Above: There are 47 steps in the long stairway of the Illinois State Memorial at Vicksburg National Military Park, each one for a day of the Siege of Vicksburg. National Park Service photos
In title: A Grand Illumination will feature 18,000 luminaries, representing the soldiers killed, wounded or missing in action during the Vicksburg Campaign.
Below: Re-enactors preparing for a living history demonstration.
For more than 80 years after the surrender, Vicksburg did not recognize July 4 as a federal holiday until 1947, when Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower visited the city.
After 150 years, Northerners and Southerners are again expected to converge in Vicksburg, but this time, it will be to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the campaign and siege.
Vicksburg National Military Park
President Abraham Lincoln referred to Vicksburg as “the key to the South.” Confederate President Jefferson Davis agreed, stating, “Vicksburg is the nail head that holds the South’s two halves together.” Whoever controlled Vicksburg controlled the lower Mississippi River and the vital supply lines of the South. This strategic importance launched Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign that began in March 1863 and ended with Vicksburg’s surrender on July 4, the day after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg, Penn., a historical fact that created a dilemma for the National Park Service 150 years later.
After careful consideration, the National Park Service decided to hold Vicksburg’s official sesquicentennial commemoration in May, with signature events held Memorial Day weekend.
“Holding Vicksburg’s Sesquicentennial Commemoration in May was a practical consideration, not to go head-to-head with Gettysburg’s commemoration that was also being planned over the July 4 weekend,” said Mike Madell, superintendent of Vicksburg National Military Park. “Historically, the Vicksburg embattlements and siege began in May.”
Vicksburg’s National Military Park (3201 Clay St.) today preserves land that was engulfed during the siege and final bombardments. Its main grounds feature more than 1,300 monuments and markers, as well as the Civil War ironclad gunboat, the USS Cairo, which was sunk in the Yazoo River by Confederate batteries north of Vicksburg in 1862.
The National Park Service also oversees historical sites outside its military park boundaries, including Confederate Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton’s headquarters (1018 Crawford St.), which is an antebellum home located in downtown Vicksburg.
“What we’re doing throughout our sesquicentennial programming is providing a diversity of offerings to appeal to a variety of audiences,” said Madell. “Besides telling the stories of the soldiers and battles, we also want to tell the other stories that traditionally haven’t had the attention–those of civilians, African-Americans and slavery, and the engineers who built the city’s fortresses.”
Living history encampments and presentations allow visitors to connect with history by depicting the daily lives, events, and culture of the time through demonstrations by costumed interpreters.
Beyond military activities, cannon fire, and camp life displays, visitors can experience Shadows of the Past on May 23 at Vicksburg National Cemetery, located within the military park, as costumed interpreters portray and retell the stories of those buried.
But not all lives lost during the campaign were human. An animal mascot will be remembered during the events, as well.
“Old Douglas, the camel, who was actually at Vicksburg during the siege, will make an appearance during the sesquicentennial weekend thanks to the Texas Camel Corps, a living history group that interprets one of the lesser known elements of the Confederacy,” said Madell, who explained the U.S. Army Camel Corps was a project championed in the 1850s by Secretary of War Jefferson Davis who used camels as an alternative to mules and horses in the military. “Old Douglas was the mascot of the 43rd Mississippi Infantry and was killed by a Union sharpshooter during the siege.”
Old Douglas is honored with a grave marker in nearby Cedar Hill Cemetery/ Soldiers Rest (326 Lovers Lane). Some 5,000 Confederate soldiers are buried here; 17,000 Union soldiers are buried in the Vicksburg National Cemetery.
Holding true to the Southern vow to preserve and remember, visitors can choose from a variety of events honoring Vicksburg’s Civil War heritage. Sesquicentennial weekend kicks off with the U.S. Postal Service’s special cancellation of its new Civil War stamp series near the USS Cario. Living history programs, such as Soldiers through the Ages, in addition to ranger-led walks and talks on the Vicksburg Campaign, will be staged and offered free during sesquicentennial weekend.
A free concert at the military park’s visitor center by the U.S. Navy Concert Band will be on May 24 and will feature Civil War period music; the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra will perform Saturday; Jackson Mass Community Choir will perform Sunday evening. Free shuttle service will provide transportation to and from off-site parking lots. On Memorial Day, the Parade of Veterans will wind through historical downtown Vicksburg, followed by a wreath-laying ceremony at the national cemetery.
A Grand Illumination is planned for July 3 in honor of the actual anniversary of Vicksburg’s surrender. A breathtaking display of thousands of flickering lights will illuminate the state monuments throughout the military park.
“The Grand Illumination is a major undertaking,” said Madell. “All 27 state memorials, including the five state memorials outside the park’s boundaries, will have a luminary placed by it to represent each casualty that the state suffered. That’s 18,000 luminaries representing those killed, wounded, or missing in action during the Vicksburg Campaign.”
The re-enactment of Vicksburg’s official surrender remains a key element of this commemoration. Changing of the flags will be conducted at the Old Court House (1008 Cherry St.). The Old Court House, a monument to surviving antebellum architecture, is preserved as a museum with an eclectic collection of Civil War artifacts, including a Confederate flag that was never surrendered to Union forces.
July 4 fireworks will be staged at Vicksburg’s riverfront.
Discovering Vicksburg’s Civil War history wouldn’t be complete without exploring the sites where Grant marched and engaged Confederate forces, such as Grand Gulf, the site of Grant’s first bombardment from ironclad gunboats. Today, visitors can learn more about this battle at Grand Gulf Military Monument Park, a Mississippi state park located eight miles northwest of Port Gibson off U.S. Highway 61.
“I can almost hear Grant’s troops marching when I travel these roads,” said Civil War historian and retired Brig. Gen. Parker Hills, who has spent years researching and leading the charge to preserve historical sites of the Vicksburg Campaign. Hills is the co-author of The Vicksburg Campaign Driving Tour Guide, published by the Friends of the Vicksburg Campaign and Historic Trail. It is offered free to visitors at the Raymond City Hall, Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau, and the Vicksburg National Military Park’s bookstore.
Countless events are planned outside Vicksburg’s city limits, including the Battle of Champion Hill commemoration near Bolton, Miss., on May 18. Activities include battlefield tours, re-enactments, and dinner on the battlefield. Guest speaker is Bertram Hayes-Davis, the great-great-grandson of Jefferson Davis, and executive director of Beauvoir–The Jefferson Davis Home and Presidential Library in Biloxi, Miss.
These sesquicentennial events in and around Vicksburg remember Mississippi’s Civil War history with a side of Southern hospitality.
Suzanne Corbett is a contributor from St. Louis, Mo.