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Immerse Yourself in Civil War History at Vicksburg National Military Park

In Mississippi, learn about a battle that changed the course of the war

canons at Vicksburg National Military Park
David Lyons / Alamy Stock Photo

Visit Mississippi's massive Vicksburg National Military Park — it covers more than 1,700 acres just two miles from Vicksburg — to relive a pivotal battle in the Civil War. There's much to see: 1,325 historical monuments and markers, 20 miles of reconstructed trenches, two antebellum homes, 144 cannons, a national cemetery, and a restored ironclad gunboat. Plus, it's beautiful. “Visitors are usually overcome with the park's unique topography of rolling hills and steep ravines, and many remark how stunning every monument is,” says Brendan Wilson, VNMP's chief of interpretation, education and partnerships.

Both Confederate and Union campaign veterans wanted to honor the more than 37,000 who died here in 1863 during the three-month battle for control of the Mississippi River. The military park was established in 1899, before the federal government created the national park system in 1916. States, from both the North and South, built monuments to fallen troops, and you'll see headstones, obelisks and sculptures designed by some of the preeminent artists of the early 20th century.

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"The battlefield offers a sense of place. With a landscape that's still scarred by trenches and earthworks, it bears mute testimony to the courage, fortitude and sacrifice of soldiers and civilians alike,” says Wilson. “It's a place of reverence and reflection.”

COVID-19 update: The VNMP visitor center is closed, but you can pick up free brochures at the fee station and use the restrooms. The USS Cairo Museum is also closed, though you can still walk aboard the gunboat. The National Cemetery is closed to vehicles. Check the park's website for details.

Given VNMP's size, the amount of information to absorb about the siege of Vicksburg and the war, and the town of Vicksburg's charms, it's wise — if you have the time — to spend multiple days exploring the park and area. With this three-day plan, you can fully immerse yourself in the Vicksburg experience. (You'll also find a shortened itinerary below.)

Day 1

At VNMP's visitor center, a 20-minute orientation film provides context for the siege and offers stories from some of the families that fought here. You'll also find maps and a small museum with replicas of trenches and hospital tents, and artifacts such as the stone monument that marked the place where Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Confederate Gen. John Pemberton discussed surrender terms for Vicksburg.

Armed with this background, embark on the park's 16-mile driving tour, which consists of two connected loops — the North and South loops — and will take two hours or more. The tour hits the key stops, but for in-depth insights into the siege, consider hiring a licensed guide, who will also do the driving (in non-Covid times). Arrange for one (starting at $50 per car) through Visit Vicksburg (601-636-3827).

The 13-mile North Loop meanders through hill and dale and passes monuments and other sites, including the Third Louisiana Redan, a fort with replicas of cannons soldiers used to fend off advancing forces. Another must-see: the USS Cairo, a gunboat used in the shallow waters of the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers that sank during an 1862 battle. You can walk through the reassembled ironclad even when its museum is closed, and seeing its wide interior beams and mammoth size puts the scale of the tools soldiers used in battle in perspective.

Near the loop's end, pull over by the Second Texas Lunette, a fortification built by the Confederates in 1862, to observe the trenches and other defenses used during the siege.

Some visitors develop battlefield fatigue by the time they get to the 3-mile South Loop, but if they soldier on, they'll be rewarded with beautiful vistas, powerful stories and the Iowa State Monument, where six bronze panels by H.H. Kitson tell the story of the Vicksburg campaign.

Day 2

Follow the same double loops you drove yesterday. Why? Think of Day 1 as a scouting trip and Day 2 as your detail day. There's so much to see that guided tours can't make all the stops. But today, on your own, make as many stops and spend as much time as you want wandering through the museums in the visitor center and at the USS Cairo, marveling at the grand monuments, and reading the park's extensive and informative signage.

Tourists view the Missouri state memorial at Vicksburg National Military Park
Carmen K. Sisson/Cloudybright / Alamy Stock Photo

Plan Your Trip

Location: 3201 Clay St., Vicksburg, Mississippi

Size: More than 1,700 acres, including 16 miles of tour road

Getting there: Fly into Jackson, Mississippi, 40 miles east of Vicksburg; New Orleans, 205 miles south; or Memphis, 230 miles north. Vicksburg's location on the Mississippi River makes it a popular stop on river cruises as well. Parking is plentiful at the visitor center, the USS Cairo, and in the many pullouts and small parking areas along the driving tour route.

Visit: Daily, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (the visitor center and the Cairo museum are closed on major holidays, though the driving tour route remains open)

Admission: $20 per vehicle; the America the Beautiful Senior Pass is accepted. Admission is good for seven days.

Best time to visit: In the afternoon for smaller crowds; most visitors come early in the morning so they can see more and avoid the heat of the day.

Best season to visit: Spring and fall, for milder temperatures and pretty foliage (the hitch: larger crowds). Winter means fewer insects, less Mississippi humidity and, with the leaves off the trees, clear sightlines at battlefield spots.

Accessibility: VNMP is easily explored by car, and there are restrooms along the route. Wheelchairs are available at no charge (first come, first served) at the visitor center and the USS Cairo. Enhanced audio versions of films are available, as are some braille materials. In the few cases where signage is not accessible (such as at the top of a staircase), the text has been printed on the park website. You can bring leashed dogs into the park.

"Long stays offer opportunities for an all-day campaign tour of all of Grant's march and battlefields. Get out and get a close-up look at the bronze work and incredible detail of the masters of the American Renaissance,” says Michael Logue, president of the Vicksburg Guide Association.

Don't want to drive? Walk or bike using the driving route's walking/bike lane (rentals available from Battlefield Bicycle). Or mix driving with walking. You can even forgo the route and hike the unpaved, moderately challenging Al Scheller Trail, which winds 12.5 miles through forest. Maps in the visitor center mark the trailheads. You can use the park's free cellphone tour (601-262-2100) to complement any brochures your Day 1 guide gave you.

On the North Loop, take in the Illinois State Memorial, less than two miles into the park. Inside this 62-foot-tall domed marble and granite monument, modeled after the Roman Pantheon, 60 bronze tablets list the names of the state's fallen troops. Shirley House, next to the memorial, served as headquarters of the 45th Illinois Infantry during the siege. In the park's northwest corner, you'll find Fort Hill, which Confederate soldiers protected so well that no Union troops ever tried to take it.

Day 3

Also on the North Loop, visit the 116-acre Vicksburg National Cemetery, where nearly 17,000 Union soldiers (no Confederates) are buried. About 75 percent of the victims buried here are unknown, and their graves are marked with long rows of small white headstones. The graves of those who were identified are marked with their name and rank listed. Some Spanish-American War veterans are buried here as well.

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Spend the rest of the day exploring the town of Vicksburg just south of the park. Wander around its charming downtown, where buildings feature New Orleans-style balconies that house restaurants, small boutiques and art galleries. On Washington Street, drop into the Attic Gallery, the state's oldest independent art gallery, and visit the Biedenharn Coca-Cola Museum, the very site where the now-giant soft-drink king bottled its first Coca-Cola in 1894.

Visitor tip: If you had a relative who fought at Vicksburg, bring as many details with you as you can. Wilson says a park ranger may be able to locate where your ancestor would have fought on the lines, and then you can look out from the vantage point he would have had during the siege.

USS Cairo at Vicksburg National Military Park
USS Cairo
John Elk III / Alamy Stock Photo

Short on Time?

Even with time constraints, you can have a meaningful visit to the park.

If you have only a half-day: Start in the visitor center, seeing the orientation film and grabbing maps for the driving tour and historic sites. Spend two hours with a guide or use the DIY cellphone tour to wind your way through the park's North Loop.

A full day: Start as above, but add stops at the USS Cairo (and its museum), Shirley House, and some of the more striking monuments, and drive the South Loop. Check the park schedule for 15-minute ranger-led talks at both the visitor center and the USS Cairo.

Farther Afield

Several other Civil War-related attractions are within easy driving distance of the park.

Windsor Ruins. Drive about 40 miles south of Vicksburg, mostly on Highway 61, to see the remains (mostly striking columns) of this antebellum mansion outside the town of Port Gibson.

Rodney. Continue another 10 miles south on winding roads to Rodney, Mississippi's state capital in the 1800s and a Confederate stronghold during the Civil War. It's essentially a ghost town now, but you can see the exteriors of two historic houses of worship now being restored: a Gothic revival Baptist church and a brick Presbyterian church (the latter is occasionally open to the public).

Grand Gulf Military Park: Drive another 7 miles west on State Road 552 to Grand Gulf, which Gen. Grant made his headquarters after the Battle of Port Gibson. You'll find an impressive Civil War museum, restored Civil War buildings and a lovely wooded campground.

Where to Stay

For period charm: Try the nine-room Anchuca Historic Mansion and Inn, a circa 1830 Greek Revival mansion near downtown. Rooms from $131.

For gaming action: Thirty table games and 1,400 slot machines lure guests to the 149-room Ameristar, a riverboat casino and hotel on the city's south side. Rooms from $85.

Where to Eat

Main Street Market Café. This downtown hot spot cooks up Southern and Cajun luncheon specials (Southern beans, gumbo) Monday to Friday. Make a reservation for Monday dinner (the only night the cafe is open).

Tamale Place (south of the park) and Solly's Hot Tamales (west of the park). Both restaurants make tasty tamales using traditional Delta-style spicy ground meat.

Good to know. With VNMP so close to Vicksburg, it's easy to visit the park in the morning, leave for lunch, and then return for more exploring.

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