Vicksburg, Also Known As the Key

Memorial Leans ForwardI like to think that I made a solid effort to be interested in Vicksburg National Military Park.

The town of Vicksburg is located on the Mississippi River, and was one of the last Confederate towns to fall in the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln called it “the key,” or so I gathered from the eight or so times I read or heard the same Lincoln quote about Vicksburg being the key while I was on the park grounds. After an initial, unsuccessful attack, General Grant laid siege to Vicksburg until the Confederate troops were forced to surrender. The park covers a huge section of land surrounding the town, and is apparently one of the best marked battlefields in the country, with several hundred (or was it thousand?) markers and memorials.

I arrived right as the park was opening at 8AM. I watched the introductory film, looked at the visitor’s center exhibits, and began my 16-mile drive around the park. Normally I’m a big fan of war memorials, because they tend to involve a lot of interesting symbolism. But there can be a deadening effect if you see too many at once, especially because most of the Vicksburg memorials are for individual units. All they say is the name of the unit, when they existed, and occasionally the names of those who died. The memorials are on stone plaques and pillars, decorative enough to lose their austere simplicity but not fancy enough to inspire awe. The memorials were added over the course of many years as people recovered from the war, and include one large remembrance for each state that lost soldiers at Vicksburg (which is pretty much every state that existed at the time). There are explanatory signs as well, but they quickly began to all sound the same to me. “On (date) the (numbered regiment) under the command of (officer name), charged up this hill, dug a trench, and/or fired canons at (numbered regiment) of the (opposing force). (Outcome).”

IllinoisI don’t mean to speak ill of the dead or belittle their sacrifice, but a monument to a siege really hammers home the deep seeded stupidity of war. Like at the World War I museum, I look at the old canons and ironclad ships and artillery shells and I don’t feel that weird sense of nostalgia you get when looking at an old-timey bicycle or printing press. I just see a bunch of young guys dying of infection in ditches because a bunch of old guys were arguing in congress. I understand the reasoning that some problems (like slavery) are so huge that they must be solved by war. I understand it. But I’m not sure I believe it.

There are thousands of identical stone squares lined up in the Vicksburg National Cemetery. Many don’t have names, only numbers. Some are so old even the arbitrary numbers have worn off. And other than the same tired line from Abraham Lincoln about Vicksburg being “the key,” I couldn’t find anything in the park that really told me why so many men were made to sit in hot, muddy trenches waiting to be done in by dysentery. Abraham Lincoln also said that the civil war was the time we tested whether or not the great experiment of democracy could survive. Perhaps we passed the test, or maybe we just won the war.

GravesIt is fitting that my favorite internet purveyors of history, CrashCourse, recently released a video in which John Green rattles off every major battle of the Civil War in less than eight minutes. It gets boring and monotonous fast, which is the whole point. While it’s nice to talk about great battles like Vicksburg and Yorktown and Verdun, there’s only so much to be said about them. On (date) a battle was fought at (location). The victorious side was (winner), who went on to fight more battles and more wars because it seems we never learn.

The Birthplace of the Blues

Bottle ArtThe Shack Up Inn is easily one of the best hotel experiences I’ve had. Outside of Clarksdale on an old plantation, the rooms really are shacks. Most are the old shotgun style, refurbished to add nice things like plumbing and air conditioning without sacrificing nicer things like creaking floorboards and slamming screen doors. The shacks are all themed, mine being for the blues musician Pinetop Perkins. The grounds are littered with well-placed old bicycles, farm equipment, and bottle art. The front desk told me they had doughnuts there in the morning, and moon pies in the evening. I asked what a moon pie was and she told me, “It’s like a Wagon Wheel, only smaller.” This didn’t actually help as I didn’t know what a Wagon Wheel was either, but eating the Moon Pies later cleared everything up.

Pinetop ShackI drove into town to see what there was to see. In small towns the answer of what there is to see is usually “not much,” but sometimes that’s what I’m interested in. I parked near a few stores and walked along, looking through the windows. I came upon the Cat Head, which was mentioned by both the innkeeper and my National Geographic road trip. The Cat Head is a blues music & art store, so it wasn’t surprising to hear music as soon as I walked in. What was surprising was that it was being played by the man behind the counter. I bought a postcard, he put down his guitar and introduced himself as Preston, and I told him about my trip. He offered to teach me a little about the Mississippi Delta and how the flooding of the river gave birth to the Blues. To paraphrase:

The Mississippi River loves to overflow it’s banks, reaching all the way out to the Yazoo River. After hundreds of years of seasonal flooding, the delta had some of the richest topsoil on the planet, making it perfect for cotton plantations. When white settlers first discovered this rich soil the delta was full of trees and marsh land, and it was still subject to regular flooding. In order to build a plantation, the land had to be cleared and levees built. At the time this meant slave labor, and slave labor in excess of what most people could afford. As a result, only the wealthiest slave-owners moved to the delta. Preston said that at one point, the richest people in the country all lived on Manhattan or in the Mississippi Delta.

After the civil war, the plantation owners still needed cheap labor, and ensured they could get it with things like vagrancy laws. This allowed the police to arrest any man walking on a public street who didn’t have any money. The plantation owners could then pay the state to hire these “criminals” to work the land. Another popular way around the illegality of slavery was to bring on black families as tenant farmers, with the idea that they would work the land for several years, pay the landowner with the crop yield, and eventually make some money for themselves. In the grand European tradition of getting people who don’t read English to sign contracts written in English, most tenants were given a bad deal.

One notable exception to this system was plantation owner Will Dockery. He developed a reputation for fair treatment of his tenants, and his plantation grew to have over 2,000 workers. One of these workers was Charley Patton, one of the first great blues musicians. The likes of Robert Johnson, Willie Brown, and Tommy Johnson came to learn from Patton and his students, and the Dockery Plantation is recognized by many as the birthplace of the Blues for this reason.

The Sunflower RiverAfter the history lesson, Preston went on to explain how the drastic economic disparity of the Delta’s slavery roots never went away. “There is no middle class in Clarksdale,” he told me. “You are the very rich, or the very poor. The former being white, and the later being black.” Preston moved to Clarksdale eight months ago, and he says most of the black friends he’s made thus far are illiterate, including the guys in his band. Looking around the town, I could see what he meant. It became more apparent when I was sitting in a diner the next day and a black woman came in to order some food to-go. She asked what it cost, and had to go back out to her car twice to find the last four pennies she needed to pay for it. “You can tell I’m waiting on payday,” she joked with the woman behind the counter. On my way out of Clarksdale, I saw a sign with a set of words I was not expecting in such a rural part of the country: Coahoma Country Club. I would see two more country clubs on the way to Vicksburg, and pass by the two kinds of houses the region has: mobile homes and beautiful, large, brick buildings.

I’d heard live music four nights in a row, and the birthplace of the blues seemed like an awful place to break the cycle. Unfortunately I was in Clarksdale on a Tuesday, and Preston lamented that I wouldn’t be able to go to Red’s, a place he called “the last real Mississippi juke joint in the world.” There was only one place in town with live music on a Tuesday. The venue is an art gallery by day with music in the evenings. It’s not exactly the kind of salt of the earth dive one might hope to find on the Mississippi River, but it was still live blues music. I met a few foreign travelers before the show began, and for awhile the only people there were other guests from the Shack Up Inn. An old Skinny man came in to sit down at the bar. He obviously knew the owners and started joking back and forth with them, primarily about the inability of Americans when it comes to driving and something about Thomas Jefferson being a slave owner and a rapist so who needs to listen to him anyway. The old man slumped over on the couch next to me and slept through most of the first set.

MusicianFor his part, the guitarist playing that Tuesday was an interesting and talented man. Preston warned me that “he can play some good blues for a white boy, but he’s a bit too flamboyant for my tastes.” I could understand what he meant. He reminded me a lot of my “uncle” Rich, one of my parent’s old band mates. He’s the sort who always seems to be walking the line between musician and comedian, and won’t be shy about taking a drink of his beer in the middle of a chorus. The musician in Clarksdale had a habit of finding every other blues player in the room and calling them up to play a song, at which point he would head over to grab another beer and introduce himself to everyone in the place. He pointed to the old man slumped over on the couch and said, “That’s blues legend Watermelon Slim passed out on the couch, when he wakes up I’ll have him come up here a play you a tune.”

The CrossroadsAs the evening dragged on a few more people showed up, clearly locals. The room was still only halfway full when the mayor walked in wearing a suit and tie, and the party really started. Dozens of people trailed in after him, and I was only able to stay another half hour before the late hour got to me and I had to head back to my shack. I passed by the legendary crossroads at Highways 61 and 49, one of the many sites said to be the spot where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his amazing musical talent. Early in the day when I checked in to my room I was shown a collection of guitars in the lobby. I was told I was welcome to bring any of the instruments to my room. I grabbed a guitar and sat on my screen porch, looking at the stars and pretending I knew what I was doing. I may have my soul, but I can’t play the guitar worth a damn.

The Deep South

I got the idea for this trip from my older sister and her friends back when I was in junior high. They would talk about taking a similar route around the United States, and I would overhear their conversations. For whatever reasons their plans never manifested, and the whole thing just sat in the back of my mind.

In my sophomore year of college I got an idea for a novel, following the adventures of the main character as she wandered around the United States (hiding from her past, unable to go home, that sort of thing). I wrote small bits of the story whenever I got inspired, but never really focused any effort on it.

My senior year I was suddenly filled with inspiration for the novel, and made a conscious effort to sit down and write more. There was one particular section of the story I felt sure was best placed in the Deep South, where things would be hot and sticky and rural and racist. But as I sat down to write, I had nothing. I couldn’t picture any details. Everything looked generic. I realized that my hot sticky rural racist South was based entirely on movies and books. I was setting my story in someone else’s novel.

It’s been pointed out to me before that being in the southeastern United States in July is going to be miserable. That is, generally, the point. If I want to write about that misery I’m going to have to experience for myself. I’ve been accused before of being too autobiographical in my writing, which to me is a silly accusation. Every writer is writing her own story. Every writer is writing the relationships and settings and characters that she has seen inside herself and in the world around her. Some just disguise it better than others. In my experience, the more you disguise it the more like your real life it ends up being anyway, but that’s a story for another time.

My point is, the Deep South is on my must see list so I can see and feel and taste what it’s like to be there. Unfortunately being there is the only thing on the list.

Deep South MapAs I mentioned before, I’ve been keeping track of possible U.S. attractions in Evernote. When I go to my notes on Mississippi and Alabama, all I’ve got on the list of possible places to see is the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, and I’m not even sure I want to go there. These two states stand as a single, solid block of “I’m sure I’ll find something.”

I can’t help but wonder what this is implying. Is it that I don’t know anyone who has visited either of these states? Or is it just that they don’t have any good news to report? I know I want to spend some time on the Mississippi river, so that’s a start. But what then? On all my maps thus far I take a straight path from New Orleans to Jacksonville. While I’m sure the gulf coast is nice, it seems an awful long way to go just to stay on the edge the whole time.

Perhaps I should just do what my main character does: head towards Alabama and get myself into trouble.  I don’t know if it worked for her, I haven’t written that yet. But I suppose that’s true for both of us.