Seeing the 101: Vicksburg National Military Park

Spring is here and it’s time to head out to see the world, or at least a little slice of Mississippi before the heat of summer comes in and crushes you. On that note, a couple weeks ago, just before the whole world turned green again, I took a drive through Vicksburg National Military Park and this week, I’ll show you the highlights of my trip. The Park is one of our 101 Mississippi Places to See Before You Die, and even if it weren’t, it would be worth an afternoon. Back when it was opened in 1899, the Park’s planned system of drives provided a popular new activity for Vicksburg’s middle and upper class: “going for a drive.” Many of the Vicksburg Post articles about the park from the early 1900s mention how so-and-so went for a drive at the park the other day, and today, if we catch it on a good day, we can roll down our windows and re-live that experience.

Set aside as a “military park” in 1899, the park’s mission was and is “to commemorate the siege and battle of Vicksburg.” The park’s earliest feature is the huge cemetery, the final resting place of over 18,000 Union soldiers, many of whom remain unidentified (Confederates got sent to the Vicksburg City Cemetery).

Very quickly after it was established, the Park became one of the most important commemorative sites in the country, with monuments erected by the many states whose soldiers served there, busts of individual officers, and stones indicating where smaller units were dug in. According to the NPS website:

Vicksburg National Military Park is one of the most densely monumented battlefields in the world with over 1,340 monuments, markers, tablets and plaques, 95% of which were erected prior to 1917. This extensive collection of outdoor art features stone and bronze work created by some of the most renowned American sculptors of the era. The beauty and artistry of its monumentation prompted one Civil War veteran to call Vicksburg National Military Park, “the art park of the world.”

Wikipedia has an easier to find “Administrative History” section than the NPS website, which deals mostly with the Siege and Battle and to a lesser extent the Monuments:

The park sprawls over 1,800 acres (7.3 km2) of land. The park and cemetery were transferred from the War Department to the National Park Service (NPS) on August 10, 1933. Of the park’s 1,736.47 acres (not including the cemetery), 1,729.63 acres (6.9996 km2) are federally owned.

In the late 1950s, a portion of the park was transferred to the city as a local park in exchange for closing local roads running through the remainder of the park. It also allowed for the construction of Interstate 20. The monuments in land transferred to the city are still maintained by the NPS. As with all historic areas administered by the NPS, the park was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on October 15, 1966. Over a million visitors visit the park every year.

That little bit about the section of the park being given to the city helps explain why you can be driving along a city street and all the sudden see a monument off to the side, sometimes hiding in the bushes. It’s kind of a fun game of hide and seek. I may be wrong, but I think South Confederate Avenue was cut away for development even earlier than the 1950s, since a number of the houses along there, and of course the old All Saints Episcopal School, date to the 1910s and 1920s.

Even with that portion cut out of the park, visit the park expecting to spend a whole morning or a whole afternoon–it’s HUGE! I spent about two and a half hours to get the pictures I’ll show you this week, but that was just the northern section (which is about three-fourths of the drive) and I didn’t stop to watch the video at the visitor’s center, which I’ve seen before.

I’d be interested to see the official numbers regarding whether more visitors come for the Civil War military/strategic history or to see the monuments. As for myself, I wholly admit I can see strategy better on a map than on the ground, so I’m afraid the Park’s recent efforts at “restoring the battlefield landscape” are a bit lost on me. I am generally against cutting down trees, but in the case of the Illinois monument, where they cut a huge swatch recently, I was thankful for the long beautiful view of that amazing structure from way back (although that wasn’t their purpose in cutting).

Back in 1907 or so, according to the MDAH Historic Resources Database, the Park put up three observation towers that must have provided quite a view and might have helped me be more interested in the strategic maneuvers. Alas, these early concrete structures were taken down in the 1960s because of structural problems. Yet one more sight I wish I had been alive to see.

Well, with that background in mind, let’s begin our virtual tour, shall we?

First stop at the visitor's center, pay your entrance fee, and see the movie.

Enter at the Memorial Arch, dedicated in 1920 as a memorial to the 1917 four-day reunion of veterans. Originally standing astride Clay Street, it was moved into the boundaries of the Park in 1967.

This post is the first of a five-part series about Vicksburg National Military Park. Want to read more?



Categories: "To . . . and Back", 101 MissPres Places, Civil War, Cool Old Places

7 replies

  1. I remember, in 1958 or 1959, our Mississippi history class from Pearl High School toured the park. We did not see all but I remember the observation tower—I’ve always been afraid of heights and never could climb that or the tower at the park at Morton—whose name escapes me now (age I guess) but all my friends loved both sights. Am so looking forward to this series. Thank you for teaching an “old dog-new tricks” and letting me once again see places of my youth.

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  2. I’m just writing to be sure I understood this correctly…all of the historic properties administered by the NPS were added to the national register on Oct. 15, 1966? One fell swoop? It would make sense, of course, it’s just news to me. Thanks.

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  3. In reading a review yesterday of the PBS documentary to be shown tonight, I recalled reading this series of posts regarding the military cemetery. I gained some new understanding of the immense effort to build such memorials when I comprehended that the Civil War death rates, translated to today’s population, would result in seven million dead. Too, at the time of the Civil War, the government(s) made no effort to inform families/next of kin of deaths and injuries; instead, anxious families had to read newspaper lists to see if loved ones were mentioned. The staggering death tolls combined with such anxiety partially, I believe, explain the much later desire to erect monuments. The documentary, on American Experience, is “Death and the Civil War”, The review is at http://tv.nytimes.com/2012/09/18/arts/television/death-and-the-civil-war-by-ric-burns-on-pbs.html?ref=todayspaper No doubt my reading of this series will, in turn, enrich my understanding of the documentary. Of course, I guess that multi-layering of experience is one of the benefits of preservation.

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  1. Vicksburg Military Park Guide « Preservation in Mississippi

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