Day 73, August 10
Measurements: none. Miles today: none on the river, but many on bike in and around Vicksburg, Mississippi.
Today was a bit of a touristy whirlwind around Vicksburg. I got up at around 8am (which felt like sleeping in) and biked up into downtown to a very cute little coffee shop, Highway 61 Coffee. Drank two cold brews, worked on updates, had a nice, leisurely breakfast.
After breakfast I started museum-hopping, starting with the Army Corp's Lower Mississippi museum. It's a fabulously self-congratulatory space, with absolutely no mention of any controversy about their basic project. Like: are these levees and revetments and wing dams a good idea? What harm might they do? What are the long-term implications of preventing the river from evolving as it did for millions of years, and fighting the river's own proclivities to keep it locked in place? It's all heroic, all humanitarian (flood control, you know), all about economic development. They have a few sections that talk about environmental stewardship, but it's all very vague and high level, like: that's a good thing that we care about, too. But it was interesting nonetheless. They had a sliding map thing with how the course of the river has changed over time near Vicksburg, which I loved. And I got to tour an old Army Corps towboat, which was fascinating.
Then to the Catfish Row cultural history museum, which had an interesting exhibit about different Southern ethic group's cuisines. And then to the Old Depot museum, which is the old train depot for the town, and is mostly a place to show off some very intricate model trains, but then also has a scale model of the siege of Vicksburg during the Civil War. They asked if I wanted to watch their video, and I said yes, and then started to regret it. It's (unsurprisingly, and even fairly) focused on the experience of the residents of the town, and the Confederate soldiers. Almost no perspective from the Union side, and I think literally nothing at all from the perspective of the people who had been enslaved by the white people of the town. It certainly ended on a "this is tragic" sort of note, talking about how the fall of Vicksburg hastened the end of the Confederacy. And I was like: you're goddamned right it did, and good thing, too. The Confederacy was fucking horrible, and it's a moral good that it was defeated. Not the first time I've felt like a Yankee down here, but the first time I had a sensation of "hell yes, you lost, and I'm not sorry."
Then up to the Biedenharn Coca-Cola museum, which I found pretty incredible. This German immigrant who owned a candy store in downtown Vicksburg, Mississippi came up with the idea to bottle Coca-Cola for sale. Previously, it had only been sold at soda fountains, where they mixed the syrup with the carbonated water on order. Joe Biedenharn thought: if I can put this in bottles, I can sell it in the countryside too, rather than making people come down to my soda fountain downtown. It's an idea that is so ubiquitous today - soda in cans and bottles - that it's almost impossible to wrap my mind around the fact that it actually came from a particular place, a particular person, a moment in history that can be identified so exactly. He even asked the Coca-Cola company in Atlanta if they minded that he did this, and they seem to have sort of shrugged, like, "sure, I guess, go for it." Think about how many tons of plastic, aluminum, and glass waste have ended up in landfills, garbage burners, oceans, and rivers thanks to this one guy's idea. (Also, this same guy took a crop dusting company and turned it into fucking Delta Airlines. Like, what the actual hell?)
And then the major trek, up a very hilly road to see the battlefield, starting with USS Cairo, an ironclad warship that was sunk by a mine (then called a torpedo) in the Yazoo River, upstream of Vicksburg, during the Civil War. It was located and raised in the 1950s, and is on exhibit near the battlefield. It's quite a trip. They let you actually walk around inside it, sort of. Man, it must have been intolerably hot inside that thing, shoveling coal into the boilers, in close quarters with lots of other sweaty dudes, firing cannons and having cannons fired at you.
Then up the hill to see the battlefield, starting at Fort Hill, the highest point in the area, which overlooks the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers. Today's picture is taken from up there. Seeing that amazing view - complete, today, with rain out on the river where I was yesterday - helps explain why Vicksburg was such a key place for the Union to take and the Confederacy to try to hold. The river took this hairpin turn right under this huge hill, and all ships going around that turn and past the town were easy targets for the guns up on the hill. Today, that turn is the Yazoo, where back then it was the Mississippi proper. Interestingly, the Union tried and failed to cut through the neck of the peninsula (called De Soto Point on the old maps) to just go around Vicksburg, and then the river went ahead and did that exact same thing itself in 1876. Vicksburg was cut off from river access until the Army Corps rerouted the Yazoo confluence to use the Mississippi's old channel.
Then I biked down the ridgeline, seeing hundreds of monuments and plaques, each honoring a particular unit or commander, saying how close a particular Union assault got on a particular day, etc. It's very interesting, and very sad. Standing on the downward side of those slopes, it's easy to see just how hard it was to rush up a hill towards people shooting down at you with muskets, rifles, and canister shot.
I made sure to check out the memorial to the Minnesotans who took part and who died in the battle. They were a pretty small part of the whole thing - just eighteen men were killed, wounded, or went missing. That's out of 20,000 men total who died in the campaign.
After the visitor center, which thankfully had a much more even-handed video to watch, I went to the Vicksburg visitor center. They have a "passport" program where if you get five stamps from various museums and such you can get a free t-shirt. I got my five stamps, and I got my shirt! It felt pretty fun.
Then I took a long, hilly, pretty harrowing, not very fun bike ride out to a vegan restaurant called the Squeeze. It was mostly on fast, winding, two-lane roads with no shoulder at all. Just really shitty and not a great idea. The restaurant was fine, but definitely not worth the effort and intimidation to get there and back. (The joke I made to myself is that the Squeeze was not worth the juice to get there.) Outside of the downtown area, the roads in Vicksburg and its surrounding environment are among the most hostile I've ever tried to bike on. I ended up literally riding on the grass beside the road at several points. It was bad.
Eventually I made my way safely back into town. I went and looked at the murals along the inside of the flood wall, which are basically in chronological order. One that stood out was about the tragedy of the Sultana, a steamboat that exploded right after the Civil War, egregiously overloaded with Union soldiers who had been freed from prisoner of war camps and were on their way home. Over 1,700 people were killed in that incident, just upriver of Memphis.
I went to the Key City brewery again, and then back to the airbnb. In the evening I watched some TV - wow, is it strange to do that, now - as I did my laundry. I got to bed later than I should have, a recurring theme when I sleep in a bed rather than a tent.
Tomorrow, the idea is to get about halfway to Natchez, which would be 36 miles. Seems doable, if I can get out of Vicksburg relatively early, or at least not really late.