It had never been more evident that not all national military parks were made equal than the time I spent three days at Vicksburg National Military Park. An easy to follow, secluded route wound between the monuments depicting the history of the Civil War battle fought here. The partially restored ironclad on a display beside a museum was a surprise. This park will always stand out in the greater National Park System.
Like many sites of the National Park Service, Vicksburg National Military Park has an entrance fee. But don’t let the $20 fee scare you off because that admission price is good for an entire week!
That’s one of the reasons I decided to spend three days in Vicksburg. There were some exciting museums to visit, a lot of great local food, and I got to visit different sections of the national military park each day. It’s the best way to take advantage of the entrance fee.
All great adventures in a national park should begin at the visitor center. At Vicksburg National Military Park the Visitor Center is located just inside the entrance after passing the booth where you pay the entrance fee.
The Visitor Center has a nice gift shop with the usual items you’ll see: clothing, books, mugs, and the location for your National Park Passport stamp. The information desk is located inside the gift shop and usually a ranger is nearby to answer questions. The restrooms are pretty nice and pretty necessary; the next restrooms you’ll find once you begin the tour will be at the museum at the other end of the park.
The one-lane, one-way loop road through Vicksburg National Military Park is split between Union Avenue and Confederate Avenue. The entrance passes through the Memorial Arch along Union Avenue where I started my journey on the first day.
The entire loop road is 16 miles long but there are ways to cut it shorter. Pemberton Avenue and Graveyard Road are two-way connector roads between Union Avenue and Confederate Avenue that allow you to cut the trip shorter if you are limited on time.
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On the first day I drove the main route which looped around the park to the USS Cairo Museum and back to the Visitor Center. The 10-mile loop took me about an hour to drive straight through with light traffic.
Along that route I discovered one of my favorite views in the park at the Michigan State Memorial. From this bend in the road I could see across a large field toward the rather monumental Illinois state Memorial. A summer thunderstorm was passing through that first day and I sat there for a while watching it from a distance.
Illinois State Memorial
I didn’t visit the Illinois State Memorial until my third and final day exploring Vicksburg National Military Park. Of all the monuments, statues, and memorials in the park, the Illinois State Memorial literally stands above all the others. Dedicated in 1906, the memorial to the state of Illinois soldiers who fought in the Siege of Vicksburg stands a whopping 62′ tall. The gorgeous memorial is made of Georgia white marble on a base of granite from a quarry in Stone Mountain, Georgia.
After climbing the gleaming white steps to a doorway that is always kept open I noticed the first of many names inscribed into the marble. Inside the floor has a beautiful decor beneath a vaulting dome. The center of the dome is open, allowing the elements to pour through. During my first visit I was nearly struck by two birds chasing each other as they spiraled higher and higher until they fled out the open dome (only to return through the front door a few minutes later).
Hundreds of names are etched onto bronze plates attached to the marble walls. This was perhaps one of the most impactful moments I’d ever had at a Civil War-era park as it made me realize just how many people were involved in the War Between the States. When you visit be sure to spend a few minutes reading some of the names. I spent a good deal of my second day exploring the park enjoying the view both inside and outside this memorial.
Grant’s Headquarters Area
Grant’s Headquarters Area is kinda off by itself in a corner of the park along Union Avenue. The two-way road leads to a couple of loops where Grant had his headquarters located during the Siege of Vicksburg.
That’s where I found a statue of Grant on his horse on a high hill. He sure wouldn’t have been able to see anything today while surrounded by trees, but I guess the landscape was different back then.
Along Grant Avenue is the African American Monument and another loop leading around Sherman Circle. I found that particular loop to be the most peaceful spot in the entire park. During my second day exploring the park I enjoyed a very nice peanut butter and jelly sandwich there for lunch.
U.S.S. Cairo Museum
During my first tour through the park along the main route I noticed a tall white tent below the road on the right. I first I thought there was a special event happening in the park. The road quickly descended and I found myself looking straight at the tent…and a massive ironclad beneath it! I knew there was a museum here but I had no idea the original USS Cairo had been recovered, partially restored, and permanently put on display here.
The Cairo was a 175′ ironclad with a crew of 251 officers and men that was built in Illinois. The boat would see almost a full year of service, commissioned in January 1862, before it was sunk in the Yazoo River outside Vicksburg in December of that same year. The Cairo was the first vessel in history to be sunk by a mine, detonated by two Confederate soldiers from the banks of the river. It only took twelve minutes for the boat to sink beneath 36′ of water. But on December 12, 1964, exactly 102 years later, the Cairo was raised from the bottom of the river.
Visitors can now explore the exhibits on display at the museum (itself an interesting building half-buried beneath a hill) before walking through the partially-restored ironclad. Interpretive panels explain the different parts of the boat as you walk along the main deck through the boat to the other side, then around the back to see where the mine had detonated against the hull.
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Vicksburg National Cemetery
Covering 116 acres with over 17,000 grave sites, there are more Civil War soldiers interred at Vicksburg National Cemetery than any other national cemetery in the country.
The one-lane Cemetery Hill Road and Given Hill Road loop through the cemetery. It only takes a few minutes to drive through but there are a few places to pull over if you want to get out for any reason.
Confederate Avenue, the other half of the 16-mile loop road through Vicksburg National Military Park, begins just after the cemetery and museum near Fort Hill. There is an exit to the park here that leads into downtown Vicksburg if you’re short on time. It takes about 30 minutes to drive to the park’s exit at the Visitor Center from here.
This section of the loop road runs almost parallel to Union Avenue and marks the location of Confederate troops during the Siege of Vicksburg. On Pemberton Avenue, the connecting two-way road between Confederate and Union Avenues, is the old headquarters building for the national park. There is a small garden in front maintained as it would have been during the time of the Civil War battle and the old building is mostly just used for special staff events and it not open to the public.
Confederate Avenue leads back to the Visitor Center and a choice to be made: exit the national military park or continue across Clay Street to another section of the park. If you continue straight you will come to the exit with the option to pass through the entrance booth and repeat the journey.
Across Clay Street
A lot of park visitors miss the section of Vicksburg National Military Park across Clay Street. For some it’s because they have spent enough time in the park already but for others it’s because they don’t know what’s there.
The 3-mile loop follows the same pattern as the rest of the park: Confederate Avenue on the west and Union Avenue on the east. This route includes several beautiful memorials such as the Texas Memorial, Alabama Memorial, and Kentucky Memorial.
Near the turnaround point of the road I pulled over for a while, maybe forty minutes, and not a single car passed me the entire time. I enjoyed the peacefulness, but decided I needed to let people know about this side of the park.
One of the best ways to explore the national military park is a self-guided driving tour. The Visitor Center and entrance booth has a very nice brochure with detailed map of the driving routes and memorials in the park.
There are four different ways to complete a driving tour loop through Vicksburg National Military Park:
- Pemberton Loop: Begin at the Visitor Center, drive along Union Avenue to Pemberton Road, then cut over to Confederate Avenue, and return to the Visitor Center. This route is 3 miles long and takes about 20-30 minutes to drive.
- Graveyard Loop: Begin at the Visitor Center, drive along Union Avenue to Graveyard Road, cut across to Confederate Avenue, and return to the Visitor Center. This route is 6 miles long and takes about 60 minutes to drive.
- Main Loop: Begin at the Visitor Center, drive along Union Avenue, take a detour along Grant Avenue, continue to the USS Cairo Museum, return to the Visitor Center along Confederate Avenue. This route is 12 miles and takes about 90 minutes to drive.
- Complete Loop: Drive the Main Loop with the addition of the extension across Clay Street. This route is 16 miles long and takes just under two hours to drive.
One of the more interesting and educational ways to explore Vicksburg National Military Park is to hire a tour guide. I wish I had known this before visiting Vicksburg because all the tour guides were booked by the time I arrived. Let this be a learning lesson!
Here are a few tidbits about the guided tours at the park:
- The tour guides are fully licensed and authorized to work with the National Park Service.
- The tour guide you hire will drive your car for you, leaving you free to look around for once!
- The tour guides are flexible and work with their patrons to determine the best tour route and how to maximize your time together.