In the closing decade of the nineteenth century, as veterans of the Civil War in ever increasing number answered the final roll call in response to Gabriel’s trumpet, state houses and legislatures, both houses of Congress, and even the White House itself were still dominated by men who had worn the blue and gray. In an effort to honor their comrades who lived only in memory and to remind future generations of their own sacrifice and service to the nation, the veterans moved to preserve the most significant fields of battle of the Civil War and established the first national military parks and national battlefields. On February 21, 1899, Vicksburg became the fifth Civil War battlefield to be set aside in perpetuity by Congress and only the nation’s seventh national park.
Established to “commemorate the campaign and siege and defense of Vicksburg,” a three-man commission was placed in charge of the newly established national military park. As called for in the park’s enabling act all three were veterans
of the Vicksburg campaign, one Confederate and two Union representatives. These men were charged to acquire the necessary land, mark the field with historical tablets, provide for visitor access by constructing roads and bridges, and with “restoring the field to its condition at the time of the battle” as necessary to carry out the purposes of the park. The enabling act also provides “that it shall be lawful for any State that had troops engaged in the siege and defense of Vicksburg to enter upon the lands of the Vicksburg national military park for the purpose of ascertaining and marking the lines of its troops engaged therein.”
From 1899 until 1933, the park was under the jurisdiction of the War Department and much of the infrastructure and features of the park as it exist today can be traced to these early, formative years of development. Thus, the influence of the veterans themselves is still evident today. During this period of development approximately 1,200 acres of land were purchased, the road and bridge network was established, and more than 95% of the monuments, markers, tablets, and plaques that dot the landscape were erected.
In 1933 administration was transferred to the National Park Service along with that of Vicksburg National Cemetery. In keeping with the agency’s mandates and mission, the park’s first museum/visitor center was constructed an opened and active interpretation begun. At this same time, four camps of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) were established. These camps were in operation from 1933-1941 and hundreds of enrollees in this program worked to eliminate erosion scars by sculpting the hillsides and hand planting the dense forest that characterizes the park today.
Dramatic changes occurred in the 1960s when the southern one-third of the park (154 acres) was quitclaimed to the City of Vicksburg in exchange for lands elsewhere and additional monuments were erected during the Civil War Centennial. As part of the National Park Service’s Mission 66 program, a road was constructed outside the park to eliminate local traffic and provide for a self-enclosed tour route to enhance visitor safety and enjoyment. The current Visitor Center was also constructed as part of this program. In 1977 the ironclad gunboat USS Cairo was brought to the park where it has since been restored and is on display, and the U.S.S. Cairo Museum opened in 1980. The park was expanded in 1990 to incorporate the remaining vestige of Grant’s Canal in Louisiana, and the interpretive mandate was broadened to include the Vicksburg campaign of 1862 along with the history of Vicksburg under Union occupation during the Civil War through Reconstruction. In 2003, the park was again expanded to include Pemberton’s Headquarters in the heart of downtown Vicksburg. The park is currently drafting an array of planning documents to facilitate interpretation of these recent additions and address its expanded mandate. These documents will serve to guide current and future management of this park as the National Park Service strives to continue its dedicated stewardship of the cultural and natural resources of Vicksburg National Military Park.