Last Tuesday my family and I traveled to Vicksburg, MS- I have been several times before, but it has been several years. Not a terrible lot has changed. Vicksburg sits between sharply eroded loess hills and the great, muddy, eddying waters of the Mississippi- at least, part of Vicksburg does. The river has shifted its course considerably since the founding of the city, turning west at the south edge of town. The old river channel now carries the Yazoo River's waters past rail-yards, sickly-smelling mills, and eighteen thousand simple granite markers of the Vicksburg National Cemetery.
The battlefield was central to our visit- my little brother, Joseph, has become terribly interested in the Civil War (he has been watching Gettysburg
for a week now) and was quite happy at visiting a real battlefield. We drove the great loop that skirts first the Union positions, then Confederate, saw the trenches, cannons, monuments- and thousands of wildflowers blooming peacefully upon the grassy battlefield's hills and ridges. Odd, I thought, for such delicate, lovely things to be growing so profusely upon such bloody ground. The tourists- mostly Northern folks, I noticed, which is unusual for most of Mississippi- were all about, admiring the magnificent monuments, some stooping to look at the lists of soldiers upon the granite and marble blocks, perhaps searching for an ancestor's name. We walked along the old Jackson Road, where Northern troops charged in a great, but fruitless assualt, and later detonated a mine- also a fruitless endevaour- being repulsed both times by Mississippi troops. The old trenches are eroded now, and paved roads pierce part of the area- though I could still, somewhat, envision the din of battle swirling about.
Just as the old trenches have decayed, so has the town. We visited the Old Courthouse Museum- a wonderful old museum, with a great hoard of objects from the war- and then went to an old antebellum home, the McRaven House. The house seemed to convey the feeling of the town: old, dignified, but decayed. The war devestated the old house, smashing off galleries, destroying roofs and floors, and imbedding the walls with iron. It was repaired, slowly, healing from the war- but in later years it fell back into decay. The current owner has restored it somewhat, though there is still a feeling of age upon it, from the cracks in the wall to the shifting of the bricks outside. The brochure claims the owner wants it that way, though I rather wonder whether that is the real reason.
The rest of Vickburg is in a similar state of decay. The downtown is dotted with boarded-up buildings, and hardly breathes of life. Stretching along the river the residential areas are an odd pattern of beautiful antebellum houses and run down hovels. Only the riverfront has any feeling of vitality: it is here that Vickburg second river invasion has occured, this time of boats not wielding guns but slot machines and hotels.
I suppose one may postulate a passing case for gambling not being a sin per se, but its fosterings are destructive. The casinos have hardly brought prosperity to Vicksburg, or any other Mississippi towns they infest. And no wonder. Each casino is a self-contained city, with resturants, hotels, entertainment (besides plunging money down a slot), etc, so that a casino-goer need not invest his money elsewhere in the area. Pawn shops are the most lucrative business in casino-towns, and though they are not so ubitiquous in Vicksburg as on the Gulf Coast, they are still abundant.
Of course, casinos are not the reason of Vickburg decay- but they have not helped it, and in my opinion, only agravate it. Why our state allows them to continue I do not know- well, yes, I do: casinos are powerful lobbiests, and politicians are ever eager for increased revenue. But even if casinos were bringing in great revenues to "fund education", I, as a Mississippian, would be ashamed of it still. I am hesitant to ban something only because I see abuses: but casinos are of such a pernacious degrading nature to the communities in which the exist that I would be the first to cheer their removal.
We left Vicksburg after viewing the National Cemetery. It is a lovely place, though it abuts the rather industrial riverfront (actually a diversion canal these days, but still a large span of water). The Civil War dead are all Union soldiers, and great numbers are unknown. Indeed, row after row is composed to simple white stones with a number stamped on top. Nothing more. And yet, those simple stones are some of the most stirring monuments in the world. Thousands upon thousands, here, and in a thousand cemeteries across the South, unknown soldiers- men, husbands and sons and brothers who never came home, who were utterly lost to their family's knowledge- lie, sleeping beneath grass and moss. Casinos and crumbling towns do not bother them.
I came away from Vicksburg with mingled feelings and thoughts. The decay of Vicksburg is not endemic. It is all over the South. But there is also a deep sense of honor, of courage, of ideals higher than any temporary corruption, that lies over such places where men died in such great numbers. And over it all, like those upon steeples of the old churches in Vicksburg's downtown, there stands a cross. Many of the men who died on those hills beheld the cross in their last moments, and we must behold it still, if we desire any hope beyond the decay and corruption of this world.