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Civil War Era National Cemeteries: Honoring Those Who Served
Vicksburg National Cemetery in Vicksburg, Mississippi contains the remains of more than 17,000 Union soldiers, the most of any national cemetery in the country. Vicksburg National Cemetery is one of 14 national cemeteries managed by the National Park Service and is part of the Vicksburg National Military Park. The site interprets the siege and capture of Vicksburg by Union forces in 1863 through the cemetery, museums, and driving and walking routes along Vicksburg’s Confederate defenses. Established in 1866, the cemetery serves as a final resting place for Union men who fought in the campaign and siege of Vicksburg.
Early in the Civil War, Union military strategists recognized the importance of controlling the Mississippi River, a vital transportation corridor. The Confederacy moved both men and supplies along the Mississippi River. Union control of the river would not only deprive the Confederacy of a main artery, but would also divide the southern states in half. By June 1862, Union Army and Naval forces captured many forts and cities along the river. However, Vicksburg remained in Confederate hands. Sited on high, steep bluffs 200 feet above the river and heavily defended by forts and earthworks, the city successfully fended off numerous attacks in 1862.
In spring 1863, Union General Ulysses S. Grant launched a new attempt to capture Vicksburg. After capturing the Mississippi capital of Jackson, he marched his force of 45,000 soldiers west to Vicksburg. After an initial bloody attack against the heavily fortified city, Grant surrounded the city and laid siege in late May 1863. Although surrounded by a powerful army and without access to food, weapons, and ammunition, Vicksburg’s Confederate soldiers and civilians refused to surrender.
Grant’s forces built their own network of earthworks and trenches running parallel to the Confederate defensive line. Union artillery cannons pummeled the defenses, and Union gunboats on the river fired into the city. The lack of food, compounded by malaria and other illnesses, took a heavy toll on the Confederate force in Vicksburg. On July 4, 1863 after a 47-day siege, the Confederate force surrendered to Grant. Five days later, Union forces captured Port Hudson, Louisiana, the last Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River.
Vicksburg National Cemetery was established in 1866 as a resting place for the remains of Union soldiers who died in the assaults and subsequent siege of the city. The cemetery is at the western edge of the city’s defensive line, on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. The rugged landscape required the construction of terraces and the planting of trees to prevent erosion and influenced the irregular layout of the 116-acre cemetery. A low brick wall, constructed prior to 1893, encloses the cemetery.
The cemetery’s main entrance is located inside the National Military Park near the USS Cairo Museum. Elaborate ornamental iron gates stand at the entrance. Just inside the entrance is the cemetery's superintendent’s lodge. Built in 1928, the two-story lodge features a gambrel roof with shed dormers, evocative of the Dutch Colonial style popular of the time.
More than 17,000 Union soldiers are buried at the cemetery, and almost 13,000 are unknown. In addition to those who fell at Vicksburg, the remains of Union soldiers from nearby locations in Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana were reinterred in the national cemetery. The highest ranked known interment from the Civil War period is General Embury Osband, who served as the recruiter for the First Mississippi Colored Calvary. Roughly 1,300 graves are occupied by veterans of later conflicts, including the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, and the Korean War.
In 1899, the Confederate defensive line and the Union siege line around Vicksburg were established as the Vicksburg National Military Park. The park is the eighth oldest national park in the country. During the 1900s, veterans' groups and other organizations erected numerous monuments and statues dedicated to the regiments that fought at Vicksburg. Today, the site is considered one of the most important collections of monuments in the United States with more than 1,330 monuments, markers, tablets, and plaques. Managed by the National Park Service, the National Military Park features a visitors center, a museum for a preserved Civil War ironclad Cairo, and driving and walking routes.