American Sabbatical 96: 4/17/97


4/17.. Vicksburg.

Kosciusko Thursday was a laundry morning. While Peggy communed with Homer, I played patience with quarters in the local suds-o-rama. A skinhead with toos glared at me the while, but I figured that was his natural grimace, so I tipped him a nod, and kept rolling my eyeballs. A hairball in Miami costume is just as sharp as any guy in U-shirt and chains.

Then we ducked back onto the Trace for more heal-all. This section of the National Parkway is shouldered with blackeyed susans and what looks like baby’s-breath along with masses of crimson clover and carpets of the pale lavender heal-all. And the road unrolls like a dream.

We were skirting the Yockandokany river, and where it has been dammed to form the Burnett Reservoir we pulled into a picnic area. A romantic prospect of drowned islands with old cypress spiking up, and sleepy trollers in john boats. I traded lies with a ranger who had just seen “30 or 40” turkeys in the piney woods, and his eyes were still shining. He had tales of wild pig, too, and said the armadillos were commonplace. We’ve also seen roadkill coyote. We kept jawing slowly in an easy country way, about logging and wildcats, gators and turtles. I could just conjure his Mississippian, and he probably felt the same. We could have parled on indefinitely, but Peggy was pacing up and down, so we smiled at the impatience of women, and the Owlers moved on.

Peggy's Swamp

Not far, though. There was a swamp walk just down the Trace and Peggy was so apologetic about hurrying the menfolk that we back-winged and lit. The Boy Scouts had graveled a circle stroll around a slough, and bridged back across it to the lot. Our ramble brought us into a sunny opening where we saw a good sized gator sunning himself in the shallows. Back into the moody woods we hunted for a likely spot to draw a swampscape. This was a tupelo swamp, with only the odd cypress, and the ovate leaves were just broadening, so everything was dappled with shadows. A bright yellow-green algae covered the entire water surface around the swollen bases of the trees except for narrow channels of absolute black water. Bushy 4 inch evergreen clubs rose out of the level fabric, and cypress knees stood here and there like unfinished statuettes. Purple spiderworts starred out from their grassy stems at our feet, and great sprays of cardinal flowers edged the banks in places.

Bryce's Swamp

(with skink)

We broke out our colors on the foot bridge, and attempted the impossible. Into our meditations an iridescent blue-tailed skink investigated. All six inches of him. His slender tapered tail ran from an electric blue at the tip up to a deep violet at his midsection, then he was black and yellow striped to his nose, with yellow bulging eyes. First he clambered over my foot. Then, while I was busy trying to make bark crusty, he must have climbed my leg, because he suddenly appeared on the rail beside my knee. He lay down on the top of the bridge rail, warming his belly, and folded all four legs on his back. A shiny glowing clown. Honored, I’m sure, Mr. Skink.

Our haste had evaporated. So had our through way. The Trace was closed for repairs north of Jackson, and probably just as well, because we opted to make a wide sweep around the state capitol, and find our way through Flora to Vicksburg. The sideroads proved almost as easy to take as the groomed Parkway. Rural crossroad settlements just 15 miles from the bureaucratic middle, cattle and timber with cotton just starting in the flatlands as we came closer to the big river again.

By cameral

The State of Mississippi may stint its school budgets, but it prides itself on its hospitality. The first ten miles of the 28 major roads entering the state have been planted with magnolia trees. 35,000 magnolias have been donated by such organizations as the Garden Clubs of Mississippi, Inc. And the state DOT has wildflower test plots where they try out mass planting of ox-eyed daises and the like, and apply the lessons to the state roads. We were welcomed with flowers all the way from Flora to the river.

At Vicksburg. It was too late to jump right into the trenches and redoubts, redans and lunettes, this afternoon. We settled on an early supper at a local bistro recommended by the tourist info office, where we’d scooped the local handouts. Peggy can vacuum up an armload of brochures in a motel lobby, restaurant, or tourist office in a blink. Don’t leave any loose papers around when she blows into your town.

The Walnut Hills proved to be yet another Southern fried delectorium. We did the four vegetables again, this time with okra and egg plant in the mix. I also had a cup of shrimp gumbo, just to dance on the edge. Southern cooking is sure good tasting, but it’s not exactly the diabetic’s ideal. Everything is saturated in either fats or sugar, or both. The okra was deep fried in breaded balls, and the eggplant was sauteed with bacon and then sugared. The carrots were CANDIED. I laughed when dessert was mentioned.


Up the Yazoo


We waddled back to the bird and motored around this fortress town, trying to get a feel for the geographics. The Yazoo joins the Mississippi here and the high bluffs of Vicksburg make a wall along the east bank of the tributary to their junction, then the big river bends away west, edging the heights. The present day town is a sad looking place. Some grand old edifices.. private homes and commercial blocks.. stand forlorn in a sea of shabby. The old waterfront boasts 2 mock-steamboat casinos, Harrah’s and the Steamboat Casino, and some industrial terminals. Up the Yazoo (same to you fella) there’s a barge terminal, with empty barges jumbled whichaway in the marshes, and the backwaters are lined with a series of processing factories, bellowing smoke and nauseous aromas. Scenes from a watery Purgatorio.




The big bridge to Louisiana comes off the heights below the Yazoo outlet. A twin double-cantilevered truss affair tying Mizsippi and Looiezana together. Nobody seems interested. The restaurants on the bluffs look on the road while all that grand engineering is just a hohum out back. We stopped in a motel lot to watch the sun simmering over Louisianna and towboats pushing rafts of barges against the seething flow.


Sunset Casino
We went with the flow to our encampment in the Indian subcontinent. Someone could do a thesis on how the East Indians are cornering the motel trade.

4/18 .. Armed engagements.

Our sleep shack backed on the National Battlefield Monument, so we tumbled to our feet at reveille, and trooped into the war zone. This one is very strange, to a contemporary eye. Because the battle and the siege lasted for months, without particularly memorable clashes.. except to the thousands who died here.. the 16 mile long park encircling Vicksburg doesn’t have hallowed perspectives. Unlike Gettysburg with the scene of Pickett’s Charge or the Little Round Top.. or the Sunken Road and the Peach Orchard at Shiloh.

You drive across incredibly broken ground, deep declivities, looming embankments. And the way is lined with monuments. Hundreds of them. A processional way of 19th century military sculpture. With a startling wrinkle. There are gigantic busts and granite relief portraits of every senior officer who was here. Union and Confed. Very Romanesque, and either comical or unsettling, we weren’t sure which. Where the mega-busts were lined up in rows paralleling the drive, it was like the corridors of deities in the Ringling Museum courtyard, or at the Getty.. only the villa backdrop was towering hardwoods. The battle sites must have been stripped bare, of course, to build the massive fortifications and to feed the watchfires of a hundred circling camps.

Getting Busted

Man on Horseback
The largest officer statue is of Grant, astride his charger, and he rides the top of a high ridge at his command post, looking down on all comers. Sam Grant has been systematically maligned by history. As a drunk, a slob, the dupe (or crony) of unscrupulous manipulators during his presidency. The fact that he was the best general of the war, who out-generaled that romantic paragon, Lee, is generally overlooked. Mark Twain accused Sir Walter Scott of causing the Civil War. The Southern aristocracy, he said, had been weaned on Scott’s chivalric idealism, and couldn’t get it through their heads that knights in armor were as dead as.. well.. J.E.B. Stuart. Grant’s unforgivable flaw was that he was a totally modern warrior. Valuing strategy over heroics, logistics over idealism.. and he was utterly ruthless in pursuing victory to the end. Not Sir Walter’s ideal of a hero.

More than chivalry died on the fields of Shiloh and Vicksburg and the rest. Being confronted with the lists of names here is just as sobering as those lists on black marble on the Washington Mall. All the Gileses and Jedediahs and Zachariahs. And at the Wisconsin memorial I was struck that these had all been farm boys. The whole war was fought by a rural people, self-destructing in the face of a new industrial destiny. Those Wisconsin boys probably had more in common with Johnny Reb than he did with the industrial wage-earner who was replacing them both.

Well, the trees have retaken these battlefields, and we have forgotten that only a short while ago we tore ourselves apart so a new paradigm could bury the dream of an agrarian democracy. And Sir Walter was unhorsed.

(Memo #92)

Apr 18 Vicksburg

Who? Gen.U.S. Grant (USA) v. Gen. J.E. Johnston + Lt. Gen. J. Pemberton (CSA)

What? siege and battles

When? 1863

Where? Vicksburg, Mississippi, key town on Mississippi River

How? battles + bombardments + siege of a civilian population

Topics: Vicksburg, Civil War, military strategy, Mississippi River, siege warfare

Questions: Why was Vicksburg so important? How difficult was the siege for the civilians?



Vicksburg played a critical role in the Civil War. Sited high on bluffs overlooking a bend in the Mississippi River, the city controlled shipping and was crucial to victory for the North and South. For the North, seizing Vicksburg would split the Confederacy and halt its export of cotton. It would also enable Union farmers in the Midwest to ship their grain out (the original reason we wanted the river and bought the whole Louisiana Purchase in 1803). The South had to hold Vicksburg to guarantee its cotton exports. Both sides knew how important the city was; Lincoln called it the key to winning the war. The fight for Vicksburg was long and involved, a “campaign” that included a number of battles and bombardments and a siege.

The South fortified the town with many units of the army and gun emplacements overlooking the river. In the first action in the Mississippi valley, the Union first sent an army under U.S. Grant south up the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers. In 1862 it captured Forts Henry and Donelson and was pummeled at Shiloh. A second Union force started from the mouth of the Mississippi fighting its way north. Grant’s army slogged South along the western side of the Mississippi toward Vicksburg, “slogged” literally through low, wet, marshy land. Union gunboat forces from the north kept trying to get by Vicksburg and failing - the barrage from the fortifications was too intense - until April 1863 when a gunboat force made it. This force helped Grant move his men across the Mississippi below Vicksburg at Bruinsburg (itself one of the “largest amphibious operations in American military history”). 24,000 men and 60 cannons were ferried across (April 30 - May 1, 1863).

Peggy's Statues

Wisconsin Memorial
Grant then moved east to sweep around Vicksburg, cut the railroad to isolate it , and come at it from inland. There was a Battle of Port Gibson, a Battle of Raymond, a Battle of Jackson (which gave the Union control of the Mississippi state capital), a Battle of Champion Hill, a Battle of Big Bend River Bridge. On May 19 Grant made his first attack on “Fortress Vicksburg” from the east which failed. A second attack on May 22nd also failed. This is when Grant instituted a siege.

The siege of Vicksburg endured from May 19 - July 4. The South was unable to get reinforcements through to the city from eastern Mississippi. Vicksburg was under constant bombardment from two directions (Union gunboats on the Mississippi and the Union army to the east). Grant constructed “approaches” to the city and tunnels to use for explosives to destroy the Confederate fortifications. On June 25 a Union explosion and attack failed.

During the siege, Vicksburg civilians dug caves and took refuge in their cellars as well. There was rationing, sickness, battle casualties in the city. I had heard stories of people being reduced to eating rats and grass.

There is a diary by a Vicksburg woman, Emma Balfour, which vividly describes the siege day by day (and her own sangfroid).

“Saturday May 30 - We has comparative quiet yesterday after the morning till five o’clock when the most fearful cannonading commenced from the lines. I never saw anything like it. People were running in every direction to find a place of safety. The shells fell LITERALLY like hail. Mrs. Willis’ house was struck twice and two horses in front of her door were killed. Gen. Pemburton and his staff had to quit it. I made the servants crouch under the alley wall and all the couriers got under there with them. I took my knitting and went into the parlor as I did not think the shells would do me much harm by the time they passed through three brick walls...”

The Confederates surrendered on July 4th (the same day victory was won at Gettysburg, two battles that turned the tide for the Union impressing the superstitious by occurring on Independence Day). Interestingly Grant did not hold out for an unconditional surrender (his trademark which is what his initials are said to stand for). but accepted parole to the defenders.

One of the main objectives of our travels is to feel and experience the geography of historical events. Many terms are inexact and need clarification. What exactly does a “rise” mean, or a “gap”, or “bluffs”? It makes a huge difference to the people who fought or engineered or explored there if it is twenty feet high or a hundred feet high, if it is a gradual slope or vertical. The “ridge” at Gettysburg felt like a “rise” to me. The “mounds” at Ocmulgee and Etowah felt like huge earthen “pyramids”. What about the geography at Vicksburg?

The “bluffs” at Vicksburg on the river side are high and fairly steep, but don’t quite feel like “cliffs” since they are not of stone. This drop off on the river side is climbable and turf covered. Interesting that the strategy in the Civil War did not include scaling these riverside bluffs (Union soldiers scaled the far more imposing “cliffs” at Lookout Mountain). Why not? Was it impossible to land troops under the cliffs given the stiff resistance and artillery on top?

Perhaps the neatest part of Vicksburg is the resurrected ironclad gunboat (the USS Cairo) which is in dry dock at the battlefield. It’s apparently the first boat sunk by a “torpedo” (a suspended five gallon jug full of black powder that was detonated from shore). The boat was raised from the river bed, cleaned and has been reassembled as much as possible. It’s housed outdoors under a huge metal shed. The boat is mostly a framework with some cannons in place and some of the iron plate superstructure. You can see the ribs and decks, the boilers and wheel. It’s huge (175 feet long, 51 feet wide) and massive (512 tons, 75 tons of plate armor). It carried 13 guns. Some of the iron plating was plate, but the bow was sheathed with lengths of railroad ties!! Yet it only had a draft of six feet. Its engines were fueled by 18-20 bushels of coal an hour (which required the work of 4 “coal heavers” in the crew). There were 175 men on her (somehow the history books don’t really feature the thousands on men on ships during the Civil War, especially on the highly effective Union blockade).

Bow guns and plating

The ironclads were part of General Winfield Scott’s “anaconda plan” to strangle the Confederacy by cutting off its trade. The Cairo was designed by James Eads who got more fame for his later bridge designs.

The museum (a building shaped like an ironclad) has a display of items retrieved along with the boat - equipment and personal things from fencing foil to pistols, tableware to doctor’s supplies, pencils and erasers, sewing kits, razors, shoes, silk neckerchief. Even army issue spittoons! All had been pretty well preserved under water. The displays made the men of the gunboat much more real!

I got a good sense of the land. It seems like impossible land to fight through on foot, very complex topography with ridges and gullies going every which way. In fact the North never did launch a full attack on the steep hills and deep gullies held by the Confederates at Vicksburg. Grant was realistic in choosing a siege over a general assault.

4/18.. cont.

Our friend Steve Stern had been stationed at the Army Waterways Experiment Station in Vicksburg when he was in the Army Corps of Engineers, and had described some of the modeling and testing going on there. We wanted to see what we could. River drainage models. Fanciful vehicles. Environmental recovery experiments. So we took the hike to WES, Vicksburg, and checked in at the info office.


Turns out that only a handful of demos are open to the public, and we weren’t willing to hustle our way past the guard, because we didn’t really know what we might see. So we did the self-tour. Saw the Niagara Falls model in action, and a relief map of the Mississippi drainage basin. Very discomfiting, that. Looked like a high school project, and someone had redirected the Tennessee into the Alabama so it drained into the Gulf at Mobile. Probably a football joke. But these guys are in charge of managing our waterways?

The experimental vehicles display was a grassy lot where a semi-circle of tanks and the like were sinking into the turf. One of my favorite vehicles was here in the alloy, a swamp crawler. I’d seen pictures of it from the 1950s in that seminal sourcebook for toymakers: The How and Why of Mechanical Movements. It’s a tinboat perched on two rotating pontoons which have Archimedes screws (helical fins) welded around them. The whole shooting match screws its way across the mud or swamp. Probably rips up the environment wicked, but ain’t that the ultimate clammer wagon? Just imagine one jet-ski size. I can hear it oozing by now.

Mud Crawler

In camera
Pretty sorry show, Uncle. Compared with the heavy equipment lots we see on the backroads, there’s no question who has all the toys in this country. The private sector. I guess that’s a relief.

We were relieved to slip out of Vicksburg by a back street, and we navigated by compass back toward the Trace. A couple of miles from WES and the state roads were as idyllic as the Parkway itself, wildflowers and all. Rising into undulations, shade-tree dotted pastures. We fly into a flock of long-legged short-necked birds that had been foraging among the cattle. Snowy bitterns? Just about the time we started to second-guess our dead reckoning, we bumped into the Trace. Our last lap on the sylvan expressway, and we were torn. Carry on to Natchez for a grand finale, and visit the Grand Village of the Natchez, where DeSoto wintered and recorded most of what we know historically of the Mississippian people? Or boogie down toward New Orleans?


Our texts indicated there wasn’t much to see at the Grand Village, and we had reservations in the Quarter for tomorrow night. By cutting the corner we would get an extra day in the Big Easy. So we parted ways with the Natchez Trace around Fayette and dodged crosslots for the Homochitto National Forest near the southwest corner of Mississippi.

I take back everything I’ve said about enlightened highway planning in Mississippi. From Fayette to McComb they are ravishing the roadsides fit to make you gag. All the big line trees are gone, and everything else back thirty yards. But all they took were the big sticks. All the slash, big limbs and all, are still scattered along the ways. Sometimes there’s a smoldering pile, or the charred wreckage of one. It’s heartbreakingly ugly. I suppose it will all be wildflowers on day. Right now the grinning logtrucks keep coming at you like a train, piled high with dollars, if not good sense. The rape zone didn’t even quit when it hit the National Forest. There were a few elisions where you were back in the woods briefly, but whoever manipulated this boondoggle didn’t much care who had riparian rights. It was almost a relief to hit the mall strip of McComb.

We filled the larder with comestibles, and snuck off into the Percy Quinn State Park. Here at least the State of Mississippi has kept up her reputation for hospitality. Too much so, maybe. There was a long line of pickups and camper-trailers with Louisiana plates emitting at the gate. No sites available, the sign said. But we got waved through and directed to primitive camping, they had our number.

Friday night in the boonies, only 80 miles out from New Orleans, and it was a family scene.. going wild. Smoky campfires. Struggling with tentpoles. Lugging in tons of vital supplies and equipment. Untangling the dogs. Tired kids. Did you forget the...? Big Coleman lanterns to chase away the dark. Radios to scare off the silence. Don’t you love weekend camping?

Peggy and I wandered in the woods by the lake. Let it seep out some. Left Homer sleeping in his pack. Admired the waxing moon. Lay down on the ground.

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