Beaten biscuits, fried dill pickles, and a battlefield in Mississippi

It was the beaten biscuit machine that led us astray. The plan was to dash into the Old Court House Museum, look around, maybe pause for a moment at the last will and testament of Mrs. Jefferson Davis. Instead, we emerged an hour and a half later, having been unable to resist lingering in the grand hilltop building and devouring its wealth of 19th-century memorabilia.

My husband and I were in a hurry when we stopped in this Mississippi River town. We had less than 24 hours before we were expected at a family reunion about 200 miles to the northeast. The goal was to spend the majority of our time at Vicksburg's main attraction, the National Military Park that marks one of the most significant confrontations of the Civil War.

Then we saw the biscuit machine and other timeworn artifacts on display in the town's 145-year-old courthouse - and our plans changed.

This was more than a dusty museum dreamed up by Chamber of Commerce cheerleaders. It was a window into life in 19th-century America that went well beyond any classroom history lesson.

We learned that before there was baking powder, Vicksburg bakers hand-cranked each ball of dough through the machine's roller 100 times to achieve the right texture. . From there we moved on to butter churns, ox yokes, steamboat whistles, and the original courtroom where a local planter named Jefferson Davis began his political career.

By the time we left the museum, we wanted to know more about this quiet town of 27,500, located halfway between Memphis and New Orleans. The town, we discovered, was happy to oblige.

Most of Vicksburg sits on a bluff 200 feet above the river that helped it earn the name "Gibraltar of the Confederacy." Abraham Lincoln had targeted the town early on as the key to bringing down the Confederacy, and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's Union forces tried to take it for more than a year.

It finally fell to Grant on July 4, 1863, following a brutal 47-day siege that marked a turning point in the Civil War.

The war ended more than 140 years ago, but you wouldn't necessarily conclude that while visiting today's Vicksburg.

Besides the military park, the town has antebellum mansions, original brick-paved streets, and souvenir shops that sell T-shirts emblazoned with "If at first you don't secede..."

Goldie's Trail Bar-B-Que, a diner known for its tasty chicken and brisket dishes, displays framed cannon shells and Civil War-era charcoal drawings on its walls. The Corner Drugstore on Washington Street is a treasure-trove of 19th-century medicines, tools, and a real moonshine still among its more modern wares.

Even our dinner of shrimp po' boy sandwiches and fried dill pickles at the Biscuit Company came with a history lesson. The menu is packed with references to local milestones, such as the 1901 visit by President William McKinley shortly before his assassination.

If you believe the Biscuit Company, Vicksburg also introduced the world to the mint julep, shoe boxes, the Teddy bear, and the first bottled Coca-Cola. That last assertion is accurate, but we were inclined to chalk up the other assertions to runaway civic pride.

Still, how often does one get the chance to view a cannonball embedded for more than a century in the wall of a formal parlor?

That misbegotten piece of cast iron is part of the tour at Cedar Grove Mansion Inn, a Greek Revival house that survived the Civil War because it was used as a hospital for Union soldiers. Today's overnight guests may ask to sleep in the same canopy bed as General Grant once did or in the two-story suite that was the original library.

We did make it to the military park the next day, but not before checking out the carbonators, ice picks, and marketing materials at the Biedenharn Museum of Coca-Cola Memorabilia. Joseph Biedenharn, a local candy merchant, first bottled the soft drink here in 1894 in an effort to expand its distribution to rural areas of the state.

We finally reached the National Military Park more than 20 hours after arriving in Vicksburg. We stopped at the information center for a quick tour of battlefield relics and an 18-minute film on the siege, then took the 16-mile drive past tunnels, trenches, redoubts, and monuments from the 28 states of the Union. Most prominent is the domed Illinois Memorial, modeled after Rome's Pantheon and honoring the 36,000 Illinois men who fought in the siege.

The high point of the park tour is the USS Cairo, a Union gunboat that Rebel soldiers sank in 1862 with an electrically detonated torpedo (actually a whiskey bottle filled with black powder and connected with copper tubing). The Cairo was salvaged in the 1960s and yielded a bonanza of naval artifacts now on display in a nearby museum.

We eventually made it to the family reunion - a few hours late but energized by the trip's unexpected discoveries.

Vicksburg was one of the few destinations that has inspired us to veer off schedule and let our instincts, rather than hours of prearrival planning, be our guide. And we have a biscuit machine and a town's dogged pride to thank for it.

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