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Food Feature: Where they drove ol Dixie down

A stroll through Vicksburg National Military Park

As I gaze up the steep slope, I can only imagine the tear of crude bullets piercing the smoky haze of battle, or the cannons thundering their deadly spray of shrapnel and firepower.

I can only imagine the hoots and hollers, the screams of pain, the heart-pounding and knee-buckling fear of the Union soldiers charging up what's now called Thayer's Approach — or the rifle-gripping fear of the Confederate lads who lay awaiting them while deeply entrenched atop the grassy incline.

It was a spring day in May 1863, when Union Brig. Gen. John M. Thayer commanded his troops up this now historic sloping battlefield, only to be cut down by the deluge of lead fired by the Confederates who, at least on that day, had the clear military, and apparent psychological, advantage.

On a winter day nearly 140 years later, however, I see no signs of courage and no signs of death. The hill is surrounded by serenity now. The only rat-a-tat-tat I hear is from the mechanized clicks and zooms of cameras.

Vicksburg was one of the last two Confederate strongholds on the Mississippi River. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant had swept his army south along the mighty waterway knocking out the Rebel outposts one by one. But the meandering Mississippi and Yazoo rivers on the western side and the rugged hills around the city turned the conquest of Vicksburg into a drawn-out 47-day battle. Repeated Union attempts to storm the well-fortified stronghold failed. The biggest Union weapon, however, was time — to starve the enemy to a forced surrender.

But the besieged Confederate forces and the stouthearted Vicksburg citizens put up a valorous but unsuccessful struggle to hold onto their Mississippi port. Their gallant efforts resulted in the seven-week holdout that forced the townspeople to live underground.

ART PARK OF THE WORLD

Thayer's Approach is one of 15 designated stops along the 16 mile-long tour of the military park. Each stop has its own small, but often dauntless, story eventually leading to Vicksburg's surrender by Confederate Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton. Along the winding and hilly roads are monuments and memorials, enough to prompt one Civil War veteran to call the battlefield the "Art Park of the World": There are 1,324 monuments, statues, plaques and markers.

The tour road navigates the twists and turns through the half-mile wide battlefield that stretches like a four- or five-mile long semicircle around the northern and eastern edges of the city. Most of the Confederate memorials are on Confederate Avenue, which runs along the battlefield's edge closest to the city where the line of defense was established. Union memorials stand along Union Avenue, which clings closer to the park's outer rim.

Before touring, the 1,740-acre park, stop at the Visitor Center. A short film explains the siege and helps convey the desperation of residents cut off from food and supplies. A small museum there displays artifacts, weapons and life-size exhibits depicting the squalid living conditions of the Confederate soldiers and citizens: Many were forced to live in caves and bunkers as shells pummeled the city. One realistic and hardly appetizing exhibit shows the meager daily rations of a biscuit, beans and a thin slab of saltpork allowed for each soldier.

The tour begins by passing through the Memorial Arch. Monuments intermittently dot the grassy slopes and designated parking is available along the roadway to further explore areas on foot.

About two miles into the tour is the Shirley House, which served as headquarters for the Illinois infantry. Called the "White House" by Union troops, it's the only surviving wartime structure in the park.

Halfway through the tour is one of the battlefield's most notable exhibits. The USS Cairo Museum houses the wood and iron skeleton of the ironclad gunboat Cairo. The Union warship was the first ever to be sunk by an electrically detonated mine. Military Park historian Terry Winschel says, "It's the most complete vessel of the Civil War on display anywhere."

Inside the museum are the historical treasures — kitchen silverware and personal grooming items to weapons and cannonballs — once on board, reclaimed from the bottom of the Yazoo River in December 1964. The vessel was extracted 102 years to the day after it sank.

A two-minute walk from there leads to the Vicksburg National Cemetery, the largest Civil War burial ground. Evenly spaced tombstones of nearly 17,000 Union soldiers speckle the hills, which slope down toward the riverbank. About 13,000 are simply marked: "U.S. Unknown Soldier." An estimated 5,000 Confederate graves are in the nearby Vicksburg's Cedar Hill Cemetery.

Park officials say budget cuts have eliminated battle re-enactments, but the sharp cracks of Civil War-era rifles or the thundering booms of cannons can still be heard during the summer months. "Soldiers" wearing Civil War-era uniforms conduct the rifle and cannon-firing demonstrations under a siege of their own — the relentless rat-a-tat-tat of tourists' cameras.

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