Sunday, May 12, 2019

On The Trail of the American Civil War in Mississippi and Tennessee

Whew! Just back from weeks driving vacation tour of Civil War sites in Mississippi and Tennessee. The weather cooperated for the most part, not too hot, nice and sunny most days, one day of rain. We have watched a fair number of Civil War documentaries so I was excited to see some of the actual places related to the war. 

Day was a long drive to the town of Vicksburg, Mississippi. It's not much of a town, in fact what we saw of it was rather depressing. We  checked into a B&B called the Cedar Grove Mansion Inn and Restaurant. (Alas, the restaurant was shuttered.) The guest rooms are spread out over several buildings on the remains of what was a large antebellum estate. The neighborhood is kinda dicey and I was a bit nervous, but they have 24 hour security. We stayed in the main house in a downstairs room. The house was build in 1840 for John Alexander Klein and his bride, Elizabeth Day, a cousin of William Tecumseh Sherman. During the Civil War the house was used as a hospital by the Union. There is a cannonball lodged in the wall of one of the rooms. 

As we were checking in, a rather angry German man was shouting at the receptionist, something to the effect that he had stayed in hundreds of great hotels in America. I'm guessing he was not adding Cedar Grove to his top ten list. It's not making mine either. The house, once beautiful, is in need of repair. A lot of repair. Many several millions in repair. The paint is peeling and the plaster cracked. The sidewalks outside are uneven and a trip hazard. I wouldn't stick my big toe in the pool. Our basement room was dark and gaudy. The thermostat was incredibly and inconveniently located upstairs in another part of the building. In the bathroom, we had a tub, no shower. We were served the exact same breakfast both mornings. Most of the guests were Europeans. The couple across from us, from the Netherlands, stared in horror at their bowl of grits. I bet they throw away a lot of grits in that place. There is no wi-fi in the rooms! You have to go outside or stand in  one of the ground floor rooms to access the Internet. I can live with the Internet but I was disappointed overall in the state of the place. 

For dinner our first night we ate at a great restaurant called 10 South. The place is on the 10th floor of a building with large windows on three sides. The views of the river and the historic downtown district of Vicksburg were great. The food was excellent as well. I had their Shrimp and Grits and they were perfect. See, you can make great grits. Our second night we had pizza in a place next door to 10 South called the Cottonwood Public House. They have their own brewery. It was good, I'd recommend it.  

Day two, following our less than stellar breakfast, we headed to the Vicksburg National Military Park. After watching a film in the visitors center we hit the trail, widows down, sunroof open, armed with a great map. I also recommend you download the app on Vicksburg from American Battlefield Trust. Do this before you leave home and download all the media. There are plaques and statues everywhere. You cannot possibly see them all in one day. Do not go on the tour without watching the film! The battlefield/siege area is well preserved, amazingly peaceful and empty of tourists. (Except the Germans from our B&B. The trail is marked with stops where you can get out and walk around. We took our time and spent several hours going through the park. It was superb, I really loved it. 

After lunch we drove back into Vicksburg. We stopped in at the Old Courthouse Museum. It was ok, nothing fantastic. We walked around a bit they drove down by the river to the Louisiana Overlook, great view of the river, but some shady folks hanging out there.

Day three, a shortish drive to Memphis, Tennessee. Home of Graceland, blues and bar-b-que on Beale Street. We stayed at the Holiday Inn Express, right downtown. It was perfect. The day was pretty warm and we walked a block or two to Beale Street. It was not crowded and in the bright light of day is was rather tired and rundown looking. We had a great lunch at the Rum Boogie Cafe. We were the only customers. I guess Beale Street is like a vampire hangout, best viewed after dark. After lunch we visited the Cotton Museum. I know what you're thinking...Cotton Museum right, but hey it was pretty good and interesting. Since we had eaten late, we sat in the bar with a group of French people who had shipped their Ford Mustangs from France to Houston to tour the U.S. How cool is that. That evening, instead of returning to Beale Street we opted to attend a baseball game. The ballpark is right across the street from the Holiday Inn Express! The Redbirds are the triple A farm team for the St. Louis Cardinals. The beer was expensive, the hot dogs cheap. The Redbirds lost, but it was fun. 

Day four, Shiloh. We got an early start and drove to the Shiloh National Military Park. It's in the middle of nowhere, really absolute nowhere. Again download the app from American Battlefield Trust and watch the film in the visitor's center. It was another glorious day and we had the park to ourselves. The battlefield is immense, much of it wooded. The trails are well marked and the stops along the route well documented. More 110,000 men fought at this Battle, over 23,000 were killed or injured. I felt like every step I took was on sacred ground. When we walked around the site where General U.S. Grant had his headquarters, I could picture him standing in the very spot on which I stood. The National Cemetery is sobering and contains the remains of thousands of men, many unknown. It's a beautiful place with a dreadful past. Highly recommend. 

Although the battlefield is in Tennessee we stayed in the town of Corinth in Mississippi. Corinth, once called Cross City was and is the location where two important railroads cross. The Union needed to capture the town and the rail lines to control the West. The Confederates desperately need to stop them. The Battle of Shiloh was fought for control of the rail. 

We stayed two nights at a great B&B called The Generals' Quarters Inn. The house was built in 1870, just after the end of the war. The rooms are large and air, the bathroom had a claw-footed tub. Breakfast was great! It had wi-fi! I loved it. The house is in a lovely historic neighborhood in walking distance of downtown and restaurants. We ate dinner on night four at Smith, a cute little place just down the street from the B&B. The food was top notch. 

Day Five, Corinth. It was pouring rain when we hit the road. First stop the Corinth Interpretive Center, also part of the National Park Service. Once again, we had the entire place to ourselves. The siege and battle of Corinth are explained in depth, with lots of displays. We visited the Crossroads Museum to see the rail road crossing. It's a small local museum but fun to visit and the only way to see the crossing. We tried to visit the Contraband Camp, a free black camp, but because of the rain it was closed. After a quick lunch we did a walking tour of the historic homes of Corinth, including the house where Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnson made the fateful decision to launch an attack against General Grant's army of the Tennessee. The house is beautifully preserved and we had a personal tour by the curator. 

We had a nice day in Corinth, lots to see in this pretty Southern town. We walked to a restaurant called Pizza Grocery. All I will say is that it was terrible!

Day six, Fort Donelson. We left Corinth, well fed, on a grey rainy morning and drove to the small Tennessee town of Dover to visit Fort Donelson. The battlefield here is spread out across town but well marked. The views of the Cumberland River were fantastic. Highlights were the Dover Hotel where General Ulysses S. Grant demanded the unconditional surrender of the Confederate troops under the command of his friend and West Point alum General Simon Buckner. This win for the Union opened the door for Grant to attempt the taking of Corinth. The area around Dover is beautiful, both the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers come together to form a boaters dream landscape. There is not as much to see as Shiloh or Vicksburg but if you have the time, it's well worth the effort to effort. Sadly, there was no real hotel in the area so we spent the night in Kentucky, near Fort Campbell. This was the end of our adventure, save for the long drive home, but it was well worth the miles to see not only the  amazingly preserved battlefields so full of history, but also America itself, the land, the people the culture that makes America what it is.

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