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.

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