‘Friends’ strike up force to improve park|[02/18/08]

Published 12:00 am Monday, February 18, 2008

After more than 100 years, the Vicksburg National Military Park is undoubtedly still the largest tourist attraction in the River City. But its 1,800 acres and 16-mile tour road sporting 1,300 monuments and markers are often taken for granted, said retired Air Force colonel and volunteer park guide Harry McMillin.

“Where we are — this is hallowed ground,” he said.

McMillin is heading the Friends of the Vicksburg National Military Park and Vicksburg Campaign, a new nonprofit group to raise awareness and funds to improve the park, ordained by Congress in 1899 as the fifth Civil War battlefield to be preserved. The war had ended about 35 years earlier, but there were enough veterans and others still around to push for federal purchase of the land and creation of a sanctuary to tell the story of fighting here that ended with the city’s surrender on July 4, 1863.

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Since last summer, the new group has received tax-exempt status, formed a seven-member board, named McMillin executive director and developed a Web site.

“We’ve done quite a bit to get a foundation for what our plans are,” said board chairman Kim Tullos, also executive vice president and general manager of DiamondJacks Casino. “We will work with the military park and support their goals.”

By becoming a friend of the park, members may adopt a monument, providing funds sufficient to maintain a particular sculpture, monument, marker or tablet. Friends may also provide different levels of giving through annual memberships, which would entitle them to receive the group’s newsletter, invitations to special events and passes to the park. Those funds would go toward various park projects.

The VNMP has the largest number of monuments, tablets, statues and markers of any other Civil War battlefield. Ongoing maintenance of every monument is part of the new group’s plan.

“The park service does a wonderful job of maintaining what they have, but it doesn’t go far enough. There enter the friends,” McMillin said. “We hope to be a conduit to raise continued funds for the park to augment resources to maintain these reminders of bravery. That’s what it’s all about.”

The goal is to collect at least $60,000 for the park to use in the first year. Already, through corporate donations and one patron membership, the group has collected $11,000, a portion of which has gone to start-up costs, including Web site development, brochures and filing fees to become a 501(c)(3) entity.

“In the coming years, hopefully we will provide $70,000 to $100,000. That’s not a lot, but it would help them,” McMillin said.

Funds will help with long-term projects, such as restoration of Pemberton Headquarters on Crawford Street, now a park asset; replacing 144 metal tablets taken during World War II for the war effort and never replaced; and continued maintenance of the USS Cairo, a Union ironclad gunboat sunk by Confederate troops during the war and raised in the 1960s.

Another goal is to have a place inside the park’s Visitor Center where visitors may donate money and join as members. The group would also like to, eventually, extend its efforts to the entire Vicksburg Campaign, which includes battles in Port Gibson and Raymond.

“We want to look farther out,” Tullos said.

Park Superintendent Monika Mayr has told McMillin about her excitement over the new group, which is similar to those founded at other Civil War battlefields, including Gettysburg, Antietam, Shiloh and Chickamauga.

“The park is a huge part of what makes Vicksburg tick. It’s the lifeblood of this town,” Tullos said. “We want to keep the integrity and pride of this historical monument. When you have a crown jewel like the Vicksburg National Military Park, it’s something we all need to support.”

It was a continuing conversation between Mayr and John Nau, a Texas businessman and chairman of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, an appointment by President Bush, that led to the Friends group. Nau, who will serve as a board member of the local group, will be in town Thursday for an event to announce the creation and incorporation of the group. The event will be at 9:30 a.m. at the USS Cairo at the park, which is celebrating its 109th anniversary this year.

Become a Friend

To become a member of the Friends of the Vicksburg National Military Park and Vicksburg Campaign, visit the Web site at www.friendsofvicksburg.org/BecomeaFriend.html. Giving levels for annual memberships range from $25 to $100 or more. Members will receive an annual subscription to the biannual newsletter and invitations to members-only events. Patron members, who donate $100 or more, will also receive an annual park pass.


To make a contribution, visit www.friendsofvicksburg.org/Donations.asp. To adopt a monument, visit www.friendsofvicksburg.org/AboutAdoption.html. For information on maintenance schedules and costs, contact Beth Roberts-Hammel at 601-619-2910 or contact the Friends of Vicksburg at director@friendsofvicksburg.org.