Good News and Bad News at Vicksburg National Military Park

Map of Vicksburg Siege showing Union and Confederate positions. Hij via Wikipedia.

At Vicksburg National Military Park, a Centennial Challenge project has replaced or restored many of the monuments that honor the brave men who fought there. Unfortunately, funding and staffing problems continue to badly hamper the park’s ability to adequately care for its historic resources while telling the story of the Vicksburg Campaign, the siege of the city, and the reconstruction period.

When viewed from the Union perspective, the Vicksburg Campaign was brought to a highly satisfactory conclusion on a most auspicious date. After a siege lasting more than six weeks, Union forces under General Ulysses S. Grant finally captured Vicksburg, Mississippi, on the Fourth of July, 1863. Being perhaps even more strategically harmful than Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg, the day before, the loss of the last major rebel bastion on the Mississippi River dealt the Confederate cause a truly devastating blow. With the Mississippi now under Union control (and the “Father of Waters now flowing unvexed to the sea”), the Confederacy was effectively split in two. Many Civil War historians describe the combined Union victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg as “the turning point of the war.”

Grant, who was already a hero and media favorite before the Vicksburg campaign began, became a military superstar in its aftermath. He was promoted Major General effective the day Vicksburg fell, and on March 12, 1864, Lincoln appointed him general-in-chief of all the Union armies.

And what of Vicksburg? Grant left the city in a God-awful mess and its residents highly desirous of roasting the Union commander very slowly over a bed of hot coals. To win his victory, Grant had wrecked a good bit of the city with his artillery and starved the residents to the point where many were reduced to living in caves on the river bluff and subsisting on rats and wallpaper paste. Before abandoning Vicksburg (there being no need to garrison the place) Grant even had his troops destroy the earthworks and other fortifications so they’d be of no further use to the rebels. This was brutal warfare, make no mistake about it. Vicksburg was an absolute wreck after Grant got through with it, and its people were destitute to a point that most of us can scarcely imagine.

Since the present story deals with battlefield monuments and such, the Vicksburg residents’ memories of Yankee oppression during and after the Civil War are highly relevant. To say that Vicksburg residents were pissed off at the federal government is to greatly understate the case. Notwithstanding that a park was established in 1899 to preserve the battlefield (it was one of the first five such National Military Parks), the city of Vicksburg did not formally celebrate the Fourth of July until more than 80 years after the end of the Civil War. Imagine that! More to the point, when World War II came along, locals were quite content to see bronze markers and other monuments stripped from the battlefield during a 1942 scrap drive and melted down to manufacture munitions. To the residents of Vicksburg, the Battle of Vicksburg was not worth commemorating. Can you blame them?

Fast forward to the 2000s. The Vicksburg National Military Park has a serious deficiency of interpretive battlefield markers, bronze statuary, stone monuments, and other memorials. The NPS Centennial Challenge rides to the rescue. A key NGO -- The Friends of the Vicksburg National Military Park and Campaign -- contributes $71,000 of private funds. The NPS Centennial Initiative matches this with $71,000 of federal funding. The battlefield blossoms with new and restored monuments. Score one for the park, which now has, in addition to a much improved compliment of monuments, a pretty good little museum, a nice auto tour, and lots of tourist support facilities. By any reasonable measure Vicksburg National Military Park is a great place to visit, whether you are a true Civil war biff or just a routine visitor.

But let’s not get carried away. This is a troubled park. In fact, Vicksburg scored only “fair” (67 out of a possible 100) in a recent State of the Parks study conducted by the National Parks Conservation Association. The park is so underfunded and understaffed that it cannot adequately care for its historic resources while telling the story of the Vicksburg Campaign, the siege of the city, and the Reconstruction period (ending 1877).

The park operates on an annual budget of about $2.7 million (plus project funds) and is authorized 45 full-time staff members. However, it has been able to afford just 35 employees for the past four years, including just two cultural resource staff members and a historian/museum curator. The NPCA concluded that Vicksburg should have an additional $716,000 in annual funding as well as 9.4 more employees, including an assistant historian, a museum technician, a landscape specialist, and a part-time archeologist. At present, the Confederate side of the Vicksburg story is being very incompletely told, interpretation relating to women and African-Americans is very inadequate, and there is no site in downtown Vicksburg that tells the citizens’ stories of the war.

Post script: While monument restoration is certainly important at Vicksburg National Military Park, restoring the park’s Civil War-era sightlines and vistas is even more important.

And another thing: The NPS needs to quit misleading visitors on the matter of the park’s earthworks. The original earthworks were destroyed on Grant’s orders 142 years ago. The ones that visitors now see are all reconstructions, at least some of which are being tacitly passed off as genuine historical relics. Some Civil War buffs get pretty upset about this, calling the bogus earthworks “eyewash,” but there’s no doubt that the reconstructions provide valuable information about what was going on where. The point is that reconstructed earthworks should be clearly identified as such so that visitors are not left to assume they are actual relics. As it is, too many people are leaving the park thinking: “Boy, is this battlefield ever well preserved!”