Fall Color

A parade of antebellum mansions and more come together for Vicksburg’s fall pilgrimage.
story and photos
By Carolyn Thornton

Located on high bluffs above the Mississippi River, Vicksburg was considered a key to the outcome of the Civil War. After repeatedly failing to conquer Vicksburg from the river, Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant attacked from the rear by land.

During a 47-day siege, Vicksburg endured almost constant shelling that sent residents into hastily dug caves. In spite of bombardment day and night, the 1858 courthouse–perched on the highest point of land–suffered just one direct hit. Word had been leaked that Union officers were being held prisoners for a short time in the upstairs courtroom.

“They were our insurance policy,” said curator Gordon Cotton.

Puppies, plants
and pilgrimage

On the opening weekend of Vicksburg’s Fall Pilgrimage (Oct. 2–23), the Old Courthouse Museum is once again surrounded, this time by food vendors and booths of an old-fashioned flea market, now in its 22nd year. Homemade arts and crafts, ceramics, plants, clothes and even puppies are on sale. The scent of simmering pork barbecue, sauerkraut and wurst sausages, and hamburgers, with all the trimmings, entice strollers to picnic on the lawn.

At noon, a musical group such as the Mississippi Old Tyme Music Society tunes their banjos and fiddles in the shade of an ancient magnolia tree. Later that evening, Rebstock presents a Festival of Civil War Music in the same courtroom where the Union officers awaited their fate.

On the first Saturday, street musicians provide impromptu entertainment on Washington Street, downtown’s main thoroughfare of art galleries, gift shops and museums. Look for dolls and toys from your childhood at Yesterday’s Children Antique Doll and Toy Museum. Immerse yourself in Coca Cola® memorabilia at the Biedenharn Museum where Coca Cola® was first served in bottles. Even if you don’t buy a thing, don’t miss the Corner Drugstore. Look for the cannon in the traffic island out front. It’s part of owner Joe Gerache’s collection of firearms and other oddities. Displayed among regular items typically found in a drugstore, you’ll see a collection of Civil War medicines and herbal remedies as described in the Bible, as well as miniballs (bullet-like ammunition fired from muskets) and cannonballs.

White columns and candlelight

Vicksburg’s antebellum homes form the heart of pilgrimage, with an alternating schedule of mansions on tour. (There are no tours on Sundays.) Blue, green and red tours each feature three historic properties, a few of which are only open during pilgrimage.

Each Monday and Wednesday, two homes lit for candlelight tours evoke memories of their pre-Civil War splendor. As candlelight flickers at Cedar Grove, docents in period dress point out the patch on the front door where a cannonball smashed into the home and came to rest in the floor. Another cannonball is still lodged in the wall of the front parlor. At Duff Green, visitors learn how the home served as a hospital for Confederate and Union wounded. The Martha Vick home was built for the unmarried daughter of the city’s founder.

A treat for pilgrimage visitors is a tour of the Southern Cultural Heritage Foundation, which tells the story of the Sisters of Mercy, who served for more than 130 years at the St. Francis Xavier Academy and Convent. The center is used for performing arts, classes, workshops and exhibits. The Italianate auditorium, with its sloping floor and curved stage, was filmed for the movie, “O Brother, Where Art Thou.”

When the Sisters of Mercy arrived from Baltimore prior to the Civil War, they moved into the two-story Cobb House. Over the years, the dwelling was expanded into a convent, chapel and classrooms until the complex of additions eventually covered an entire city block. Trained as nurses, the nuns tended the wounded during the Civil War. Tradition says Confederate President Jefferson Davis spoke here around 1869 to thank the nuns for their service to the sick and wounded soldiers.

After the fall of Vicksburg, the Federal quartermaster occupied the building and refused to return it to the sisters. At war’s end, one nun wrote the bishop of Baltimore asking him to personally deliver their request to the secretary of war. Permission was finally granted for the convent to be returned to the nuns. Undergoing restoration as funds allow, tours offer glimpses of original architectural details, stained glass windows, customs and lifestyles of the religious educators.

Cannons around town

During pilgrimage and other times of the year, the story of the Battle of Vicksburg is told at the Vicksburg National Military Park and at other sites in town. Before entering the battlefield, spend some time at the Vicksburg Battlefield Museum that is located in a building styled like an ironclad battleship. Here you’ll gain insights into the hardships endured by the citizens before, during and after the war through the multi-media presentation of “Vanishing Glory.” For an overview of the battle, study the diorama of the entire battlefield, which shows just how close (nine feet at the closest point) the opponents fought. Each miniature infantryman and cavalryman represents about 400 soldiers. Each artilleryman represents a battery of cannons.

The museum also has an extensive collection of Civil War ship models. Stories for each can be found in a guidebook called “If It Floats Put a Cannon on It,” displayed on a podium near the ships. Models of ships named for Mississippi and Mississippians also are exhibited along with the saga of the Sprague, the world’s largest sternwheeler towboat, which mysteriously burned in 1974.

At the Vicksburg National Military Park, audio guides can be used for self-guided driving tours, or personal guides can be hired. Be aware that the 16-mile-long route through the park is one-way. The visitors’ center has exhibits and an audio-visual presentation to explain the campaign and siege of Vicksburg. Nothing explains the battle more profoundly than a trip to the hallowed ground itself. The only structure in the park to survive the battle was the Shirley House. It served as headquarters for the 45th Illinois Infantry, which built hundreds of bombproof shelters to protect its troops against Confederate artillery fire.

Overlooking the river, the Vicksburg National Cemetery presents the sobering sight of 18,000 graves, 13,000 of which are marked unknown.

Nearby stands the U.S.S. Cairo ironclad gunboat, which sank in 12 minutes, yet all 175 men escaped. It is difficult to believe that this boat built of heavy timbers, plated with iron could ever float. Even more incredible, it was salvaged from its six-fathom-deep grave and restored. It is the only ironclad left out of 78 built. The adjoining museum plays a video of salvage operations and displays 6,800 recovered artifacts, including a glass bottle filled with medicine, shoes, ambrotypes, coins, keys, nails and hardware.

Finally, take a riverboat ride aboard the Sweet Olive and learn how in the late 1800s the Mississippi River changed course leaving the city high and dry. The river seen today is the Yazoo Diversion Canal dug over a period of 28 years to provide a navigable harbor and river outlet for the city. On sunset cruises, the neon lights from the riverside gaming casinos turn the swells of the Mississippi River into kaleidoscopic colors. From the river’s vantage, it’s easy to see how Vicksburg’s high bluffs turned it into the Gibraltar of the Confederacy.

Carolyn Thornton is a contributor from Purvis, Miss.

Above: Costumed docents greet guests at many of Vicksburg’s historic mansions that are open for tours during pilgrimage.

Below: The music room at Cedar Grove in Vicksburg provides pilgrimage guests a glimpse into the gracious past.

Before You Go

For more information, contact the Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau, 1-800-221-3536 or www.vicks burgcvb.org.

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