The Great River Road

The “Red Carpet City of the South,” Vicksburg (pop. 22,136) didn’t roll one out for the Union army during the Civil War. Instead, 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 in 1903, 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.

two bridges span a muddy river
The new and old I-20 bridges in Vicksburg. Photo © Erastef/Dreamstime.

Many of the city’s posh antebellum houses survived the Civil War with varying degrees of damage. During the postwar Reconstruction, several additional mansions were added to the bluffs overlooking the river. Most of these homes are open to the public ($15 each), and during the fortnight-long “Pilgrimages” in mid-spring and mid-fall, 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 more illuminating for what is omitted than included. Stories of deprivation and Union plundering, cannonballs in parlor walls, and other wartime relics are religiously enshrined, yet only rarely is a word spoken about slavery.

The most famous of Vicksburg’s antebellum homes turned B&Bs is Cedar Grove Inn (2200 Oak St., 601/636-1000, $79 and up), south of downtown, which has a spectacular panorama over lush gardens and railroad yards 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 (1010 E. 1st St., 601/661-0111, $145 and up), has well-preserved gardens and a fine café. Dozens more, dating from the 1870s up through the early 1900s, are found throughout Vicksburg’s pleasant cobblestone 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 Coca-Cola Museum (1107 Washington St.), smack downtown, 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 $3.50 to view galleries full of old promotional serving trays and the like.

Where to Eat and Stay in Vicksburg

Vicksburg has an enormously compelling history, but it’s also a pleasant place to spend some time. For a traditional home-style feast, sit down to the communal round table at Walnut Hills (1214 Adams St., 601/638-4910, Wed.-Mon.) and dig into the endless supply of classic regional dishes, from fried chicken to fried dill pickles. Given the fresh ingredients (and depending on how much of a pig you can be), the moderate prices are a great value, and the overall ambience embodies the essence of Southern hospitality. Tamale addicts should seek out Solly’s Hot Tamales (1921 Washington St., 601/636-2020), near the Cedar Grove mansion on US-61 Business.

Vicksburg motels, found at the south edge of town along I-20 between the Mississippi River and the Military Park, include a wide selection of the national chains and their local imitators; one of the nicest is the Deluxe Inn (2751 N. Frontage Rd., 601/636-5121, $72 and up).

If you’re in the mood, you can play Rhett and Scarlett for a night, pampering yourself with canopied beds in one of the dozen camellia-draped antebellum mansions (including Cedar Grove and Anchuca) that double as plush B&Bs. Any will have you whistling “Dixie,” but true history buffs will want to request the Grant Room at Cedar Grove, which is still furnished with the very bed the general used after Union forces occupied Vicksburg. The staff claims Grant was a bedridden drunk for his entire stay, but pay no attention—he was probably a poor tipper at the bar, and folks around here bear grudges for generations over things like that.

For thorough information on lodging and attractions, contact the friendly Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau (52 Old Hwy-27, 601/636-9421 or 800/221-3536) near the entrance to the National Military Park. If your visit falls during Pilgrimage, don’t expect easy pickings on rooms: Most B&Bs are booked up months in advance for those weeks.

Map of the Great River Road through Mississippi

Map of the Great River Road through Mississippi.
Map of the Great River Road through Mississippi.

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