Over 150 years ago, artillery fire thundered across the land, thick plumes of gunsmoke choked the air, and the fruitful fields of northern Mississippi shook under the boots of thousands of soldiers. Today, you’ll hear only echoes of the past and the wind in your ears as you bike the Natchez Trace Parkway through northern Mississippi’s Civil War past. Few traces of the upheaval remain in the tranquil countryside, but Civil War history is alive and well at Tupelo National Battlefield in Tupelo and the Brices Cross Roads National Battlefield Site near Baldwyn.
Start your trip at the Brice’s Crossroads Interpretive Center in Baldwyn, a few miles north of the byway. In 1864, Union railroad supply lines were vulnerable to raids by Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest and his crack cavalry troops. On June 10, 1864, Union general Samuel Sturgis led a force of 8100 soldiers against 4800 of Forrest’s cavalry near Brices Cross Roads west of Baldwyn. Forrest’s ensuing rout of the more numerous Union forces ensured his place as one of history’s great cavalrymen, but the battle’s long-term effect on the war proved costly for the Confederates. Brices Cross Roads is an excellent example of winning the battle, but losing the war. One of the visitor center’s many permanent and temporary exhibits is a model of the battlefield at Brices Cross Roads with over 1500 hand-painted miniatures to show the chaos of the battle’s final stages. Other exhibits include interpretation for both the Harrisburg and Old Town Creek battlefield sites in Tupelo.
Hop on your bike and make your way south along idyllic country roads for seven miles until you join the Trace on its winding trek to Tupelo, 18 miles to the south. Neither the center in Baldwyn nor the actual Brices Cross Roads National Battlefield Site are located on the Parkway itself, so be prepared for a moderate ride of eight or 13 miles to the nearest spot on the Parkway, depending on whether you start at Baldwyn or the battlefield.
A few miles north of Tupelo at mile marker 270, follow a trail across sections of the original trace to see the graves of 13 unknown soldiers. Just one month after his triumph at the Battle at Brices Cross Roads, Forrest was defeated in the Battle of Tupelo, which consisted of skirmishes fought at both Harrisburg and Old Town Creek. Forrest’s defeat left the supply lines securely in Union hands. Some believe these graves are of Confederate soldiers killed in that battle – perhaps they were some of Forrest’s men.
Continue on the byway to the Natchez Trace Parkway Visitor Center at milepost 266, where you can gain further in-depth information, such as the courageous role which Bouton’s Brigade of the United States Colored Troops played in both battles. Cycle just a few miles further south to mile marker 260 and visit the Harrisburg battle site at the Tupelo National Battlefield a few blocks east of the byway in Tupelo.
The Natchez Trace Parkway promises a wealth of Civil War history for any traveler, and a tranquil cycling experience. If you’re interested in biking more of the Trace, be aware that most sections have no defined shoulder. Vehicle traffic is light during most times of day, but plan ahead to avoid certain areas such as Ridgeland and Tupelo during high traffic periods. To learn more about the visiting the Natchez Trace Parkway, explore scenictrace.com
*Credit: America’s Byways