Civil War Road Trip

The Genius of Grant's Vicksburg Campaign
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Oct. 4 2010 6:42 AM

Civil War Road Trip

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Click here to expand the slideshow on how Grant took Vicksburg.

I should start by saying this: I am not a Civil War buff. Not even close. The last time I studied the war was over a bowl of Wheat Chex the day I was to be tested on the material in 11th grade. I don't know McClellan from McPherson or Hooker from Halleck. Everything I know about J.E.B. Stuart I learned from the short fiction of Barry Hannah. But I am aware that millions of Americans visit Civil War battlefields each year.   I also know that the number of Civil War tourists is about to spike: April 12, 2011, marks the 150th anniversary of the firing on Fort Sumter, which even I remember is the event that ignited the hostilities between North and South. Over the next four years, scores of fathers will use the sesquicentennial celebration as an excuse to don their safari shirts and trundle forbearing wives and irritable children off to Gettysburg or Spotsylvania or Chickamauga. What will they see? Will they learn something they couldn't have picked up from watching Ken Burns or reading Battle Cry of Freedom? Can visiting these places turn a layman into a buff? Is Civil War tourism fun?

John Swansburg John Swansburg

John Swansburg is Slate's deputy editor. 

 

To find out, I've planned an ambitious road trip. Over the course of 10 days, I will drive from New Orleans to New York, stopping along the way at as many points of Civil War interest as I can manage. Many of the stops will be at national parks commemorating the war's major battles. But also on the itinerary is Andersonville, the Confederate prison camp where nearly 13,000 Union soldiers died; the CSS Hunley, the first submarine to complete a combat mission; and Stone Mountain, Ga., the Mount Rushmore of the Confederacy and home to a nightly laser light show. (This is the stop I am most eagerly anticipating—I love a laser light show.)  

I've conscripted three friends to join me for the trip, to share the memories and, more important, the driving. Will we still be friends after 2,000 miles on the road, untold hours roaming battlefields in relentless Deep South heat, and the revelation, soon to come, that I'm short on socks? Or, like some pair of border-state brothers, one married into industrial wealth, the other into cotton money, will we find our bonds of kinship torn asunder by this war between the states?

******

So far, so good. After an evening of only mild debauchery in New Orleans, we hop in a rented Toyota early the next morning and light out for Mississippi. Our destination is Vicksburg, site of one of the most important Union victories of the war.

I've arranged a tour with Parker Hills, a 63-year-old retired Army brigadier general whose Web site I stumbled across a few weeks back. In addition to giving tours to civilians like us, he also leads "staff rides," in which active military personnel study a past engagement in order to learn its lessons of strategy, tactics, and leadership. If the armed forces trust Hills' interpretations, that's good enough for us.

We meet Hills at a McDonald's off Interstate 20. I've already confessed to him that his charges for the day are woefully ignorant, so he starts by filling us in on the basics. By the spring of 1863, Vicksburg was one of the last Confederate strongholds on the Mississippi River: Dislodge the Rebel artillery there, and downriver at Port Hudson, and Illinois farmers could send their wares all the way down the river to New Orleans unharassed. * But taking Vicksburg was not going to be easy. The Confederate fortifications were formidable, so formidable that Union Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant first attempted digging a canal so that Northern watercraft could simply sail around the Vicksburg batteries. * When that effort failed, Grant resigned himself to taking the city by force.

Naturally, the Rebels weren't about to sit idly by while Grant encroached upon the city—getting his troops into position to take Vicksburg required outwitting his Confederate counterparts John C. Pemberton   and Joseph E. Johnston. This Grant did, repeatedly. Hills tells us that he considers the Vicksburg campaign to be Grant's finest of the war. "Sometimes I get in trouble around here bragging about Ulysses Grant," he says. He seems to be only half-joking.

I didn't know what to expect going into this tour; I worried that I'd signed us up for a day of droning lectures. But right from the start we can tell we're in good hands with Hills. His command of the material is daunting, yet he's also possessed of a courtly charm that helps the history go down smoothly. He's like Shelby Foote, with a touch of Warren Buffet. Of a historical interpretation he believes to be bullshit, he says, "That's barnyard scatology." Of a general who made a ballsy decision, he says, "That man had protuberances." He refers to his wife, whom he mentions frequently and with affection, as his "chief of staff."

Hills now explains his plan for the day. I'd assumed we'd spend the balance of the tour at the Vicksburg National Military Park. But the park's focus is the 47-day siege of the city; Hills wants to give us a sense of the strategy behind the entire Vicksburg campaign, to take us "where the gray matter was spent, not just the gunpowder." His enthusiasm for this plan is infectious. The road-trip crew is psyched.

Over the course of the day, Hills, now riding shotgun in our Toyota, directs us to the places where, through a series of protuberance-requiring maneuvers, Grant got the better of Pemberton and Johnston. He takes us to Raymond, Big Black River Bridge, and Champion Hill, stopping at each site to explain how the armies were arrayed, why the Union forces prevailed, and what Grant gained in the victories.

None of these battlefields are part of the national park, though parts of them have been protected from development—in no small part through the work of Hills himself. With a puff of pride, Hills tells us about his efforts to preserve the Raymond battlefield, near his hometown of Clinton, Miss. He's raised money, purchased land, and outfitted the battlefield with interpretive signage and (historically accurate) artillery. His not-so-modest goal is to build a system of parks that capture the full sweep of the Vicksburg campaign. Also to keep the parks free of used condoms, a goal, he notes, that demands constant vigilance.

It's past 4 p.m. by the time we finally arrive at the national park, where most tourists begin and end their visit to Vicksburg. Like many Civil War battlefields, Vicksburg is studded with memorials, most of which were erected by the states in honor of their sons who fought here. Hills is eager to show us a Confederate redoubt   that bedeviled Grant's efforts to end the siege, but as we pass the Illinois Memorial, a white marble temple modeled after the Pantheon, he allows himself a brief aside. (Hills studied art history in college.) He directs our attention to the memorial's frieze, atop which is perched a large golden eagle.  

The Illinois Monument at the Vicksburg National Military Park.
The Illinois Monument at the Vicksburg National Military Park

Back in the 1990s, Hills tells us, the bird was badly in need of a paint job, having spent nine decades exposed to the elements. But how to go about it? Applying gold leaf is a painstaking process—it was going to take weeks to repaint the eagle, and months for the paint to set properly—so the National Park Service needed to find a way to get the eagle down off its perch. The park service looked into getting a crane but couldn't find one big enough locally. So they called Hills, who had been conducting staff rides at the park for several years and was at the time the public affairs officer for the Mississippi National Guard. Hills didn't have a crane but kindly offered to make available to the park service a Chinook helicopter. After Hills and park historian Terry Winschel got up on top of the monument and loosened the screws, the chopper hoisted the bird off the temple and set it down on a nearby patch of grass. The Guard nicknamed the mission Operation Eagle.

I'd arranged our tour with Hills hoping that we'd get a sense of what a typical guided battlefield tour is like. After a few hours in his company, we're certain there's nothing typical about the Parker Hills experience. Over the course of the day, he has transformed us from novices to budding experts on the Vicksburg campaign. He's also renewed our faith in the can-do spirit of America. The next time I'm whining about the price point of my preferred facial cleanser or the limited commercial interruptions during my Hulu video, I'm going to think of Parker Hills and apply my energies to some greater purpose than my own frivolous indulgences. Maybe I'll volunteer to pick up litter at Grant's Tomb.

Toward the end of the day, we briefly stop in at the park service visitor center, where Hills is greeted warmly by the head ranger. He mentions to Hills that actor Paul Giamatti is planning to visit the park with his son the next day, a Sunday, and asks if Hills would be willing to give them a tour. Hills politely declines. Back in the Toyota, he explains that his chief of staff would have taken "a bite out of my backside" if he'd agreed to give a tour on a Sunday. Coming through with a Chinook, that's one thing; cutting church is quite another.

If you visit:

  • For the do-it-yourselfer, Parker Hills has also co-authored a driving guide to the Vicksburg campaign, which you can pick up free of charge at the national park. It features detailed descriptions of the battles and a handsome map.
  • Hills' tour was amazing, but even he admits his level of immersion isn't for everyone. Visit the Vicksburg National Military Park Web site for information on programming at the park. Be sure to spend some time at the exhibition dedicated to the USS Cairo (pronounced Care-o—it's named for Cairo, Ill., not Egypt), an ironclad Union gunboat that sank in the Yazoo River and is now on display at the park (see a photograph here). An accompanying museum houses artifacts from the ship.

Correction, Oct. 4, 2010: The article originally stated that Vicksburg was the last Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River. Taking the Confederate position at Port Hudson was also crucial to the Union's effort to control the river. The defenders of Port Hudson surrendered after learning that Grant had taken Vicksburg. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Correction, Oct. 13, 2010: Due to a copy-editing error, this article incorrectly implied the military rank of Ulysses S. Grant. He was a major general during the Battle of Vicksburg. (Return to the corrected sentence.)