Philip II of Macedonia in a message to Sparta: “You are advised to submit without further delay, for if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people, and raze your city.”
Sparta’s replay: “If.“
I had been planning this trip for months. Ever since I read Ron Chernow’s book, “Grant”, which followed Ulysses S. Grant through the ups and downs in his life. It’s still the best book I’ve ever read and I wanted to trace his steps, from battlefield to battlefield. I picked Vicksburg as my first travel destination because it was one of his first big engagements after the vicious Battle of Shiloh in 1862. The Battle of Vicksburg was the last of a long series of battles in the Western Theater. Grant had won a number of battles against the Confederates at Fort Donelson and Henry, pushing them back towards Vicksburg. The city is located on the east bank of the Mississippi River and was the last major port on the river held by the Confederates. If Grant could take Vicksburg, the Confederacy would be cut off from supply lines in the west and rebel states such as Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas would be isolated from the rest of the South.
(According to the National Park Service, “At the time of the civil war, the Mississippi River was the single most important economic feature of the continent – the very lifeblood of America. Upon secession of the southern states, Confederate forces closed the river to navigation, which threatened to strangle northern commercial interests)
The trip took about six hours, stopping only in Jackson to fill up on gas. I got off the interstate and made my way past the Vicksburg National Military Park, heading towards the old part of Vicksburg. It was getting close to dusk as I made my way down Main street into the old historic part of downtown. My destination was the Duff Green Mansion on 1st East Street. I found this bed and breakfast while searching the Internet for old historic antebellum homes in Vicksburg. My adrenaline started pumping as I drove down the street, spotting the top portion of the mansion on my left. It was huge, the spitting image of a time period historic home. It was perched on one of the many hills covering the town, with a partial view of the Mississippi River.
I immediately began to panic as I approached the entrance to the mansion on the left. I really didn’t consider the parking situation when I did my planning for the trip. Nor do I ever. The front of the mansion had a gated, small parking ‘area’ that could maybe fit three or four small-medium cars at most. I imagined the stress trying to park my truck in one of those spots. This is a usual occurrence for me when I go downtown, anywhere. I immediately panic.
The mansion looked to be two stories with a basement/kitchen floor underneath and a courtyard on the south side of the mansion. It had a wrap-around balcony on the first and second floor with a set of stairs leading from the ground level to the first floor. I parked my truck in the first available spot, which was located right inside the gate and to the left of the stairway leading to the front doors. I felt like Austin fucking Powers as I threw my truck in reverse and forward over and over again trying to get the ass end of my truck out of the entrance to the mansion grounds. I could have simply pulled out and parked on the side of the street, but that never crossed my mind at the time.
After spending an abnormal amount of time trying to park, I got out of my truck and made my way up the stairway to the massive front doors of the mansion. I peeked through the rectangular shaped windows on either side of the front doors, looking to see if this was where the office was and/or if any other guests were inside. It looked like the lights were on inside but I couldn’t see anyone inside or outside anywhere. I couldn’t see a doorbell so I rapped the over sized door knocker. I waited a minute and then tried the door knob and click, it was open. There was a long hallway leading to a revolving staircase.
“HELLO…” I announced to nobody.
I walked through the door and was absolutely blown away by the interior of the mansion. It literally felt like I walked back into the 1860’s. I won’t lie, I had my doubts about this trip; but not anymore, I was sold.
I wandered to the left where there was a big open arch doorway. I entered the dream-like ballroom with its cherry red walls and large bay windows. I read about this room. It was the ballroom that both Jefferson Davis and Ulysses S. Grant danced in back in the day. Everything looked historic; full of antiques, period furniture, books and accented with works of art. When I’ve read books about how people during the 1860’s threw parties, I couldn’t imagine it on my own, just from a book. Now I felt like I could.
I walked through the room like a kid in a candy store, giddy with excitement. I sat on the couch in the middle of the room and imagined what the scene would’ve looked like before the battle came to Vicksburg in 1863. The home had that smell to it, that historic smell you can’t replicate. I made my way back to the hallway and across to the next open room. I entered the dining room where I encountered a large dining room table dressed to impress with a shit ton of fine silverware.
I thought to myself, “I really hope I don’t have to eat with anybody else tomorrow morning because I don’t have the first clue how to use silverware like uppity people. I’ll cross my fingers…”
I had been in the house for about ten minutes now, and just started to feel anxiety creep in as it dawned on me, “Maybe I’m in the wrong house and I’m just wandering through a random person’s home like an asshole. This is Vicksburg, there’s a ton of old historic bed and breakfasts. This probably isn’t good.”
I went from ecstatic to terrified in a split second. I got more nervous as I made a bee-line to the front door. Scenarios began to shoot through head. I had on a black hoodie, dark blue jeans and dark brown hiking books. I looked like the spitting image of an intruder from 48 Hours. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen that episode.
“Yup, I’m probably going to jail for breaking and entering, in Vicksburg, MS” – I thought. That would just be classic.
I walked with a purpose through the front door and flung myself down the stairs. When I got to the ground floor I saw that another car had parked in the front.
“OK I’m good, the office has got to be in the basement floor.”
I walked around the stairway and found double doors leading into another hallway. The door creaked as I opened it. There were maybe three or four rooms, facing each other on both sides of the hallway, with another set of double doors at the opposite end. OK this has to be the front office. I walked through the double doors and to my immediate left was a desk with an older lady sitting behind it. Mrs. Sharp greeted me and asked if I was Michael. She gave me some brochures of the area, gave me a rundown on places to eat in the area and gave me a set of keys to my room and the mansion.
Mrs. Sharp explained to me that the room I had originally booked was being worked on by maintenance so they moved me to another room, a room dubbed “Little Annie’s Room”.
“Little Annie’s Room huh…” I thought to myself. Well that doesn’t sound creepy at ALL.
What came out of my mouth though was, “That’s not a problem at all ma’am, show me the way.”
She led me back through the double doors and my room was the first one on the left.
“This is Little Annie’s Room. It was named for little Annie Green, she was born and died in the mansion at the age of 6. Breakfast is at 7:00am, it’s a really good breakfast so don’t miss out, and a tour of the home will begin at 9:00am”.
I wasn’t really sure how to respond to all of that at once so I just said, “Sure thing, thank you ma’am, I think.”
She smiled and closed the door behind her. Sweet, well this is a first. I unloaded my luggage and jumped right into bed. I was beat from the road and it was freezing cold. I didn’t take any of my clothes off. The more layers the better, I thought. I started to doze off but made sure I said a quick prayer for me NOT to wake up to Little Annie’s ghost wandering my room.
My alarm went off at 6:30am and I woke up feeling like I was vacationing in the arctic. I got up and threw even more layers on and jumped back into bed. Usually I’ll go through a routine of stretching, coffee, reading emails and/or news but it was too cold for any of that. I waited to the last possible minute and finally got up and made my way out the door towards the front of the mansion. I walked through the double doors and was immediately shocked by the cold wind blowing. Dammit man. I hauled ass up the stairs and tried to open the front door. This time it was locked.
Didn’t Mrs. Sharp give me keys to the mansion? – I thought, knowing damn well what the answer was.
Yeah, she damn sure did, on the same key chain as my room key that I had conveniently locked in my room when leaving. Good start man.
I knocked on the door; softly at first, but it was freezing balls outside, so I banged a little harder. I peeked through the window and saw someone approaching the front door from the dining room.
“Left your key?” – Guy.
“Affirmative.” – Me.
For some reason I thought breakfast would be like a regular hotel breakfast, like say the Hilton, where there would be some kind of a buffet line or something of the like. This was far from that. This was a sit-down uppity breakfast. Sonofabitch. From the looks of it I was the last of the guests to arrive and everyone was already seated, waiting on breakfast to be served. I had that initial flash of panic hit my body as I scanned for a place to sit. It was like starting high school again. Who will be my friend? Lucky for me a lady in the back-right corner waved her hand towards me and I quickly bee-lined to her table.
“Thank you, ma’am,” – I exhaled with relief.
I introduced myself and met the family of four sitting around the table. A husband, wife and their two daughters, both younger, maybe high schoolers. We exchanged stories on how we got here and I got to know a little bit about their family. They were staying in one of the rooms on the second floor, the Siege Room, where a cannon ball made impact during the battle for the city. They were awesome, I found out that the father was a former Naval Officer and their family was just passing through Vicksburg, on their way back home to Michigan. This was just something they did on long trips. I thought that was really cool. I told them a little bit about myself and I think they were little surprised that I was by myself and that I was there to hike the battlefield. I could see where it might look a little odd. I may or may not have fit the mold of a killer from some Netflix murder series.
What I thought was going to be a nightmare, turned out being a great breakfast where I got to meet some interesting, kind people. The actual breakfast itself was delicious but foreign to me. It was a couple of different courses, I guess is what you’d call it. Chicken, biscuits, grits, fruits etc. Not my usual breakfast but excellent.
After eating about half of the food served to me, I thanked everyone at the table for their company and headed out the front of the mansion to hopefully catch up with someone near the entrance to the basement floor where our rooms were located. I needed to get through the double doors since I forgot my keys in my room. Luckily, I was able to walk in with someone and made my way to the office.
Mrs. Sharp let me into my room and reminded me about the tour at 9:00am.
“I’ll be there Mrs. Sharp.”
I jumped in the shower, warm AF. Not. I must have been the last one to take a shower on the mansion grounds. I shook as I dried off then immediately threw on my long johns, two additional layers, a jacket and a beanie. I really despise the cold if you can’t tell, which is why I live in Florida.
I made my way back up the stairway, this time with my keys in hand, and met the rest of the group at the base of the revolving staircase. Harry Sharp, one of the owners of the mansion, was getting ready to begin his tour of the home.
Over a two and-half-year period, the Sharps completely restored the mansion to her former glory. The combined efforts of the U.S. Department of the Interior and The Mississippi Department of Archives and History helped insure the accuracy of the restoration.
The Duff Green Mansion was built in 1856, by Duff Green for his new bride Mary Lake. The mansion was built for entertaining in the grand antebellum lifestyle. That life was short lived by the Green family when the Civil War reached Vicksburg in 1863.
During the battle of Vicksburg, the Duff Green Mansion would become a hospital for both the Union and Confederates. The home was struck numerous times by cannon balls and Green, in a last ditch effort to save his structure, designated his home as a hospital. Doing this saved the house and many surrounding buildings from further destruction. The basement/kitchen floor of the home (where my room was located) was used as an operating space. The ground floor was used for recovering Confederate soldiers and the top floor was reserved for Union troops. Hundreds would be treated in the mansion – with many of them losing their lives.
Once the war was over, the Greens leased the mansion to the federal government as a Veterans hospital for troops to fully recover from their wounds before traveling back to their homes. The Greens finally got their mansion back in 1866. They lived there until 1880 when Duff passed away on the premises, Mary then sold the property. The mansion would go on to become an orphanage, retirement home and a center for the homeless operated by the Salvation Army.
As we walked throughout the mansion, I could see the evidence of the home’s trials during the Civil War. Blood stains are still visible on the floor and you can still see the damage from cannon balls. It was an incredible look into the past.
I cornered Harry after the tour and asked him a bunch of questions I had piling up during the tour. He answered them with patience as I was probably annoying but I was extremely excited to talk to a descendant of a Civil War soldier from Vicksburg. When he found out I was a Marine, he countered me with a bunch of questions. Ghosts in the mansion came up towards the end of our conversation and he asked if that sketched me out.
I told him I was just another soldier, or Marine recovering from the war just like they were. I kind of felt protected in the house, almost like it was sheltering me.
After the tour I grabbed a cup of coffee in the community space we all shared, and headed down to my room where I packed everything for the mission of the day, Vicksburg National Military Park. I was super excited. I planned on hiking the 16 mile battlefield tour route. I checked over my camera, making sure I had extra batteries, lenses, SD cards, tripod and packed everything into my truck. Thankfully, most of the other guests had already left so I had little trouble getting my truck back out onto the road. I put the address of the battlefield into my maps app even though the battlefield was pretty close. I’m really familiar with getting lost on the road so better safe than sorry, I thought.
My GPS led me up, down and around the hillside, through the back roads and up to the high points along the east bank of the Mississippi. I had that gnawing feeling that I was going the wrong way. And alas, I was. Shocker.
I ended up going the wrong direction and pulled into the back entrance of the park which leads to the Vicksburg National Cemetery and the USS Cairo Museum. The Vicksburg National Cemetery embraces 116 acres and holds the remains of 17,000 Civil War soldiers, a number unmatched by any other national cemetery. The USS Cairo was one of seven shallow-draft City Class river ironclads. During the battle, she prowled the Mississippi River and connecting shallow waterways, threatening Confederate supply lines and shore batteries.
While conducting operations on December 12, 1862, the USS Cairo was rocked by two explosions and sank in six fathoms (36 feet) of water without any loss of life. In June 1977, the remains of the vessel were transported to the park and partially reconstructed.
The ship was massive. I may be starting this battle tour off backwards, but any frustration was washed away as I took in the immense size of the ironclad in front of me. Game time. I pulled out my Rebel T6 camera and went to work.