During my second day out in Vicksburg, it was an all-day history tour.
OLD COURTHOUSE MUSEUM
The Old Courthouse Museum stands on high ground in the middle of downtown Vicksburg. Construction began in 1858 and completed in 1860. One hundred skilled slaves made the brick and built the building. The city block brick fence around the Courthouse cost over ten-thousand dollars. The courthouse survived the Siege of Vicksburg in 1863. It served as the Warren County Courthouse until 1939 with the construction of a new courthouse across the street.
In 1947, Eva W. Davis recognized the value of the dilapidated building and began efforts to create a museum, and in June 1948 the museum opened. It became a National Landmark in 1968. It is bursting at the seams with artifacts from the town’s history. The ornate wrought iron staircase was constructed in Ohio. The original courtroom survives. The two floors and eight rooms of displays are jam-packed with donated family items, Civil War relics and all sorts of items from the 1860s through the turn of the century. Jefferson Davis’ tie worn at his inauguration, a Teddy Roosevelt teddy bear, munitions and arms from the Civil War is just some of the things you will see here. You will dive deep into Vicksburg’s past here.
BEIDENHARN COCA-COLA MUSEUM
The Beidenharn Coca-Cola Museum is where the first Coca-Cola bottling plant was built. It is located on Washington Street, Vicksburg’s downtown shopping district since 1830. Coca-Cola was created in 1886 by Pharmacist John Pemberton in Atlanta, Georgia. Joe Beidenharn and his father started a candy store and soda shop in downtown Vicksburg in 1890. Beidenharn served the new drink in his soda shop.
By 1894, Joe Beidenharn figured out how to bottle the new popular drink. By 1913, bottle uniformity became important to the Coca-Cola brand. In 1960, Coca-Cola patented the bottle everyone is familiar with today. The museum is small but informative and has an assortment of early Coca-Cola artifacts on display.
Little known fact: Just down the street, the first pair of shoes sold with a shoe box occurred at Phil Gilbert’s shoe parlor in 1884.
OLD DEPOT MUSEUM
The Old Depot Museum, housed in the Old Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Railroad Depot is located right beside the mighty Mississippi River. On the day I visited, the American Queen Paddle Wheeler was docked just behind the museum. The Old Depot provides a look back at the transportation throughout Vicksburg’s history. Model trains greet guests on their entrance. Riverboats and Paddle Wheelers decorate the walls. Upstairs you will find the World’s largest collection of Civil War ship models, collection of Paddle Wheelers and Towboats and “the Mississippians,” U.S. Naval vessels bearing Mississippi names. Many crafted by Dave Benway.
The Vicksburg flood wall, adjacent to the Old Depot, provides some beautiful artwork for the city as well as protection from the flood waters. The project began in 2002 to highlight Vicksburg’s history and its role in the future. The Old Depot has seen its share of floods over the years. In 2011, there were some five and a half feet of water in the museum.
The centerpiece of the Depot’s exhibits is the Diorama of the Vicksburg Battlefield. It provides visitors a bird’s eye view of the battlefield. The detail of the piece is spectacular especially when you learn there are some two thousand soldiers in the diorama and most painted by Dave Benway, the Director of the Old Depot.
VICKSBURG NATIONAL MEMORIAL BATTLEFIELD
The Siege of Vicksburg lasted forty-seven days from March 29-July 4, 1863 and is still well remembered in Vicksburg today. The Battle of Gettysburg took place at roughly the same time, and both bloody battles signaled the coming of the end for the Confederacy.
Vicksburg’s Battlefield Park Memorial dedicated on February 2, 1899, recognizes those who fell in that battle. Today 1325 monuments occupy the park paying tribute to the men and women from thirty-one states that had a role in the battle. The Vicksburg National Cemetery is the final resting place for over seventeen thousand Civil War soldiers.
Beginning the battlefield tour at the Visitor’s Center informs visitors with the history of the battle. Visitors can drive the sixteen miles through the battlefield and listen to an audio tour commentary about the siege.
When you see the topography of the area and drive the hills, you wonder how anyone survived the battle. During the war, Vicksburg was an important target for the Union. The Union Navy bombed the city for fourteen to fifteen months from the Mississippi River. During the town’s bombardment, every structure in the town was impacted in some way by the bombing. Many residents dug caves in the city to escape the bombs. After the surrender, the Union troops occupied the city well into Reconstruction.
The battlefield is large. You need ample time here in order to stop and get an up-close view of many of the larger monuments.
THE U.S.S CAIRO
The U.S.S. Cairo was one of the first Ironclad ships built in the Civil War. She saw service in early 1862 on the Mississippi River. On December 12, 1862, while clearing mines in and around Yazoo City, Mississippi, she struck a mine and sank in twelve minutes. Thankfully no one perished in the sinking.
The long forgotten the wreck was discovered in 1956. By 1965, the remains of the ship were recovered, and the restoration began. In 1977, the vessel was transported to the Vicksburg Battlefield. The outdoor cover and museum for the Ironclad was not opened until 1980. Visitors can see many of the items recovered from the Cairo in the USS Cairo Museum at the Vicksburg Battlefield.
There are only four surviving Civil War-era Ironclads in existence, USS Monitor, CSS Neuse, USS Cairo, and CSS Jackson. You can see more about the CSS Jackson in my post about the National Civil War Naval Museum in Columbus, Georgia.
SOUTHERN HERITAGE AIR FOUNDATION
Southern Heritage Air Foundation is located in Louisiana and is a short drive from the Battlefield in Vicksburg. The Foundation is passionate about the preservation of the stories of World War II vets. Here, they collect and memorialize those stories in great detail.
Mississippi Governor Kurt Fordice started the Southern Heritage Air Foundation. Fordice served in the Army, was a pilot, equestrian and big game hunter. His Husky airplane is on display at the museum. The museum dedicates itself to the preservation of American aviation through exhibits and aircraft. Fordice’s son, Dan, is now Chairman of the Foundation.
The preservation of World War II veteran’s stories focuses on both local and regional individuals. “Families don’t know the treasures they have.” Patty Mekus, president of the Foundation, told me as we toured the exhibits.
The museum is dedicated to serving veterans and hosts a monthly ‘hang out’ lunch for veterans. I had the pleasure of meeting one of the museums sixty dedicated volunteers, Chandler, who retired from the Navy. He enjoys working on and riding in the aircraft at the museum.
From stories of Mississippi twins who switched their identity so that they could pass their military physical exams so they could serve their county to the pilot of a B-47 having to jettison an unarmed nuclear bomb off Savannah, Georgia because he was losing an engine. I was struck by the numerous veterans stories that the museum shares and how these stories resonate with the courage of these men who served.
The aircraft maintained by the Foundation is a story unto itself. The day I visited, they were working on Frank Kimmell’s Corsair. Cary Salter’s 1944 P-51 Mustang, Charlotte’s Chariot II, sat across the hanger along with Fordice’s 2001 Husky Amphibian; both looked ready to take off. Several of these aircraft are available to rent to fly.
Hanging in the main hanger is a 20×30 foot garrison flag that flew on the Mississippi River bridge when Governor Fordice died in 2004.
The women in aviation exhibits are remarkable with stories of Betty Drake who served as a paymaster in the U.S. Marine Corps and Betty Keim who served in the U.S. Army as a WAC and technician who worked on the Atomic Bomb.
Eva W. Davis, who had worked diligently to preserve Vicksburg history at the Old Courthouse Museum, was a founding member of the Confederate Air Force in 1950. The CAF has since been renamed the Commemorative Air Force.
The hanger next door held more aircraft treasures. Some aircraft were being repaired; some are just waiting to fly again.
The Museum has a small theater for video presentations. Here you will see a host of aviation artwork and other artifacts from aircraft, including a piece of the Memphis Belle.
The museum will host a book signing for author Robert Matzen for his new book on Audrey Hepburn, Dutch Girl. In October 2020, Southern Heritage will again host its Biggest Little Airshow.
Don’t miss this fact and fun-filled museum just outside of Vicksburg. You won’t be disappointed .
Forty-eight hours only allowed me a glimpse into Vicksburg’s history. Be willing to take some time here. If you’re lucky, you might win a buck or two at one of four casinos on the Mississippi River.