Besieged by Fog

Monday, January 09, 2012 Road Junkies 0 Comments

To Big Bend and Back, Day 5

VICKSBURG, Mississippi— After deciding to spend another day in Vicksburg so we could see some of the sights today, our mission was almost foiled by the river fog that rolled in and enveloped the city in a spectral cloud.  Unlike the typical morning mist that gets burned off by the sun, this wall of vapor stayed, and stayed, and stayed.  In fact, it still lingered at nightfall.

The Misty Mississippi
Never ones to let a little fog, or the intermittent rain, stand in the way of some stray letterboxes or historic sites, we forged on, donning our rain gear and braving whatever the elements threw at us.  One of our first letterboxes of the day took us to the site of the Vicksburg Riverfront Mural Project.

Located on the floodwall on Levee Street at the entrance to the downtown waterfront, artist Robert Dafford's 32 pictorial murals depict important events in the history of Vicksburg and Warren County.  Interpretive signs explain the significance of each mural.


Of particular interest to me was a mural depicting the the steamer Sprague, the largest and most powerful sternwheel towboat ever launched (318' long, 61' wide).  Though I had never seen the boat, I immediately recognized it from a 1947 photo of my father standing beside this very boat.  The Sprague set a new towing record in 1907 when it pushed a tow of 60 barges.  Unfortunately, on that same tow, it also set a record for the most cargo lost.

By the time the steamboat was decommissioned in 1948, it had traveled a distance equal to 40 times the circumference of the earth.  Vicksburg citizens saved the Sprague from the scrap heap and set it up as a floating theater, but the ship burned in 1974 and eventually sank in 1979.

Another interesting chapter in Mississippi River maritime history was depicted in the mural of the Sultana, a sidewheel steamboat built in 1863 to carry a maximum of 376 people and cargo.  On April 24, 1865, the ship docked in Vicksburg to pick up Union soldiers who had just been released from Confederate prisons.  The federal government had offered to pay $5 for each soldier the steamship transported north.


Prior to their arrival in Vicksburg, the Sultana's crew had discovered that one of the boilers was leaking.  Rather than take the time to replace the faulty boiler and perhaps lose the commission to ferry the soldiers, the crew decided on a patch.  While the inadequate fix was being applied, more and more soldiers crowded on board until the ship was carrying almost 2,400.

Three days later near Memphis, the patch gave way and the boiler exploded, along with two other boilers.  An estimated 1,800 passengers were killed in the explosion, the fire that followed, and the swift flood waters of the Mississippi River.  This incident still stands as the greatest maritime disaster in United States history.

Tearing ourselves away from this fascinating outdoor art exhibit, we moved on to Riverfront Park, where we were excited to find a couple of boxes that were thought to be missing.  From there, we made our way to Vicksburg National Military Park, which commemorates the battle of Vicksburg, including the 47-day Union siege and the Confederate defense from May to July, 1863.  Vicksburg's capture by Union forces split the Confederacy and gave control of vital Mississippi River transport to the Union.


Somehow the fog seemed appropriate for our visit to these solemn grounds.  The 16-mile self-guided tour includes an estimated 1,370 monuments, a restored Union ironclad boat, and a national cemetery.  Commentary along the tour is available by cell phone.

Illinois Memorial
Most states which had a significant number of native sons involved in the battle erected monuments to their veterans and their fallen.  Though all are impressive, the most admired is the Illinois memorial modeled after the Roman Pantheon.  Interior walls are lined with bronze tablets listing the names of all the 36,325 Illinois soldiers who fought in Vicksburg.

Formerly a wooded area

One ongoing project which caught us by surprise involved the deforestation of certain sections of the park.  According to an interpretive sign explaining the work, when Congress authorized Vicksburg National Military Park, it directed "restoration of the field to its condition at the time of the battle" when soldiers had clear views of opposing forces.  Apparently that means that hundreds of trees which have sprouted since the Civil War have to go.

Remains of the U.S.S.Cairo
The fascinating U.S.S. Cairo museum within the park houses the remains of one of the Union's fleet of ironclad gunboats.  Under the command of Lt. Commander Thomas O. Selfridge, a rash and ambitious captain, the Cairo steamed up the Yazoo River in December, 1862, with the intention of destroying Confederate batteries and taking command of the Mississippi River for the Union.

What happened instead is that the U.S.S. Cairo became the first ship in history to be destroyed by torpedoes (what today are called mines).  Two explosions tore into the ship and within 12 minutes, it sank in 36 feet of water.  With no loss of life, the boat was soon forgotten and covered with mud and silt at the bottom of the river.  In 1956, officials at the military park located the remains and began to recover them.  Many artifacts were well preserved by the Yazoo mud and are on exhibit in the museum.

Old Warren County Courthouse
When we left the park, we visited the old Warren County Courthouse.  High on a hill above the river, the courthouse was the most prominent structure in Vicksburg at the time of the Civil War.  During the siege, the Confederate flag flying from its cupola taunted Union troops who could see the banner from their stations around the city.  To protect the courthouse from Union artillery fire, Confederates used captured Northern soldiers as human shields, making it known that the prisoners were being housed in the top floor of the courthouse.  Today the building houses a museum featuring Vicksburg history with a particular emphasis on the Civil War.

Thus ended our foggy tour of Vicksburg, a city filled with historical significance. 

DAILY STATS:
  • Started in Vicksburg, MS; ended in Vicksburg, MS
  • Miles driven: 121          (Trip total:  829)
  • States: 1 (MS)          (Trip total:  4)
  • Letterboxes found:  7         (Trip total:  14)
  • Weather:  Fog, Fog, Fog, Rain, Fog, Fog   56° to 59°
  • Casinos on the river:  12
  • Monuments in the military park:  1,370
  • Migratory birds visiting park:  1,432
  • Fox squirrels living in park:  123
  • Tourists visiting park:  17
More Photos from Today
Artifacts from the Cairo

Learned this lesson in 1962 on the USS Alabama
Michigan Memorial
Wild visitors to the park