muriel j smith 120A bus tour of the Vicksburg Battlefield wakes you right up to what a terrible war we fought in the 19th century, that Civil War when brothers were pitted against brothers, fathers against sons, and more Americans were killed than any other war in our history. Perhaps it’s a good thing we weren’t off that luxurious cruise ship, American Cruise Line’s America, long enough to walk the battlefield or even to stop at a few sites to read the hundreds of monuments from every state that dot the miles and miles of battleground. The bus tour is enough to be convincing it is a shameful time to look back on, and one only hopes we could one day learn to settle our differences with words rather than weapons.

baton rouge night

photo: Baton Rouge at night

Traveling on a Civil War theme cruise on the Mississippi it is necessary that the heartbreak of Vicksburg be included; it was the city on the River both Presidents…Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln…knew was vital to control before the war could end. Davis called it the nail head that held both sides of the South together; Lincoln called it the key to winning the war.

With the great great grandson of Jefferson Davis as our primary lecturer on the Civil War as well as a shipmate on the paddlewheel cruiser, we learned in several days of incredibly interesting talks that the North tried not once but four times to take the City, each time meeting with strong resistance from a Southern army that wasn’t going to give up its land easily. It wasn’t until days of these failures that the North was successful in another way, now known as the Anaconda Plan. The battle could be won simply by cutting Vicksburg off from the river, from railroads out of the city, from all outside assistance or sources of supplies of all kinds. The blockade meant if the South didn’t surrender, the residents of Vicksburg would simply starve to death.

Armies on both sides knew the city was dependent on the river; it got all its supplies from ships that plied the rivers feeding into the Mississippi; there were rail connections at Vicksburg so those supplies could then be sent throughout the Confederate states; the Yazoo River had a depot of supplies, cutting it off from the Mississippi would bring immediate hurt to the South.

The move was successful for the North, but from the time in late April when the North began its fight for the city, more than 5,000 Northerners were killed, wounded or captured; in the South the number was more than six times as high. The South surrendered on July 4. Ironically, that same day, General Robert E. Lee was withdrawing his troops from Gettysburg, the distinctive turning point in the war.

The National Park Service site in Vicksburg is a classic study of the battle, the monuments erected by 18 Northern states and 14 Southern states…none from New Jersey… testimony to the lives lost and the pride for the men who fought on both sides. The Park Service also maintains a spectacular though small museum on the site, and the remains of the USS Cairo, the first ironclad battleship ever sunk, are right there for the viewing. The museum includes numerous artifacts from mustache brushes and shoes to weapons and medical supplies recovered from the Cairo in the 20th century. Though buried for more than 100 years, the mud of the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers acted as a preservative, making the museum a fascinating look back into the mid 1860s.

Both Davis and Mississippi River expert Bill Wiemuth were generous with their time and knowledge of their specialties. Not only mingling during cocktail hour, or chatting around the table at dinner, but both also invited guests to ask more questions and enjoy more history anywhere and anytime, be it in one of the comfortable loungers or up on one of the sun decks watching the traffic move up the River. Coupled with Wiemuth also being a talented pianist and accompanist to his wife Laura’s vast musical talents, to say nothing of being a nimble magician and a wizard with cards, entertainment was exceptional on the cruise.

baton rouge state officesPHOTO:  State offices in Baton Rouge

Another day, another city, and we arrived in St Francisville for a few hours, long enough to visit Rosedown Plantation and visit an intriguing gift shop complete with thousands of buttons from many eras and the stories behind them, than an early evening setting sail to arrive at Baton Rouge, the capital of Louisiana before 10 in the evening, time to see the city in lights. The overnight docking in the capital enabled time to make preparations for a visit to the USS Kidd, a WWII destroyer docked alongside the America, a tour of the city including stops and stories of the old and new capitol buildings, complete with stories about the controversial and flamboyant Governor Huey Long and his assassination in the Capitol, and a visit to the Louisiana State Museum, one of the 13 buildings across the state that tells the state’s history in artifacts, videos, photographs, and more. What’s also fascinating about Louisiana museums is the fact there are no gift shops there!

The USS Kidd tour is fascinating for all World War II buffs, given the fact you receive a map when going aboard, and you’re on your own to walk throughout the ship, its ladders, decks, and rooms, with plenty of volunteer former Navy men around and eager to answer any questions. Named for an Admiral who lost his life was on the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor, the destroyer also adopted Captain Kidd the pirate as a mascot, and is the only ship in the Navy to have permission to fly the pirate flag. Serving in the Pacific, she earned the nickname as the Pirate of the Pacific. On the other side of the levee from the Kidd is a WWII museum honoring Louisianans, the USS Constitution, Medal of Honor recipients, and many aspects of the Navy during several wars.