate guns were able to hold off Federal gunboats carrying 81 guns. Union Admiral David D. Porter retreated, declaring, “Grand Gulf is the strongest place on the Mississippi River.” In the dark of night, the Union fleet slipped past allowing Grant to regroup on the Louisiana shore.

Today, only the superintendent’s house is original to Grand Gulf. A log cabin, water mill and the state’s smallest Catholic gothic cathedral have been moved to the park for preservation. The sites of Fort Wade, inside the park, and Fort Cobun just outside (turn right and bear left at the fork until the road ends) are marked by signs describing the action during the Battle of Grand Gulf.

According to “The Vicksburg Campaign and Siege” by Terrence Winschel, Grant’s movement of troops across the Mississippi River was the greatest amphibious operation in American history prior to World War II, with 24,000 troops and 60 cannons crossed at Bruinsburg Landing (now private land) April 30–May 1.

Grant’s march

Reaching the top of the bluffs, Union forces came upon Windsor, once Mississippi’s grandest home. According to Libby Shaifer Hollingsworth, descendent of A.K. Shaifer and a local historian, the soldiers awaited their rations in a glen beside the house. Today, portions of its 22 imposing columns remain as a sole testimony to the home’s grandeur.

Not too distant, the ladies of the A.K. Shaifer house were busy loading wagons to evacuate. Confederate Gen. Martin E. Green, whose brigade was posted at nearby Magnolia Church (no longer standing), assured them that the enemy wouldn’t arrive before daylight. As he was speaking, however, the first shots of the Battle of Port Gibson were fired at the Shaifer house (slated for restoration). The ladies whipped the horses into action and headed for Port Gibson.

Although Grant’s troops were only 30 miles south of Vicksburg, the general took a backdoor approach to Vicksburg. Roughly following what today is the Natchez Trace Parkway, Union troops camped at the 1837 Methodist Church of Rocky Springs, then moved through Utica.

Battle of Champion Hill

In Raymond, the Old Courthouse and St. Mark’s Episcopal Church served as hospitals following the May 12 battle. Torrential rains inhibited the Union advance on Jackson on May 14. By mid-afternoon, the Union Jack flew from the Capitol building. Rail lines were destroyed, factories and machine shops torched. So much of Jackson was burned it became known as Chimneyville. The Governor’s Mansion, the Oaks residence and the Old Capitol were among the few surviving structures that can be toured today.

On May 16, the Battle of Champion Hill was considered the decisive battle in the fall of Vicksburg. Federal casualties numbered 2,441; Confederates lost 3,820. The Confederates retreated to their Vicksburg fortress and endured a grueling siege and bombardment for 47 days. Finally on July 4, Vicksburg surrendered.

Vicksburg’s Old Courthouse Museum stands on the highest point of land in town. It survives today because word had been sent that Union officers were being held prisoners in the upstairs courtroom. Throughout the town, historic house museums and citizens remember Grant’s march as if it happened yesterday.

Carolyn Thornton is a contributor from Purvis, Miss.

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