The Long Road to Vicksburg
By Morgan Gates
The Vicksburg National Military Park is a huge beautiful monument to the most complex campaign of the Civil War. It encompasses one thousand eight hundred and fifty acres the tour road is 16 miles long and along the way are over 1500 markers that run the gamut from modest to magnificent! But it only tells the end of the story! Before Grant could assault and besiege the city, he had to get to it, and that was no mean feat. Involving (warning run-on sentence ahead) building a supply road through many miles of swamp, a daring night run past the batteries on the bluffs, a major and ultimately unsuccessful naval bombardment of Confederate batteries 25 air miles south of Vicksburg, a fortuitous piece of information from a run away slave, the largest amphibious landing prior to WWII, five major battles fought and won in what could only be described as a 19th Century Blitzkrieg while crossing a huge army through almost 200 miles of enemy territory and the capture and destruction of only the second southern state capital to fall during the war (whew). All of this occurred far from the manicured grounds and artistic masterpieces of the VNMP. I occasionally am called upon to guide true Civil War buffs as they retrace Grant's spring break road trip. I just completed one this weekend with three gentlemen from Seattle.
The day starts early 8 a.m. is best, I usually meet them at their hotel I like to bring maps and charts, and I begin by explaining the enormous task confronted by Grant and the previous efforts that had already failed. Then we hit the road; our next stop is the ghost town of Grand Gulf, there is not much left an old long abandoned store, an old church that has been all but reclaimed by the forest and the land. It was once a thriving town of 80 blocks and a thousand people, up to 20 steamboats a week once docked there. But yellow fever and a massive tornado devastated the city, and then the Mississippi came to town washing away fifty blocks. Only a handful of people were left when the Union Navy burned it in 1862. The Confederates built two forts there to guard Vicksburg’s underbelly Fort Wade and Fort Coburn. The Confederate bastions successfully resisted the Navy’s best and forced Grant to move South and cross at Bruinsburg. Bruinsburg was once a thriving community as well as Andrew Jackson once owned a store there. Period references refer to substantial brick homes in the neighborhood, but alas it no longer exists. Our next stop is the Shaifer House on the Port Gibson battlefield it is not much different than it was in 1863 and the land is nearly untouched. The maps come out, and we hear, in our mind, the echoes of the guns of that long ago battle in the middle of a pastoral wilderness. We pass through Port Gibson, The City to Beautiful to Burn, a quick stop to snap a photo of the Presbyterian Church with its gold-plated finger pointing toward heaven. We follow the Old Port Gibson Road northeast, this road was known as the Natchez Trace in Mississippi’s territorial days, following Grant’s push toward the railroad. Grant is taking a mighty gamble with this maneuver, foraging his sustenance from the land with only scant supply lines essentially disobeying his orders to dig in at Grand Gulf and send aid to General Banks near Port Hudson. Grant follows his gut instincts, and they do not let him down. Lunch on the road at H. D. Gibbs Grocery in the little town of Learned, Google Maps doesn’t know where this place is. Then on to Raymond Battlefield where a Confederate Brigade goes against one of Grant’s corps and lives to tell the story because of a meteorological phenomenon. Champion Hill is next That Hill of Death Whose Guns Rang the death Knell for Richmond! Finally Battle of Big Black River Bridge that last barrier between Grant and his ultimate destiny. While not quite as exhausting as Grant’s March it is quite a whirlwind tour, wear your sneakers, not flipflops and long pants, not shorts. Bring the SUV, not the sports car. Bring plenty of water and come see us sometime.