“You’re heading into banjo country,” a friend of ours warns us. He’s worked at Vicksburg, and we’ve asked him for advice on following Grant’s route across Mississippi.
We spent the night in Jackson, so we’re going to hit some of the battlefields on our way into Vicksburg. We’ll hit them out of order, and we won’t hit all of them, but we want to at least get a sense of the terrain Grant’s men crossed as they outflanked the Confederate citadel through open country.
Sounds like the battle of Jackson is still going on on some level.
The battle of Jackson took place on May 14, 1863—two weeks after he crossed the Mississippi at Bruinsburg. On May 1, he fought Confederates at Port Gibson, then marched northeast to Raymond, where he fought more Confederates on May 12. Then Jackson. Then Champion Hill on May 16, and Big Black River on May 17. That finally brought him to the edge of Vicksburg on May 18, where he besieged the city until July 4.
We hit Jackson first, but it doesn’t take long. The neighborhood has seen better days. So have the two cannons on display. But at least there are no dead bodies.
We head down to Raymond next. The town square is quaint and friendly, and volunteers are planting flowers around the corners. Farther down the road, we find the battlefield park, including an array of artillery that wows us. I haven’t seen so many artillery pieces since the line-up facing Shiloh’s Hornet’s Nest.
The park has a nice trail system, although we don’t have the time to fully explore it because we’re falling behind schedule. “Hurry up,” I joke. “I hear banjos.”
In fact, the trip has been pleasant and the countryside gorgeous. We couldn’t ask for a nicer drive.
Our next stop: Champion Hill. First, we pass a monument that marks the spot where Confederate Brig. Gen. Lloyd Tilghman was killed while trying to cover the Confederate retreat.
Champion Hill was the largest of the battles Grant fought while on the march. Confederates under Gen. John Pemberton sorted out of Vicksburg only to get a drubbing at Federal hands.
Finding Champion Hill proves a little difficult because Champion Hill Road actually skirts the hill but doesn’t go to it. We have to resort to breaking out an old issue of Blue & Gray, which gives us the directions we need. The fight centers around “The Crossroads,” which is a modest “T” in the road in the woods. It had once been a four-corners, but one of the roads has devolved into an overgrown trace.
We find the other end of that road trace behind the Champion Hill Missionary Baptist Church. “Oh, you couldn’t pay me enough to go walking down through those woods, all the rattlesnakes down there,” says Ray, a carpenter who greets us warmly when we pull into the church’s lot. It all comes out as a single syllable in a smooth Mississippi accent. “Last week, a whole busload of folks pulled up over there and parked right there behind the church and went walking down there through the woods and walked down that road.”
He’s delighted to have us there and takes a break from his work on a small shed to talk Civil War with us. “Miss Matilda, during the battle, she hid in her basement,” he tells us, walking us over to the former house site, which is in the church’s back yard. “My sister, last week, she made a demonstration. Had a hole in the ground over there for the cellar and came up out of it to show people.”
We take our leave from Ray and head to the Big Black, but the road dead-ends before it gets to the river. “Sherman crossed here,” Dan says. “Grant crossed here, too.” Not us. Ray warned us that recent heavy rains probably have the river running at flood stage, anyway, which we see as we finally pass over it while driving on I-20. “The Big Black is brown,” Dan quips.
We’re fewer than a dozen miles from Vicksburg. We’ve had a much easier time than Grant.
It’s time to get ready for the siege.