I never thought I'd be visiting my home town on a tour organized by the Smithsonian Institution, but in April, 2006, Jim and I did just that. The tour was led by Edwin Bearss, who had been the historian at the Vicksburg National Military Park when I was growing up. From the perspective of a "townie," he had been much derided as he progressively changed the park from our local thoroughfare and playground to a respectable place to interpret the military actions of the siege of Vicksburg. So my enthusiastic participation in the tour was somewhat ironic.

Our touring wasn't confined, however, to Vicksburg. The campaign against it in 1863 included actions in Louisiana and surrounding communities in Mississippi. We visited many of the locations. The campaign was too complicated to cover in any detail here. I recommend the book Ninety-Eight Days by the late Warren Grabau. And then there is Mr. Bearss' own "Vicksburg trilogy:"

What follows is just a sampling of what we saw. It is ordered by the sequence in which we visited it, which was in general the sequence of the campaign.

Grant's Canal

Prior to 1876 the Mississippi River flowed around an oxbow bend directly in front of Vicksburg. This is what enabled the Confederate cannon on the high bluffs to the east to control the passage of the river. Such a bend is so sharp that only a narrow neck of land is left between the two parts of the river.

General Grant put his troops to work attempting to dig a diversion across that neck on the Louisiana side of the river. This served the purpose of keeping the troops occupied and, who knows, it might have worked.

The depression seen here is what is left of their excavations.

Mississippi riverAs it happens, however, in 1876 the river itself decided to cut off that oxbow. This picture of the Mississippi is from South Fort. Grant's canal is considerably to the left of this picture, south of the current highway bridge across the river. Vicksburg proper is much farther to the right of this picture. Since 1876 a canal has been dug to divert the Yazoo River by the city and enable it to continue as a river port.

This picture gives an indication of how the batteries on the Vicksburg bluffs could control shipping on the river.

The Widow BlakelyMost of the batteries at Vicksburg today are reconstructions and the one at South Fort is no exception. This cannon, however, was actually used during the action - although not at this location. It is named The Widow Blakely.

The older river bridge can be seen in the background. It is not far from the location of Grant's canal.

Another famous gun used in the defense of Vicksburg was Whistling Dick. It was not recovered after the siege ended.

Grand GulfEd is describing the action at Grand Gulf, MS. This is near the area where Grant ferried his troops across the Mississippi south of Vicksburg in order to encircle the city and establish the siege.

This fortification was known as Fort Cobun. Since the Civil War the river's course has changed and the location no longer commands a view of the river. In addition the town of Grand Gulf has been eroded away.

Grand Gulf HouseThis is one of only two original houses remaining of the town of Grand Gulf.

Rodney ChurchThis church has been relocated to the Grand Gulf park from the town of Rodney. Rodney was left high and dry when the river moved away and is essentially a ghost town today. We did not visit it on this tour.

WindsorThe Windsor plantation house survived the Civil War only to burn in the late 19th century. The only thing remaining are the huge columns.

When I was growing up the area around the ruins was open and they could be seen from quite a distance away. Now the trees have grown up around them and they can't be seen until you are practically inside.

Port Gibson CemeteryFrom Grand Gulf, through the Romney area, to Port Gibson we basically followed Grant's march as he encircled Vicksburg.

There is a legend that Grant deemed Port Gibson "too beautiful to burn." Whether that is true or not, the town was not destroyed.

We visited the Wintergreen Cemetery where the Confederate dead are buried. Additionally we visited the grave of Maj. General Earl Van Dorn who was killed at about this time - not by Yankees but by a jealous husband!

Willow Springs ChurchWe continued to follow in Grant's track as we moved up the Natchez Trace toward Raymond. The army lingered near Willow Springs at Hankinson's Ferry on the Big Black River.

By the actions in this area, Grant succeeded in isolating Vicksburg from the south.

Mr. Bearss pointed out that during the Civil War period and well into the 20th century these rural areas were densely populated. At this time, however, most people have moved into towns and cities. The land is now largely given over to enterprises like pulpwood production that are not as labor-intensive as cropping.

Raymond OverlookThe battle of Raymond was a key to isolating Vicksburg from the east. The Confederate forces had the lower ground here as the Federal forces marched from the southwest.

The battle was a close one, but the federal forces eventually carried the day.

Raymond CourthouseAfter the battle, the federal forces marched into the town of Raymond. There they found a sumptuous spread prepared by the ladies of the town for the Confederates that they believed would win.

The Union soldiers were happy to benefit!

The courthouse is pictured here with a monument honoring the Confederates on the left.

From Raymond we traveled west to the Champion Hill area. This was the part of the tour that I had been most anticipating and it was disappointing.

Coker House

The battle of Champion Hill was itself chaotic and the physical landscape is still in private hands without any interpretation. The remains of the Coker House, shown here, are an indication of the physical state of everything we saw (apparently it has since been demolished).

One benefit of putting together this narrative (in 2012) is that I discovered a web site containing fascinating information about Champion Hill written by Mr. Bearss late wife, Margie, a noted historian in her own right. The vignettes at the link above give life to the history.

There is no picture because we ran out of time to spend at the Big Black battlefield. Another disappointment. Click the link to see pictures.

CannonThe next day we spent touring the Battlefield Park at Vicksburg. As part of the stop at the park headquarters we visited this display of the various cannon types that were used in the action. Who knew there could be so many?

Louisiana MonumentVicksburg sits on high loess bluffs overlooking the Mississippi basin. The city's defenses were on high ground and difficult to take by force. The Union forces tried more than once to storm the fortifications before they decided to lay siege.

Imagine what it must have been like to attack this position in the face, not only of fire, but also of a tangled abatis, which would have guarded approaches like this one.

Large monuments honoring the troops of states participating in the action are found throughout the park. They are generally located where those troops served.

Illinois MonumentThe Shirley house on the right is the only structure within the Park's boundaries that dates from the war.

The Illinois Monument is the grandest of the memorials within the park. A major feature is the echo within the open dome.

These are located on the "Graveyard Road" approach to Vicksburg, which was the site of the first frontal assault on the city. It failed with heavy losses. A second assault also failed. Grant and his army then settled in for an extended siege.

Wisconsin MonumentThis is one of the sculptures at the Wisconsin Monument. It was my favorite when I was growing up because I could scramble into the saddle of the horse. Somehow I didn't realize that the horse portrayed was wounded and probably dying. To me it was simply a chance to "ride."

The monuments in the park were mostly built in the early 20th century, but at least one, the Kentucky Memorial, was dedicated in the 21st century.

Grant's HeadquartersI'm sure that every town has its location where young folks go to park. Often these locations are the scenes of cautionary tales such as the hook. Well in the days of my youth, Grant's headquarters was THAT location. We called it "five faces" because of the sculptures shown here.

Nowadays admission to the park is limited and it is not open after dark. Ed Bearss was one of the driving forces behind that change. It didn't make him especially popular in Vicksburg at the time.

Ironclad CairoIn the mid-1950s Ed, Warren Grabau (the father of my best friend growing up) and Don Jacks did extensive research and exploration to locate the resting place of the USS Cairo, the first ship in history to be sunk by an electrically detonated torpedo.

Many residents became enthralled in the discovery of the ship and the attempts to salvage and raise and preserve it. Numerous difficulties were encountered and overcome to finally raise the ship (in pieces) in 1965.

During the process, however, many artifacts were discovered and saved and a museum was constructed to house and interpret them.

Inside the CairoFunding and technical delays almost resulted in the loss of the ship itself until the preserved remains were finally placed beside the museum housing the contents.

Although the metal parts, the iron cladding, the cannon, and the engines were largely saved, the picture shows that very little of the wooden structure was salvaged.

Surrender siteOur final stop after visiting the Cairo museum was the location of the meeting between Generals Grant and Pemberton for the final surrender of Vicksburg after a long and brutal siege..

By the time we got there a thunderstorm had moved in and it was raining heavily with intermittent lightning. Most of our group slogged out with Ed to hear details of the surrender, but we didn't think it was a great idea to be standing out in the storm holding a dandy lightening rod disguised as an umbrella. Jim and I contented ourselves with a remote view.