The Role of the Mississippi in the U.S. Civil War. Our Lower Mississippi cruise began in Memphis, Tennessee, where Gunter and I met my sister Ret Ekdahl and her husband John Ekdahl. Founded in 1819 by Andrew Jackson, James Winchester, and John Overton, Memphis was named after the ancient capital of Egypt located on the Nile River. “Birthplace to the Blues” is the city’s modern claim to fame.

The four of us arrived at the Graceland Guest Hotel, part of our Cruise Package, the evening before our departure for Vicksburg.  We were surprised to find that Graceland Hotel was not located at Graceland, Elvis’s iconic mansion.  But no matter. We enjoyed a wonderful creole stew—a foretaste of the sumptuous Southern cuisine to come. And we didn’t miss Elvis; his songs were streaming continuously on the hotel TV—one channel each for the fifties, sixties and seventies—and his portraits filled the hallway walls.

After breakfast, we were called by groups to a hotel room set aside for Covid tests. Following that, we boarded buses to our cruise ship, American Melody. Our reserved staterooms on Deck 1 had been upgraded to Deck 2, so a set of passengers with disabilities could be closer to the dining room. We loved our larger suites with sliding doors to private balconies. On the wall behind the king-size bed hung three drawings, encompassing the entire Mississippi and its tributaries. How cool! We had only begun to check out the view of the Mighty Mississippi and the shining Memphis Bridge when we were called to muster on the lower deck for safety drills. Finally we were underway to Vicksburg. The river was much wider than the Upper Mississippi. We met the longest lines of barges I’d ever seen—two wide—pushed upriver by a lone towboat.

The view of the Memphis Bridge from our balcony
The view of the Memphis Bridge from our balcony
Artwork above the headboard depicts the Mississippi and its tributaries
Artwork above the headboard depicts the Mississippi and its tributaries
Towboat pushes a line of barges that seems to go on forever–upriver.

We docked on Levee Street at 1:30 pm the next day, eager to explore this historic city high on a bluff on the east bank of the Mississippi. Built by French colonists in 1719, Vicksburg survived an attack by local Natchez Indians ten years later. The city was incorporated in 1825. By1860, Vicksburg, at 4591 souls, was the second largest city in the state. (Natchez was the first.) The current population is more than 26,000.

Gunter views the levee and Vicksburg above
Gunter views the levee and Vicksburg above.

Gaining sole control of the Mississippi River was vital to winning the Civil War. The river not only brought strategic military advantages but also allowed for easier transport of supplies and soldiers to the Western Front. When the war began in 1861, the Confederacy controlled the entire Mississippi below Cairo. We knew, of course, how the Civil War ended. But we didn’t fully understand the role that Vicksburg had played. 

We would be docked in Vicksburg for two days. The four of us were unanimous: the National Military Park would be our first tour. After that, we’d explore the town. For the second day, we signed up for a tour called the “Antebellum Vicksburg Experience.”

Vicksburg was Vital to Victory. Although the nation was divided, both sides agreed that Vicksburg was the key to winning the war. For Jefferson Davis, this town overlooking a river bend was “the nail head that holds the South’s two halves together.” Confederates fortified strategic river points such as Vicksburg with artillery batteries and a ring of forts whose 172 guns guarded all land approaches, including swamps and bayous. The river was the South’s lifeline for supplies and troops.

But Vicksburg could be the North’s lifeline. The Federals could pass supplies to the South by river, road, or rail. By cutting off Confederate supplies and recruits, they could isolate Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana. Union navy and ground forces gained more control of the river as the war progressed, fighting north from the Gulf and south from Illinois—closing in on Vicksburg.

President Abraham Lincoln understood the value of Vicksburg. “The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket.” 

The Federals captured post after post. Then they set their sights on Vicksburg. That battlefield is what we were about to see. Our tour bus driver took a 16-mile route that put the campaign and the siege of Vicksburg into perspective. At various stops, we left the bus to follow a park ranger past cannons, grave markers and memorials, and on to various to lookouts. Amazingly, the ranger made the battles come alive as he demonstrated the placement of Union and Confederate troops. I highly recommend this tour.

Each state that participated in the war contributed a monument to be erected at Vicksburg National Military Park. This is the Wisconsin statue.
Each state that participated in the war contributed a monument to be erected at Vicksburg National Military Park. This is the Wisconsin statue.
Confederate General John C. Pemberton
Confederate General John C. Pemberton

Another stop was the USS Cairo Gunboat and Museum where we boarded a restored gunboat that had been sunk in the Mississippi River. I was amazed to see a huge wooden boat clad with sheets of iron! Named after towns along the upper Mississippi and Ohio rivers, seven formidable-but-shallow gunboats prowled the Mississippi River and tributaries. They preyed upon Confederate supply lines and shore batteries.

Restored USS Cairo showing armor and cannon.

Among the most important legacies of the Civil War was the addition of three Amendments to the Constitution, promising freedom and full rights of citizenship to African Americans. Racism, however, delayed the full implementation of the amendments. Mississippi was readmitted to the union in 1870, but a century passed before the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 finally outlawed racial discrimination. Even so, struggles for civil rights continue until this day.

These tours taught us that the viewpoints of those legacies differ from north to south and vary from person to person. Even in our small group, opinions differ. I was raised in the Midwest; my education echoed the Union position; I was fascinated to hear the other side.  Ret and John also grew up in the Midwest, but moved to Texas in the 1970s, as adults. They’ve picked up the Southern dialect and use y’all  in their emails, but retain Midwest culture and values. Gunter was raised in Germany, but immigrated to the U.S. in the late ‘60s. His perspective is not that of a Northerner or Southerner, but of a European/Californian.  

Back on board American Melody, our differing opinions made for interesting conversation as we four relaxed and enjoyed the cruising life with cocktails, dinner and an evening performance. It felt wonderful to be waited on! 

Antebellum Vicksburg Experience: Touring the Duff Green Mansion. The following day, we took a walking tour through Vicksburg, including a visit to the Christ Episcopal Church. The rector pointed out the two Tiffany windows and compared the current church to that of Vicksburg during the 1800s and 1900s. From there, we walked to The Duff Green Mansion, now a Bed & Breakfast.  Built in 1856 by a local cotton broker for his bride, the mansion was designed for entertaining in the grand antebellum lifestyle. When war reached Vicksburg in 1863, that lifestyle was cut short. Duff Green is credited with saving his neighborhood, including the nearby Christ Episcopal Church, by designating his home as a hospital for both Union and Confederate soldiers. Most of the town’s homes were demolished by Union cannons, but from Reconstruction to the Great Depression, this former Soldiers Rest Home was again used as a Grand Home. During the next fifty years, the mansion fell into disrepair while being used as a boy’s orphanage and later, a Salvation Army Headquarters. The mansion was meticulously renovated by Mr. and Mrs. Harry Sharp in the mid-1980s to the Grand Home we visited.

The presentation by our docent, a descendant of the original owners, was among the best I’ve ever heard. Delightful, entertaining, and knowledgeable, she held us spellbound! The mansion, accurately restored to pre-Civil War elegance, was filled with period pieces that evoke the spirit of the Antebellum South. I especially loved the pastoral paintings and the elaborate vases.

We all listened with rapt attention to the docent’s emotional story. She described how the families of Vicksburg survived the final 47-day siege of Vicksburg. While their young men were off fighting the Union troops in hills and valleys of what’s now the Military Park, women, children, and elderly men lived in caves. These were natural caverns in the Mississippi’s bluffs or manmade structures. Over 500 caves (which the Union soldiers called Prairie Dog Village) were dug into the hillsides. During the day, women would go back into the town to scavenge for what food they could find. During the evenings—with cannons exploding—they cooked and slept in the caves, while caring for their children. The presentation reminded me of stories Gunter and his siblings have told about surviving the bombing of Munich during World War II. It also reminded me of Ukrainians currently escaping bombing by living in the basements of homes, schools, and railway depots. 

The 47-day siege of Vicksburg eventually gave control of the Mississippi River to the Union. It was part of the Union’s Anaconda Plan—a naval blockade, a thrust down the Mississippi, and the strangulation of the South by Union and naval forces. The plan worked. On May 16, 1863 Ulysses S. Grant defeated a force under General John C. Pemberton at Champion Hill, twenty miles east of Vicksburg. Pemberton retreated, and Grant sealed the city by the end of May. In three weeks, Grant’s men marched 180 miles, won five battles and captured some 6,000 prisoners. The town of Vicksburg would not celebrate the Fourth of July for 81 years.

Anaconda, Scotts Great Snake

Scott’s great snake. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress
The Siege of Vicksburg

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award-winning nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website and stay in touch with Lois by liking her Facebook page. Lois’s books can be purchased from PIP Productions on Amazon and on her website.


How my dream of cruising the Mississippi began.  I grew up near the St. Croix River, a tributary of the Mississippi. I didn’t know much about that river until elementary school. There, we learned to spell M-i-s-s-i-s-s-i-p-p-i and some of us even learned to spell it backwards: I-p-p-i-s-s-i-s-s-i-m. Settlers learned the word from Indian tribes living along the river banks, who gave the river various names such as Mis-ipi, Michi-sipi, Kitchi-Zibi, and my favorite, Mee-zee-see-bee.

When I was seven years old, my parents took my brothers and me to Lake Itasca, the source of the Mississippi in the headwaters area of central Minnesota. This small glacial lake is 1.8 square miles, 1,475 feet above sea level. It is located in Itasca State Park, established in 1891 and Minnesota’s oldest state park. In this 32,000-acre sanctuary, the Mighty Mississippi begins its 2,552-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico. “Just walk across on these steppingstones,” my dad said as he held my hand. “Remember this. You are walking across the very beginning of the Mighty Mississippi!”

My next exposure to the river that’s woven through the fabric of America was reading Mark Twain’s books. I especially liked The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which Huck and Jim bravely raft down the great river. “I will do that someday—when I grow up,” I vowed.

Life, children, and jobs interfered but I did manage to boat down that river when I was way grown up—in my forties. Divorced and proud owner of a 20-foot powerboat made by Cruisers, Inc., I spent most summer weekends on the pristine St. Croix River, upstream from the muddy Mississippi.  As a tribute to my fascination with Greek mythology, I named my boat Thetis, after the sea goddess who married Peleus and became the mother of Achilles. That didn’t work. My friends called me the “River Queen,” and before long they were calling my boat River Queen as well.

The St. Croix RIver, a Perfect Place to Camp
The St. Croix River, a Perfect Place to Camp

Often, I camped along the banks alone, sorting through my life. Later though, I invited a few of my girl friends who loved being on the water as much as I did. During my second summer on the St. Croix, my friends and I talked about taking River Queen further down the Mississippi. Did we dare?  Finally, we drummed up the courage to plan a women-only cruise from Prescott—where the boat was berthed—down the Mississippi to LaCrosse, Wisconsin.  We spent an adventurous weekend there. On Monday, we motored upriver back to Prescott, at the confluence of the Mississippi and the St. Croix.

The Confluence of the Mighty Mississippi with the St. Croix River Credit, Pete Howard 2010

There was a reason for returning on a Monday. A major obstacle to cruising the upper Mississippi is the lock and dam system. Boaters cruising down the Mississippi were often stuck in the river’s locks for two-to-three hours per lock.  From Prescott to La Crosse, we would go through two such systems—Lock &Dam #3 near Red Wing and Lock & Dam #4 in Alma. Commercial barges transiting the locks sometimes took precedence. That policy changed after boaters reported being stuck for up to four hours in the system, forced to return upriver in the dark on a Sunday. (Some boaters used that as an excuse to miss work on Monday!) The state of Minnesota eventually succumbed to pressure. Barges were no longer allowed to run on Sundays.

Lock and Dam 4, Alma, Minn. Upper Mississippi River mile 752.8
Lock and Dam 4, Alma, Minn. Upper Mississippi River mile 752.8

The lock and dam system is a marvel of engineering that travelers along the Great River Road enjoy without the hassle of navigating that system. Built along the upper Mississippi River from St. Paul to St. Louis are 29 lock-and-dam structures, creating a “stairway of water” filled with pleasure boats, tour boats, and commercial barges. The change in elevation is significant: for example, the route from St. Anthony Falls, Minneapolis, to Granite City, Illinois represents a 420-foot drop. You won’t find locks and dams on the lower sections of the Mississippi though. Why? Farther south, the Missouri, Illinois, Arkansas, and Ohio rivers flow into the Mississippi, making the river naturally wider and deeper. The barges I detested need a lot of river to operate. A “full tow” is made up of 15 barges, arranged three wide and five deep, pushed by a single towboat. Together, these connected barges stretch as long as 1200 feet! 

Lock and Dam system, Upper Mississippi
Lock and Dam system, Upper Mississippi

Undeterred by barge traffic, I again vowed to go down the Mississippi to New Orleans, not by raft, but in my own powerboat. I ordered a complete set of maps of the Mississippi, including all 29 locks and dams.

But before I could realize that dream, life again interfered. By the end of the ‘80s, I had sold my house and boat in Minneapolis and moved to San Diego for work. I had graduated from motor boats and learned to sail. Sailing became my new passion. The following year, I met Gunter and the rest is history. He had a dream of sailing around the world and that suited me just fine. After we retired from the business we’d taken public, we commissioned a Catana 431 ocean-going catamaran in the south of France. We sailed directly from the factory dock around the world and returned to that same dock eight years later. Boating down the Mississippi was a distant dream, long forgotten.  

When we completed our circumnavigation and purchased a second home in Wisconsin, however, that dream was revived. We were less than 30 miles from the St. Croix River, not far from my birthplace. We added a Mississippi Cruise to our bucket list.

The American Cruise Lines Lower Mississippi Cruise. Gunter and I received brochures from American Cruise Lines every year. We always had bigger, better travel plans, it seemed. But during the Pandemic, our interest in traveling the U.S. increased. With international travel closed, why not see some of the United States? As soon as river travel opened, we decided to make the leap. We chose an April “shoulder” cruise downriver from Memphis to New Orleans. A longer (22-day) river trip would begin in St. Paul, Minnesota and that wouldn’t be offered until June. By then, we’d be settled into planting and enjoying our gardens at Northern Bliss. 

On April 7, 2022 we flew from San Diego to Memphis, Tennessee to begin our Lower Mississippi Cruise on American Melody. Ports of call would be Vicksburg, Natchez, St. Franksville, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans. Over Easter weekend, we’d enjoy the sights and sounds of NOLA from our hotel in the French Quarter. Mississippi—here we come!

Part II:The Role of the Mississippi in the U.S. Civil War is next.

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award-winning nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website and stay in touch with Lois by liking her Facebook page. Lois’s books can be purchased from PIP Productions on Amazon and on her website.