Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The Road Less Traveled Part III

Our next destination was Vicksburg National Military Park. We stopped at the visitor center, where we viewed an orientation film that summarized the siege at Vicksburg in less than eighteen minutes. Abraham Lincoln recognized the importance of Vicksburg, "Vicksburg is the key! The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket . . . We can take all the northern ports of the Confederacy, and they can defy us from Vicksburg."

An exciting narration of the heroics of Commander David Dixon Porter tickled the hearts of two naval officers in the audience (Steve and I). While General Ulysses Grant marched his forces down to staging area Hard Times, Louisiana, Commander Porter stealthily floated seven gunboats and three supply-laden troop transports past Vicksburg on April 16, 1863, a clear, moonless night. The fact they lost one boat and only thirteen men sustained wounds was miraculous because nothing passed the eagle eyes of the Confederates guarding the Mississippi River from the high bluffs of Vicksburg. Porter and his crew hugged the enemy shore so closely they could hear rebel commanders barking out orders as they floated right under Confederate cannons. A few days later, six more gunboats repeated this feat. For his actions before and during the siege of Vicksburg, Porter received a promotion to Rear Admiral on July 4, 1863, the day Vicksburg surrendered to the Union. After the war ended, Admiral Porter served as Superintendent of the United States Naval Academy for four years. Officer's Row (where high-ranking officers at the Naval Academy live today) is on Porter Road, named after Admiral Porter.

The map to the left shows General Grant's campaign to obliterate reinforcements to Vicksburg and to storm this Confederate stronghold in one massive attack. He accomplished his first objective by wiping out defenses in Port Gibson, Raymond, Jackson, Champion Hill, and Big Black River Bridge in less than three weeks, a blistering rate when you consider the distance and other factors. Vicksburg, perched on above rolling hills and bluffs, proved more challenging than Grant anticipated: his first two assaults on May 19 and May 22 failed, so he opted for a siege that lasted 38 days. General John Pemberton surrendered on July 4, 1863, hence the timing of this post!

After the film, we skipped the books and headed to the indoor exhibit, artifacts and static displays of a Confederate trench, Confederate hospital, field officer's tent, siege meal (actually more robust fare than described in Rifles for Waitie), and cave life. The cave fascinated me the most because people found it quite comfortable. The coolness of a cave would sound inviting on a hot summer day with no air conditioning. One baby was born there, and his parents named him William Siege Green. I found the weaponry interesting for the swords were not as fine as the one I carried at the Academy and the bayonets looked more like pikes than the thin knives we attached to our rifles. David and I both thought of Chips' comment about bayonets, "It seems to me a very vulgar way of killing people."

We then headed to the outdoor exhibit, manned by people in period costume, hot woolly long sleeves and all! One young lady impressed me with her knowledge of the cannon, cannon balls, and shells. She showed us a shell cut in half, crammed with small lead balls, which inflicted much more damage on entrenched soldiers than a single ball, however heavy. She clearly enjoyed sharing what she knew about the display. Draping canvas over bamboo to make a tent struck me as odd until we spotted a patch of wild bamboo growing on the grounds of the park.

Seated in the car, we next drove the sixteen-mile loop around the park, which took us through the battlefield, trenches (now softened into rolling hills by the years and covered in grass unless you get an aerial view). We carried with us a map, full of explanations for each stop of the tour. We got out of the car several times and even walked through Thayer's approach, dug by the Union after the second assault failed.

Monuments covered this park—not just big monuments representing each state, but little monuments representing a specific military unit from a specific state or commemorating a military leader. Our favorite monument is on the left: the monument to the United States Navy, the tallest monument in the park, of course. ("Go Navy! Beat Army!") The most unique monument was Kansas, which was a drive-by for us, so we did not photograph it! I had no idea what the symbolism of the three circles meant until I found it online: the top and bottom circles represent unity before and after the war, while the broken circle in the middle represents the Union torn asunder by war.

We snapped more monument pictures at the beginning of the tour. After awhile, monument fatigue seeps into your brain and your eyes zone out. It reminds me of when we walked through a Salvador Dali exhibit and David wearily quipped, "Well, if you've seen one Dali, you've seen them all!" To the left is the Minnesota monument to peace, which just celebrated the 100th anniversary of its placement. Below are three shots of the Wisconsin memorial, which I found spectacular! Oddly, the granite used in this monument did not travel from the granite state (Minnesota), but rather South Carolina!

We did not have time to tour Vicksburg National Cemetery, but did photograph it. The cemetery holds the remains of 17,000 Union soldiers, 13,000 unknown. About 5,000 Confederate soldiers, originally buried behind Confederate lines, now rest in a separate cemetery called Soldier's Rest Cemetery. Confederate soldiers did not qualify for burial in national cemeteries.

Finally, we reached what Steve and I agreed was the surprise hit of the tour. Lurking beneath the tent is an ironclad gunboat, not a model, but the real deal! Before we explored it, we toured the museum and learned that the USS Cairo, a City Class gunboat, sank on a cold December morning in 1862. The Cairo, the lead boat of a small flotilla along the Yazoo River (north of Vicksburg), struck an electrically detonated torpedo, a first in history. Lieutenant Commander Selfridge must have had his crew well trained for no lives were lost even thought the ship sank in only twelve minutes.

A hundred years later, work began to retrieve the ironclad from her watery grave. The thick layer of silt covering the wreck preserved the Cairo and her artifacts, except for the wood. Workers restored every item pulled out of the Yazoo River. Everything you can imagine--cutlery, dishes, hooks, block and tackle, shoes, combs, watches, etc.--are now on display at the USS Cairo Museum. One brave soul sampled hot sauce found in a bottle from the gunboat and found it aged to perfection.

Then we walked onboard the boat. Former main propulsion assistant on a destroyer, Steve found the five steam drums fascinating. They were quite small compared to a modern ship, nor did they produce much pressure, only 120 psi. On modern ships, the steam pressure is so high it will cut a hole in you if you are unfortunate enough to be near a leak. We saw the capstan, the armor plating, the wheels, the keel, the thirteen guns, and rudder. Steve, who also spent four years as a shipbuilder in the Navy, found the whole construction fascinating.

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