‘This is worth coming 1,000 miles’ to see

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 7, 2008

John Holland’s fascination with the Civil War began at 8 years old, when the Australia-native was awestruck by a scene in the film “Gone With The Wind.”    

“The camera starts in on an injured fellow laying a stretcher, and then slowly backs off to show the injured and dead everywhere. As far as you could see people were dead and dying, Holland recalled as he somberly approached a massive Wisconsin monument in the Vicksburg National Miliatary Park Saturday morning.

“It triggered a need to know. Fathers fighting sons. Brothers fighting brothers. 630,000 dead. For a young boy, it’s amazing. How could this happen?”

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Still amazed and searching for answers decades later, Holland is one of nine international tourists from Australia, England and Northern Ireland on a 12-day Civil War tour entitled “War on the Mississippi River.” The tour began in Memphis Aug. 31 and wraps up in New Orleans this week. Included is a four-night stay in Vicksburg, with day trips to all of the battlesites leading up to the 47-day siege of Vicksburg in 1863, including Grand Gulf, Port Gibson, Raymond and Champion Hill.

“This is worth coming 1,000 miles for in itself,” said Roger Blake of London while standing aboard the salvaged USS Cairo in the Vicksburg park.

Blake, along with several others on the tour, is a member of The American Civil War Round Table U.K. The London-based organization boasting 200 members was established in 1953, and is dedicated to the study of all aspects of the Civil War. But the members don’t just talk about the Civil War at bi-monthly meetings. Most have made several trips abroad to see the battlefields firsthand, and the organization has made several donations to help preserve sites and artifacts of the war in America. Among other efforts, it has helped fund a monument at Cedar Creek National Historical Park in Virginia and restored a flag carried in a regiment led by Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson.

“The thing about these parks is if you don’t use them, you’ll lose them,” said Derek Young, a London resident and treasurer for the roundtable organization. “When you actually come and see these parks ,you get the things you can’t get from the history books.”

“It’s the small anecdotes and the personal stories the people here have, isn’t it?” adds Young’s wife, Christine Lyon-Young.

“Yes, and if you can take them back with you and share them, that’s how the true history stays alive,” he said.   

The “War on the Mississippi River” tour is organized by Peter Gasgoyne-Lockwood, president of Old Country Tours, which also offers group trips for foreign tourists to Civil War sites in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Tennessee. The group was also scheduled to see the Old Court House Museum and take a river cruise on the Sweet Olive River Tour Boat while in Vicksburg.

Holland, an art teacher in Victoria, said he was particularly impressed with the craftsmanship of the more than 1,300 monuments in the VNMP.

“The quality of the carving and lettering is just amazing, especially on the granite pieces. I just have seen the likes of it anywhere,” he said.

Young said VNMP stands out in his mind as unique among other Civil War battlefields and sites he’s seen in his handful of trips to America.

“The civilian involvement in the siege of Vicksburg certainly sets it apart. The people here lived in the line of fire for 47 days and suffered as much as the blokes in the trenches,” he said. “The history is so alive here. It makes me want to come back to Vicksburg and spend three or four days just in the National Military Park.”