Sunday, January 19, 2014

Hallowed ground

Vicksburg, MS – The stained glass windows at the Church of the Holy Trinity, where I went to the early service today, depict beautiful scenes from the Bible, such as the story of the Good Samaritan, which was the one across from my pew.  Six of the windows were crafted by Tiffany’s of New York. But the most unusual display was along the church’s back wall, where those who died on both sides of the Civil War are honoured.  It’s the only known windows to bring Union and Confederate emblems and flags together.

Our tour today of the Vicksburg National Military Park filled us in on many of the dramatic events that took place here in the closing years of the Civil War.  We arranged for a guide, Morgan, to ride with us in our car through the winding roads of the park and explain what happened in the spring and summer of 1863.  Describing these events to tourists is Morgan’s avocation; in real life he’s an elementary school administrator.  He’s also writing a book and running a business of ghost tours among the city’s old haunts.  He certainly had a wealth of information to share with us!

Simple geography is one of the most important elements in the outcomes of the siege of Vicksburg.  The town is on a high point of land, with steep banks overlooking the Mississippi River to the west, and hills and deep ravines providing natural protection to the east.  Union troops spent months devising a variety of approaches, by river and overland, to take the city, while the Confederates fought long and hard to resist the attacks.  Citizens dug trenches and caves to escape bombardments through the night during the weeks-long siege until both sides had reached a state of exhaustion.

Thousands of soldiers died on both sides, and thousands who survived sustained terrible injuries, starvation and disease.  Brothers fought brothers; troops from one state were divided against each other in war but are memorialized today on either side of a single monument. There are more than 1,400 different monuments throughout the park, some the size of large gravestones, and others as big as buildings with heroic statues, marble columns and symbolic figures.

The names of 36,000 soldiers line the inner walls of the Illinois monument (shown here), the most ornate and largest in the park, some of whom died and some who lived.  It was staggering to see them all, each in raised brass letters about a quarter of an inch high, covering the high walls of a space the size of a gymnasium.

It was difficult for me to watch the 20-minute film at the visitor center, which described and re-enacted the battle and siege from the point of view of local citizens, footsoldiers and military leaders, without being brought to tears.  The depth of sorrow and pain and the amount of bloodshed that marked the United States’ formative years is difficult to comprehend.

We were able to lighten the mood later today when we went to Rowdy’s Family Catfish Shack for dinner, where we ate pond-raised fried catfish, black-eyed peas, and corn bread, followed by a dessert of Mississippi Mud Pie, probably the most sugar-dense confection I’ve ever ingested!  I’ve checked that one off my list permanently.

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