Monday, January 19, 2009

Peace at Grand Gulf Mississippi

It is early May in Mississippi. This place, south of Vicksburg, north of Natchez, and up the road from Port Gibson is less than a mile from the Mississippi River. It should be humid but it is not. The weather is pleasant. The breeze is gentle and cooling and the nights fine for sleeping.

This place, designated as a Military Park by the State of Mississippi, looks nothing at all like where yellow fever and cholera killed, a tornado struck, the river raged, or a War came. It is, on this spring morning, a place of peace and contemplation.

Those who care for these 400 acres are here, but school is nearly over, and spring break has passed, thus no large crowd of knowledge seekers is predicted.

There are forty-two campsites. The day I arrived there were two others in use. One, I was to learn is a man and wife who are here nearly full time. The other, an unusual woman from Dallas Texas brightened my first day with her whimsical, indecisive, and decidedly eccentric nature.

It is hard to understand when you learn of it, just how much tragedy happened before this place became a peaceful monument to its battles with nature and man. It is a park, a monument, a museum, and a burial ground of a town’s people and their dreams.

I arrived with the intention of staying one night. I had been in Natchez all day. The vague plan was to travel on the Natchez Trace the next day. Yet when I saw a small part of this place, I needed more time to understand what had happened here.

I needed the laundry in the morning. It was in an elderly building on a hill above the campground. There was a cool breeze and a view of the road and many acres of rolling lawn. It occurred to me as I sat outside waiting for the washing machines to finish what they had started that the birds and a distant lawnmower were the only sound. The road was empty. It seemed it had been for some time. While trying to concentrate on the book I was reading, I noted the time. Forty-two minutes later, a pick-up truck traveling the road disturbed my auditory peace. I decided if one could not relax in this place, then it could not be done, and at that moment put off any thought of leaving soon.

Miss Texas returned from her tour of the various buildings and battle monuments which she had begun in the early light. She was agog at the sights she had seen and would gladly share all of her insights of them with me had I not told her I was going to tour as soon as I was done. After ten minutes spent in self-debate and consultation with me as to whether the river or the museum was her next best stop, she decided, about the third time it came up, that the river would be better left for the evening to see a sunset. Decision made, she bustled off as she remembered other personal tasks. She proposed to trundle down the hill with my clean laundry having volunteered to leave it at my campsite as I was going the other way. She asked if I thought it safe there. Since I had seen four people in the camping area all day, and was on a first name basis with all of them, I vouchsafed it to be a good assumption. Her eccentricities seemed to annoy some here. I found her amusing and intelligent when she slowed her speech long enough to be well understood.

She said she needed to do some housecleaning. She lived at present in a pickup truck with a turtle shell on the rear so I assumed it was not going to take her long. She was a woman with a confused thought process, but a good heart. She had been a hospice nurse for many years so had, I am sure, brought peace to many.

I went to the museum office to pay for an additional night. My habit of paying for only one night at a time amused the staff. I inquired (as I always did) if it was all right for me to stay another day. Louise, whose sense of humor was not rivaled here, said as she would everyday I was there that I could stay the rest of the year, or the rest of my life, so far as she was concerned as long as I paid her. The incredulous tone of voice used to deliver this dictum was such that it never failed to make me laugh.

After touring a bit to look for photo opportunities for the next day, I went down to the river to watch some barges move up river and marvel at the swift current. I was back at the main museum building by the late afternoon. The man in charge of this vast place was the Executive Director, Bud, known to all as “the boss” or the “ranger.” He was a small, powerful, and quiet man. He was thoughtful, slow to act, but decisive when he did. He was a former employee of the nuclear power plant near Port Gibson. He lived on the grounds here in a house that was built in the 1800’s. He had three dogs. Two were in the yard, while the other, a Jack Russell Terrier named “Tyson,” lived anywhere he wanted on the vast acreage. He roamed the grounds on a nearly constant basis. Bud said some nights he came home and some nights he didn’t. He made rounds early every morning. At night, he might just as likely go to sleep on your campsite as in his house. He would shamelessly beg food from anyone, looked over everyone who came through the gate, and would let you scratch his ears for the several hours if you had the patience and never barked while I was there. I suggested that he knew more about what was happening on the 400 acres than any human did. Bud said he believed that was true.

Everyone who worked here would show up at the museum building office near time for it to close. There seemed no purpose for these gatherings. They all seemed to like each other enough to want to share the day. If you showed up on the porch then, you could get caught up on much of what everyone did, how much lawn had been mowed, buildings repaired, and what would happen tomorrow. It was a bit like a family gathering. I liked that.

Just because the place was quiet most of the time, it was not all of the time. There were occasional bus tours that would use the pavilion for lunch and a few visitors who came down the road. There was not much reason to come down that road unless you intended to visit the Park or lived in the few places beyond it. Motor cycle riders, with women who looked half their age riding behind them who rarely were, would come up from Louisiana on day rides. One such group even knew enough to ask about the submarine that sat on the grounds that had been used as a liquor smuggling boat during Prohibition. It makes one shudder when you see it and contemplate someone actually submerged in it, trying to keep the model T motor that powered it running so that he could stay that way.

Many people have been over the ground of the Park more meticulously than I have. Yet this place might be the best-kept secret in Mississippi. What has been assembled is an interesting history, of not only the military action at Grand Gulf, but also the larger role of this area in the early days of the American South. There are structures from the town that are preserved, and donated ones brought here to be preserved. This is also the site of the cemetery of Grand Gulf.

The “Dog Trot” House was originally a one-room cabin built by Thomas Foster of Scotia before the American Revolution in 1762. An additional room and the “dog trot” feature, quite common in the southeastern United States, was added later. It is a passageway between two halves of the house, which scholars hypothesize, was an “architectural response to climatic conditions.” That means it allowed the breeze to pass through. A learned monograph has been written and the temperatures compared by Aaron Gentry and Sze Mun Lam of Mississippi State University. Who says there are no new intellectual fields to plow when there is grant money available? Added later, was a second floor as family quarters when the lower floor was converted to accommodate travelers as a stagecoach stop. A water wheel which is preserved next to it also came from the same area and is roughly the same age. It was originally used to generate power to light five 50-watt bulbs. The original owner had hoped to produce enough electricity to light his home which, unfortunately, was too far from the lake. When the wheel was sold after his failure to appreciate this fault, it was moved and used to operate a gristmill.

Spanish House is one of the two original structures of Grand Gulf that remain. It was built, as the name implies, at the time when Spain ruled this part of the country. Its proximity to Fort Coburn caused it to be damaged in the battle in 1863 but it has been restored with native timber, and remains, as it was when it was first built.

The original town cemetery is here. The original number of gravesites is actually unknown due to erosive rains that washed some away before the preservation began, but some Union and Confederate soldiers are buried here. Much later, the remains of two black soldiers were interred. They are thought to have fought at the siege of Port Hudson, Louisiana which lasted from May through July 9, 1863, the longest siege of any city in the War and the first time former slaves fought with the Union Army.

The heartbreak of Grand Gulf did not start with the War Between the States (the Civil War if you like, or, as a grade school teacher once famously called it where a friend went to school in North Carolina: “the recent unpleasantness”). It was the merely the exclamation point. All of the towns along the river, particularly those in the South have complicated histories. They were Spanish, then French, then English, some French again, and then finally part of the Union, then not and, now are again. The heyday of Grand Gulf was the 50 years in the early 1800’s. The town was still a town in 1863. Yet it had seen more than its share of disasters. In the 1830’s more than 1500 people lived there. It was the 3rd largest port on the Mississippi River. In 1837, 20 steamboats stopped every week and over 47,000 bales of cotton were exported. It was originally planned for eighty city blocks and 76 were built. For that time, it was considered a “city,” perhaps a large town by today’s standards. It had six doctors, 2 dentists, a hospital, Opera House, mercantile, jewelry stores, a jail, five taverns, three hotels, an insurance company, and a brickyard. It also had a police and fire department, and a town hall. The jail has survived and is here on display. By 1836 all the streets were paved. Natchez thought it such a good idea, it did the same, and Grand Gulf businessmen sold them rock to do it. There were private schools for both boys and girls. At least three churches were in town by 1851. In 1834 it had a newspaper, and as many as three by 1851.

It grew because of its location and the ease that cotton could be brought there for shipment. During its most prosperous times, Yellow Fever struck in 1843, followed the next year by cholera. The fever came again 1853. There had been a fire in 1851. Finally the newspapers began to report the erosion of the town as the course of the river changed. By 1858 the town quite literally began to disappear. By summer of 1863, when the War came, it had already been visited, in only ten years, by a series of unimaginable events, far worse than “Katrina,” or the floods in Iowa. While the number of people affected were much smaller, it is hard to contemplate any town having the will to survive so many disastrous events in one decade. When the Union Navy under Captain Porter and units of General Grant’s Army arrived, there were but 165 souls, more or less, still living there. With its commerce gone and spirit broken, the town found it had one more role to play.

The Battle of Vicksburg was long and big. Few know the role that Grand Gulf played in it. The whole campaign to control the Mississippi River was a complicated one and Union forces fought all the way to Louisiana on its banks. Much of this was skirmishing, but its purpose was to take the river away as an avenue of commerce to the Confederacy. In 1862, the decision was made to take a sizeable Union fleet and move it up river to destroy or capture the major trading centers of the time, Natchez, Vicksburg, and New Orleans. While the fleet moved up river, a still obscure Union General named U.S.Grant was moving troops from Illinois and Indiana down the river to capture forts along the way. After Fort Donnelson fell, Grant’s notoriety grew and he was given the charge to take Vicksburg.

The gunboats of the fleet, under Admiral Porter managed to get above the bluffs at Vicksburg, which were not yet fully fortified, and help Grant get down river by opening a second front in most of the battles that he had to fight to reach Vicksburg. By now, other elements of the fleet had secured New Orleans and Natchez. Only Vicksburg remained as a viable western trans-shipping point for cotton to Europe, the Confederacy’s only true source of revenue in the War years. Porter tried shelling the city into submission and failed due to the height of the bluffs and the Confederate ability to fire efficiently down on the ships. The northern approaches were well defended so Grant had little chance to march on the city.

Porter and Grant decided to try a different approach. It would eventually involve Grand Gulf. The iron sided vessels were painted black and tried to run past the guns while hugging the bank on the Louisiana side at night. Porter learned quickly that they were not out of range of the artillery on the bluffs. When one disabled gunboat went adrift and down river close in to the cliffs, Porter serendipitously found his route. The guns could not be aimed down, or be “suppressed” in artillery terms, and the gunboats got past the city. Grant, meanwhile, kept the main force on the other side of the river and went well south of the city. He crossed the river at Bayou Pierre with little or no resistance. Then he moved generally north and east. Porter, meanwhile, ordered to Grand Gulf, came to Fort Cobun and Fort Wade, and shelled what was left of the town. Under the Command of General John Bowen, the Confederate troops, with the use of “flying batteries” of artillery disabled one of the gunboats and damaged another.

The resistance was effective enough that the boats withdrew and Army units had to be put ashore south of the town to dislodge Bowen. The two forts were connected by a covered trench which was used to great effect by the troops to stop the ships. However, with the arrival of the land force, the defenders saw the end, blew up the remaining magazines, and fled to the east toward Jackson. It was the end of a city and an era. What had once been a center of commerce and culture was burned by the Union troops, and, that place of fever, fire, and eroding high river water was abandoned. The remaining residents drifted away and it simple ceased to exist. No attempt to revive it was ever made.

The rifle pits, just depressions in the ground, remain near the cemetery to mark where the forts once were and some artillery pieces can be found. Until the Military Park was dedicated by the State, and the collection of artifacts began, it was simply another bend in the river not much different from when the mound building Indian tribes had come in 1500 BC.

Grant and his Army continued to the East through Jackson and then turned back toward Vicksburg from there having had enough of the river approaches. They laid siege to the city for 43 days. On July 4, 1863, the same day as the Union victory at Gettysburg, the city fell and for the rest of the war, the practical use of the river for commerce ended for the Confederate States of America.

As you contemplate a sunset over the river now, the magnolia trees in bloom, the green grass, and the beauty of the 400 acres dedicated to the memory of Grand Gulf, this carnage and natural disaster is hard to imagine.

There is such peace and beauty here. It has been said that it can take great pain to create beauty and peace. A terrible price was paid here to allow one to enjoy what was realized from that effort.