Standing on the grassy hillside, overlooking the furrows of a once great battlefield, witnesses stand captivated. The sheer expanse of the plain below them, the multitude of cannons and great monuments beside them, endlessly rolling skies above.
But the most awe-striking feature of a once chaotic and boisterous lea is the absolute silence. Save for a passing breeze or rumble of thunder, the hallowed grounds where Civil War generals once presided over armies of young men slaughtering compatriots, sites of vast death and Northern glory, the eerie silence is what immediately captures one’s attention.
This is Vicksburg, Mississippi.
The small port city on the banks of the Mississippi river was once the site of a territorial battle between Union and Confederate troops to control the shipping lanes for much of the region. One of the most crucial turning points of the war occurred in this former metropolis, now sparsely populated adjacent to Northeastern Louisiana farmland.
It’s difficult to be prepared upon entering a battlefield as large as Vicksburg. Will there be evidence of carnage? Is it haunted? Must we be quiet out of respect? The answer to all those is yes.
Following a breathtaking, almost-inspiring view of the whole battlefield, the truck rolled down the one-lane road toward the first site: a circular colonnade with an open roof. As dark clouds began to fill the blue horizon, ducking into the memorial building to escape the rain became required as torrential downpours swept through the fields.
The mysterious, neoclassical building is the Illinois State veteran’s memorial. Inside, the echo of a voice can carry for almost five seconds, ringing to the top of the dome before being spit out the top like a bullet. Very symbolic of the horrors that once happened on the battlefield below.
Even the smallest whisper carried like a scream from a slain soldier. While alone in the building, a tug on the back of one’s shirt leaves questions unanswered. Is this simply a breeze circulating or is it the ghost of a soldier reaching up as a final plea to be saved from death? Not sure.
The continuous cruise through the battlefield eventually led to a large, old battleship protected beneath a tent. It’s easy for something of this size to catch one’s eye, but across the road is something bigger and even more impressive: a cemetery.
Small gravestones and markers as far as the eye can see, devoid of names for the soldiers who lay eternally beneath. The stones were marked with a number. Nearing the exit, a small gazebo atop a hill inside the cemetery beckoned.
A windy pathway to the top of the hill leads visitors to one of the more incredible sights in the park. From inside, the entire gravesite can be seen, much larger than any old wooden ship. A truly hallowing site indeed.
As the trip around the grounds came to a close, one of the final sites came right where the two sides signed a peace treaty. A small cannon jutting upward from the dirt and grass with a simple description. Across from a house overlooking the field, one can pay their respect for the dearly departed who sacrificed so America could prevail.
Opposite from the hillside where the journey through the site began, several deer have now flocked to the ridge as the storm clouds cleared. Truly, the weather on this fateful June afternoon was a microcosm of the battle and the war itself.
From the outset, storm clouds billowed overhead. As the rain fell, the journey went deeper into the battlefield. Much like the war seemed to be swirling into a storm of uncertainty around the time of this battle, the weather continued to deteriorate.
But as we arrived at the site of the truce, a glimpse of sunshine brightened the valley. On that same sight in 1863, the light at the end of the long and arduous tunnel that was the Civil War began to come into view.
Before departing, a visit to the Vicksburg gift shop felt necessary. Inside, books, replica artifacts, and postcards could be found. One book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin stopped one group of tourists who remarked how it was offensive to place that particular title in the history section when it should be with other fiction novels.
This rather disparaging comment took the air out of the sails of a life-changing day. At a place where armies fought to eliminate such an attitude, racism and inequality somehow continued to exist.
Turning out of history and back into the present, the truck trundled through the gates and back onto the highway. Thoughts swirled around like the wind outside.
What did the battlefield look like in the midst of fighting? I wonder if the reaction from the soldiers was also to find cover from the storms that passed by each day?
I guess there’s some things we will never know.