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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.)
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.
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.