Thursday, September 10, 2015

Sadness and Hope Along the Siege Lines of Vicksburg

After my visit to the battlefield at Raymond last Sunday, I headed straight to Vicksburg National Military Park, which is one of those American treasures in which we should all take pride. It was my third visit to the place. The first was when I was a boy, on one of those countless wonderful trips across the country on which my parents took me. The second was not that long ago, in July of 2012, but my wife and I had found out the day before that we were going to become parents and my mind was understandably distracted. Besides which, we only had a few hours. This time I was able to concentrate all my focus on drinking deep the story of the Siege of Vicksburg.

Among preserved historical sites associated with the American Civil War, Vicksburg ranks among the best. In many ways, it is exactly what a national battlefield should be. The eighteen-mile driving route is festooned with statues and memorials, many of them placed by the veterans themselves or by their families. The dramatic events of the siege - the May 19 assault on the Stockade Redan, the May 22 assault on the Great Redoubt, the June 25 detonation of the great mine underneath the Louisiana Redan - are all described in the posted markers very well, in such a way that one can glance at the ground and follow the events in one's mind with great ease. The museum at the visitor's center, while surprisingly small, is very well done and the introductory video is well-written and well-produced.

It being Labor Day weekend, the park was crowded. It gave me great pleasure to overhear parents tell their young children about the Civil War and to watch little ones play on the cannon. The knowledge of our nation's history is passed from one generation to the next, and we need preserved historical sites like Vicksburg to continue this process, generation after generation. On the other hand, it struck me as somewhat ludicrous to hear the laughter of little children as they scampered along trench lines where hundreds of men were slaughtered a century-and-a-half ago, torn apart by artillery fire, gunned down by rifles, or stabbed or slashed to death by bayonets, knives, or swords. Many of those killed in 1863 were, it pained me to recall, scarcely more than children themselves.

The entire battlefield is covered with thick trees, foliage, and underbrush. This was not at all what the ground looked like during the summer of 1863, when the trees had been completely cleared by the Confederates in order to provide clear fields of fire in front of their fortifications. As much as I love trees, I found myself wishing that the National Park Service would clear them away from Vicksburg so that the lines returned as much as possible to how they appeared during the siege itself.

One of the most amazing aspects of Vicksburg National Military Park are the state monuments. These stone memorials, some grand and some subtle, have been erected by the individual state governments, both North and South. The grandest by far is that of Illinois, which contributed more than 35,000 men to the Vicksburg campaign. It is a great granite temple, clearly modeled on the architecture of ancient Rome. Moreover, it is a physical manifestation of peace, whose enabling legislation specified that no warlike image be depicted upon it, set amid ground that once echoed with the thunder and scream of battle. Stepping inside it is a deeply humbling experience.

Not all the monuments, frankly, were to my liking. The Kansas Monument was sculpted in 1960 in what apparently passed for some nameless avant-garde style at that time. Now it simply looks silly among so many beautiful and more traditional sculptures. Whatever meaning it is supposed to have was wholly indecipherable to me. Like all modern art, it struck me as the Emperor's New Clothes. It was nothing that a moderately talented high schooler couldn't have produced in shop class.

As a Texan, I made a point to visit the Texas Memorial. A yucca plant is carefully cared for in the center of the monument, which I thought was a nice touch. The monument was built from the same Texas red granite as were the Civil War monuments to Texas soldier all over the rest of the country, from Gettysburg and Gaine's Mill to Shiloh and Bentonville, and many points in between. One wonders, given the political climate today, whether any more of these monuments will be erected.

Perhaps the saddest monument on the battlefield is that to the soldiers from Missouri. As a border state, it sent its sons to both sides. Forty-two units of Missourians took part in the siege, twenty-seven for the Union and fifteen for the Confederacy. Cockrell's Missouri Brigade was perhaps the finest fighting unit of the entire Confederate Army and they played a crucial role at Vicksburg. The grand monument rests near the Stockade Redan, where bitter fighting took place. Tragically, Union and Confederate Missourians found themselves facing one another, with friends and even family members forced into a situation in which they had little choice but to try to kill one another. There is a sad resignation to the monument, witness to a horrible tragedy that need never have happened.

I found a different feeling at the monument to Kentucky, which like Missouri was a bitterly divided border state. It is somewhat confusing, as there is a Kentucky monument which specifically honors the service of the Kentucky Confederates, yet the second Kentucky monument honors all the men of the state, no matter which side they fought for. It's also very different, in that it's spaced out over a considerable distance and farther away from the driving path than any other monument.

I almost missed it. By the time I got to the Kentucky Monument, it was late in the day, I was quite tired, and it had become very hot. Moreover, the sandwich I had eaten for lunch was not sitting well on my stomach. I almost made the decision to drive on, but eventually decided that the monument deserved my attention. I got out of my car and walked the few hundred yards down a path towards the monument. It was the best decision I made during my visit to Vicksburg.

Leading up to the monument are five sculptures of prominent Kentuckians who served as general officers during the Vicksburg Campaign. I was happily surprised to see a sculpture of John C. Breckinridge, the primary character of my novella Blessed are the Peacemakers and one of the main characters of my upcoming novel House of the Proud. He was not present at Vicksburg itself, but commanded a division in the army the Confederates attempted to raise in Jackson to raise the siege. Looking up at the man's face, complete with his famous whiskers, I found myself wondering whether he might be offended by my taking his person and throwing it into a fictional story. I was almost tempted to apologize.

The centerpiece of the Kentucky Monument, though, is a circular plaza encased within an angled wall. On the wall are lists of the Kentucky units, both Union and Confederate, that participated in the Vicksburg Campaign. Standing at the center of the circle are bronze statues of Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, both natives of Kentucky, the respective leaders of the two warring sides, seemingly engaged in an endless conversation. There was no one else around and I found myself strangely wanting to ask the two statues what on earth they could be talking about. They don't look happy to see one another, but neither do they appear angry or embittered. There are just two men, albeit two remarkable and strikingly complex men, representing different parts of America, staring level into one another eyes, talking the same talk we've been having with ourselves since 1776 and which we are still having with ourselves today.

Along the walls behind the two presidents are quotes from both men. The Lincoln quote is from the Second Inaugural Address and is familiar to every educated America: "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

The words of Davis date from the 1880s, long after the war, and read as follows: "The past is dead; let it bury its dead. Let me beseech you to lay aside all rancor, all bitter sectional feeling. Make your place in the ranks of those who will bring about a consummation devoutly to be wished - a reunited country."

In this age of political correctness, when people who have no understanding of history seem determined to tear away historical markers and monuments to people about whom they know nothing, it seems to me that we can all learn some important lessons from the words of Lincoln and Davis. That, more than anything else, is what I took away from my trip to Vicksburg.

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