Live fire and living history: Park brings troops to life for 160th siege anniversary

Published 5:15 pm Sunday, July 2, 2023

Camels, cannons, Yankees and Confederates, Grant and Pemberton drew the attention of visitors to the Vicksburg National Military Park Saturday and Sunday as it observed the 160th anniversary of the siege and surrender of Vicksburg.

The high temperatures forced park officials to scale back the live fire demonstrations and eliminate a program by Illinois re-enactors. Still, crowds gathered at different locations to watch cannons being fired and members of the 45th Illinois fire muskets and talk about camp life at the Shirley House, where the 45th was camped during the siege.

Ron Peterson, a captain in the 45th Illinois, picked up a photograph of the Shirley House with caves dug into a slope near the house.

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“That’s where the 45th Illinois was stationed during the siege of Vicksburg,” Peterson said. “The soldiers lived in the caves; you can see the shebangs (accessories) they built around them,” he said.

“The park invited us to participate in the program and be at the Shirley House. That was an offer we couldn’t pass up,” Peterson said.

Mike Manolakes, portraying a private in the 45th Illinois, said the unit was formed in 1861 in Galena.

“The first group of (45th) companies came out of Galena,” he said. “The rest came out of Chicago. They came south with (Gen. Ulysses S.) Grant, fought at Fort Donaldson and fought at Shiloh, and obviously here at Vicksburg. This is where we were camped right in front of the Shirley House.”

After Vicksburg, the 45th joined Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman on his march to the sea and into the Carolinas, Manolake said.

In the southern part of the park, Union and Confederate gunners demonstrated the artillery used in the siege.

Lead Park Ranger Andrew Miller said the live fire programs give visitors an introduction to the civil war field artillery that would have been used here during the siege.

But the demonstrations also covered other topics.

“We’re just talking about the Union and Confederate armies: how the men got into the army ,and then how they were trained on the guns so people have a better understanding of what these volunteers are actually doing. That’s really what I want them to understand more than the big-picture stuff of Vicksburg.

“I want them to understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it the way we do it.”

While Miller and the volunteers demonstrated and fired the big guns, Doug Baum of the Texas Camel Corps and two of his camels told the story of Old Douglas, the camel that was at the siege as the 43rd Mississippi’s mascot that also carried the unit’s band instruments. Old Douglas was killed during the siege and eaten.

The events surrounding the surrender of Vicksburg were brought out in dramatization of the meeting between Grant and John. C Pemberton presented by Grant re-enactor Curt Fields of Collierville, Tenn., and Pemberton re-enactor Morgan Gates of Vicksburg.

Fields has been playing Grant for 14 years.

He said he has always loved the Civil War, adding that when he went to Chattanooga for its 145th anniversary, he noticed he was a body double for Grant.

“I thought perhaps I could take advantage of that physical similarity and portray Grant as a living person,” he said.

A teacher, Fields said being able to portray Grant “seemed to me to be the ultimate way to teach history so I decided to try for General Grant in first person.”

When he steps out as Grant, Field said “people recognize me as Gen. Grant and from the inside of looking at it, it’s almost bizarre to me but in a very positive way.”

Gates said he has been playing Pemberton for 10 years.

He said a friend, Corey Rickrode, got him interested in playing the part for a program called “Breakfast with the Generals.”

“They had Grant coming down here and they needed a Pemberton. I said ‘I believe I can do it.’ It turned out I had the beard and was about the same size so therefore I started out with an original program,” Gates said.

“He does a great job,” Rickrode said.

Gates said Pemberton is a tragic character in many ways.

“He gets remembered very poorly by history while he was a very competent general,” he said. “He was simply up against a man who was one of the great generals of history with not enough men, not enough resources — losing tack and losing battle from the very beginning. I tried to interpret that feeling about it.

“He was simply overwhelmed by everything he had; he had tried to accomplish and he did the best, it wasn’t enough.”


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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