Mustering my courage, I stepped onto the battlefield at Vicksburg National Military Park in Mississippi, steeling myself against the horrors that awaited, ready to assist where I could. My ears rang from the relentless barrage, and the air was thick with a repulsive miasma of sickness and death, but I tucked my face deep into the sleeve of my billowing habit and soldiered on.
At my tour guide’s behest, I was channeling Sister Otilia Duche, a courageous nun and Civil War nurse who used her wit and resourcefulness to procure food for starving soldiers during the Siege of Vicksburg, one of the most pivotal battles of the Civil War. Exactly how she did it remains a mystery, but there’s no doubt she saved lives.
Assigning real Civil War identities to visitors by issuing army “enlistment cards” that chronicle the experience of those on the front lines is a compelling aspect of this shore excursion offered to passengers sailing on the American Duchess, the American Queen Steamboat Company’s third and newest riverboat.
The refurbished paddle-wheeler looks like a classic steamboat on the outside, but the lobby has contemporary touches, including modern art, and the all-suite staterooms are contemporary and spacious. It’s easy to get to know your fellow passengers on a boat with a capacity of 166, and I struck up conversations with couples from France, England and Canada. They were captivated by Mark Twain’s tales of life on the Mississippi River and were eager to have their own adventures. It was a reminder that what’s considered an “exotic” destination is all about perspective.
The nine-day Mississippi River cruise sails from Memphis to New Orleans, stopping at many history-rich Southern towns in Mississippi and Louisiana along the way. At ports-of-call, passengers have the choice of organized shore excursions for an additional charge or exploring on their own by using the cruise line’s complimentary hop-on-hop-off buses.
I was glad I booked the excursion to Vicksburg National Military Park. Established in 1899, the park is one of the oldest national parks in the country. The battlefield commemorates the siege and defense of Vicksburg. After a lengthy land and naval campaign led by Union forces, the port town was finally captured on May 18, 1863, cutting it off from a crucial Confederate supply route on the Mississippi River. A grueling 47-day siege ended in the surrender of Vicksburg on July 4.
Highlights of the sprawling, 1,800-acre park include a restored Union gunboat, the USS Cairo and hundreds of historic monuments.
Especially noteworthy is the Illinois State Memorial, an imposing marble and granite monument modeled after the Roman Pantheon. Forty-seven steps, one for each day of the siege, lead to a cavernous shrine of sorts where bronze tablets list the names of each of the 36,325 Illinois soldiers that fought in this decisive battle.
Another noteworthy excursion is the one to Nottoway Plantation. John Hampden Randolph was once king of Louisiana sugarcane production, and in 1859 he built a “castle” near the Mississippi River befitting his status. Nottingham Plantation, also known as The White Castle, is considered one of the largest antebellum mansions in the South.
Having toured many historical Southern mansions, I’m not easily impressed, but this three-story, 53,000-square-foot architectural marvel with 64 rooms is in a class by itself. In an era dominated by Greek Revival architecture, Randolph chose Henry Howard’s Italianate-inspired design for his opulent showplace that would be home to his large family and duly impress their many visitors.
Not only was the house designed to be aesthetically pleasing with a magnificent rotunda offering a sweeping view of the grounds, but it was also practical and comfortable, complete with state-of-the-art gas lighting, modern bathrooms and running water.
The semi-circular Grand White Ballroom on the second floor is the largest room in the mansion and retains its original crystal-and-cut glass chandeliers. It’s said the floor-to-ceiling white room was designed as a neutral backdrop for the colorful gowns worn by the Randolph daughters.
Nottoway is also a full-service historical inn.
The moods of the Mississippi River are unpredictable, and flooding and high river levels forced the American Duchess to take an unexpected detour to Baton Rouge, Louisiana’s capital, on my trip.
Hop-on-hop-off buses stopped at St. Joseph’s Cathedral, Louisiana’s Old State Capitol, the Old Governor’s Mansion and many other attractions, but I spent most of my time at the Capitol Park Museum, a branch of the Louisiana State Museum.
Those unfamiliar with the unique culture of this state learn the difference between Creoles and Cajuns, discover what a Mardi Gras krewe is (an organization that hosts parades and balls) and gain insight into the careers of music legends that called Louisiana home, including Louis Armstrong and Fats Domino.
“The Mighty Mississippi,” part of a permanent exhibit called “Grounds for Greatness: Louisiana and the Nation,” chronicles the evolution of steam-powered river boats in the early 19th century and outlines how those miraculous vessels revolutionized transportation and commerce on the Mississippi River, ushering in a Golden Age of river travel.
It was a fitting finale to my Mississippi riverboat adventure.
IF YOU GO
American Queen Steamboat Company. Three riverboat vessels provide a variety of cruises on the Mississippi, Ohio, Columbia and Snake rivers. 888-749-5280. www.americanqueensteamboatcompany.com