Back in February, a USA Today story on black historical sites mentioned a “Black Confederate Memorial” in Canton, Mississippi, a “20-foot obelisk . . . built in 1894 to honor Harvey’s Scouts, one of the black units that operated behind Union lines to harass supply shipments.” As it happened, I read that story while spending some time in Jackson, 20 miles or so south of Canton. Visions of a lucrative screenplay dancing in my head, I set out through a chilly February rain to find the monument.

Canton turned out to be a pleasant county scat that Sherman somehow neglected to burn (unlike Jackson, which was known as “Chimneyville” when old Gump got through with it). I drove past a charming little Episcopal church and a number of imposing houses from the days of King Cotton to the classic courthouse square, where I asked several citizens, black and white, where their nationally advertised monument could be found. None of them knew anything about it. Finally, a lady in a gift shop on the square thought she might know what I was looking for (at least she knew what an “obelisk” is), and I followed her directions to the edge of town. Sure enough, there it was, surrounded by a cast iron railing. I got out and trudged through the drizzle for a closer look.

The inscriptions on the base were worn almost to illegibility, and I had to smear them with some cold mud before I could read the words. The first was straightforward enough (“Loyal Faithful True / Were Each and All of Them”), but the next read, “Erected by W.H. Howcott to the Memory of the Good and Loyal Servants Who Followed the Fortunes of Harvey Scouts During the Civil War.” Hmmm. Did USA Today get it wrong? Surely not. But the last inscription clinched it. “A Tribute to My Faithful Servant and Friend, Willis Howcott,” it said. “A Colored Boy of Rare Loyalty and Faithfulness, Whose Memory I Cherish With Deep Gratitude. / W.H. Howcott.” So much for my screenpkn. It would have been a hard sell, anyway.

There are lessons here that the rest of my time in Mississippi only served to confirm, beginning with the fact that you shouldn’t believe everything you hear or read about the place. Another lesson is that history is close to the surface here, but, like those inscriptions, it’s not always easy to read, and once you’ve made it out it’s not always clear what it means.

ing past in the dar the 45 minutes to Vicksburg. Touring the siege lines in my rented Geo Metro, half-remembered poems by Allen Tate and James Dickey floating in my head, I mused as I often do on the sheer unrecoverable otherness of the past. (Not for me, I’m afraid, Faulkner’s famous line about its not being dead, not even past.) Surrounded by visiting Boy Scouts and Midwesterners in Winnebagos, I found it almost impossible to reconstruct the noise and heat, the smoke and blood, much less the sentiments and emotions that drove those men. And here the Park Service’s otherwise excellent maps and taped commentary were no help at all.

Amid the grandiose monuments erected by various northern states to their veterans I almost missed the modest marker for a West Virginia unit. West-by-God-Virginia. What prompted those mountain boys to come all this way to fight, and some of them to die, in the sweltering heat of a Mississippi summer? I doubt that the sentiments of Julia Ward Howe’s pious battle hymn had much to do with it. Hatred for the haughty lowlanders I could believe, or even just the adventure of it, and once you’ve begun it’s hard to quit. But how about the good and loyal servants of the Harvey Scouts? What could have been in their minds, as they helped their masters fight the blue-belly invaders? Could it have been as simple as the friendship Mr. Howcott claims? Even Howcott himself: When he put up his imposing monument to Willis and the others, whom did he want to impress? His neighbors? The Yankees of 1894? Us? I low could we ever hope to know?

Of the hundreds of monuments that litter the park at Vicksburg mv favorite is Missouri’s. That state had sons on both sides, and the monument honors them all. At one point hostile Missouri units faced each other across a scant few yards of no-man’s land. During a cease-fire, the Park Service tape informs us, an officer of the Confederate unit visited his Union counterpart across the lines. As he was leaving, the Union officer expressed the hope that they would meet again, in a restored Union. “The only union I hope to share with you, sir,” his fellow-Missourian replied, “is in the Hereafter.”

It’s interesting to see how the park’s tape and brochures and videos and monuments treat the Confederates. In general, they cleave to what I’ve come to think of as “the old settlement,” the consensus that obtained from the 1890’s until quite recently. They treat the war’s outcome as providential (this is the federal Park Service, after all), but the Confederates are granted their valor and good faith. That tacit agreement is certainly under attack these days in venues other than Civil War battlefield parks, and I wonder how much longer it will last even there.

But even if the interpretations change, some inconvenient facts will remain, to keep us honest. As we think about what that war was about, and why men fought (not exactly the same question), we need to remember not only the Southerners in the Union Army but also “Northern men of Southern principles” like General Pemberton, the Confederate commander at Vicksburg, who was a Pennsylvanian, And there’s that stone obelisk in Canton, whatever it means. Things are never as simple as we might like them to be.

Moving on to the town of Vicksburg itself, I surveyed the remains of that once-bustling riverport, among them many fine houses now turned into bed-and-breakfast establishments. The big news locally was that riverboat gambling has been approved, which everyone seems to expect will revitalize the local economy. A number of other Mississippi River and Gulf Coast towns already have floating casinos, and so far the economic bonanza seems to be real enough. I don’t entirely understand, however, why this Baptist-Methodist state has suddenly become so enthusiastic for this one kind of gambling. It must be something like Harry Golden’s scheme for “vertical integration.” Golden noticed that Southern whites insisted on segregation only for activities that involved blacks and whites sitting together, so he proposed taking the seats out of restaurants, schools, and buses. Just so, gambling seems to be OK in Mississippi only if you’re afloat. (My favorite example is the Splash Casino, on a boat moored in some sort of bog in land-locked Tunica County, where the managers now have a problem because the water level is falling. I picture guys with garden hoses trying to get it back up before the state inspector arrives with his dipstick.)

Anyway, no visitor to Vicksburg should miss a curious little museum in the old courthouse building. A half-dozen cluttered rooms display relics of native Indians and of prominent local families, mementos of the cave-dwelling days during the siege, Coca-Cola memorabilia (the first Coke was supposedly bottled in Vicksburg), the Louisiana banknote with the word “Dix” (by one theory the origin of the word “Dixieland”), photographs of steamboat races and famous roustabouts, and literally hundreds of other souvenirs of Vicksburg life. I was reminded by this delightful omnium gatherum of Shane Leslie’s description of the museum in Reading at the turn of the century: a relic looted from a nearby abbey at the Reformation was displayed in a glass ease, labeled “Hand of Saint James.”

When my wife came to visit, I took her back to Vicksburg, and we had Sunday dinner at a restaurant high on a bluff over the Mississippi, next to one of the Confederate artillery emplacements that had failed to keep the Yankee gunboats from slipping past in the dark of one fateful night. Below us, the Interstate spanned the great river now, carrying 18-wheelers and tourists west to Texas and beyond, and the river traffic was confined to barges. As we were leaving, I noticed among the signed pictures of celebrities in the foyer one of Alex Haley—another Southerner who tried to make the past speak and who (it now appears) finally had to put words in its mouth.