Best Defense

Remembering war: A few thoughts after walking the Vicksburg battlefield at night, and before drinking with Charlie Rich

One day last week I drove 500 miles and as the sun set I really needed to stretch my legs. So when me and my little dog got to the Vicksburg battlefield, and the sign said the battlefield road was closed, we just parked across the street and headed out overland. We walked up the Federal line, and then, under the stars, with only the deer and the crickets for company, down the Confederate line.

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One day last week I drove 500 miles and as the sun set I really needed to stretch my legs. So when me and my little dog got to the Vicksburg battlefield, and the sign said the battlefield road was closed, we just parked across the street and headed out overland. We walked up the Federal line, and then, under the stars, with only the deer and the crickets for company, down the Confederate line.

A few things struck me:

— If you get a chance to walk a Civil War battlefield at night, do so. There is nothing like being alone on a battlefield at night.

— I think I have mentioned before that the older I get, the less ghosts bother me, and the more I welcome their company. These days they feel like old friends who simply got there before me. In the moonless night the deer moved like ghosts, barely perceptible in the haze off the Mississippi until you bumped into them. Then they’d hiss and run.

— The Park Ranger who stopped to check on me was wearing body armor with SAPI plates. It made me wonder how much it sucks to be a federal officer nowadays. He didn’t kick me out or anything.

— So on I walked. I was amazed at how close the lines were. Basically separated by one long low ravine. They must have cannonaded each other to smithereens.

— Speaking of which, it seems to me that the Federals had an unusual advantage, in that the Rebels had their back to the river, which meant that the Federals could use gunboats on the Mississippi to mortar the Rebel lines. Did they? Anyone know? Seems to me a good opportunity for Army-Navy cooperation. (I know the Navy also took a beating sometimes from the Secesh guns.)

— What are the other other famous American sieges? I could think of Richmond/Petersburg, and the seige of Corregidor, but that was about it.

Unfortunately I stayed in a Super 8 in Vicksburg at which neither the internet nor the TV worked. Yes, I troubleshooted, I rebooted, I tried different browsers. If those had worked I wouldn’t have minded the stained walls and dusty bedstead. My solution is passive-agressively simple: I’ll never stay at a Super 8 again. Traveling the interstates, nothing is easier than crossing a cheap motel off the list.

On the upside, later that night, I drank beer and listened to great, and greatly underestimated, Charlie Rich. I like how he rhymes “sin” with “friend.” He reminds me of a merger of Ray Charles and Elvis. [My entry-level tip: Don’t listen to any of his hits that you recognize — “Behind Close Doors” and “(Hey, Did You Happen to See) The Most Beautiful Girl in the World (And Was She Crying) (And If So What Of It, Sir?)?”] Instead start with this or this. (P.S. — Btw, Elvis is no slouch on “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” either.)

— I haven’t gone entirely Southern fried — on the drive from Austin to Maine I also listened to Sense and Sensibility. I gotta say that Jane Austen is the OG novelist. She float like a butterly and sting like a bee.

Image credit: The Diary of Osborn H. Oldroyd (1885)/Archive.org/Flickr

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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