Our trip back to the north was back along highways we had already traveled to Vicksburg and then west along I-20 into Louisiana. Our destination was Poverty Point Reservoir State Park in extreme northeast Louisiana. Due to our side trip to Birmingham the rest of Louisiana will have to wait until fall. We pulled into the state park in early afternoon and found a very lovely state park. I don’t know if this is indicative of the state parks in Louisiana, but we were impressed. The park had a new feeling to it, even though within the campground there were a lot of mature trees. In any case the park is very well maintained and one of the best we have stayed in. There was plenty of room to back the RV into the site, which was paved, and we were quickly set up for the week. The first thing we noticed was a sign near the campsite that warned about black bear. We the proximity of the Mississippi River and the many wetlands and wildlife areas they have the largest population of threatened Louisiana black bear in the region. Thankfully, we did not see any bear all week, but we took the warning seriously.
The weather was suppose to be great for most of the week, so we got an early start on Tuesday and drove once again to Vicksburg, Mississippi. Our goal for the day was to explore the Vicksburg National Military Park, the site of the Civil War engagement. Over 40 years ago, Kal and I visited the park as part of our honeymoon trip to Birmingham on our way to Graduate School in Virginia. We both have fond memories of the park and were looking forward to seeing it again. Except for some of the huge state memorials, our memories do not do the site justice. First, a little historical background. Back in summer of 1862, the Union had already captured New Orleans and Baton Rouge on the Mississippi. They also had taken Memphis and all points to the north. This left the stronghold of Vicksburg as the last major obstacle to controlling the entire Mississippi River and cutting the Confederacy in two. Taking Vicksburg was not going to be an easy task as it was situated on a high bluff overlooking the river and the surrounding terrain. In addition, the Confederacy had cannon positions along the river and more than 6 miles of defensive structures surrounding the city. At that time, the Mississippi River made a turn to the northeast before turning south along the bluffs giving the Confederate batteries a lot of time to fire upon any Union gunboats or shipping. Generals Grant and Sherman made a couple of attempts to attack Vicksburg from Memphis without success. He even attempted to dig a canal cutting off the bend in the river to bypass Vicksburg entirely, again without success. It is interesting to note that about 20 years later the Mississippi did the job for him so today it bypasses most of Vicksburg. By the winter of 1862-1863 he was frustrated and decided on a new very bold tactic. He led his 40,000 troops through the sparsely populated wetlands of Louisiana deep into Confederate territory to cross the river south of Vicksburg. In April, he ordered Porter to bring his gunboats and transports south running the gauntlet at Vicksburg, which he successfully pulled off losing only a single ship. After crossing over into Mississippi, Grant began moving north through enemy territory. He easily won small battles at Port Gibson and Raymond, which we learned about previously on the Natchez Trace. These battles convinced Grant that he could not leave Jackson to his rear, so he headed northeast to first scatter the Confederate troops under General Johnston in Jackson before proceeding to Vicksburg. There were again a couple of battles with the Confederates from Vicksburg at Champion Hill and Big Black River Bridge before they retreated within the defenses of Vicksburg. Wanting a quick victory before they could shore up their defenses, Grant ordered a frontal attack on May 19 and an all out assault on May 22. However, both attempts failed with heavy Union losses, so Grant decided he had no choice but a siege. For the next 40 days they cut off all supplies into the city and kept up a barrage of cannon fire from both the river and on land. The townspeople had to hide in makeshift caves they dug wherever they could. On July 4, 1863 General Pemberton surrendered the city of Vicksburg and Grant had his hard won victory. The Confederacy was cut in two and along with the victory over Lee’s army at Gettysburg, was the turning point of the Civil War.
As has become normal for us, we started at the Visitor Center where we saw a nice video about the siege along with some great exhibits and bought a copy of the driving tour CD. Unlike a normal battlefield where you would follow the battle across the terrain, this was primarily a siege. Therefore, the driving tour is basically along both the Union line and Confederate line that extended around the city. Most of the stops along the tour point out the placement of cannon, the redan, redoubts, and forts of the Confederate defense, and the zig-zag trenches the Union dug to approach these defensive positions. You will also see monuments of all sizes from small monuments showing specific troop positions to huge, ornate state monuments everywhere you look. The highlight of the day, however, had nothing to do with the siege itself. At the location of the Vicksburg National Cemetery is the remains of the USS Cairo. This was one of the city-class gunboats of the Union that was sunk on the Yazoo River in December of 1862. It was sunk using electronically detonated torpedo or mine and surprisingly nobody was injured. Over the years it was covered up with mud and silt at the bottom of the Yazoo River, until it was discovered in 1956. Since it was almost completely covered, it survived virtually intact with all the artifacts protected as well. In 1965 they finally were able to lift the gunboat in three pieces and begin the recovery effort. In 1980 this was finally completed and the museum was opened and it is amazing. They have restored the entire skeleton of the gunboat for display outside the museum, along with restored sections of the iron clad hull to give you a sense of what it would have looked like. You get to walk through the boat seeing all the interior spaces with many interpretive signs. Inside the museum are a small portion of the artifacts recovered form the boat and they are also amazing. Obviously, this was not there when we visited 40 years ago and we were literally blown away!!
After our GPS took us to two Pizza Huts in Vicksburg that were closed, we finally found one that was still open. We had a good dinner and headed back to the campgrounds. On the way we stopped at the first exit in Louisiana to check out a small remnant of Grant’s Canal. Over the winter of 1862-1863 Grant attempted to bypass Vicksburg by creating a canal across the narrow strip of land where the Mississippi turns northeast before turning south to pass under Vicksburg. He saw the effort as much to keep the soldiers busy as any real chance of success and of course the Confederacy wasn’t going to just let him do it. They placed cannon across the river from where the canal would exit, which turned out to be unnecessary since the river rose suddenly destroying the dam and flooding the canal before it was completed.
Wednesday was another fine day, so we headed a bit to the north to Poverty Point State Historic Site. This site is also a National Monument and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This site has earned this designation because of its unique nature. It dates back to the Late Archaic Period around 1700 to 1100 BC which is a thousand years before the mound builders of the Mississppian Culture. It has long been believed that the hunter-gatherer Indian cultures of this time period did not build permanent structures or lived in large villages. However, this site runs counter to this belief as it consists of some amazing structures. The first thing you notice is Mound A which is over 70 feet tall and 705 X 660 feet at the base. It is a T-shaped mound which could be in the shaped of a bird without a head. There are also lesser mounds to both the north and south of this main mound. While these mounds are impressive, the real outstanding feature are the six C-shaped ridges that circle from what was the bank of the Arkansas River at the time, back around to a present day bayou. Today these ridges are from 0.3 to 6 feet in height with a gulley running between them. Obviously they were significantly taller originally but erosion and 150 years of agriculture have reduced their size. From the ground they can be difficult to make out and our photos cannot do them justice, however, from the air they are obvious. To explore the area we decided to take the 2.5 mile hiking trail that circles all around the area with numbered stops and a brochure giving more detailed information. From archeological evidence and artifacts the ridges were lived on with different areas of the ridges for different functions in the community. Although there is a large plaza in front of the ridges that was also leveled, I would argue these ridges served a more practical purpose then the ceremonial aspect everyone talks about. In my opinion, they are nothing more than flood control. I suspect heavy rains would cause minor flooding, for which they built small platforms for their homes. Over time this became more organized since these gulleys between the ridges would serve as drains, thus the homes on the ridges would be more stable. In any case, we enjoyed the hike during a warm spring day.
Thursday was likely to be our last clear day with rain forecasted for the weekend, so we headed out again to explore the Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge. We were interested in visiting this refuge as it is the largest protected bottomland hardwood habitat in the Mississippi Delta region. I expected to see a lot of old-growth bottomland hardwood forests, however, I was to be disappointed. The Visitor Center only had a few exhibits of native animals and a quarter mile boardwalk. The boardwalk went over a cypress swamp and a slough ending at an observation tower over some cleared land. Of course, we were there at the wrong time of day to see anything from the observation tower. There is also a 7 mile driving loop that you would think would lead to some old-growth hardwoods, however, it simple looped through the open area we could see from the tower. All we saw on the drive was a herd of feral hogs crossing the road.
At the end of the drive we decided to try out another trail to an ox-bow lake that was likely to be too wet from all the recent rains. However, a side trail took as to a wildlife blind overlooking the edge of the lake that made the entire trip worthwhile. As we approached the blind we could see a number of white egrets in the trees and come to find out it was a rookery. There were at least 50 egrets in this one location sitting on nests in the trees. Upon closer examination we saw some of them actually had chicks already. We spent nearly an hour watching them and taking as many pictures as possible until Kal’s batteries died on her camera. The pictures I could take with my camera are simply not good enough. While we understand these rookeries are not that rare, it was the first active rookery we have ever seen.
As predicted, Friday looked like rain all day so we spent some of the day doing laundry and cleaning the RV. In the evening it was time to see if Auburn could continue in the NCAA tournament. After beating Kansas, Auburn was next facing number 1 seed, North Carolina. Like Auburn, North Carolina was a fast paced team that liked to disrupt their opponent with stifling defense and multiple steals. Although the experts thought Auburn was nuts thinking they would play the same game against North Carolina, that is exactly what we set out to do. In the first half, we did not hit our 3-point shots, however, we managed to stay with them and even had a small lead at half time. In the second half, it got a lot better for both our offense and defense and we ended up beating one of the best teams in the nation by 17 points. They only bad thing is that Okeke, the Auburn star of this game, hurt his knee at the end of the game and was out for the season. Unfortunately, Kentucky also won their game, so they would be next.
By Saturday, it was raining again, so we decided to drive to Vicksburg to another casino before spending the evening watching basketball. We went to the Lucky Lady Casino, which is another moderately sized casino along the banks of the Mississippi River. While it was small, we found a number of slot machines that we have not seen for a long time, so we had a good time for the next couple of hours. After a quick lunch we headed back to the campgrounds for an evening of basketball.
Our only plans for Sunday was to beat Kentucky for the first time this year. They had already beaten us twice this year and we did not face them in the SEC tournament as they had already lost to Tennessee. They have been the dominant team in the conference the entire time I was at Auburn and every year I wanted nothing more than to beat them. Now we were going to face them in the Elite 8 of the NCAA tournament. I expected a real battle if we were going to have a chance to beat them, especially without Okeke’s presence on rebounding. It was a real battle the entire game with the tension building. Neither team was able to hit their 3-pointers, so it was a defensive battle that we managed to hold our own. At the very end of the game Kentucky hit a difficult shot sending the game into overtime. By this point I was not able to sit down and Kal was pacing around the island in the RV!! We were both scared about overtime as Kentucky had just come back and had the momentum. However, the overtime was all Auburn and we easily put Kentucky away!! AUBURN was in the FINAL FOUR for the first time in their history!!!!!!!!!!! This was after beating three of the top premier programs in the nation. What a celebration there was at Toomer’s Corner that night. If we don’t win another game, Auburn has already made our dreams as long time basketball fans a reality.