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Living history demonstrations popular on holiday weekend

Published 12:02 am Sunday, July 6, 2014

Union soldiers marched through Battery DeGolyer once again Saturday for a special program commemorating the 151st anniversary of the city’s surrender following the Siege of Vicksburg.

The Vicksburg National Military Park filled with people coming to witness park rangers and volunteers, dressed in full Union uniform, demonstrate seven cannon firings throughout the day at the Battery DeGolyer site.

Wayne Hembach and his wife are driving their RV cross-country from New York to Colorado and decided to make a stop at the park for the reenactment demonstration. Hembach’s great-grandfather fought in the Battle of Gettysburg and he came to Vicksburg to see if any of his family played a hand in the siege.

“My grandparents were wounded over there in Gettysburg. I’m trying to get background on them,” Hembach said.  “I don’t know if they ever made Vicksburg. They were in the Pennsylvania regiment. It’s just interesting following it back, and I’m trying to find out if they were actually here or just in Gettysburg.”

Hundreds more like Hembach packed the open field outside the Battery DeGolyer site where the cannon firing demonstrations took place.

Sam Hsu is a photographer from Dallas who wanted to take his daughter to the park after their vacation in Pensacola. It was Hsu’s first time witnessing a demonstration with a live cannon firing and he praised the way park rangers put on the event.

“That was wonderful. I’ve never seen a muzzleloader shot before,” Hsu said. “Of course, I’ve seen a model rifle shot but I’ve never seen a muzzleloader.”

David Slay is the park ranger who served as the detachment’s speaker and used his deep knowledge of the battlefield to educate those in attendance. His gravelly voice and passionate tone engaged visitors at the battlefield site throughout the day.

“We’ve had large crowds. This is one of the premier programs in the park. People want to see this when they come through,” he said. “It’s a crowd pleaser. We give them a little bit of excitement with some knowledge thrown in there too.”

Along with the cannon demonstration, the Shirley House was opened for park attendees. Built in the late 1830s, the house remains the only pre-Civil War structure still standing in the battlefield unit of the Vicksburg Military Park.

Mary Berton grew up in Vicksburg before moving to Breckenridge, Texas as an adult, but she has come back to the Vicksburg Military Park nearly every year. Despite touring the area dozens of times, Saturday was the first time she ever was able to walk inside the Shirley House.

“This is the first time I’ve been able to go in the Shirley House since I’ve been coming here, but they’ve opened it up, and they’re going to have it open every Saturday,” she said.

“It’s wonderful. I love it. I came all by myself this morning because everyone was busy. I said, ‘Y’all stay busy because I’m going.’”

Patrons of all ages and historical interest made their way out to the cannon firing and Shirley House. James Conklin is a retired history teacher from New York who spent his first few days in the south at the park.

“I had never been in the south before and, quite frankly, it’s a section of the country and I had not really visited that much,” he said. “The farthest south I ever got was Washington D.C. and that’s really the north at this point.”

Conklin beamed as he discussed his first experience at the park and encouraged everyone to take a trip out to see the battlefield firsthand.

“It’s just fascinating. It’s beautiful country. It’s gorgeous country out here. People are friendly; it’s just wonderful, absolutely wonderful,” he said. “I recommend everyone from up north to get out and come on down to this park.”