Revisit the past in historic riverside city of Vicksburg

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Explore the complicated history and geography of the ‘Key City’ of the South.

Two law enforcement agents with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries eased up beside us in our 30-foot-long canoe, more curious than anything. Our small group was paddling along the eastern bank of the Mississippi River upstream from Vicksburg, Mississippi.

“Are y’all on a long journey?” one of the agents asked. Our guide, Layne Logue, explained that we were on a day excursion with the Vicksburg outpost of the Quapaw Canoe Company, which also offers extended overnight excursions on the river exploring its quiet coves, bluffs and tributaries.

“Y’all realize you’re in Louisiana now, right?” one agent said with a grin.

I’ll admit, I was confused. We were paddling along the eastern bank, what I assumed was the Mississippi side, with Louisiana on the other side, hundreds of yards to the west across America’s mightiest river.

After the agents motored off, Logue explained that the current state boundaries were drawn when the Mississippi River flowed a different course farther to the east, so the bank we were paddling along still belonged to Louisiana, even if you were to look at a modern map with squinty eyes, it sure looks like it belongs in Mississippi.

Credit: Blake Guthrie

Credit: Blake Guthrie

The changing waterways of the Mississippi Delta make for some complicated geography, and Vicksburg is home to some complicated history preserved at the Key City’s many museums and Vicksburg National Military Park. Visitors will find plenty to do at riverside casinos and downtown’s many dining, drinking and shopping options, but the big draw here is history.

The nickname Key City comes from a quote by Abraham Lincoln, who, at the height of the Civil War, said, “Vicksburg is the key ... The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket.” Lincoln was referring to the city’s strategic importance as a rail and port hub that sat on seemingly impenetrable high ground overlooking the river. Lincoln was right; the Vicksburg Campaign was a long, brutal one that began in springtime and ended on July 4, 1863, helping turn the tide of war in the Union’s favor.

As a result, Vicksburg didn’t officially celebrate the national Fourth of July holiday until World War II, according to a display in the Old Court House Museum on Cherry Street. “Vicksburg is a city that knows how to hold a grudge,” said a guide at the nearby McRaven House, a supposedly haunted dwelling built in 1797 when George Washington was president.

More than 150 years later, the Civil War still looms large in Vicksburg at some of its tourist sites. While historic symbols of the Confederacy are unavoidably part of the fabric of the city, you won’t see it glorified, and the roles African Americans played as both enslaved people and soldiers are also represented.

The Vicksburg Civil War Museum, a storefront operation that opened on Washington Street in 2021, contains a large collection of artifacts and weaponry, but what stands out is the overall narrative of the times told from the African American perspective.

Among the exhibits are a re-creation of slave quarters, depiction of the cotton-picking experience of slaves and the jarring sight of two early Ku Klux Klan robes and hoods on display behind glass — one white and one red, signifying a grand wizard. It’s a sobering reminder of the terror that former slaves had to endure as they became citizens during Reconstruction and beyond.

In the Old Court House Museum, a handmade Confederate battle flag from 1862 hangs behind glass. Many Civil War shells and bullets on display were collected directly from the dirt of the nearby battlefield. Other objects of interest include an original Teddy bear given by President Theodore Roosevelt to a local child back when the stuffed animal was still a novelty.

The new Catfish Row Museum explores the Delta’s cultural life through a historic lens. Exhibits include a dining room table showcasing the Lebanese, Jewish and Chinese food cultures of the city, a collection from fashion designer and Vicksburg native Patrick Kelly and stories of Delta blues musicians in a historic building that once served as a venue for legendary acts. The museum is still a work in progress with expansion plans into an adjacent building ongoing.

Directly across Washington Street, the Lower Mississippi River Museum focuses on how humans have lived with and tried to control the river over the years. It includes a self-guided tour inside the M/V Mississippi IV, a large United States Army Corps of Engineers vessel where corps members lived and worked as they plied the waters.

The city’s most significant historic attraction is the battlefield site of Vicksburg National Military Park, which half encircles the city. The site is so large it’s impossible to see it all from one vantage point. The best way to take it all in is a 16-mile drive that accommodates cars, bikes and pedestrians. To get the most out of the experience, consider paying an additional fee to have a licensed battlefield guide ride along in your vehicle.

Credit: Blake Guthrie

Credit: Blake Guthrie

Rick Martin, the retired head ranger of the park, was my group’s guide. He encouraged us to make stops along the way and provided context, pointing out things we never would’ve noticed had we toured the park without a guide.

After the park opened in 1899, each state from both sides of the conflict was invited to create its own memorial under the theme of peace and reconciliation. “You don’t see anything in here that says ‘I won, you lost.’ It’s all about let’s talk about what happened,” said Martin.

The largest and most photographed structure is the Illinois Memorial. Dedicated in 1906, it’s a one-quarter scale resemblance of the Roman Pantheon (made from Stone Mountain granite and Georgia marble, incidentally). Inside it contains the engraved names of more than 36,000 Illinois soldiers who fought in the Vicksburg Campaign. Martin pointed to various soldiers’ names and told their stories, including one of a woman who disguised herself as a man to fight for the Union.

One of the newer monuments in the park is the African American Monument erected in 2004. At this stop, Martin stressed the importance of the Battle of Milliken’s Bend during the siege of Vicksburg, when newly freed slaves defended a Union river outpost against advancing Confederate forces.

Credit: Blake Guthrie

Credit: Blake Guthrie

Even though it was a small battle comparatively speaking, the Union victory demonstrated to skeptical military leaders that former slaves could make good soldiers and thus began a large recruitment effort of African American troops. Martin called it “a pivotal turning point not only for the war but for the culture.”

I wanted to visit Milliken’s Bend, but Martin said it no longer existed. The battlefield site is now at the bottom of the ever-changing, swift-flowing waters of the Mighty Mississippi near where I had paddled the day before.


Vicksburg is 420 miles west of Atlanta on I-20. Or fly direct to Jackson, Mississippi, and drive 48 miles west.

Sights & Activities

Quapaw Canoe Company — Vicksburg Outpost. Excursions are $100-$245 a day per person depending on the number of people in a group (meals extra) and depart from local public boat launches. 601-529-7354,

Vicksburg National Military Park. $20 per vehicle; additional $60 for two-hour tour with licensed guide. 3201 Clay St. 601-636-0583,

Old Court House Museum. $7. 1008 Cherry St. 601-636-0741,

Vicksburg Civil War Museum. $7. 1123 Washington St. 601-218-5526,

Catfish Row Museum. Free. 913 Washington St. 601-738-5679,

Lower Mississippi River Museum. Free. 910 Washington St. 601-638-9900,

McRaven House. $15. 1445 Harrison St. 601-501-1336,


The Mulberry Vicksburg. Prime location in a large modern building overlooking the river, steps away from Washington Street and a public boat launch. $139 and up. 1310 Mulberry St. 601-301-2500,

Duff Green Mansion. Nine-room B&B in a circa-1856 house with a pool. $110 and up. 1114 First East St. 601-636-6968,


Relish Bistro. Dinner-only Italian-inspired bistro with a bar; brunch on Sundays. $15 and up. 1104 Washington St. 601-661-8419,

Key City Brewery and Eatery. The craft brewery serves brick oven pizza and gourmet fusion plates. $11 and up. 1311 Washington St. 601-501-7712,

Visitor info

Vicksburg Visitors Information Center. 52 Old Highway 27, across from the Vicksburg National Military Park entrance. 800-221-3536,