Park punts to promote city with Pemberton house|[05/27/08]

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Crawford Street home in which the Civil War defense of Vicksburg was planned has opened to the public – tentatively – but for the first time as a permanent asset of the National Park Service.

Pemberton’s Headquarters, also known as the Willis-Cowan House, remains a work in progress – but will be open on Mondays from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. in June and July.

The home, where Confederate Gen. John C. Pemberton also made the decision to surrender Vicksburg to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in July 1863, was a private home before, during and for many years after the war. It was purchased for federal preservation in 2003 and will be operated by the Vicksburg National Military Park.

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“I’ve never been here before,” said Harold Lee, a Vicksburg resident since 1974 who also is a licensed park guide. He arrived early Memorial Day for his eagerly anticipated first glimpse of the house’s interior. “Ever since the National Park Service got it, I’ve been waiting anxiously.”

As post-acquisition funding has been received, the Vicksburg National Military Park has been working to stabilize the house and to prepare it for tourists. Improvements include roof work, exterior and foundation work and installation of fire detection and intrusion systems. Many meetings have been held on what the home should contain to explain and interpret the era to visitors.

The first day of public tours of Pemberton’s Headquarters on Crawford Street began Monday. (Meredith Spencer * The Vicksburg Post)”There’s a lot of work that has been done, and a lot of work that needs to be done,” said Rick Martin, chief of operations at the Vicksburg Military Park.

Initially, visitors to the house will see an exhibit on the history of the house, as well as proposed plans for its continuing improvement.

Continued work includes decisions on permanent exhibits, furnishings and paint work, Martin said. The VNMP was able to open the house thanks to federal funding anticipating the celebration of the National Park Service’s centennial in 2016.

“A lot of people visit the military park but don’t realize that there was stuff going on in the city, too. This (house) brings it in,” said Martin.

Harry McMillin, a licensed tour guide and executive director of the Friends of Vicksburg National Military Park, believes that the home will bring awareness to visitors.

“The most significant thing is the fact that this was where Pemberton made the decision to surrender,” McMillin said. “I think that anything that adds to that knowledge improves the visitors’ awareness, and to come into that room does that.” That decision was key in setting in motion a series of events that led to national reunification.

Lee agrees. The house will be a major addition to the walking tours Lee and McMillin give of downtown Vicksburg.

“To stand where Pemberton stood … it’s definitely a major moment,” Lee said.

If you goPemberton’s Headquarters, 1018 Crawford St., will be open Mondays in June and July from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free.”In my opinion, Vicksburg’s fall means that Grant succeeds. Grant is promoted and sent East, and then he can defeat Lee,” McMillin said about the significance of Pemberton’s surrender.

Though Pemberton’s occupation of the house landed it a spot on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970, the house is significant to Vicksburg’s history in other ways.

After the house was completed in 1836, Martha Willis, sister of Vicksburg’s namesake Newit Vick, bought the home and her son John owned it during Pemberton’s stay. In 1890, the Cowan family purchased and resided in the home. They were followed by the Sisters of Mercy, who used the home alternately as dormitories, a nursing school and then as the St. Francis Xavier Academy Kindergarten. It is directly across Crawford from the St. Francis Convent, founded in 1860. After passing into private hands, the home was occasionally open for tours and as a bed and breakfast.

It was the house’s history as a kindergarten that attracted Brandi Hoxie, a teacher at Vicksburg Catholic School.

“I just love the history of these old houses,” she said.

Another aspect of the opening is the chance to “leverage” more national park visitors into the downtown area where museums, homes and other attractions are located. The park was created by Congress in 1899 for the purpose of preserving the Civil War battlefield and siege lines as a memorial to those who struggled here. Additional park sites include river overlooks on Washington Street and a Louisiana site that was part of Grant’s Canal, an aborted attempt to force the Mississippi River to bypass Vicksburg.