My fifth grade teacher Mrs. Kohl, loved the Civil War. In my memories of this long ago time, it seemed that we did little else that year but study The War Between the States. We colored in maps with swirling red and blue arrows, depicting the movement of the troops. We learned that in many states, especially those on the border, families were split by the war with brother fighting against brother. We learned the songs the soldiers sang. We sampled the hard tack that soldiers ate. We learned some of the valedictory poetry written about the war. We built models of the Ford Theater in shoe boxes to illustrate Lincoln's final hours. It seemed a war without end. I thought of Mrs. Kohl when we visited Gettysburg
and I thought of her again today when we visited Vicksburg National Military Park. Mrs. Kohl taught me that these two battles were key in the final outcome of the war.
Just like their cousins down river in Natchez, the 5,000 residents of Vicksburg made their living from river trade and they were not in favor of the South's secession. Their location on bluffs 300 feet above the river where it made a huge bend, had an unrivaled strategic importance. As the Union Army tried to embargo the South by shutting down trade on the Mississippi, Vicksburg was the last city to fall. It was connected inland by railroad to Jackson and funneled food, ammunition and supplies to the Confederate forces. When a frontal attack met with failure, General Grant marched his army the long way around, deep into Mississippi behind enemy lands and surrounded the city from the east. This was a risky move since it was hard to keep his army supplied, but without neutralizing Vicksburg, the war would have dragged on much longer. After he tried to attack from the east without success, he decided to besiege the city. The troops and civilians inside Vicksburg were bombed incessantly. Some locals dug themselves caves to hide from the cannon balls, but in the heat of the summer, they must have been miserable inside. During the 47 days of the siege, much maneuvering took place as the Rebels hoped for additional troops from the east and the Union dug trenches to protects itself from snipers and skirmishes. The Rebels surrendered, motivated by hunger as much as loss of life. The Union army was joined by more and more freed and/or escaped slaves and after they proved their mettle here, they became a much larger presence in the Union Army. After Vicksburg fell, thousands of newly freed ex-slaves rushed into town, and the Federal government struggled to feed and accommodate them all. The policies they put in place here, became a model for the land and labor policies put into place for all the African Americans after the war ended.
The landscape around Vicksburg is extremely hilly, so today it is hard for the casual observer to determine whether the curves are natural or manmade as the Union dug fortifications and hills to hide behind. The sixteen mile drive through the military park took us past about 1300 monuments and statues. Illinois was well represented and its monument to their soldiers is the most impressive of the bunch. The park included a huge cemetery where many thousands of soldiers from both sides were reinterred after the war, since many were left haphazardly where they fell during the fighting. Almost 30,000 died in the area. We also saw the ironclad USS Cairo, a warship that had been sunk near here by a mine and brought back to the surface 100 years later. A huge treasure trove of artifacts came up with the ship, showing what life on board was like at the time.