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VNMP unveils largest expansion in its history

Tuesday morning at Champion Hill Missionary Baptist Church, the site of what was the front lawn of the Champion Plantation and the site of the Battle of Champion Hill in May 1863, history was made a second time.

During a nearly one-hour ceremony, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History turned over 800 acres of the Champion Hill battleground to the National Park Service, expanding the Vicksburg National Military Park. It is the largest donation of land made to the park.

“This is going to be a great experience,” said Bill Justice, superintendent of the Vicksburg National Military Park. “This has been the work of a lot people; a lot of folks were very instrumental in the creation of the preservation of the battlefield to this point and the opportunity to turn this into a unit of the Vicksburg National Military Park. This has always been about the campaign.

“We’re now able to really preserve and interpret the story of the Vicksburg Campaign on the battlefields where it was fought,” he said.

U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde Smith said the addition of the Champion Hill property, along with state land at the Port Gibson and Raymond battlefield sites, “enables visitors to better understand the events leading up to and during the Vicksburg Campaign.”

She said the Vicksburg National Military Park was important not only to help people better understand history, but as a popular tourist attraction that “has a tremendous positive impact on everyone in Mississippi.”

Including Champion Hill in the Military Park, Smith added, the National Park Service will be able to better educate people about the Vicksburg Campaign.

Robert Vogel, southeastern regional director for the National Park Service, said the acquisition of the Champion Hill property is the next step in realizing the Military Park’s 1899 legislation for the park, “To commemorate the entire Vicksburg Campaign on the ground where the battles were fought.”

“We are here and we are adding new land,” he said. “This conveyance signifies our will as a nation to memorialize a defining moment in our nation’s history. This particular effort has been made possible by local people close to the story, close to the resource.

“People who saw fit to assume the mantle of preservation and see this journey to its end,” Vogel said, adding Port Gibson and Raymond park units will soon be added.

“I am very honored to accept this land as a generous gift to the people of the United States of America.”

Jim Woodrick, deputy state historic preservation officer for the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, said after the ceremony the 800 acres was acquired through the state’s land and water conservation fund and money provided by Congress.

“We bought land at Champion Hill, Port Gibson and at Big Black River Bridge (on Old Highway 80),” he said. “We’ve been holding that land in trust until something like this could happen. The object was always to transfer it to the National Park Service.”

Sid J. Champion V, a descendant of Sid and Matilda Champion who owned the plantation at the time of the battle, called the donation “a great thing.

“This is a very little-known battle. The vast majority of the people who come to Vicksburg, they don’t know hardly a thing about the campaign here at Champion Hill,” he said.

On May 16, 1863, about 32,000 advancing Union soldiers met 23,000 Confederates in a fierce struggle for a crossroads roughly halfway between Vicksburg and Jackson.

The field was dominated by a bald hill on land owned by the Champion family, from which Confederate artillery opened fire on the Union army at 9:45 a.m.

The battle ended when the Confederate forces were crushed and forced to retreat to Vicksburg.

The retreat led to the siege of Vicksburg.

During the battle, the Champion house was used as Grant’s headquarters and as a field hospital for soldiers wounded during the fight. The house was burned after the fall of Vicksburg.

In 1897, Matilda Champion donated the property to the black community for a church, which was built the same year.

About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

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