On my recent cruise down the lower Mississippi aboard American Cruise Lines’ Queen of the Mississippi — built to resemble an old-fashioned paddlewheeler — “riverlorian” (river lore expert) Mike Jennings summed up the feelings of those who live along America’s mightiest (and muddiest?) river: “We’ve got mud in our blood.”
Jennings, who lives in Vicksburg, Mississippi, was on board to give passengers some historical and ecological perspectives on the river we were cruising down at 13 miles per hour. Over the course of a week, we would cover nearly 650 of the Mississippi’s total length of 2,350 miles, as we journeyed between Memphis and New Orleans. (The lower Mississippi actually starts somewhat farther north in Cairo, Illinois.)
The river meanders so much, Jennings said, that sometimes we would actually be traveling north despite our general direction of south. (I found this to be true when sitting on our cabin’s balcony, which normally faced east, and the sun, on occasion, appeared to be rising in the west. Either that, or I hadn’t had my morning coffee yet.)
Our first port stop was Vicksburg, which quickly became a lesson in Civil War history. The city is built high atop bluffs overlooking the river, providing natural defenses for Confederate troops, who rebuffed several Union attacks led by General Ulysses S. Grant.
But, after Union gunboats blasted the city for 47 days, Confederate troops surrendered on July 4, 1863. The successful siege of Vicksburg proved a turning point in the war, since it gave the North control of the lower Mississippi, a vital lifeline for supplying Confederate forces.
President Abraham Lincoln considered taking Vicksburg crucial to the Union cause. Though the war continued for another 21 months, Lincoln now had the key to victory in his pocket, as he put it. A shore excursion offered by the ship toured the Vicksburg National Military Park, which commemorates the events.
On our walking tour of the city, led by a local resident, we learned that, remarkably, only a dozen or so civilians died during the siege. The citizens found creative ways to survive. Many abandoned their opulent homes and lived in caves they dug in their yards. Others turned their homes into makeshift hospitals, which were considered off-limits to shelling. They housed wounded soldiers from both sides of the conflict, but, we were told, “they put the Yankees on the top floor of the houses so that if they were shelled, the Yankees would get hit first.”
A number of beautiful antebellum homes survive in Vicksburg, several now operating as B&Bs. You can see several early 19th century houses once occupied by the Vick family, for whom the city is named, but all the Vicks have moved away.
The city’s Old Court House, which is perched on a hill and dominates the skyline, is now a museum, displaying Civil War relics and other local artifacts.
Vicksburg also has a Museum of Coca-Cola, located here because it was the site of the first Coca-Cola bottling operation, started by an enterprising candy maker. And, down by the waterfront, there’s an impressive set of murals depicting the history of the city, from its founding on down.
Once a rendezvous spot for bankers, merchants, farmers and plantation owners — when this stretch of Mississippi and Louisiana was the wealthiest region of America, built on cotton and slave labor — Vicksburg is now a quiet city of about 25,000, living partly in the past and struggling, it appears, to find a future.
American Cruise Line’s Queen of the Mississippi and other river cruise boats deliver a much-needed economic shot in the arm. Not to hotels or most restaurants, of course, since passengers sleep and eat (mostly) on the boats, but, judging by the numbers of cruise ship passengers roaming the streets of Vicksburg on an otherwise quiet Memorial Day weekend, local museums and shops are benefiting from the influx of visitors.
Civil War buffs, too, should find Vicksburg an indispensable stop on a tour of battlefields. Had Vicksburg not fallen, there’s no telling what course the war would have taken. Control of the Mississippi River was that vital to both sides of the conflict.
Next up: Natchez, Mississippi.