ABOVE PHOTO: Longwood Plantation House.
By Renée S. Gordon
“To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.”
There is no better place to explore the history of the South, both pre and post Civil War, than the state of Mississippi. The state teems with historic sites and modern attractions that cast a light on both the origins of southern plantation culture and the path of new South. This Mississippi triad, Vicksburg, Natchez, Hattiesburg and the cities in between, are some of the most interesting and hospitable in the state. They offer great value, outstanding cuisine, wonderful accommodations and are within easy driving distance of one another. www.visitmississippi.org
Settlement in the Vicksburg area dates from the construction of the French colonial Fort Saint-Pierre in 1719. In 1729 the Natchez Indians attacked and destroyed the fort and the area was abandoned. Currently it is an archeological site that was placed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) in 2000.
The Spanish took control of the region after the American Revolution and sixty years later, and 10-miles away, the colony of Nogales, later Walnut Hills, was founded on the bluffs above the Mississippi at the bend in the river. The US gained possession as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1811 and Vicksburg was incorporated in 1825. The city, because of its strategic location, became an important port and riverboat landing. www.visitvicksburg.com
One could argue that the seeds of the Civil War were sown and a bitter harvest was reaped in Vicksburg. Jefferson Davis, future president of the Confederacy, gave one of his first political speeches in front of the Old Courthouse, now a museum.
The $100,000 courthouse was constructed by the Weldon Brothers Construction Co. from1858-60 on the highest point in the city. The bricks were handmade by slaves and the building was constructed using more than 100 black skilled laborers. John Jackson, a noted slave draftsman helped design the building. It is on the American Institute of Architects’ list of the “20 Most Outstanding Courthouses in America.” www.oldcourthouse.org
Bethel AME Church was constructed in 1875. Campbell College, Mississippi’s first African American college built exclusively by blacks was established adjacent to it in 1890. Campbell moved to Jackson in 1897 and is now part of Jackson State University.
The black population of Vicksburg after the Civil War was the largest in the state and Marcus Bottom, the black neighborhood, was the focal point of black music traditions and innovations. So important was the community’s contribution that a Blues Trail Marker marks the area. There are four additional markers including one for Willie Dixon, the “Poet Laureate of the Blues,” who was born there in 1915. www.msbluestrail.org
Vicksburg was a major obstacle in the Union’s Civil War plan to control the Mississippi and in 1863 Grant entered the area to concentrate on taking the city and disrupting Confederate supply and river access. On May 18, 1863 Grant began a 47-day siege that would end on July 4th and result in bisecting the Confederacy and Federal control of the waterway. After the surrender the US flag was hung from the Old Courthouse clocktower.
The 18,000-acre Vicksburg National Park is one of the most moving and beautiful in the nation. A 16-mile driving tour includes greater than 1300 monuments created by leading sculptors, making the battlefield a veritable outdoor gallery filled with more the $3.5-billion worth of art. State monuments are situated where the state actually fought and Union lines are designated with blue markers and Confederate markers are red. It is the most accurately laid out battlefield in the nation because veterans of the battle marked the positions.
Tours begin in the Visitor Center with an electronic map that traces battle movements and an orientation film in a circular gallery. Around the walls are dioramas depicting various aspects of the campaign. From here you can rent a guide, obtain a CD tour or follow a printed map. www.nps.gov/vick
Illinois erected the largest monument in the park at a cost of 20 percent of the state’s budget. It includes bronze plaques with all the names of soldiers who fought including Albert Cashier, also known as Jenny Hodges. Albert enlisted and fought at Vicksburg and in 39 other engagements. While hospitalized in 1913 it was revealed that she was a female and she was forced to dress in female attire. She died in 1915 and was buried in full uniform under her male name.
A highlight of the tour is the sole monument to commemorate the contribution of Civil War African American soldiers on any National Park Service battlefield. Dr. J. K. Sessums designed the 9-ft. bronze sculpture atop an African granite base with three African American figures representing the 1st and 3rd MS Infantry and a fieldworker. The $300,000 monument was dedicated in 2004 by the state of MS.
The USS Cairo Museum interprets the story of the first armed vessel sunk by a torpedo through displays and a 20-minute film. The Cairo sank in 12 minutes with no loss of life and was submerged for 102 years. The boat is in an outdoor covered area adjacent to a museum that features hundreds of salvaged artifacts. The 159-member crew included 14 Pennsylvanians and four blacks. www.nps.gov/vick/u-s-s-cairo-gunboat
Do not leave the city without visiting the Walnut Hills Restaurant in Old Towne Vicksburg. The 1880 historic house opened as a restaurant 100-years-later. The southern cuisine is superb and has been showcased on “Good Morning America” and is listed as one of the “1,000 Places to Eat Before You Die.” www.walnuthillsms.com/walnuthills/about
Seventy-one miles south of Vicksburg sits Natchez, the oldest settlement on the Mississippi River. It was established atop a ridgeline that runs from 30 miles south to 70 miles north of the city. The site was chosen in 1662 by La Salle because of its beauty and named for the Noché tribe that lived there.
In the early 18th-century the “Natchez” wiped out a group of traders and in 1716 the French retaliated, subdued them and constructed Fort Rosalie to control the area. In 1729 the Natchez attacked the fort and killed 712 settlers. Open warfare resulted and the French joined with the Choctaw to drive the Natchez out. They were ultimately captured and sold into slavery in Santo Domingo.
The British took control in 1763 but in 1779 it came into the possession of the Spanish. Vicksburg, then the territorial capitol, was incorporated in 1803. MS attained statehood in 1817. The capitol was relocated in 1822 but Vicksburg flourished. Prior to the Civil War half of the country’s millionaires lived there along with over 200 freedmen. The city boasts more than 1,000 structures on the NRHP and a number of National Historic Landmarks (NHL). It, along with Vicksburg, were the only cities in the state to have sidewalks and paved streets pre-1861. www.visitvicksburg.com
Stratton Chapel in First Presbyterian Church has mounted “Natchez in Historic Photographs.” Three photographers documented the people of the city from 1850-1951. There are more than 500 photographs, many of black citizens, printed from original negatives. Free
Natchez’ biggest draw is its abundance of antebellum mansions that were built as urban residences for wealthy plantation owners. Several homes now house museums and twice annually visitors can tour 25 mansions and view the exquisite antiques and learn the history on the Spring and Fall Pilgrimages. The first pilgrimage was held in 1931 and was to be a garden tour but because of rain guests were invited to tour the interiors. www.natchezpilgrimage.com
Longwood, the largest octagonal house in America, was designed in 1859, begun in 1860, and never completed because the owner died in 1864 and left the family destitute. Philadelphian Samuel Sloan designed the 10,000-sq. ft. mansion in Byzantine-Moorish style with cypress floors, 32 rooms, 24 closets, 115 doors, 16-sided cupola, five floors and a basement. The basement was completed and the family resided there until 1897. The house is believed to be haunted by the owner and his wife and exterior shots of the mansion are featured in True Blood.
Dunleith Mansion has been deemed the most photographed house in America. This 1856 Greek revival house was home to John Lynch, the first black to serve in the House of Representatives and the first black to deliver a keynote speech at a democratic or republican convention. Lynch, a house servant and son of an Irish plantation manager, was freed in 1873. It is listed on the NRHP and is a NHL. Dunleith is now a B&B. www.dunleithplantation.com
The 1847 Melrose Plantation sits on an 80-acre estate that includes two original slave quarters. The Greek revival house was the scene of the television movie “North and South.” Ironically ex-slaves Jane Johnson and Alice Sims preserved the mansion after the death of the owner in 1883. They maintained the house and contents as they were and aided in the restoration once the home was sold. The tour here is excellent and provides a realistic picture of plantation life. www.nps.gov/natc
To fully understand the history and heritage of Natchez it is necessary to tour African American sites as well as the mansions. The French colonists introduced African slavery into the area but by 1807 it was illegal to import slaves from Africa. This law fashioned the new industry of purchasing northern slaves cheaply and selling them downriver. Natchez was a lucrative “Negro Mart” site and slaves were sold on the riverfront’s Silver Street and at the notorious Forks in the Road, the second largest slave market in the nation. The market was located at Liberty and Washington Roads. The last documented sale took place there in 1863 with field hands selling for $1600 ($32,000 today). Sales did not cease until Union occupation. www.forksoftheroads.net
August and Sarah Mazique were born enslaved to James Railey. After the war they grew wealthy and in 1870 they purchased China Grove Plantation. Their son later purchased Oakland, the plantation of his birth. The family would eventually own 10 area plantations making them the county’s largest landowners.
William Johnson was born a slave, freed by his owner and apprenticed to a barber. After purchasing his first barbershop in 1830 he went on to own rental properties, two additional barbershops and 31 slaves and white workers. In 1840 he built a Greek revival 2.5-story townhouse that is now part of the Natchez Historic Park. A white neighbor murdered him in 1851. Johnson’s 16-year, 2000 page, diary has proven to be an invaluable historic resource. www.nps.gov/natc
We will continue our Mississippi triad trek in part two. In the meantime use the listed links to explore further. www.visitnatchez.com
I wish you smooth travels!
York, PA, the “Factory Capital of the World” is hosting its 14th annual Made in America Tours event from June 20-23. Visitors are invited to go behind the scenes at more than 30 factories including, Harley-Davidson, Snyder’s, Utz and even create their own ice cream at Turkey Hill. Details are available at www.factorytours.org and 1-888-858-YORK
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