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Echoes of War

With the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War approaching, beat the crowds by exploring these battlefields, monuments, museums and more across Mississippi.
By Kathie Sutin

Driving through Mississippi’s pleasant towns and pastoral landscape, it’s hard to imagine the bloodshed that took place here nearly 150 years ago. Yet, the Magnolia State saw more Civil War battles and skirmishes–772–than any other states except Virginia, Tennessee and Missouri, says Tom Parson, a National Park Service ranger stationed at the Corinth Civil War Interpretive Center. Two Mississippi battles–Corinth and Vicksburg–were key encounters that helped determine the outcome of the war.

re-enactors

In Title: The Vicksburg National Cemetery contains the graves of more than 17,000 Civil War soldiers.

Above: Many battlefields host re-enactments, such as Brices Crossroads National Battlefield which staged a battle last year to mark the 145th anniversary of the original conflict there. Mississippi Division of Tourism photos

Below: The USS Cairo, an ironclad gunboat, is on display at the Vicksburg National Military Park. Mississippi Department of Tourism photo

ship hull

As the Mississippi Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission this year works on planning special events in 2011 and beyond, travelers and history buffs can get ahead of the crowds by exploring Corinth, Vicksburg and several points in between.

“Vertebrae of the Confederacy”

Parson sums up Corinth’s importance during the war in one word–railroads.

“The two longest railroads in the Confederacy crossed here in Corinth,” he said. The town was originally called Cross City marking the fact that the Memphis & Charleston Railroad crossed the Mobile & Ohio there, he said. The Memphis & Charleston was the only railroad in the Confederacy that stretched from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic seaboard.

“It was so important that the secretary of war for the Confederacy called it the ‘vertebrae of the Confederacy,’” Parson said.

Corinth drew national attention for months in 1862 as each side sought to control this critical railroad junction. With 23,000 Northern soldiers and 21,000 Southern, each side was confident it would win quickly to bring the war to a fast end. The battle on Oct. 3 and 4 was one of bloodiest of the war, resulting in 4,388 Confederacy and 2,359 Union casualties. The Federals were victorious, and the war continued.

Corinth, a quaint town in northeastern Mississippi 97 miles from Memphis, is a fitting place to start a tour of the state’s Civil War sites. It’s a treasure trove of antebellum homes and historical sites and has extensive Civil War earthworks, or field fortifications.

History resides in the streets of Corinth where Corinth Civil War Trail markers reveal information about sites such as Union siege lines, batteries and homes Confederate and Union generals–including Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant–used as headquarters during each side’s occupation of the town.

The interpretive center is a must-stop for a good overview of the war, siege and battle of Corinth. Visitors can read heart-wrenching letters from soldiers, learn about a young Mobile woman who came to Corinth to nurse the sick and wounded and read how the Union occupation affected the town’s residents.

Not far away, the Contraband Camp is a tribute to runaway slaves who sought refuge in Union-occupied Corinth. The site is so named because runaways were considered contraband of war. The camp resembled a town of 6,000 with a hospital, school, church and working farm. A trail on the grounds where the camp once stood features bronze sculptures depicting the lives of those who once lived there.

A somber stop is Corinth National Cemetery, where 1,793 known and 3,895 unknown Civil War soldiers from 15 states were laid to rest.

The Crossroads Museum features archaeological items, Native-American relics, Civil War artifacts and railroad memorabilia. It’s in the Historic Corinth Depot adjacent to the literal crossing of the tracks of the historical railroad lines each side sought to control.

Vicksburg: “The Key” to victory

Approximately 300 miles southwest, Vicksburg, a city of strategic importance on the Mississippi River, was coveted because its control was vital for movement of supplies and munitions, as well as for trade and commerce. For the South, loss of this crucial port and rail depot meant being cut off from the Confederate states west of the Mississippi. Each side understood control of Vicksburg was vital to their cause.

“Vicksburg is the key,” President Abraham Lincoln said. “The war can never be brought to a close until the key is in our pocket.”

Confederate President Jefferson Davis reportedly called Vicksburg “the nail head that holds the South’s two halves together.”

The Vicksburg Campaign began in February 1862 and ended with Confederate surrender on July 4, 1863, following a 46-day siege. Some consider the Union victory a major turning point in the war.

Today, visitors can drive a 16-mile tour of Vicksburg National Military Park with more than 1,350 monuments, markers and plaques along the rolling hills where soldiers once fought to the death. The Union ironclad USS Cairo, a museum and Vicksburg National Cemetery–the cemetery with the most Civil War burials in the country–also are here.

Brig. Gen. (Ret.) Parker Hills, Civil War author and preservationist who leads battlefield tours, recommends looking beyond the battlefield to places decisions were made, men assembled and strategies laid. Those unmarked places can be found using “Vicksburg Campaign Driving Tour Guide,” a 161-page, spiral-bound book with driving instructions, GPS coordinates and vignettes of 178 sites to follow movements of each army.

Hills and the late Warren Grabau, working as volunteers, researched and wrote the guide. The Friends of the Vicksburg Campaign and Historic Trail produced the book with a grant from the American Battlefield Protection Program. The book is free but available only in person at Raymond City Hall or the Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau.

More Memorable sites

Between Corinth and Vicksburg are several interesting Civil War historical sites. Here’s a sampling of places to consider.

Tupelo was the site of the last major Civil War engagement in Mississippi. In July 1864, Confederate Gen. Stephen D. Lee attacked Union forces in an attempt to cut off and destroy the enemy column. A granite marker on the battlefield commemorates the dead on both sides.

Holly Springs is a little town that changed hands 62 times during the war. Confederate Gen. Earl Van Dorn raided the town, destroying the supply depot that Grant had established. Interpretive markers explain significant events.

“It’s a little time capsule itself, full of antebellum homes and a cemetery full of Confederate generals,” Hills said.

Brices Crossroads, a one-acre battlefield, has an impressive monument marking the battle where Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, with far fewer men, forced the Federals to retreat and captured their supplies and artillery. Markers on state Route 370 explain the battle; a visitor’s center about five miles away near Baldwyn has exhibits.

Jackson’s battlefield is gone, “but there’s still plenty of history in Jackson,” Hills said. Check out the Old Capitol Museum and the Oak House Museum.

Port Gibson, the city Grant spared on his march to Vicksburg, has Grand Gulf Military Park on the Mississippi River that features a museum, historical buildings and cemetery. Windsor, the hauntingly beautiful ruins of a Greek Revival mansion, was featured in the 1957 film “Raintree County” starring Elizabeth Taylor. One of the largest antebellum mansions in the state, Windsor survived the war but burned in 1890.

Kathie Sutin is a contributor from St. Louis, Mo.

Mar/Apr 2010 Issue

BEFORE YOU GO

For more information, contact:

Mississippi Division of Tourism
(866) SEEMISS (733-6477), www.visitmississippi.org;

Corinth Area Convention and Visitors Bureau,
(800) 748-9048, www.corinth.net;

Vicksburg Area Convention and Visitors Bureau,
(800) 221-3536, www.visitvicksburg.com.

To visit Mississippi’s Civil War sites, first stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks® and TourBook® guides.

Order free information about Mississippi through the Reader Service Card, found online at http://southern.ai-dsg.com.


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