Wednesday, June 19, 2013

On the Road--Down South: Selma to Natchez by way of Crystal Springs and Vicksburg (June 18, 2013)

I left Selma, Alabama early today, heading west toward Vicksburg. Vicksburg was one of the pivotal battles of the Civil War, and I've always wanted to see the place. En route, I realized I was near Crystal Springs, a name that has resonances for any blues fan. Robert Johnson was born in Hazelhurst, the neighboring town to the south, but, more importantly in my mind, it was in Crystal Springs that Robert Nighthawk learned to play guitar and perfected his art, playing mostly local gigs with his brother Percy and cousin Houston Stackhouse. No one seems to remember Nighthawk here, but I wanted to say I'd been to the place. I visited the Robert Johnson Blues Museum, which is a mildly interesting hodgepodge of material, much of it unrelated to Johnson. It's run by one of Johnson's granddaughters. I had lunch at a place that claimed to serve "world famous soul food." It was nothing special. After lunch, I took a walk along some of the very pretty wooded trails at Chattauqua Park, just outside of town. I found a couple of Summer Tanagers in the trees, led to them by their calls, which I had remembered from the day I first saw these birds, at Edisto Beach State Park a couple of days ago. An historical marker notes that it was in this park that the first PTA (parent teacher association) was formed--an unexpected tidbit.

The Vicksburg battle site is a bit overwhelming. It would easily take an entire day to see it in detail. I drove most of the 18-mile road that winds through the Union and Confederate siege positions and visited the USS Cairo Museum--the raised wreckage of a Union ironclad that went down in the Yazoo River, just north of its present position. Later, I drove along the Mississippi to look at other positions--to see where confederate guns were placed to control the channel, although the Mississippi suddenly changed course rather dramatically in 1874, and the river's course moved about a mile away from where it had been during the Civil War. After the change, the Army Corps of Engineers dug a channel along the city's original waterfront to facilitate navigation, so water again flows in some of the areas it would have during the battle. The numerous monuments at the site--some dedicated to the men of whole states, some to regiments, some to individual soldiers who died during the siege (many with bronze bas relief portraits) are a testament to the emotional impact of what happened here. As at Andersonville, the way the site is embellished with these attempts to remember, to memorialize, to preserve is as impressive or more so than the place itself. According to one plaque I read, Vicksburg is among the best documented battlefields in the world. Soldiers from both sides of the conflict came back after the war to relocate their positions and identify them with markers that give remarkably detailed accounts of action that took place nearby, including lists of wounded and dead at each spot. Later, driving around Vicksburg, I happened upon a plaque about blues legend Willie Dixon, who was born in Vicksburg.

From Vicksburg, I drove south toward Natchez. I was aiming to get as far as Baton Rouge, but again my plans were thwarted by a violent thunderstorm. I ended up ducking into a restaurant and finding a hotel room in the town. Today I aim to get out early to try to see the bird sanctuaries in southern Louisiana that I missed on the way out. Back to Houston tomorrow, then home.

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