From Civil War battles and Native American history to the development of the musical genre known as the Delta blues, Mississippi has a storied past. Groups traveling through the state can explore its history at a number of significant parks, historic homes and other attractions.
Here are a few must-visit sites that represent just a taste of Mississippi’s history.
Vicksburg National Military Park
Vicksburg National Military Park tells the story of the campaign to capture Vicksburg during the American Civil War. Both the Confederate and Union armies wanted the city because of its prime location along the Mississippi River.
“It was like the interstate highway system we have today,” said Scott Babinowich, chief of interpretation and education at the site. “It was pivotal to commerce and trade and the economy and troop movements.”
When the war broke out, the Union army’s plan was to blockade the waterways and control the Mississippi River so that the Confederacy would be forced to surrender. The plan succeeded, and today visitors can see the earthworks and heavy fortifications built by both sides as the city went under siege for 40 days.
“On the Union side, the defenses weren’t as dramatic as the Confederate side because they had a year and a half to build,” Babinowich said. There are earthen forts still standing on the Confederate side of the engagement, but the area gives visitors a “sense for how the Confederacy monopolized the high ground with trenches between them,” he said.
There are more than 1,400 monuments and memorials in the military park, from small stone markers to historic buildings. The tour road in the park is 16 miles long, and visitors can take their time visiting all of them. Many of the stone markers were sculpted by prominent artists at the time, and Babinowich likens Vicksburg to the gardens at Versailles, France, full of amazing works of art.
USS Cairo Gunboat and Museum
The USS Cairo Gunboat and Museum is part of the Vicksburg National Military Park and focuses on the role played by the U.S. Navy in the battle for Vicksburg. The USS Cairo was one of the large iron-clad gunboats that were part of the Union’s “Brown Water” navy. It was built specifically for the Navy to navigate the Western waterways. The 175-foot boat, with a crew of 251 men, was struck by a torpedo in December 1862 during the campaign for Vicksburg. It sank in 12 minutes.
All of its crew survived, but the boat sank into the mud at the bottom of the Yazoo River, where it was perfectly preserved in silt and mud until it was raised in 1964. The gunboat was discovered about 10 miles north of where the military park is now, according to Babinowich.
Because the gunboat sank so quickly, the men on board did not have time to take any belongings with them. So the museum displays hundreds of artifacts from the Cairo, including artillery, china, shoes and toothbrushes and offers an “amazing window into life on the western waterways on those boats,” Babinowich said.
The gunboat has been restored, and visitors have a rare opportunity to walk on the deck of a Civil War ship. They can also view the big hole left by the torpedo blast.
Delta Blues Museum
You can’t talk about Mississippi without mentioning the musical genre that put it on the world map. The blues started with slaves from Africa. Since the different tribes spoke different languages, the only way they could communicate was through music, said Shelley Ritter, executive director of the Delta Blues Museum.
“Music was a way of communicating and was the only part of their culture they owned and they brought with them,” she said. “When they got to America, they used what they could find to create music, and a lot of times, it could be drumming, singing or making string instruments.”
Clarksdale is the home of the Delta blues and where the museum is located in a historic renovated freight depot. The museum tells the stories of the greats of Delta blues music: Muddy Waters; W.C. Handy, the self-proclaimed father of the blues; Howlin’ Wolf; Pinetop Perkins; David “Honeyboy” Edwards; and Sonny Boy Williamson. It wasn’t until Mamie Smith released her “Crazy Blues” recording in 1920 that the recording industry took notice of the blues. Until that time, the blues was considered race music, said Ritter. The song “Crazy Blues” sold 10,000 copies in its first week and 100,000 copies total.
“That woke up the record companies to the fact that this was actually worth something, not just something sold to black people,” she said.
The museum houses the cabin where Muddy Waters lived in the area, as well as a huge collection of guitars and stagewear from some of the greats of the Delta blues. The museum also hosts live music seven nights a week and 17 festivals a year.
Natchez National Historical Park
Created in 1988, the Natchez National Historical Park tells the story of all the peoples of Natchez from the earliest times to the modern era.
“It is amazing how this little Southern town is an entry point into this vast picture of American history,” said Kathleen Bond, park superintendent. The area was home to the indigenous Natchez Indians, the French, the British and the Spanish.
Visitors tour the remnants of Fort Rosalee, a French fort built in 1716 to help maintain control over the Mississippi River. The site also tells the story of the British settlers who made the area their home and the Spanish, who took over the area after the American Revolution. The Spanish influence is seen today in the design of Natchez itself.
“There always had been houses and farms, but the Spanish built the city,” Bond said. Within 10 years, the invention of the cotton gin and the steamboat helped place Natchez in the center of the Deep South cotton world.
Natchez National Historical Park highlights Melrose, an original mansion with outbuildings on the property. Although Melrose was not a working plantation, visitors learn how the wealthiest people in Natchez lived and hear stories of the enslaved people who lived and worked on the property. The William Johnson House tells the tale of a freed slave who became a prominent barber in town. He kept a diary for 14 years, and through that, visitors get a firsthand account of antebellum Southern history.
The Mississippi Delta is home to some of the best representations of pre-Columbian Native American mound sites in North America. Twelve of these mounds are in Greenville on a 42-acre preserve. There are 23 known mounds in the area, and another 11 lie outside the park’s boundaries.
The largest mound is 55 feet tall and is one of the biggest mounds in the country. Archaeologists believe that Native Americans built their most important structures on top of these mounds, like the chief’s home, a place of worship or a place where the bones of ancestors may have been kept.
“One of the mysteries at Winterville is it has not turned up the number of artifacts one would expect from a site this big because it literally is probably the fourth- or fifth-largest Mississippian site known,” said Mark Howell, director of Winterville Mounds. He said there is a lot left to explore at Winterville. Only about 2 percent of the site has been uncovered.
Visitors to the site can explore the large mounds and tour the visitors center that highlights artifacts found in the area. They can also learn about some of the plants in the area, such as river cane, which the Native Americans used to weave baskets, and Bodark trees, which the natives used to make bows.