A Castle on a Hill
by Morgan Gates
Let’s take an imaginary drive through Vicksburg, shall we? We’ll start at the Old Courthouse Museum. This iconic landmark is one of the most familiar in Vicksburg. In fact I like to call it Vicksburg’s “Eiffel Tower”. Let’s drive south two blocks on Cherry Street (named for the tree) until it intersects with Clay Street (named for Henry Clay). Here we will turn right and descend the hill two blocks until we reach the intersection of Clay and Walnut Streets (the tree again). To our right is the Old Hotel Vicksburg, completed July 4th 1929, sixty-six years after the end of the Siege and approximately three months before the beginning of the Great Depression. It was the tallest building between Memphis and New Orleans at the time; however, this is not our destination today. Turn left and drive up the hill, and in one block, you will pass between the 1903 Beaux Arts City Hall and the 1894 Romanesque Mississippi River Commission building. Keep going. Oh, we seem to be running out of beautiful buildings--a parking garage, the public library (built in the 1970’s, need I say more), and Central Fire Station. Walnut Street ends at its intersection with Madison Street (named for the president). Stop, we have arrived! What, you say! There is nothing here! Yes there is! Its right in front of you--the big hill!
Rising up over your head is a large hill, covered in Kudzu, topped with a few shabby houses and a very large radio tower. What’s so special about this hill you ask? Ok, here is a clue. Turn right and, about half way down the block, there is a small side street that runs up the hill. You see it, right behind the liquor store? Notice the street sign--it says “Castle Alley”!
There is something undeniably romantic about a castle on a hill. So many beloved tales, both old and new, contain a castle. Castles summon images King Arthur and Knights of old slaying dragons and rescuing princesses. Disney has made untold fortunes in an empire built around a “Magic Castle”. Many epic adventures like “Lord of the Rings” feature castles. Yes, there is something about the castle that captures the imagination and that fascination is not particularly new.
In our recent series on Fortress Vicksburg, we discussed how the City of Vicksburg has been called a fortress, but it was not a castle! The rich planters of the Antebellum south knew well the romance of the age of chivalry and in many cases identified with the “Cavalier” attitude of these days gone by. They even built houses that they felt were modernized (in there day) versions of palaces. Sturdy brick homes were given the even more permanent look of stone masonry by skilled artisans who applied coats of stucco for a “faux” stone appearance.
There was however one actual castle in Vicksburg. Sometime about 1840, banker Thomas E. Robins built a replica of a medieval castle on a high hill, just south of what would have been the southern city limits (mid-town today). He imported hexagonal bricks from England especially for this purpose. It had four towers and was even surrounded by a moat. It changed hands in 1852, and again in 1859, and was owned by a lawyer named Burwell, who had recently moved to Vicksburg from Virginia.
The Castle survived the siege, but not the occupation. After the city fell, it became a Union stronghold on the river. Grant’s battle-hardened troops were too valuable to be left sitting in garrison duty, so they were peeled off and sent on to other hotspots. A much smaller garrison of less experienced soldiers were left to guard the city. The old siege trenches were filled in and the defensive line around the city was shortened to only five miles. To strengthen the line, several batteries of “heavy artillery” were emplaced on the landward approaches to the city. The castle occupied a high hill in an ideal position to anchor this southern approach to Vicksburg. Though the home resembled a military fortress, it was in fact, not a suitable military strong point in 1863-4. It was torn down and replaced by earthen revetments mounting heavy siege guns.
The hill on which the castle set has undergone many transformations in the over 150 years that have passed since its demise. It is still known locally as “Castle Hill” but the only real reminder that Vicksburg’s most unique home once topped this promontory is that little green street sign behind the liquor store!