Countryside now portrays peace, prosperity

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 5, 2001

A tragedy, a loss, a wasting of lives – odd thoughts, perhaps, as we sped down the deserted Claiborne County road toward Grand Gulf Nuclear Station, one of the world’s biggest and finest nuclear power plants.

My thoughts were not on Three Mile Island, Chernobyl or any new potential threat posed by production of nuclear power. In fact, I am rather comfortable about nuclear energy and remember well the remarks of Mississippi’s Southern District Public Service Commissioner Michael Callahan when I interviewed him earlier in the year about energy questions in general.

Mr. Callahan predicts that one day each house or building will have its own little nuclear power generator. When the fuel cell is spent, we’ll simply go to the store and buy a new one. It’s an interesting thought and not out of the question, though admittedly probably far in the future.

The road to Grand Gulf has a couple of intriguing surprises, including the nightclub painted pink and lavender appearing suddenly in a clearing and advertising its show girls. Some would see irony in the scene of a farmer we passed. Driving his tractor across the gently rolling pasture and dressed in shorts and straw hat, he was the picture of bucolic serenity. We couldn’t help chuckling, however, at how the mammoth cooling tower belching steam on the horizon behind him punctuated the scene with an irony we recognized but couldn’t put our fingers on.

The tragedy and loss of lives that kept haunting me as we passed the deep ravines, hills and tangled woods are events of long ago, almost 140 years ago, when thousands of brothers slaughtered one another in a war that only today we are beginning to recognize for what it was – an unnecessary and deeply troubling watershed event in American history.

Gen. Ulysses S. Grant formulated a bold plan. He would gather some 40,000 of his Union troops in the area of Grand Gulf and march in a surprise route to keep the Confederates off guard. Vicksburg was the prize. Even his own generals were leery of the plan. What about supplies, they asked? The stoic general replied that his men would live off the land. And they did.

For three weeks, the Union men, hailing from Missouri, Iowa, Illinois and elsewhere, scoured the rural countryside for pigs, chickens, hams and greens. They raided larders, smokehouses and gardens. They picked the countryside clean.

It was May 1863, and the thousands of Union and Confederate troops met in some of the bloodiest battles of the war. They fought with guns, bayonets and fists. These were up-close, in-each-other’s-face battles at places such as the high hill at Sid Champion’s farm near Edwards Station. They fought at Jackson, the Big Black River and Raymond.

Heroes emerged from the battles that were fought during those first 21 days of May prior to the siege of Vicksburg. Big-name heroes, such as Gen. John A. &uot;Black Jack&uot; Logan came to the forefront of history. And lesser known underlings charged up the steep Mississippi hills to face what they knew was certain death. On both sides, the brave men fought with vigor and honor.

A Missouri Union private after the Battle at Champion’s Hill recalled, &uot;We started up the hill with yells and shouts.&uot; A Southern boy told of his compatriots yelling like savages even though they knew they would not prevail. What stories the hills around Grand Gulf and its environs could tell. In the spring of 1863 the stories would be of tragedy, loss and waste. That charming Mississippi countryside today belies the awful days of war and instead portrays a winning mix of peace and prosperity.

Joan Gandy is special projects director of The Democrat. She can be reached at (601) 445-3549 or by e-mail at joan.gandy@natchezdemocrat.com