Even though I’d been at Vicksburg National Military Park for almost exactly three months, I still didn’t really feel like I’d adjusted to my job here as a Centennial Volunteer Ambassador. Don’t get me wrong, I was enjoying what I was doing and enjoyed the people I worked with. But, it was hard for me to see what I was really doing. I couldn’t tell if I was even doing my job right. I felt like I was doing a whole lot of work for volunteers that didn’t exist. Looking back on it, this makes sense. You have to build a certain amount of infrastructure and put in some time before you can begin bringing in volunteers, and that is what I was working on. After having made it through a successful National Public Lands Day service project and having begun the hiring process for some long term volunteers, I feel so much more sure of my place here.
To celebrate National Public Lands Day here at Vicksburg NMP, we offered volunteers two service projects. Volunteers could help clean up and restore our Shirley House rose garden or help paint cannon carriages nearby at the Third Louisiana Redan. Both of these projects directly relate to the preservation of this hallowed ground our park was founded to protect.
The Shirley House stood where it stands today during the siege of Vicksburg in 1863. The Shirley family, including Alice Shirley, lived in the beautiful white house high up on the dramatic hills which Vicksburg is so known for. As Abraham Lincoln once described it, Vicksburg was the “key” to defeating the Confederacy and restoring the Union.
By capturing Vicksburg, the Union would control the Mississippi River and split the Confederacy in two. From there, they would more easily sweep through the South and win the war. Because of its steep bluffs and dramatic topography, the city was not easily taken, though. After several attempts, General Grant decided that he would slowly win the city by surrounding it and basically starving the Confederate soldiers and the people of Vicksburg until they surrendered. The site of the Shirley House, which was actually a ways out of town in those days, ended up being right in the middle of much of the fighting. Incredibly, the house and its residents, survived the siege. So, you can imagine this house is a pretty important resource to our park. Several years ago, a garden was planted out front to recreate the garden which would’ve been planted around the time of the siege based on the journal writings of Alice Shirley. This beautiful rose garden serves as a living form of historic preservation and greatly contributes to a visitor’s understanding of the resource.
Unfortunately, with limited staff and resources, the garden is not always maintained perfectly. BUT, this is where volunteers come into play. For National Public Lands Day we had 40 volunteers come out to help us in both of these preservation efforts! This was an incredible turn out as I was not expecting we’d get more than 20 volunteers. We had families, large groups, and individual volunteers ranging in ages, races, and genders. I found it encouraging to see how volunteers interacted and worked together with complete strangers. Everyone, volunteers and park staff, worked hard throughout the hot morning and we accomplished much more than expected. We all took a break to hear an interpretive talk from Ranger Will about the Shirley House and its importance. After the work was done, volunteers and park staff relaxed in the shade of a nearby picnic area and enjoyed some well deserved pizza.
Each volunteer went home sweaty and tired, but with the satisfaction of having made a difference, an NPLD t-shirt, a VIP water bottle, and a belly full of pizza. I also went home tired and sweaty, but I gained a greater sense of direction and purpose in my role here. My hard work paid off and I got to experience our NPS team coming together to accomplish something important. Now that I know what I can accomplish and I’ve actually gotten to work with some incredible volunteers, I feel much more sure of my role and my goals for the rest of my year in Vicksburg.