The “Red Carpet City of the South,” Vicksburg (pop. 26,407) didn’t roll one out for the Union army during the Civil War; rather, the city so stubbornly opposed Union efforts to win control of the Mississippi River that it became the target of one of the longest sieges in U.S. military history. After the war ended, Vicksburg suffered once again in 1876, when the city woke up to face a mud flat of flopping fish after the Mississippi River found itself a new streambed—overnight. Thanks to the diligence of engineers who redirected the Yazoo River, Vicksburg has its waterfront back, now complete with several modern-day sharks, whose slot machines and roulette wheels spin 24 hours a day for your entertainment.
Many of the city’s posh antebellum houses survived the Civil War with varying degrees of damage, and during the post-war Reconstruction several additional mansions were added to the bluffs overlooking the river. Most of these homes are open to the public (for around $6 each), and during the fortnight-long “Pilgrimages” in late March and mid-October, slightly discounted multiple-house tours are available. The architecturally varied mansions, many of which double as B&Bs, and their copious inventories of fine antiques are more fascinating to decorative arts aficionados than to history buffs, who may find tours illuminating more for what is omitted than included. Stories of deprivation and Union plundering, cannonballs in parlor walls, and other wartime relics are religiously enshrined, yet never a word is spoken about slavery.
The most famous of Vicksburg’s antebellum homes is Cedar Grove (daily; 601/636-1000), south of downtown at 2200 Oak Street, which has a spectacular panorama over lush gardens down the bluffs to the broad Mississippi River. Ironically, Cedar Grove was built for a cousin of General Sherman, who used it as a military hospital. Another grand old mansion, Anchuca (601/661-0111), at 1010 E. 1st Street, preserves a more-complete picture of antebellum life, with well-preserved gardens and slave quarters. Dozens more, including some dating from the 1870s up through the early 1900s, are found throughout Vicksburg’s pleasantly cobblestoned residential areas.
The downtown commercial district, on the bluffs above the river, offers another, more contemporary glimpse into Southern culture. If you’ve ever tried to imagine a world without Coke, step into the Biedenharn Museum of Coca-Cola Memorabilia, smack downtown at 1107 Washington Street, and see where one man’s ingenuity slew all hopes for such a world. Here, in 1894, Joseph Biedenharn conceived of putting the strictly regional soda-fountain drink into bottles, the better to reach new markets; the rest, as they say, is history. Toast worldwide domination with some of the classic stuff, straight up or over ice cream, or pay $2 to view galleries full of old promotional serving trays and the like.