By Parker Hills
Anyone who travels the roads of America has become familiar with the large brown highway signs that denote sites of historical significance. Often these sites are National Military Parks—parks that are somewhat unique to the United States. The mission of the military parks is to preserve major battlefields for historical and professional study and to serve as lasting memorials for the soldiers. Fittingly, the military still makes use of these parks for the professional study of terrain, fields of fire, and most importantly, the analysis of decisions that were made. Of course, the parks have also become major tourist attractions, which accomplish the memorial portion of the military park mission.
The military parks were administered by the War Department until the National Park Service assumed control in 1933, which explains the War Department interpretive plaques on the battlefields. Today there are nine National Military Parks, including Vicksburg; eleven National Battlefields, including Tupelo; four National Battlefield Parks; and only one National Battlefield Site—Brice’s Crossroads near Baldwyn. Today the National Park Service denotes no official difference in the designations.
While a visit to a military park can be a wonderful experience and is highly recommended, there are numerous other sites to visit in order to experience the thrill of discovery. After all, it is the campaign, not the battle, which is the determinant of the course of military history. It is on the campaign trail that the battle, if properly planned, is won. As the Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz wrote, all military actions should ensure that the soldier will “fight at the right time and place.” Thus, the campaign trail is how the victorious troops arrived at the right place at the right time.
With that in mind, a number of initiatives by different organizations in Mississippi have resulted in campaign trails being marked, including an expedition composed largely of naval forces, but that can be followed on land. These trails provide superb field laboratories for understanding the struggles of the Civil War, to follow the footsteps of an ancestor or to enjoy the Mississippi countryside.
STEELE’S BAYOU EXPEDITION (March 1863): To help tell the story of the Civil War sailor, in 2008 a scenic interpretive trail was developed along the route of the Steele’s Bayou Expedition. This expedition was one of the attempts that General Ulysses S. Grant called “a series of experiments” to flank Vicksburg. Even today this military operation remains as one of the boldest attempts to take an objective. Fittingly, the first marker is placed in front of the gunboat USS Cairo in Vicksburg National Military Park. From there the trail of 11 stops and seven wayside panels leads northward for 30 miles into the beautiful Mississippi Delta. It takes the visitor along the meandering routes of Steele’s Bayou, Black Bayou and Deer Creek, following Admiral David Porter’s gunboats and General William Sherman’s infantrymen in early 1863 as they unsuccessfully sought a water route to get behind Vicksburg.
MISSISSIPPI CENTRAL RAILROAD CAMPAIGN (November-December 1862): Months earlier General Grant moved southward from Grand Junction in western Tennessee in an attempt to reach Jackson, Mississippi, a scant 45 miles east of Vicksburg. If successful this movement would result in the capture of a state capital and provide much-needed positive press for a politically beleaguered Abraham Lincoln. But more importantly the capture of Jackson would force the abandonment of Vicksburg. The plan went up in smoke in late December 1862 when Confederate cavalrymen Nathan Bedford Forrest and Earl Van Dorn destroyed Grant’s vital railroad line of communications in western Tennessee and his forward supply base in northern Mississippi. In 2006 Van Dorn’s Raid was interpreted through a series of eight interpretive panels in Holly Springs, and in 2013 ten state historical markers were erected to interpret the entire campaign.
GRAND GULF-RAYMOND SCENIC BYWAY (May 1863): In 2013 a series of 19 state historical markers and 30 directional markers were installed to interpret much of Grant’s final offensive of the Vicksburg Campaign. These markers begin at Grand Gulf on the Mississippi River and follow Grant’s army for 50 miles to Raymond along the Grand Gulf-Raymond Scenic Byway, a historic road, which in 2004 was named as Mississippi’s first state scenic byway. Much of Grant’s planning for the campaign took place at stops along this route.
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