VICKSBURG, Miss. (AP) — Even 150 years later, Vicksburg is still overshadowed by Gettysburg — so much so, that the Mississippi city is having its Civil War commemoration a few weeks early rather than compete with Pennsylvania for tourist dollars around July 4.
Union forces waged a long campaign to conquer Vicksburg and gain control of the lower Mississippi River. The effort culminated in a concentrated military attack that started May 18, 1863, and a siege that started eight days later. Confederate forces surrendered the city on July 4.
The Battle of Gettysburg was fought July 1-3, 1863, and it produced a shockingly high number of casualties — 51,000 dead, wounded or missing.
History buffs are traveling to battlegrounds to mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War from 2011 to 2015.
Vicksburg officials said they decided more than a year ago that it would be prudent to set their sesquicentennial commemoration to coincide with the beginning of the siege, rather than the end, specifically so travelers wouldn't have to choose between Vicksburg and Gettysburg if they wanted to visit both places.
"Vicksburg, it's a protracted campaign. Some historians call it one of the greatest campaigns in North America," said Rick Martin, chief of operations for the Vicksburg National Military Park. "But, it's 18 months to try to take Vicksburg. There's not any flashy battle like what happened at Gettysburg."
Gettysburg and Vicksburg, combined, weakened the Confederacy and gave momentum to Union forces.
Vicksburg had 19,233 dead, wounded or missing: 10,142 Union and 9,091 Confederate.
But Gettysburg's numbers were higher: 23,000 Union and 28,000 Confederate.
"Fast forward 150 years later, and it still has the notoriety that it had then, or more," Martin said of Gettysburg.
Gettysburg is relatively close to the major metropolitan areas of Washington and Baltimore, which made it more accessible to war correspondents at the time. Vicksburg was a distant outpost with few reporters or illustrators, so it received less attention in 1863. But, Vicksburg was strategically important.
Because of the city's location on the bluffs of the Mississippi River, President Abraham Lincoln called Vicksburg the key to the Confederacy: "The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket....We can take all the northern ports of the Confederacy, and they can defy us from Vicksburg."
The Union had already captured New Orleans in 1862. Once Vicksburg fell, the Union controlled the Mississippi River, and the Confederacy was split.
Concerts, lectures and wreath-laying ceremonies are scheduled for the next several days at the Vicksburg National Military Park. The sprawling battlefield has 16 miles of roads that wind through woods and grassy hills, and it's dotted with statues and stone monuments honoring soldiers who fought there.
On Thursday, the U.S. Postal Service unveiled a Vicksburg stamp that's part of a Civil War commemorative series.
On Saturday, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad will be in town to rededicate his state's monument in the military park. The park's website (http://1.usa.gov/13LW2d0) lists three artillery groups, three cavalry groups and 38 infantry groups from Iowa that fought at Vicksburg.
"This was a tragic era of American history, but the result was the union was preserved and America is what it is today," Republican Branstad said Monday in Des Moines.
Bill Seratt, executive director of the Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau, said local officials are expecting record crowds this weekend. In some places, visitors can get a full dose of unapologetic Confederate pride.
At Walnut Hills restaurant, for example, one room has a framed collage of Confederate military officers, labeled "Heroes." On Wednesday, a racially mixed group of co-workers sat near the collage but never glanced at it as they dined on country fried steak, squash casserole and other rib-sticking fare.
Tourists have been filling the beds, and sitting down around dinner tables, for the past four months at Anchuca, a white-columned antebellum home where Joseph Emory Davis, older brother of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, once lived. Sandra Hollingsworth, Anchuca's general manager, said the Civil War sesquicentennial is a boon for business.
"We're usually busy on weekends, but we've been full during the week, too," Hollingsworth said. "We have lots of international people who stay with us."
At the Vicksburg National Military Park on Wednesday, vehicles had license plates from New Jersey, Ohio, Indiana, Arizona, Florida, Louisiana, Texas, California and other states.
Dr. Ash Baruah, a retired surgeon from Wirral, England, toured the park with his wife, Jill, and their niece, Indira Dutta of Charlotte, N.C. During their six-week vacation in the U.S., the Baruahs have seen Civil War battlefields in Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, including Gettysburg.
"It's very difficult to visualize the horror of the thing that happened here," Baruah said as he looked over the Vicksburg hills where the two sides exchanged musket and cannon fire.
During the siege, some Vicksburg residents hid in caves, people starved and disease was rampant among civilians and troops. The victory at Vicksburg helped Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant rise to become commander of all Union forces the following year.
John Boudreaux, of Collierville, Tenn., said he has been fascinated with Civil War history for more than 50 years. Wearing a Confederate military-style hat, the 63-year-old Boudreaux said he agrees with Vicksburg officials' decision to hold most of the sesquicentennial events in May rather than July. He toured the park Wednesday, the 150th anniversary of a battle that killed more than 3,000 Union soldiers and fewer than 500 Confederate troops.
"Today is a lot more significant than the surrender, because it set the tone for the siege," said Boudreaux, a commercial pilot and retired U.S. Air Force major. "One of the things they learned on the 22nd of May is that Vicksburg was going to be a tough nut to crack."
Associated Press writer Catherine Lucey contributed to this report from Des Moines, Iowa.
Civil War anniversary events in Vicksburg: http://bit.ly/16QcFvi
Vicksburg National Military Park: http://1.usa.gov/10U95bu
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.