Ignorance, Thy Name Is Vicksburg.

Paw-Paw has a post talking about touring the battlefield at Vicksburg, and I was reminded of a driving trip I took in that area several years back. We were coming north from New Orleans, and decided to stop in and see the battlefield.

We drove into town, and not knowing the area, wandered around a bit to get our bearings on the city. Through bad luck or whatever, we didn’t see any big obvious signs pointing the way to the historic site, so we stopped at a gas station to get directions.

“Hi, can you tell me how to get to the battlefield?”

“The what?”

“The battlefield.”

“You mean the mall?” (Fortunately I knew what he was referring to as we had at some point passing by a rather large, and noticeably closed down, “Battlefield Mall”.)

“No, I mean the battlefield. The place where the big historic battle happened.”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know where the battlefield is??? This is Vicksburg, right?”

“Yeah, but we don’t have a battlefield.”

“You… don’t… have…. Uh, okay. Thanks.” I got out of there.

In the next half hour or so, we drove around stopping at gas stations, or asking random passers-by, to find out where the battlefield was. Blank stares all around. Conversations frighteningly similar to the one at that first gas station. About half of the roughly ten people we asked thought we meant the Battlefield Mall, instead of the Battlefield Battlefield.

Finally, we stopped at another gas station, and upon establishing that the employee also did not know the answer to our query, simply bought a city map. My jaw just about hit the floor. Take a look:


[D]Source: Vicksburg National Military Park

See that big green area that basically wraps itself about two-thirds of the way around the entire city? That’s the battlefield. We were at the time right up in the beige area almost entirely surrounded by the green. The citizens of Vicksburg had no freaking clue where to find a famous historic battlefield that wrapped around the city. If we had just randomly struck out in any direction we had a 3 in 4 chance of hitting it, and nobody knew there was a battlefield there!

How can people be that clueless? How can SO MANY people be that ignorant of the place they’ve probably lived all their lives? It would be like standing in downtown Chicago and nobody knowing where Lake Michigan was, much less that it even existed.

When we headed out and approached the main entrance to the battlefield (which, ironically, was not too far from the Battlefield Mall), I noted that the signs pointing it out read “National Park” instead of specifying that it was a battlefield; but it still boggles the imagination that the random Joes-on-the-street of Vicksburg were so ignorant of their own immediate local history to know that the town’s own National Park was the scene of one of the most famous battles of the Civil WarWar of Northern Aggression.

If it had been one person, I would have laughed it off as somebody messing with me. But can it be possible that every person I stopped or asked had the exact same sense of humor, and the same uncannily convincing ability to fake utter cluelessness? No… no… that can’t be it. But the alternative is positively frightening.

I would file this one under the “Department of Our Failing Schools” (a la Kevin), but this goes deeper than that. This was a mass failure of the local culture.

20 Responses to “Ignorance, Thy Name Is Vicksburg.”

  1. John Says:

    Try living here – it’s worse.

  2. Debra Says:

    Just curious as to how many years ago it was that you came through Vicksburg.

    Because now there is no longer a Battlefield Mall and hasn’t been for at least a year, maybe longer, I don’t exactly keep up on dates that old ratty buildings were torn down.

    I and others like me maybe the exception to your rule but, I know where the battlefield is because I have too. I work in the hospitality and tourism field. More specifically i’m a desk clerk at a local motel.

    When a guest comes in and asks where the battlefield is 99.9% of the time they are looking for the park. Now, that small percentage of people are looking for any number of businesses that start with the word battlefield. There is the Battlefield Inn and the Battlefield Muesem that are sometimes being sought by wear travelers.

    Granted the mayor we have in office now has a lot to do with more people knowing where the battlefield is located. Also, don’t blame the education. My son is taking a class in school that is focused strictly on the history of Vicksburg.

    Also, another point where you seem to have not got a fact straight is the old battlefield mall is a fair amount of distance from the park. Approximately 3 to 4 miles isn’t exactly a short distance.

    I don’t doubt for a second that you ran into people as you described in your post but, your are judging everyone by those few.

  3. Stephen Rider Says:

    Well — I never doubted that there were people who know where the battlefield was, but direct experience showed me that there were *way* too many people there who had no clue. (One would have been a fluke, but we asked at least ten different people. Not just feckless teenagers pulling minimum at the gas station, but adults as well.)

    I don’t remember precisely when I was there, but this was probably back in 1998 or thereabouts. We were taking the scenic route back north following a visit to New Orleans. As I recall, the mall was closed down at the time.

    As for the distance between the Battlefield Battlefield and the Battlefield Mall, I’m sure you are correct (seeing as how you live there and all…). I do believe it was right near the mall that we finally started seeing the road signs that say “Battlefield National Park –> This Way” I may have forgotten the driving distance from that point….

  4. Blair Says:

    I’m from Vicksburg and not living there now and I’d also say the old mall is a few miles from the Park. Or, at least, not immediately obvious how close it is seeing that the entrance to the Park is over on Clay Street and the mall was over off I-20. (There’s a new automobile dealership being built there now, as I recall) But I guess that’s rather beside the point.

    The “battlefield” is a rather nebulous term, really and I can see why people might’ve been confused. Especially since the Military Park (your battlefield) is pretty much referred to everyone as “the Park.” And when you have so many other things named “Battlefield” it becomes even more confusing. And especially when technically the actual battlefield is an even larger amount of the city than that green area on your map. There are monuments all the way out by the Sherman Ave. School, along Confederate Avenue, down on Pemberton Blvd, etc etc etc as the park sold off some of its land (bits not involving major memorials) to the city as the city grew, I believe. So really, the “battlefield” is Vicksburg.

    Though, if you’d asked me, I’dve asked if you meant the Military Park. :)

    Anyway, just a ramble.

  5. Bryant Says:

    See that name at the bottom of the map you posted ? * Vicksburg National Military Park *

    That’s what it is called and that’s what we call it (citizens of Vicksburg). BTW – when I am going somewhere I am not familiar with, as apparently you were, I do my homework and usually get a map. And I don’t credit other people with my own ignorance (not knowing what it is called). And yes, the “battlefield” extended well beyond the current park boundaries. Well beyond the city limits.

    I’m not doubting your experience – I am decrying your portrayal.

  6. Stephen Rider Says:

    Bryant — If Vicksburg had been my destination rather than a stop along the way, I surely would have done a bit more homework. However, I did figure it reasonable that people _in_ Vicksburg would know where the most famous site in the area might be found.

    Commenter Blair said: “if you’d asked me, I’dve asked if you meant the Military Park.” That makes a lot more sense.

    I suppose that is my difficulty with your argument — you’re acting as though if I’d only properly asked for the “Vicksburg National Military Park” the people I encountered would all have pointed me in the right direction. Maybe. But that suggests that people know there is a place called by that arbitrary name, without having any idea that “Vicksburg National Military Park” is the name for a place where a ***huge freaking battle*** took place just over a 100 years ago!!!!

    In other words, right name or not, anybody should have understood the meaning of somebody looking for the “battlefield”. None of them showed any sign of understanding what I might be talking about.

  7. Alison Says:

    As the above poster pointed out, we refer to the location as the Military Park and not simply the battlefield.

    Technically, the entire city of Vicksburg is a battlefield. So you posed a poor question.

  8. Nick Says:

    Stephen – I am from Chicago and I think your analogy is somewhat unfair to the people of Vicksburg. I am pretty sure the Battlefield doesn’t stand out quite as blatantly as the Lake up here.

    I will give you that I do find it hilariously frightening that, in such a small town, most of the residents had no idea where the most historically significant place for 100 miles was.

    But you do have to admit that we would be just as likely to ask 10 random people in the busy downtown streets of Chicago “who started the fire” and receive 10 responses of “we don’t need no water let the motherfucker burn” rather than “that stupid cow.”

    I think this story illustrates perfectly how ignorant Americans are as a People. I do however find its tone a tad bit “elitist” (to use the word of the hour, lol), as it ignores the bigger problem and labels the average people of Vicksburg as somehow different than the average people in a big city like Chicago.

  9. Strider Says:

    Nick — a fair comparison. The lack of historical learning in this country is a danger to its future, and you’re right — the problem is nationwide.

    When was it that kids stopped studying “History” in favor of “Social Studies”, anyway?

  10. Kathy Says:

    You could have asked anybody that had been in this town more than a few days where the National Military Park was or the Mississippi River was for that matter and every one of them would have been able to tell you! The battleground is all over Vicksburg ~ and the bottom line is that you asked a poorly worded question that had no good answer.

  11. Knaveheart Says:

    Hi there, mate,
    I just came across your old blog wherein you blasted the Vicksburg locals for their inability to answer your question regarding the location of the battlefield. I have to take exception to your rant. Could it be that you did not ask the correct question?

    There was/is yet no one battlefield that signifies the colossal front surrounding the City of Vicksburg. Rather, within what we (and the Feds) call “the Military Park,” there are many distinct sites where pitched battles and assaults occurred. In fact, there were many more battles in and around Vicksburg over Grant’s two year campaign leading up to the final seige and capitulation during the Summer of 1863. You see, Grant was like a bulldog, once he got into the fight, he never relented. He tried to take the city from every conceivable angle, including the river, but generally (pardon the pun) came away from each encounter with his nose rather bloodied. In my opinion the decision of Confederate General Pemberton to surrender the town had as much to do with the toll the siege was taking on the civilian inhabitants and the decision of General Johnston to abandon Vicksburg, leaving little hope for survival, as it did the relative success Grant was having with his frontal assaults on the city’s seige lines.

    I question the galantry of an army in the field like Grant’s Army of the Tennessee, when they take the war to the civilian populace by raining down deadly fire, not on military objectives, but on civilian targets. I likewise question your rationale for denigrating fellow Southerners in the manner of your August 1, 2005 blog, which, incidentally was written several weeks before Katrina bludgeoned the Mississippi Gulf Coast and New Orleans. Those same good people whom you deemed “Ignorant” offered aid and care to the many refugees who fled north from New Orleans to escape the horrors of Katrina.
    God bless you and God help you, sir.
    Knaveheart (Vicksburg, Mississippi)

  12. Strider Says:

    Knaveheart —

    “I have to take exception to your rant. Could it be that you did not ask the correct question?”

    If any one of them had said “There are battlefields all around you,” or “Which one?”, or something of that nature, I would have agreed with that assessment.

    Perhaps my example of not knowing Lake Michigan from Chicago was off — a better example perhaps to go to Smalltown, Illinois and ask where the corn fields are. A local would probably laugh and say “All over the place”, not “There are no cornfields.”

    To be very clear, I don’t think the problem is particular to Vicksburg — it was just a particularly egregious anecdotal example. You have demonstrated your clear understanding of the history of the War, but I would be very surprised if the average Vicksburger (Vicksburgian?) shares anything near that level of historical expertise. The same situation exists throughout the country.

    As I said above — “When was it that kids stopped studying ‘History’ in favor of ‘Social Studies’?” Our government works furiously to indoctrinate our kids with socialist pablum, and very little to teach them the history that got us where we are today. You can’t possibly know where you are if you don’t know where you’ve been.

  13. Strider Says:

    “I likewise question your rationale for denigrating fellow Southerners…. Those same good people whom you deemed “Ignorant” offered aid and care to the many refugees who fled [Katrina]”

    “Ignorant” does not mean evil, or uncaring. You appear to be arguing against something I did not say.

    Also, for the record, I am not a southerner, though to paraphrase the late Louis Grizzard: “I was a prisoner of war for four years in New Orleans.” :p

  14. Lucky Says:

    I don’t spend much time reading blogs and reading this “conversation” convinces me of how little I have missed. Three years on this post so far!
    Having lived in Vicksburg for more than 54 years and traveled on a couple of other continents, too, I can attest that the informed to uninformed ratio of humanity here is no different than anywhere else.
    As several locals have pointed out, in local vernacular the park — a vast area created by order of Congress in 1899 – is known locally as “the park.”
    We have or had a Battlefield Cinema, a Battlefield Discount Drugs, a Battlefield Mall, a Battlefield Museum (private) and more. Certainly it would be logical to ask follow-ups to try to discern, specifically, what any travelers are seeking. It’s regrettable that wasn’t done. I can guarantee you that of all the hundreds of people in all walks of life I know in this town, there’s not a one who doesn’t know where the park is. And Interstate 20 exits leading to its main entrance on the busiest street in the city certainly don’t keep it a secret,
    Launching off on the town and all comments that followed – including this one, I guess – is proof that blogging, at least 99 percent of the time, exists to provide a forum for people to stereotype, be smug or engage in some other exercise to feel better about themselves.
    I’m going back to Andy and Barney episodes to fill time. It’s far more satisfying.

  15. Strider Says:

    Heh. There’s an old joke among geeks: “99% of science fiction is crap. Then again, 99% of *anything* is crap.” The second half of that being what it is, you can pretty much remove the words “science fiction” and fill in any other creative human endeavor, including blogging.

    My criticism isn’t explicit to Vicksburg — it’s just the particular anecdote I chose. It’s not even, as you might think, an assault on the failings of the “unwashed masses”. In the end, it’s an attack on the failed education system of this country.

  16. kwoods1 Says:

    I was just randomly doing some research regarding my hometown when I saw your blog popup under my hits.

    I don’t take offense to your comment about my HOME — where I was born and raised until my family relocated to the west coast in 1985.

    It’s all about the vernacular — get with it or get left behind. You asked to see the battlefield and you did! You could have also went down Drummond Street, over to Urban Courts, Lane St., “the Bottom”….hmmm, you would been okay :-), Halls Ferry Road – there are the untold stories of how people dugged caves on the side of hills to protect themselvs and their possession. You not being a local — you wouldn’t know that!

    If by chance you decide to EVER go back – just ask for the Military Park!

    ***Could it possibly be that you were in your own paradigm and you asked to see the “battlefield” thinking that it was just “a little plot of land ” in which fighting took place? It seems to me you where going off the “little knowlege” you have of Vicksburg too. In short, battlefield is more than just the park you where looking for.

    Welcome to the Vicksburg National Military Park website.

    Vicksburg National Military Park commemorates the campaign, siege and defense of Vicksburg. Vicksburg was a fortress located on high ground guarding the Mississippi River. Its surrender on July 4, 1863, coupled with the fall of Port Hudson, Louisiana, divided the South, and gave the North undisputed control of the Mississippi River. The Vicksburg battlefield includes 1,330 monuments and markers, a 16 mile tour road, a restored Union gunboat, and a National Cemetery.

  17. Flüge USA Says:

    Hi Folks! Most people seem not to worry about the past. Here in germany I experienced some similar situations when I was searching for some battlefields of the 2nd World War. There where enough still living persons whom could tell you but they pushed their memory of the war situations to the back of their mind. But the most citizens are not interested about the historic past of the place they are living on.

  18. sara Says:

    you are so right about the poor disaster of a school system and ignorance. i was sentenced to live here for several years, I finally told my husband that our missionary work was over and we were set free back into civilization in another state. free at last thank you Jesus we are free at last.

  19. Tony Gunter Says:

    Snarky!

    There are several battlefields within 30 miles of where you were standing, none of them actually in Vicksburg … Chickasaw Bayou battlefield, Milliken’s Bend battlefield, Port Gibson battlefield, Grand Gulf battlefield, Raymond battlefield, Champion Hill battlefield, Big Black River Bridge battlefield. In Vicksburg itself, there really wasn’t much of a battle … just a protracted seige punctuated by a handful of assaults.

    However, local people refer to several locations by the name “battlefield:” there has been the Battlefield Mall, Battlefield Theatre, Battlefield aparments, Battlefield Campground, Battlefield Museum, Battlefield Hotel, and Battlefield Discount Drugs … just to rattle a few off the top of my head.

    Probably if you were smart enough to ask for “the battlefield” by name you would have gotten better results. I think 10 out of 10 could have told you how to get to the Vicksburg National Military Park.

  20. Tony Gunter Says:

    Just kidding of course. I was trying to be funny but don’t think I succeeded. Some things don’t come across in writing like they would verbally.

    Serious response: the Vicksburg Campaign is not taught in history classes these days. My son graduated recently from a top high school in Texas, and his American history class spent maybe one week covering the period between Nat Turner, the escalation to war, and the war itself. Personally, I think the Nat Turner rebellion is an important catalyst event in Southern History that sent the Southern States into a tyrannical xenophobic spiral which would persist for nearly 150 years. We have many important lessons we could learn by studying Nat Turner and the Southern response to his rebellion, I’m sure none of which were learned by mentioning Nat Turner as a passing footnote in a 40 minute discussion.

    Aggravating the situation is that the study of military campaigns is not “in style” in academic history these days, which means that most battle/campaign histories are written by amateur historians. For this reason, the Vicksburg historiography for the past 25 years has been fairly flawed and somewhat derivative in nature. Like tykes sitting at a glowing hearth listening to tales of David and Goliath, everyone seems to love the telling and retelling of “Grant the Bulldog” mired in the swamps but refusing to admit defeat, incorrect as the story may be.

    If you ever make it back to Vicksburg, be sure to look me up. I would be more than happy to give you a personal tour if I can carve time away from work. Be warned though … my vernacular is “modern surfer” so if you have trouble understanding “Grant landed at Milliken’s Bend and thought DUDE! This city is like so vulnerable from the interior it’s SICK!” you may need a translator.

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