The Old Courthouse Stairs

Vicksburg, Mississippi

Written by Dawn Woolcott

Vicksburg, Mississippi has a long story to tell. Just climbing the stairs in its old courthouse tells an interesting story. The Old Courthouse sits in the center of town, commanding a prime position on the top of a mounded hill overlooking the Mississippi River a few blocks below. The dominating structure was built by an Irish firm, the Weldon Brothers of Antrim, Ireland, using 100 enslaved craftsmen. The massive building was completed in 1860, using a traditional design with heavy columns, a wide portico, and impressive pediment that just commands respect and says “I am an important building.” The building served as the county’s courthouse from the time it was built until 1939 when a new building was built directly across the street in a more “modern” style – what we would call today an Art Deco style. The new courthouse building is beautiful in its own right, but the old courthouse structure was beautiful too, and deserved to be saved. 

photo-national-archives Vicksburg Old Courthouse 1863
1863: The Old Courthouse (Photo courtesy the National Archives)
Vicksburg Old Courthouse
The Old Courthouse
New Courthouse Building I Vicksburg with Art Deco style
The New Courthouse

When the new courthouse was built, the old courthouse sat abandoned and in serious danger of being demolished. It took the efforts of one woman, Eva Whitaker Davis, to spearhead rescuing the old courthouse and turning it into a museum of local history. It took nearly ten years to accomplish her goal, but the Old Courthouse Museum still stands today, a testament to her efforts to preserve history.  And the Old Courthouse does have a lot of history to share.

The building was built to withstand the trials yet to come, foreshadowing the Civil War that would soon erupt not long after its completion. Massive iron shutters secure the windows upstairs in the courtroom. The judge’s dias and the courtroom railings are all cast iron as opposed to standard wood. Sturdy iron steps lead up from the ground floor to the courtroom upstairs, which must have been oppressively hot during the summer months.

iron window protection shutters at Vicksburg courthouse
Iron shutters protect the windows
old iron staircase inside Vicksburg courthouse
Iron Staircase
Vicksburg old courthouse
The old courtroom upstairs

The courthouse was the target of much shelling by Union troops, but escaped with only one direct hit. When the city finally fell to the Union troops, the courthouse was encamped by Union troops, who reputedly commented on the irony of those iron steps, so blatantly marked they were made by the Barker Iron Company in Cincinnati, Ohio – a Union state. The soldiers also left their own marks behind. Step out onto the portico looking towards the river. As you look underfoot, you’ll see the engraved graffiti left behind by soldiers on the stone floor. The hard floors were resistant to the marks, yet they still show today and offer a peak into those turbulent times, showing the presence of the 72nd Illinois infantry or the 45th Volunteers.  

“Vicksburg is the key. The war can never be brought to a close until the key is in our pocket.” 

– Abraham Lincoln 

As you walk the grounds, it doesn’t take much to imagine the history which has unfolded here. Imagine local land owner Jefferson Davis, giving an early political speech from the grounds as he began his rise to power. Not long afterward, see General Ulysses S. Grant speak to his troops as the Confederate flag was lowered and the U.S. flag was raised over the courthouse following the city’s surrender during the Siege of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863. Several U.S. presidents have made speeches from here over the years, including President Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, William McKinley, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. And yet with all those dignitaries having stood on those steps, it is the carved initials in the back porch that can bring this building to life. There have been many famous or infamous people who have trudged up those iron stairsteps to the courtroom above, but the stairs on the back porch are just as illuminating. 

carvings on Old Courthouse in Vicksburg
old Vicksburg courthouse back portico
old courthouse Vicksburg

The Old Courthouse Museum is a fascinating look into the Civil War and is definitely a “must-see” item when on a Mississippi River cruise. This most unusual museum is packed full of original artifacts from that era. Walk up that iron staircase – or ride the electric seat added much later – and see the worn iron steps, still emblazoned with the Ohio company’s name. Think of how many people have walked up those stairs. Stand in the courthouse and hear how perfect the acoustics are to help the judge hear the case. See those massive iron shutters, protecting the building from both weather and war. Iron has held up pretty well in this grand old building. The floors here have seen a lot of U.S. history pass underfoot.


Fun Fact!

Fun Fact: Did you know as a result of the surrender of the city on July 4, 1863, the city of Vicksburg did not celebrate Independence Day again until July 4, 1945!

Cruise Information

Visit Vicksburg and walk through history on one of these fascinating Mississippi River cruises:

New Orleans & Southern Charms

Roundtrip New Orleans

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Historic Mississippi River: New Orleans, Round Trip

Roundtrip New Orleans

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All photos by Dawn Woolcott for USA River Cruises unless noted.

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