Some Civil War stories better left to books

Topeka Capital-Journal
March 24, 1993

VICKSBURG, Miss. – The Kansas monument in the Civil War battlefield here is different, to say the least. The monuments, in what is now a National Park, were donated by the various states to honor the troops, on both sides, who fought here.

Some are huge, taking up hundreds of square feet or towering far above the scene of another slaughter in the war between the states. Most feature statues of soldiers with guns, or a lady of peace promising this would be the last senseless war. Some cost a million or more to build.

Most are made of marble or native stone and have special touches symbolic of the states they represent. Around every turn in the 16-mile drive through the battlefield there is another one, usually just as impressive as the last one .


Kansas is a notable exception. Its monument is about 8 feet high and four feet wide, made of wrought iron, and cost $5,000 when it was erected in 1960. It features three circles that have a meaning never made clear to me and my two sons by the guide we hired for $20 to show us through the park.

There were many things that God never made clear to us, like what started the war, and who won. She spent all her time telling us the history books and Civil War scholars are all wet and that to this day very few people understand what happened.

When you hire a personal guide you have no way of knowing what you’ll get. You ask a woman in the reception area to get you one, and she calls the next name on the list. We drew a woman will call Connie, short for Confederate .

She was a fierce Southerner who still is fighting the war and who is convinced the South will win. She writes her own history.

For example, she said slavery wasn’t the issue in the Civil War, because very few southerners owned slaves. She said 83 percent had no slaves at all, another 13 percent had five or fewer and that only 11 plantation owners in the entire South had as many as 500.

The Emancipation Proclamation, she said, was nothing more than a political tool used to satisfy radical northern abolitionists. President Abe Lincoln was one of them, and his election in 1860 convinced southerners the North was out to starve them economically.

Therefore, she continued, the root cause of the war was secession, because greedy northerners wanted what the South had, and ever since then the North has been picking on the South.

Even today, she added, the U.S. government in the North is demanding an investigation into why so many prisoners in the county jails in Mississippi commit what local authorities say is suicide. Why, she wailed, do they keep picking on Mississippi?

I’d had enough. I said maybe it started when three civil rights workers were murdered in cold blood in Philadelphia, Miss. in the 1960s. She replied the same thing happens every day in Northern cities and nobody says a word about it.

I set a speed record for the remainder of the 16 miles, driving so fast that Connie asked Steve and Kurt, “does your daddy always drive this fast through national parks?”

After we got rid of Connie we went back and looked at the battlefield, learning what we could from the from the literature we had. The bottom line is that the guns on the 200-foot high bluffs above Vicksburg ruled the Mississippi River, and they had to be taken from the Confederates.

It was the summer of 1863, and Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who later would lead the assaults that would end the war, sent some 75,000 men against a Southern force of about 35,000. Grant was brilliant, using the classic military ingredients of surprise, speed and power to win.

Grant marched his troops more than 200 miles in two weeks, fought five battles and had superior power at every critical point. The battle ended after a successful 47-day siege. Grant and the Southern commander, Gen. John Pemberton, old friends from earlier days, sat under an oak tree and worked out details of the surrender .

A military historian later wrote of Grant: “we must go back to the campaigns of Napoleon to find equally brilliant results accomplished in the same space of time with such small loss.”

The fighting was bloody and there were more than 20,000 casualties. Soldiers were buried all over the battlefield and later bodies and bones washed out of the steep hills.

A military cemetery was established, and men were hired to collect remains for proper burial. There are 17,000 buried there, and the identity of 13,000 of them is unknown. Their graves are marked with a simple square stone with a number on it.

(Editor’s Note From the website of the National Park Service: “The text on the plaque placed by the Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War reads: The bottom circle represents the unity of the pre-Civil War Era, The broken circle in the center represents the Union torn asunder by the war 1861-1865, The perfect circle at the top depicts the regained unity of the post war era, An eagle atop all typifies the glorious majesty of our country.’”)

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