Living in New Orleans back in the day taught me that the tastiest (and most affordable) cuisine can be found in dives, Mom and Pop shacks treasured (and taken for granted) by locals. The foodie movement is all about such places, of course, and it was Chowhound.com that pointed me towards my best meal of the trip – Ubon’s – a shabby storefront on Yazoo’s outskirts that specializes in pulled pork sandwiches and cornhusk-wrapped tamales. Will spare you the long treatise I’d intended, about how this Mexican delicacy became a classic Delta soul food (here’s a website explanation), let me just say that my half dozen hot sauce-sprinkled tamales, plump with steamed corn meal and morsels of pork, make my day. The enormous “small” pulled pork barbecue sandwich ain’t bad either.
Ubon’s is closed to indoor dining, but has picnic tables scattered out front, so I sit down across from the only other customer, a B.B. King lookalike who easily takes up half the picnic table on his side (come to think of it, he might well be kin to the great bluesman, since King grew up just an hour north of where we sit). He’s waiting for his daughter to get off her shift cooking, grins at my relish over the tamales she’s made, and tells me how sweet life is managing the nearby game preserve owned by a conglomerate that paves roads, runs tugboats, and builds bridges all over the Delta. I tell him my brother used to run a game preserve in Virginia, a job that brought the whole family freezers full of venison. He marvels at that, the notion that other people in faraway places may also live his rustic life, agrees that sharing the game shot by bankers feeds his community, too, then pulls out his phone to show me a photo he’d taken that morning of a spotted fawn peeking out from foliage. “More deer than anybody could eat in them woods,” he says. “Ain’t she pretty, though?”
The whole time we’re talking, I’m swatting away a horde of flies. He says, “Flies love tamales!” When I move on to my sandwich, he takes the greasy wax paper the tamales had come in and spreads them out at the opposite end of the table. The flies swarm there, leaving me alone with my sandwich, problem solved! At last his daughter comes out. I thank her for her delicious tamales. She shrugs as if to say, ain’t no thing, then they hop in his truck and drive off. I’m finished, too, but before I leave the little grandma who’d served me at the takeout window steps out in her apron and mask with a cold can of Coke. She’d heard me talking about visiting a friend in prison, about my drive home to Virginia. She says, “Take this son; you got a long drive ahead of you.” I want to hug her for her kindness.
Back in Vicksburg, the heavy sky has given way to billowing cumulus and even a welcome breeze. I walk down towards the river past the columned courthouse and antebellum mansions to Washington Street, Old Town’s ten block main drag, and a quaint but well-stocked bookstore called Lorelei Books. I’m the only customer, so the young woman behind the register pulls down her mask, suggests I do the same, if I want. I thank her and for some reason add, “I’m vaccinated.” She nods and replies, “My mama is a nurse and she does her own research.” I’ve heard that phrase before. Isn’t that the universal code for “We’re not vaccinated”? I let it go, but seriously, people, a nurse who isn’t vaccinated? Why isn’t that considered malpractice?
The cashier is a sweetheart, though, points me to the local author’s section, and when I tell her I’m only in town today, pulls out a map of the battlefield and marks highlights of the 13-mile figure-8 loop inside its borders. I buy a book on the Delta blues and wander back to my room, checking out historical markers along the way. It seems that half the homes in Old Town proudly bear indentations from cannon balls thrown up during the Union siege.
I get to the visitor’s center just as the park ranger is about to close the gate, but he says I’m welcome to take a run or walk in there. “This is when all the bicyclists and joggers come.” I’m so glad to have the opportunity to stretch my legs, after sitting for three days. For the next two hours I dawdle along six miles of the park loop, jogging up and down the grassy ramparts and hillocks where, 158 years ago, Vicksburg’s Confederate defenders lined up in trenches within earshot of their Union opponents, at a stalemate, waiting out three months of Mississippi heat until their food ran out. It’s a beautiful park, broad rolling hills (the remains of forts and redans) giving way to steep forested ravines. General Grant sent his men up those ravines just twice, on successive days, and both times they retreated, heavily entrenched graybacks firing directly down on hapless blue coats as they climbed. Standing beside an old cannon atop one of the park’s hills, I wince at how suicidal it must have been to attempt those assaults.
After that, Grant wisely chose the siege route. Both sides dug in, firing cannonades over the ramparts at each other. The little city of Vicksburg took an almost daily bombardment from more than 400 Union artillery pieces, both from the Army’s guns and those fired up from ironclads parked in the river. Yet casualties were surprisingly few. Supposedly, there’s a cave behind the cottage where I’m staying. It’s where the family repaired each day when the bombardment started. Apparently that’s how the civilians in the city survived. (Union soldiers called Vicksburg “Prairie Dog Town.”) The furthest point of my run is a tall oak, marking the spot where General Grant accepted General Pemberton’s surrender, on July 4, 1863. Far away in Pennsylvania, a day earlier, a major general named Pickett had led his men up a ridge at Gettysburg to slaughter. Though the war would drag on for nearly two more years, the tide had turned decisively in the Union’s favor. The surrender of Vicksburg, which has been described as the nail holding the Eastern and Western halves of the Confederacy together, and the defeat of the rebels at Gettysburg the previous day, launched a retreat that would drag on all the way down the face of Virginia to Richmond, Petersburg, and finally Appomattox.
Jogging across the Vicksburg battlefield revives a longtime debate between my ears. Over the past decade or so, culminating with the removal of Robert E. Lee’s statue last week in Richmond, we middle-aged white Southerners have undergone a re-education of sorts. I was raised to see Lee as a hero, to understand the Civil War as a battle over the vague notion of “states rights”, to think of the Union Armies (especially General Sherman’s in his destructive “march to the sea”, which began right here in Vicksburg), as the bad guys. Ken Burns’ famous PBS series on the war, narrated by Mississippi historian Shelby Foote, glorified the warriors on both sides. Yet yesterday I walked through the Legacy Museum in Montgomery. A year ago, I marched with protestors down Richmond’s Monument Avenue in the wake of the Floyd and Taylor police murders. It’s clear, of course, that the Civil War that tore our nation apart was all about slavery. And it’s clear, too, that the war continues by other means, a sizeable chunk of white America unable to see people of color as fully human, insistent on maintaining the entitlements that white supremacy affirms. It’s what MAGA is all about. We came thisclose to a coup over that just months ago. As Mississippi’s Nobel winner William Faulkner famously wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
I leave the park sweated out and wondering, what is the purpose of all these Civil War battlefields now? Is it possible to still admire Confederate warriors who fought in the name of slavery and treason? Or are they necessarily understood as pariahs? I’m grateful for Montgomery’s museum, for the marchers who brought down the bronze figures on Monument Avenue, for the historians who have more truthfully revised the stories I was raised on. I’m glad to wrestle with these questions, and thankful that I’m not alone in doing so. But I’m worried.
Do you remember the Y2K panic, how we’d been warned of the collapse of the Internet when clocks ticked over to a new century? That New Year’s night, after champagne and kisses, I turned on the tv to some obscure channel that showed the Nation of Islam’s Reverend Louis Farrakhan delivering a speech. I’m no Farrakhan fan. Among other things, I’m convinced he played a key role in the assassination of Malcolm X. But something he said caught my tipsy ear. He noted that around mid-Century the ethnic makeup of the U.S. would tip to minority white, and he doubted that white folks would accept that gracefully. Rather bombastically, I thought, he predicted trouble over the coming decades, culminating in a second Civil War. Over a meagerly stuffed oyster poorboy (and purchase of a slice of hummingbird cake for tomorrow’s breakfast), I fret over our former President, who sits fuming at Mar-a-Lago, at the ugly passions he stirs, and fear that things are about to get worse in our country, for exactly the reasons Farrakhan predicted. A new poll shows the majority of Trump voters (and 41% of Biden voters) support splitting the country in two. What are we going to do?