In the middle of Mississippi, just above the northwest corner of Louisiana lies a city steeped in history, where warriors of the Civil War are honored and even one of the original iron-clad battleships finds a home – Vicksburg. The city itself is small and quaint, but its old brick buildings and ancient oaks whisper secrets of an antebellum south. They guide you towards the edge of town to a cemetery where Confederate and Union soldiers alike are buried, many numbered as the names are unknown, but they are remembered nonetheless, as is the tragic war that took them from this world.
The Civil War was the great tragedy of America’s history and one who’s roots run so deep, that even a mention of it or of the Confederacy or of any detail attached to it seems to summon rage, heartache and controversy among people to this day. Its not without good reason, and, while I think its important that we experience these feelings and talk about the issues that motivated such a point in our history as a nation, that isn’t what I am here to discuss today. Today, I’d like to talk about the history as a historian would and simply appreciate the ingenuity and magnitude of the event.
Vicksburg is a perfect place to appreciate these elements of the Civil War and to see some awe-inspiring artifacts and relics. The USS Cairo Gunboat, found at the bottom of the Mississippi, is here for viewing. The vessel has been partially restored and is arranged, now, above ground in such a way that you can walk through it. From inside the ship you can imagine how it might have been for a crewman: manning the cannons, perhaps, aboard one of the first iron-clad ships during a brutal fight for dominance over the Mississippi River. There were 7 of these vessels, all named for cities along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, that were instrumental in cutting off the main lifeblood of the Confederacy, the Mississippi River. They were called iron-clad due to the cast-iron “armor” that their exteriors were plated with in order to help deflect bullets and even cannon-fodder in many cases. They were engineering marvels of their time and they helped to tip the scales in favor of the Union’s victory.
Adjacent to the USS Cairo and its adjoining museum, there is also a cemetery. Though located here in what some might consider the very center of what was once the Confederacy, the cemetery is predominantly filled with the graves of Union soldiers (though there are also some Confederate officers buried here). No one “famous” or well-known from the war is entombed here, and most of the graves are simply marked with numbers, only a few of them being attached to names. Several cemeteries like this were created by Congress following the Civil War after over 300,000 soldiers remains were exhumed from the areas where battlefields took place. These were determined to be their final resting places, where modern-day citizens of this country could come and remember their sacrifices in the name of freedom.
Regardless of controversy or opinions about the Civil War, I believe everyone should visit Vicksburg cemetery or one of the several other locations where these soldiers have been laid to rest. Often times, painful moments in our past tempt us to suppress and overlook them in an attempt to dodge the feelings of hurt and confusion attached to those moments, but it is my belief that it is in facing them that we are able to appreciate their relevance and truly give them the respect they are due. This place has now become a powerful moment in my personal history, one that has provided a new perspective, above and beyond argument or debate. I respect that long before I was even a notion, ancestors of mine fought – right or wrong – for what they believed in, even to their deaths. I honor that at the same time as I pray I never have to face the same decision.