The Civil War, Old Man River, and a Truly Majestic Cat

Stories I read long ago jumped to mind in Vicksburg, Mississippi, with its battlefield (all sober, glistening autumn light), its muddy river, and its old downtown clinging to memories while moving onward into whatever comes next when so much has come before. Stories like Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, Edna Ferber’s Show Boat, Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, and Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic.

Before he floated down the Green and Colorado Rivers and became the leader of the first US-government-sponsored passage through the Grand Canyon, John Wesley Powell was here, at the siege of Vicksburg (after losing an arm at the Battle of Shiloh)—a siege that spanned May to July 1863, ending July 4, 1863, the day after Gettysburg ended.

The light on the battlefield felt quintessential as we (a close friend has joined me for some history-oriented adventuring this week) toured the sixteen miles of stone monuments and ghostly feelings that mark the gentle hills and grassy redoubts. This light glittered gold and the color (it was a color, just not one I can name) of hallowed.

On the river itself, we toured a retired Mississippi River boat that saw service till the ‘90s and which now flanks the Lower Mississippi River Museum (a nice cousin to the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium, which sits upriver in Dubuque, Iowa, and which I’ve enjoyed when I’ve been in nearby Madison, Wisconsin). Up the hill from the river, the old Warren County Courthouse houses displays of Civil War artifacts, oodles of Victorian dresses, and jury chairs that have watched people pass for over a century, . . . and a very large, unspeakably majestic cat.

We pulled out of town as evening descended too early, heading south and wondering how to categorize all we’d seen. A country split in two, then repaired, and now scratching at old scars. . . .

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