By Therese Apel
VICKSBURG, Mississippi (Reuters) - A century and a half after the Civil War's battle of Vicksburg, a large group of Iowans led by Governor Terry Branstad joined Southerners on Saturday to commemorate the Iowa soldiers who lost their lives on the Mississippi battlefield.
A 1906 monument to the Iowans has been refurbished thanks to $320,000 in funds approved by the Iowa legislature, with enough left over after brass pieces were replaced and the marble and stone were polished, to restore several smaller monuments dedicated to Iowans on the Vicksburg battlefield.
"This beautiful Iowa monument, one of many constructed by the Union and Confederate states to recognize the sacrifice of their troops in the siege and battles at Vicksburg, is hereby rededicated and accepted for the citizens of the great state I am humbled to serve," Branstad said.
The ceremony came on a weekend when the United States celebrates the Memorial Day holiday on Monday, which honors those who died serving in the U.S. military.
The Confederate surrender on July 4, 1863, at Vicksburg to the Union army led by General Ulysses S. Grant came a day after the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, considered a turning point in the Civil War.
Branstad was not the first Iowa governor to visit the battlefield. Governor Samuel Kirkwood, who recruited troops and supplies for the Union Army, visited troops in Vicksburg during the war. Two men who went on to become Iowa governors, Samuel Merrill and William Stone, fought in the battle.
Hundreds of people attended the rededication on Saturday, some in the Union uniforms of the times and some in U.S. military uniforms.
Former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour - whose great-grandfather James was a Confederate soldier who lost his brother Charles, a captain in the Union Army, during the war - sat next to Branstad at the service.
Former Iowa state Representative Jeff Kaufman told the guests that as he looked at the hill across from the monument, he knew Iowa's fallen soldiers were watching. Mississippi, he said, has taken care of them and honored their memory.
"You honored that promise and we haven't forgotten. This is a sacred day, this is an important day, and you folks of Vicksburg and of Mississippi have opened your hearts to us and we will never forget," he said.
Army National Guard Major Marcus Smoot, an Iowa native who is stationed in Fort Lee, Virginia, made the drive to Vicksburg to see the conclusion of a project he helped start.
"The memorial was in pretty bad repair and a lot of things had been pilfered off of it through time," he said. "We said, 'well this would be a perfect event to try to get done for the sesquicentennial.'"
David Lamb of Des Moines, a member of the governor's honor guard, said he and several of his comrades made the drive to stand in the Mississippi sun in their Union Army uniforms during the service. He described how the battle of Vicksburg from May 18 to July 4, 1863, was the longest siege on American soil and was a strategic victory.
"Had we not been able to take Vicksburg, the war wouldn't have turned out the way it did. It was essential that we control the Mississippi River, Vicksburg was the key to all of that," he said.
(Reporting by Therese Apel; Editing by David Adams and Eric Beech)