By Terri Ferguson Smith
On the sesquicentennial of Union troops burning the town of Meridian, history enthusiasts learned more about the historic event and learned something about boosting the economy through cultural and heritage tourism.
Friday was the 150th anniversary of Gen. William T. Sherman's burning of Meridian, which historians noted was of strategic importance because of the railroads at that time.
To mark the occasion, the county's tourism department, Visit Meridian, hosted a civil war symposium during which historians talked about the Meridian campaign.
Historian Parker Hills , a retired brigadier general, said this could have been the start of a longer campaign in the area, but days after Sherman's arrival, the expected reinforcements did not show.
"Sherman left Vicksburg in early February and arrived here on Valentine's Day," Hills said. "When he realized that William Sooy Smith's cavalry was not going to show up from Memphis, thanks to Bedford Forrest, who stopped them at West Point and Okolona ... Sherman was not in a very good mood so he spent five days burning everything in this area."
Sherman then returned to Vicksburg, but he had gained another win of a different sort.
"This was kind of his dress rehearsal for what he would do in Georgia — his Atlanta campaign and his march to the sea," Hills said. "He was practicing his concept of the total war."
Following Friday's symposium, tourism and other officials unveiled the first of several Civil War heritage markers in Meridian. That's part of efforts to attract tourists who are interested in Civil War history.
The marker unveiled Friday is outside Meridian's train depot on Front Street, Union Station.
"Half of the tourist bus traffic that comes to Mississippi wants to know how to visit either places from the Civil War or the Civil Rights Movement," said Dede Mogollon, executive director of Visit Meridian. "We expect to start on the Civil Rights Movement Trail in early June. We began this project a little more than a year ago but it was really in the last few months that everything really began taking off. It got really busy. A lot of work from a lot of people had to be done behind the scenes to make this possible."
That work is expected to pay off for the community, according to Malcolm White, director of Mississippi Development Authority's Tourism Division.
"This whole idea of cultural and heritage tourism is something that Mississippi has really taken root in and we're really doing a great job. It's part of our story that we never really articulated. We have assets like few other states do," White said. "I think it can be a new economy for us and certainly it's a new tourism tool."
White said communities need to promote not just golf, hunting, fishing and beaches, but to also talk about music art, architecture, literature, the Civil War and civil rights.
"For the longest, Mississippi let other people tell our story," White said. "When we do heritage and cultural tourism right, we tell our own story. We have a chance for our voice to tell our story. I think it's very powerful and it's amazing that it builds economic development and civic pride at the same time."
White said the state needs for people from across the globe to come here to experience its story.
"Our average tourist stays two and a half days now. We want to extend that," he said."We want people to come and enjoy it. We want them to see our amenities. We want them to go away with a good taste in their mouth and tell their friends and family that Mississippi is a great place to visit. That's our story."
Meridian Star staff writer Brian Livingston contributed to this report.