Going Home With Mark Twain


He returned, too, to Vicksburg, his “’lofty hill-city,’” the Gibraltar of the South, where the scars of the war still remained for him: trees torn by cannonballs, earthworks, cave retreats in the clay bluffs. In my own growing up, Vicksburg was a magnetic place, only forty miles southwest of my town; driving with my grandparents among the markers and relics of the battleground as a small child, I wondered to myself what had happened here and why all these monuments, and my grandmother was always quick to give me our side of things. Since Vicksburg capitulated on July 4, people did not celebrate that holiday in my vicinity until World War I. Later, in high school, we came to this terrain with our girlfriends for picnics, and explored the stillscarred ravines and hills, and absorbed the prospect of the river far out in the distance. As teenagers, in 1948, we came down for the Freedom Train, which was traveling the nation with the original Constitution, and the Emancipation Proclamation and all sorts of other items, and in the lines of humanity waiting there to board, for the first time we saw that black people were not required to stand in back and let the whites go first, a spectacle that surely would have impressed Mark Twain as much as it did me.

Nearly twenty years after the Civil War, on revisiting that distinctive site of his piloting days, he affirms that the war history of Vicksburg is more interesting than that of any other of the river towns because it held out longer and suffered in all their phases “the siege, the mine, the assault, the repulse, the bombardment, sickness, captivity, famine. … at three o’clock in the morning, silence; silence so dead that the measured tramp of a sentinel can be heard a seemingly impossible distance; out of hearing of this lonely sound, perhaps the stillness is absolute: all in a moment come ground-shaking thunder-crashes of artillery, the sky is cobwebbed with the crisscrossing red lines streaming from soaring bombshells, and a rain of iron fragments descends upon the city; descends upon the empty streets: streets which are not empty a moment later, but mottled with dim figures of frantic women and children skurrying from home and bed toward the cave dungeons—encouraged by the humorous grim soldiery, who shout ‘Rats, to your holes!’ and laugh.” He records the recollections of a civilian survivor who at one point in the siege was heartily shaking the hand of a friend he had not seen in a while; he had invited the man to visit his cave for some prime whiskey after the night’s bombardment, when suddenly a shell descended, a chunk of it cutting the man’s arm off and leaving it dangling in the narrator’s hand. “And do you know the thing that is going to stick the longest in my memory, and outlast everything else, little and big, I reckon, is the main thought I had then? It was ‘the whiskey is saved .”

The most striking landmark of all is the Corinthian columns of Windsor Ruins. As a pilot Mark Twain used them to chart his course.

I COULD TELL MARK TWAIN OF THE TIME I STRUCK UP a conversation with a tourist from Iowa, who was driving to New Orleans and had stopped in Vicksburg for the night. “Say,” the man asked, “wasn’t there some kind of battle here?” I told him yes, and that that was why so many Iowa boys lay buried in the big cemetery down the way. The writer of Life on the Mississippi , who includes a yarn about the murder of river gamblers in Vicksburg in the steamboating era, might likewise be interested that in the 1990s four enormous casino gambling boats, encouraged to come here (as to Natchez and Greenville), because Mississippi needed their tax revenues, dominate the canal and river.