It had never been more evident that not all national military parks were created equal than the time I spent three days at Vicksburg National Military Park. An easy to follow, secluded route wound between statues, memorials, and interpretive panels. There were a few opportunities to get out and stretch my legs. But the biggest surprise of all was a recovered and partially restored ironclad on display beneath a giant white tent. This park will always stand out in the greater National Park System.
The 10-mile main route through the park is a primarily one-lane, one-way road divided between Union Avenue and Confederate Avenue. The route follows along the emplacements of force during the Siege of Vicksburg. Union Avenue stretches from the Visitor Center to the USS Cairo Museum, and then Confederate Avenue from Fort Hill to the Visitor Center.
The road through the park has been very well maintained over the years and makes for a smooth and easy exploration of the park. The road is almost always wide enough to allow a slower vehicle to pull to one side and let others pass. Or, as in my case, for a vehicle to park on the side to capture pretty photos of the park. There are several pull-offs and parking spots, mostly at the larger memorials.
It only took me about thirty minutes to drive the entire route my first day in the park. I had arrived with just two hours until they closed so really this was just a brief introduction to the park for me. I actually recommend this so you can get a good feel for the park before you try to make stops and explore different sections for yourself.
After returning to the Visitor Center I continued straight through and began my second journey along the main route of the park. During my second time through the park I began to realize just how peaceful it was here. Quiet. Secluded. Right in the heart of bustling Vicksburg but surrounded by trees and rolling hills I would have thought I was miles out in the countryside.
There are several alternate routes through the park. The first is Pemberton Avenue. This is one of the two-way roads in the park that allows visitors to quickly travel from Union Avenue to Confederate Avenue, allowing you to either cut your journey short or extend it longer. The old park headquarters is located along this road, a building that is still used as office space.
The next alternate route is Graveyard Road. This is another two-way road in the park that connects the Stockade Redan Attack, a place for live fire demonstrations during peak months of the year. Grant Avenue is a two-way loop road that takes visitors to the site of Grant’s Headquarters during the siege, today marked by a giant statue of Grant on horseback. Sherman Circle is a short loop road off this alternate route.
The longest alternate route, and most frequently overlooked in the park, is the continuation of Union Avenue and Confederate Avenue across Clay Street. This area is accessed at the very end of the main route within sight of the Visitors Center. By this point in time most park visitors are ready to leave, or just not aware, of what exists along this alternate route.
This route includes several beautiful memorials such as the Texas Memorial, Alabama Memorial, and Kentucky Memorial. After a short two-way connector the road splits into one-way routes the same as the rest of the park. Near the turn around point of the road I pulled over for awhile, maybe forty minutes, and not a single car passed me the entire time. I enjoyed the peacefulness, but decided I needed to let people know about this side of the park.
Of all the monuments, statues, and memorials in the park, the Illinois State Memorial stands out above all the others. Literally. Dedicated in 1906 the memorial to the state of Illinois soldiers who fought in the Siege of Vicksburg stands a whopping 62′ tall. The gorgeous memorial is made of Georgia white marble on a base of granite from a quarry in Stone Mountain, Georgia.
After climbing the gleaming white steps to a doorway that is always kept open I noticed the first of many names inscribed into the marble. Inside the floor has a beautiful decor beneath a vaulting dome. The center of the dome is open, allowing the elements to pour through. During my first visit I was nearly struck by two birds chasing each other as they spiraled higher and higher until they fled out the open dome (only to return through the front door a few minutes later).
Hundreds of names are etched onto bronze plates attached to the marble walls. This was perhaps one of the most impactful moments I’d ever had at a Civil War-era park as it made me realize just how many people were involved in the War Between the States. When you visit be sure to spend a few minutes reading some of the names. I spent a good deal of my second day exploring the park enjoying the view both inside and outside this memorial.
During my first tour through the park along the main route I noticed a tall white tent below the road on the right. I first I thought there was a special event happening in the park. The road quickly descended and I found myself looking straight at the tent…and a massive ironclad beneath it! I knew there was a museum here but I had no idea the original USS Cairo had been recovered, partially restored, and permanently put on display here.
The Cairo was a 175′ ironclad with a crew of 251 officers and men that was built in Illinois. The boat would see almost a full year of service, commissioned in January 1862, before it was sunk in the Yazoo River outside Vicksburg in December of that same year. The Cairo was the first vessel in history to be sunk by a mine, detonated by two Confederate soldiers from the banks of the river. It only took twelve minutes for the boat to sink beneath 36′ of water. But on December 12, 1964, exactly 102 years later, the Cairo was raised from the bottom of the river.
Visitors can now explore the exhibits on display at the museum (itself an interesting building half-buried beneath a hill) before walking through the partially-restored ironclad. Interpretive panels explain the different parts of the boat as you walk along the main deck through the boat to the other side, then around the back to see where the mine had detonated against the hull.
Vicksburg National Military Park was one of the best national military parks I had ever explored and certainly left an impression on me. The park’s natural beauty hides the gruesome result of Siege of Vicksburg, one of the most important engagements of the Civil War. Before you visit this amazing park for yourself here are a few things you might want to know.
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