Vicksburg CVB preparing for Civil War visitors

By The Associated Press

VICKSBURG, Miss. (AP) — As history buffs, tourists and historians begin a surge onto Civil War battlefields to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the war, Vicksburg’s tourism figures are projected to be far outpaced by its Pennsylvania counterpart.

“We cannot compete with Gettysburg,” said Bill Seratt, executive director of the Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau. “They are in one of the largest population centers in the world.”

Both battles ended in early July 1863 — Gettysburg on July 3 after a three-day battle, and Vicksburg on July 4 after close to three months of combat — but Gettysburg tends to draw more national attention and became a household name after President Abraham Lincoln’s famous address there.

“If Lincoln had given the Vicksburg Address, it would be completely different,” Seratt said.

The close dates of the battles and Mississippi’s sweltering summer weather led Vicksburg National Military Park officials to yield to Gettysburg and plan the bulk of sesquicentennial activities for Memorial Day weekend, which is around the time the siege began, said military park Superintendent Mike Madell.

Up to 140,000 people are expected in the Vicksburg park that weekend, Madell said. In 2011, 796,033 people visited the park.

“We looked at Shiloh’s numbers, and they brought in 140,000 over their big weekend last year. I’m being optimistic and saying that’s realistic for Vicksburg,” Madell said.

The numbers pale in comparison to those from Gettysburg, a town of about 8,000 near Pennsylvania’s border with Maryland.

Gettysburg National Military Park drew 3.3 million visitors during 2011, said Gettysburg Convention and Visitors Bureau spokesman Carl Whitehill. At least 4 million are expected to visit in 2013, Whitehill said.

“Our blessing is that we are located within a five-hour drive of 69 million people,” Whitehill said. “That’s a huge draw for us, especially when gas prices go up.”

The area immediately surrounding Gettysburg is rural, but within a few hours’ drive are the New York metropolitan area, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

Vicksburg is within a five-hour drive of about 25 million people, according to census data. The area includes all of Mississippi and Louisiana and parts of Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas and Texas, including a portion of the Houston metro area.

In Gettysburg, preparations have been under way for more than two years, Whitehill said. Vicksburg started preparing about a year ago, Seratt said.

Gettysburg has been filled with sesquicentennial banners for months, and shops are filling up with souvenirs, Whitehill said.

“It’s definitely a good buzz around town. The merchants have been preparing for this a long time. It’s been in the backs of their heads for many years,” he said.

For Vicksburg, the concern seems to be less on merchants preparing souvenirs than on actually having merchants downtown and along Clay Street.

“We would like to see all the shops full, but we can work with all we have,” Seratt said.

Advertisements began airing last year in states across the South promoting Vicksburg and its connection to the war.

“We’re not selling the history of Vicksburg or the history of Mississippi or the South. We’re selling American history. It’s the impact it had on American history, not just one day in the Civil War,” Seratt said.

Gettysburg has two websites set up for sesquicentennial activities, and they are frequently updated, Whitehill said. VCVB is adding to the Civil War section of its website and updating another site specifically for the sesquicentennial, Seratt said.

Vicksburg also is advertising on billboards and television stations across the South, Seratt said.

Though Gettysburg is king when it comes to battlefields, the town is somewhat downplaying the actual anniversary of the battle in favor of stretching tourism revenue throughout 2013.

“We’re not just a town that out of the blue is planning something for this anniversary. We’ve always made it a side note that you don’t have to come during those days to commemorate the anniversary,” Whitehill said. “If we only held a three-day commemoration, we would be selling ourselves short and selling our visitors short.”

On July 3, Friends of Vicksburg National Military Park will light 20,000 luminaries at 27 state monuments in the park as part of scheduled commemorations.

Separately, a free app for iPhone and Android phones should launch by the end of March. The GPS-enabled app features facts and video explanations at park stops and sites important in the siege, including in Louisiana, Raymond and Port Gibson.