Unfolding the Map
With William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) we visit the "Key to the South," Vicksburg. Why is it the key, you may ask? Read on, fellow traveler and Littourati, and it will be made clear. If you want to see where the key was turned so many years ago, click on the thumbnail of the map to the right side of the page, and feel free to comment on anything you want!
"...and drove northwest to cross the Mississippi at Vicksburg. South of town, I ate a sandwich where Civil War earthworks stuck out on a bluff high above the river. From these aeries, cannoneers had lobbed shells onto Union gunboats running the river. Anything - a rock, a stick - falling from that height must have hit with a terrible impact."
Blue Highways: Part 3, Chapter 8
Vicksburg sits at a strategic point on the Mississippi River. From on high it overlooks the river where it bends around a peninsula. This high point made the city a terrible gauntlet that Union boats had to run under withering cannon fire from the city. By holding this area, the Confederates maintained a unified country stretching from the Georgia and Florida coast to Texas and beyond, and also kept the Union from being able to run supplies up the Mississippi.
Not only that, but the city was fortified from the land side by earthworks and defenses that made it a formidable place to try to take. But in 1863, Ulysses S. Grant and his sub-generals, including William T. Sherman, decided to try to take the city. The Confederate forces, depleted by battles, retreated into the city, and after several unsuccessful attacks, Grant settled down for a siege. The Confederates hoped for help from another Confederate army to the east, but that help never came. Eventually, tired and starving after a siege of just over a month, the Confederate army surrendered on July 4th, just one day after Robert E. Lee was defeated by Union forces at Gettysburg. Grant allowed parole to all prisoners, who he expected never to fight again after the horrors of the battles and the siege. As a result of the battle, the Confederacy was cut in two, never to be reunified. It marked the turning point in the American Civil War, and truly shaped the character of the South and helped define the nation's path forward through history. The surrender was so emotionally and politically charged that the city of Vicksburg refused to celebrate the U.S. July 4th Independence Day for eighty years.
The Civil War interests me because it was probably the first modern war. While previous wars had been fought according to specific guidelines - armies lined up in ranks shooting at each other until one or the other broke - the Civil War was an all out contest where the rules of war were redefined. In a sense, the United States had gained experience in fighting such a war in the Revolutionary War, where the Colonial Army sometimes fought according to the established rules, but sometimes used guerrilla tactics to fight as well. The Civil War was much more of an all-out fight, from what I've read, with the true horrors of war made possible by advances in engineering and explosives. In the siege of Vicksburg, for example, the Union soldiers tunneled under Confederate defenses and packed over a ton of gunpowder into the shaft, exploding it and breaking through the lines. The resulting crater was 40 feet wide and 12 feet deep. All in all in the siege, casualties were numerous. The Union casualties were close to 5,000 men, and the Confederate casualties numbered some 3,500 men with 29,000 surrendering. Deaths over the entire campaign for Vicksburg numbered about 10,000 Union killed and wounded, and just over 9,000 for the Confederates.
Many times it was better to die on the battlefield than have to face infection, gangrene, the loss of a limb, and perhaps even addiction to painkillers. The lyrical excerpt below is from a Michelle Shocked song called Soldier's Joy, which recounted the horrors of the battle aftermath:
But my entire body filled with pain
I pleaded with them all at the field hospital
Oh god, another shot of morphine.
Soldier's joy, oh what's the point in pleasure
When it's only meant to kill the pain
Lay down my arms and take the coffin's measure
Or take up arms and send me out to fight again.
Shaking hands, was I a coward, was I brave?
Shaking hands, I took the bitter pill
Tell the story on my grave, my soul they could not save
What the bullet couldn't kill, the needle will.
Shaking Hands (Soldier's Joy)
from Arkansas Traveler
While the Civil War was a defining event in American history, it also cost more American lives than any war before or after. In 1865, those deaths accounted for almost two percent of the U.S. population, and these are just estimated deaths as record keeping wasn't very precise back then. If you add in the wounded, the number of Americans and American families affected by the Civil War is even greater. To compare, World War II deaths only accounted for three-tenths of the population of the United States.
Vicksburg is thus an important place in our American history. As LHM sat on the bluffs over the river, imagining the cannon shot raining down on Union gunboats, I'm pretty sure that he was aware of the importance of the city. As for me - well, it took me blogging this book to realize just how important Vicksburg is. It's pretty lame of me - but when I make that trip into Mississippi I promise I won't pass up a chance to visit.
If you want to know more about Vicksburg
Next up: Ville Platte, Louisiana