The Great River Road, Part 18: Searcy, AR to Vicksburg, MS

“Vicksburg is the key. The war can never be brought to a close until the key is in our pocket.”                 – President Abraham Lincoln

“Vicksburg is the nail head that holds the South’s two halves together.”                                                                 – Confederate President Jefferson Davis

“Searcy is the key.  Win here and you win the Civil War.”        – No One Ever

September 27-30 – Day 29-32 – Searcy, Arkansas

Still buzzing with excitement from yesterday’s big engagement, both families worshipped together at Downtown Church of Christ in Searcy, and then had a delicious lunch at The Rockhouse. At the restaurant, we ran into Guy and Lisa Miller and family, friends of ours from our Virginia days. After lunch, we said goodbye to Jason, Rachel, and the Genry family as they all headed back home.

That night the Harding Lectureships began. Over the next four days, we would take advantage of excellent keynote speakers, Bible classes, and other activities centered on the theme, The Parables of Jesus. There were also several display booths with information on various ministries around the country, Christian authors selling books, and other good causes. While perusing the photos at the AMEN table (American Military Evangelizing Nations), I was surprised to find a 2007 picture of me and other military members outside our church building at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan. It brought back memories of preaching with a 9 mm pistol holstered at my side, in front of an audience packing 9 mils and M-16s. Shortly after that photo was taken, a suicide bomber attacked the outer gate of our base, killing 23 people and injuring 20 others. The dead included an American soldier, PFC Daniel Zizumbo, from Chicago; an American contractor; SSG Yoon Jang-ho, a South Korean soldier; and 20 Afghan workers at the base. Some gave all. The attack was timed while then-Vice President Cheney was visiting Bagram, although he wasn’t harmed.

PFC Daniel Zizumbo...thank you! You're not forgotten.
PFC Daniel Zizumbo…thank you! You’re not forgotten.

Throughout the week, we continued to run into old friends, such as Tom Ritchie (from our Virginia days), Dennis and Diane Saucier (from our Germany days) and Ken Bissell (who brought us really cool Harding coffee mugs…thanks, Ken!). Dennis manned the previously mentioned AMEN table, and we had dinner with him and his wife one night. Of course, we also ran into a host of former youth group members, to include Luke & Jared Larsen, Jeanie Linton, Victoria & Tim DeBoef, Mary Katherine Strachan, and Brooke & Patrick Miller. It’s so exciting to see these young people happy and doing well, and to get caught up on their lives and plans for the future.

The Old Gang Gathers to Hear Kyle Speak
The Old Gang Gathers to Hear Kyle Speak

On our final afternoon at Harding, we got to hear Kyle give an interesting presentation entitled Recapitulation: Redemption in Last Adam, which was based on a lengthy research paper he wrote for one of his Bible classes. That night, he and Laci came by the RV to hang out with us on our final night in Searcy. We had a terrific time in Searcy, highlighted by Kyle and Laci’s engagement. Yet it was time to get back on the road and continue our Great River Road journey.

Preach the Word
Preach the Word, Son!

October 1, 2015 – Day 33 – Tunica, Mississippi

We headed east and crossed the Mississippi River into Mississippi, then headed south along the Blues Highway. If I had to describe our Mississippi experience in three words, I would choose three C’s…cotton, casinos, and cannons. Just as we saw corn as far as the eye could see north of Memphis, it was all about cotton in Mississippi and southward. As for casinos, Mississippi has the second highest number of them in the United States (behind Nevada), and yet it is the poorest state in the nation. I don’t know if those two things are related. I have heard that gambling is a tax on people who can’t do math. The cannons would come later, as we toured the Vicksburg battlefields.

Tunica Riverpark
Tunica Riverpark

Our first stop was the Tunica Riverpark, which features a museum and riverboat cruising on the Tunica Queen. We had the museum to ourselves, and enjoyed the small aquarium, movie, and interactive displays. I learned that the word Mississippi comes from the Native American word Meccaceepa (great river) which comes from Mecha (great) and Ceba (river). Write that down as it will be on the final. After visiting the museum, we continued south and eventually pulled into the Vicksburg Wal-Mart for the night.

October 2, 2015 – Days 34 – Vicksburg, Mississippi

After heading to downtown Vicksburg, our first stop was the Biedenharn Coca-Cola Museum where coke was first bottled. Despite my fondness for Diet Cokes, we opted not to spend the $7 to tour the two-room museum of Coca-Cola memorabilia. Instead, we headed down Main Street and decided to do the “Top 6 Things to Do” in Vicksburg (according to Trip Advisor), beginning with the Lower Mississippi River Museum and Interpretive Center. The museum was interesting, interactive, informative…and free! We learned about the history and struggles of the Mississippi River, and the role the Navy played in the Civil War. The best part was being able to tour a de-commissioned tugboat, the Army Corps of Engineer’s Mississippi IV. We boarded the diesel-powered, all-steel vessel and pretty much had all four levels to ourselves. The setting screamed “hide and go seek” so I rushed ahead, climbed two flights of stairs to an upper deck, and hid inside a locker in one of the cabin rooms. As sweat poured down my face in the non-air conditioned room, I texted Lil Jan to remind her to come and find me. She never found me. Looking back, I don’t feel like she gave it her all. As she walked near the room I was in, she might have even muttered, “This is stupid.” I think she’s gotten used to playing the game in our RV where it takes less effort.

She Should Be Looking for Me
She Should Be Looking for Me

Our next stop was The Old Courthouse Museum which…get this…is a museum housed in an old courthouse. It is packed full of Confederate arms, artillery, documents, flags, newspapers and other artifacts, including General Grant’s chair. Some of the rooms are full of Civil War era clothing, furniture, and dinnerware, most from the local area, and one room is dedicated to all things Jefferson Davis. The Court Room is beautiful and preserved just like they left it so many years ago. It was easily the most impressive Confederate museum I’ve ever visited, well worth $5/person admission for a self-guided tour.

General Grant's Chair
General Grant’s Chair

We left the museum and headed down hill towards the river and the Vicksburg Riverfront Murals. What a cool idea! I think all towns should do something like this to beautify their downtowns and tell their history. The beautiful painted murals depict key events in Vicksburg’s history. I’d recommend doing them either at the beginning or end of a visit to Vicksburg, depending on whether you want a preview or review. These exceptionally well done paintings were painted on Vicksburg’s floodwall by local artists, and celebrate the city’s history, culture, and achievements. The only panel missing was the one showing my skeleton inside a tugboat locker, years after winning the 2015 “hide and go seek” contest. After walking along the murals, we finished off the day with some delicious steak and blackened grouper at Rusty’s Riverfront Grill.

Riverfront Mural
Riverfront Mural

October 3, 2015 – Days 35 – Vicksburg, Mississippi

As a history and Civil War buff, I was really looking forward to touring the Vicksburg National Military Park. Both Union and Confederate leadership realized the significance of Vicksburg. The Mississippi River was the critical highway on which men and supplies travelled, and the fort at Vicksburg controlled that traffic. President Lincoln also realized that capturing Vicksburg would effectively split the Confederacy in half. So, in terms of significance, Vicksburg ranks right up there with Gettysburg, Shiloh, Antietam, and other key Civil War battles. In terms of military strategy and tactics, Vicksburg also gets high marks. General Grant went from trying to bypass the heavily fortified city with a canal to starving it with a prolonged siege. During the bombardment, confederate families lived in caves and ate horses and mules. Eventually, Confederate General Pemberton was forced to unconditionally surrender, splitting the Confederacy and giving the Union control of the river.

Vicksburg National Military Park
Vicksburg National Military Park

We started at the Visitors Center with a 20-minute video providing an overview of the campaign, which provides some context for what followed. We then headed out on the 16-mile self-guided driving tour of the battlefield, with scores of monuments, statues, and signs explaining things. We appreciated how they marked Union and Confederate positions with blue and red markers, and the driving cutouts and narratives provided at key points on the battlefield. My only complaint is that they have allowed forests to grow up all around the park. While they’re beautiful, they also alter how the fields of battle would have looked to both sides back in 1863. It’s hard to imagine the perspective of advancing Union troops up a hill when that hill is now covered in trees.

U.S.S. Cairo Museum
U.S.S. Cairo Museum

Halfway along the drive is the U.S.S. Cairo Museum. The Cairo was a Union gunship that was sunk during the battle, and raised from the mud about 90 years later. It was reconstructed and is now on display, along with ship artifacts gathered during the salvage operation. Nearby we got a good look at the Vicksburg National Cemetery, hallowed grounds with the remains of about 18,000 troops who gave their last full measure of devotion. The majority of the burials are “unknown” except to God, and approximately 40% are known as USCT (United States Colored Troops).

Vicksburg National Cemetery
Vicksburg National Cemetery

Having checked off all six of the top things to do in Vicksburg, it was time to hook our Fit back up to the RV mother ship and continue south along the Great River Road. That night we rolled into Natchez State Park near Natchez, Mississippi. I considered giving Lil Jan another shot at hide and go seek, but decided instead to build a nice big campfire. We also decided that tomorrow we would worship at 4th Street Church of Christ in Natchez, a 200 or so member congregation that could be described as “all black”…at least until we showed up. That’s a story for next time.

Big Steve

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