The Great American Road Trip II - 29 - Whistling Dixie
We wanted to leave our hotel room as soon as possible, so we ended up getting on the road out of Louisiana at around 9:20. Our first stop of the day was Vicksburg, Mississippi, which we arrived at around 11:00. We entered the visitor center and watched a short movie detailing the events of the Vicksburg campaign before going on the auto tour around the battlefield.
Vicksburg was a stronghold along the Mississippi River and widely considered the key to holding the river by both Confederate and Union forces. The Confederates stationed at Vicksburg were led by General John Pemberton, who was one of the more incompetent generals of the war. Ulysses S. Grant, along with other Union generals, had tried various times to get to Vicksburg with no success, but Pemberton left Vicksburg eastbound and engaged Grant's forces. Grant routed Pemberton's forces until Pemberton - for some unknown reason - thought it was a good idea to retreat the entire way back to Vicksburg, which was built up with fortifications.
When Grant arrived, he was anxious enough to get the campaign over with and secure the Mississippi for the Union to order frontal assaults on the nearly impregnable fortress that Vicksburg had become, but these were unsuccessful. Eventually, having more supplies than the Confederates, he outlasted them in trenches until the southern forces could no longer bear the hunger and disease through the ranks. The surrender of Vicksburg occurred almost exactly the same time as Gettysburg.
The auto tour took us along various sights along Union lines and trenches. While veritable forests have grown up almost everywhere on the battlefield now, the hills are clearly unnatural and are the remnants of the Confederate stronghold. We worked our way past large stone and marble monuments set up by states to commemorate where their infantry units were located along the battlefield, and in that regard it's very similar to Gettysburg. The open spaces there were made it easy to see the eerie hilliness of the terrain, with the lines clearly distinguishable by the naked eye even today.
(As far as monuments go, Illinois had the best one: a massive domed structure with the names of every known Illinois native present at the battle. They were organized by unit and within unit they were alphabetized, making it easy to spot various set of brothers who had signed up at the same time. The floor had a mosaic design depicting Illinois' seal, and at the very top of the dome was a hole the same size as the seal on the floor. I'm sure there was more symbolism in the structure there than I noticed.)
The heat was ridiculously oppressive, as the dry heat we'd accustomed ourselves to in the southwest had morphed into mugginess so thick I'd venture to call it a warm airborne slush. Opportunities to walk around outside were already severely limited due to the fact that they don't want people climbing all over the battlefield and that there are no less than three species of poisonous snake in the region, so we didn't miss anything.
(Not only did the siege of Vicksburg result in one of the first uses of trench warfare in history, but also featured a crater blown into Confederate lines - both tactics used at Petersburg later on in the war.)
Before the road looped back around to go back along the Confederate lines, there was the USS Cairo on display as well as a small museum dedicated to it. The Cairo was one of seven steamboat warships that made up the Union's small inland navy, and was sunk by the first usage of electric torpedoes (or what we'd call "mines") as it rolled along at its max speed of a whopping nine MPH along the Yazoo River. All of the hands safely got off the ship, but the Cairo sank to the bottom of the river and was covered by silt. The ship was lost and nearly forgotten until the 1950s, when scientists ascertained its position underneath the silt on the bottom of the river. In the mid-60s, a crane - itself, ironically, known as the Cairo - helped to lift the ship out of the water. After accidentally cutting the ship in two, it was towed away for restoration which continued into the early 80s. It was then transported to Vicksburg for display under a gigantic white tent.
How good a shape the ship is in cannot be overstated. While load-bearing beams that had rotted were replaced during its restoration, almost everything on the ship was still original, including the boiler area and gigantic pistons that drove the water wheel. (The ship ran on a ton of coal an hour when running at top speed.) The explosion that led to its sinking is still visible near the front of the ship, and the coolest thing about the experience is that they built a trail through the ship so you can actually look at what the sailors did while on it. The museum next to it showcases the preserved artifacts found on the ship, such as vases that look as good as new and smooth-looking, nearly unworn leather shoes. The brass firing mechanisms used on the cannons were in astounding condition and bottles of ammonia were not only still intact, but also half-full. The bell recovered from the ship had actually trapped 1863 air and, when it was recovered, burped it back out.
After exploring the Cairo, we'd had enough of the mugginess and got back to the car to get around what remained of the battlefield, which mainly consisted of more monuments for Union and Confederate units alike.
We left the park around 1:30 and headed on I-20 to Jackson, which is not only Mississippi's capital city but the home of the Mississippi Braves, the Atlanta Braves' double-A affiliate. Their stadium was nice and we purchased two pennants (one for the minor and major league teams alike) from a very dull lady who barely talked and reacted blankly to the things we said. We thanked her anyway and were back on the road within short order. In about an hour's time we arrived in Meridian, the last town of any repute before the Alabama border. We got gas there, and - quite hungry by this point - we went into town in a futile attempt at getting something to eat. We got a sense of the Meridian downtown in as far as we wanted to get, but we left hungry.
We continued along the highway as magnolias began in the median and along the sides of the roads. The magnolias got bigger as we approached the Alabama border, which we did a little after 4:00. We stopped at a badly laid-out welcome center and learned that the double-A Birmingham Barons were not playing today, but were yesterday and would be tomorrow. This threw another wrench in the debate between stopping in Birmingham and just sucking it up to get to Atlanta, which continued in the car in various forms as I drove us into Birmingham, where we finally found a parking space at a hotel and went in to inquire about getting an Internet signal for the iPad map software and possibly a room for the night.
The hotel was full, despite their severe lack of parking due to repaving of half their lot, but the stop was not a waste as we met and talked with their assistant general manager, who is originally from Wilkesboro, North Carolina. He knew a lot about the evolution of Charlotte as well as the Kannapolis/Concord area due to the fact that he'd worked in Concord hotels, and is neither a fan of racing nor the rampant Dale Earnhardt worship present in that region of the state. Hungry but fearful of eating too much, we split a club sandwich and hit the road again to a hotel an hour away, which we'd booked in Oxford on advice from the Wilkesboro fellow, who spoke highly of the hotel quality in the area.
The sun began to set as we worked our way through the surprisingly upscale Birmingham. We avoided a lethal time-killing combination of road construction, backups through multiple stoplights, and a crash ripe for rubbernecking by getting on the Interstate and heading on out to Oxford. We made good time as we worked our way through more NC-like terrain at the southern end of the Appalachian chain where the mountains are no different than large hills. Despite an utterly black road that no one could possibly see - dark to the point that I was convinced it sucked light in and ate it like a ravenous wolf on steroids - and small, highly faded stop signs away from the road to the point that only I saw them - and out of the corner of my eye at that - we made it safe and sound to the hotel at 8:30, where we ordered a proper dinner of three hamburgers. While not great they were certainly serviceable enough, and we wolfed them down along with many glasses of lemonade. (We didn't go the pitcher route this time, though I think we easily could have finished one off.)
Tomorrow: we return home after a month on the road. Today marks the day we go beyond the 28 of last year, but, ironically, we may just end up with fewer miles even though we could nearly encircle last year's route with this year's route. I suppose we've cut down on the meandering this time.