Civil War history and spectacular scenery on the
Parkway from Natchez to Jackson.
History was made along this 110-mile stretch of road when General U.S. Grant swept his forces across the Mississippi River in a pre-dawn assault that resulted in the capture of Port Gibson and Raymond in Grant’s quest to take Vicksburg for control the Mississippi. So perhaps it’s only fitting that today’s travelers begin their exploration of this segment of the Parkway by surrendering to the spectacular views at the Natchez Visitor Reception Center, which is also the State of Mississippi Welcome Center. The Center’s all-glassed overlook offers a breathtaking panorama of the Mississippi River, an inviting spot for visitors to contemplate the adventure ahead before touring the Center’s interactive dioramas for an involving view of Natchez from its earliest history until today.
After browsing the dioramas (and a bookstore and more), it’s time to step into the streets to personally experience one of America’s most historic and architecturally significant cities, unrolling block after block of splendid antebellum mansions, with hundreds of buildings on the National Register reflecting a rich cultural heritage of both Spanish and French influences, as well as the dazzling wealth of the 19th century cotton boom. Thanks to its position as a shipping center and contact point between merchants and planters, Natchez once boasted the highest concentration of millionaires in the nation; today, their palaces are left behind for visitors to explore and enjoy.
While the city’s claim to fame is largely antebellum, its roots go all the back to the 1700s. Before becoming a royal court of King Cotton, Natchez was a rollicking frontier town where Kaintuck boatmen caroused and gamblers and thieves ruled the notorious Natchez-Under-the-Hill. The boatmen floated their loads down the Mississippi River before they sold everything, flatboats included, to walk home—perhaps with a lighter bankroll after a night Under the Hill, or a roadway encounter with one of the Trace’s notorious highwaymen.
Today Natchez-Under-the-Hill is still a great place to steal away a few hours, shopping and dining in an invitingly picturesque setting, which also serves as the docking place for steamboats such as the Delta Queen. Steamboats seem right at home here; so do horse-drawn carriage rides. Both are popular visitor activities, and so are walking tours through the grand neighborhoods of Natchez..
The roll call of historic homes here is simply too long to list, and each has its own beauty and its own story: Melrose with its mighty columns anchoring the Natchez National Historic Park; Stanton Hall, a Greek Revival behemoth that spreads over an entire block; Rosalie, another columned jewel that sits high on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. And then there is the hauntingly beautiful Longwood. With its octagonal design and unfinished interiors, the towering Longwood seems like something from a strange dream, as indeed it was—the doomed dream of Haller Nutt, who signed a treaty with the Union Army so that his own army of European and Northern artisans could work without the inconvenience of war.
Actually, the military came to Natchez long before the Civil War, when Jefferson College, now a museum with restorations open to the public, was founded in 1802. Before its closure in the 1960s, Jefferson was the second oldest military school in the nation after the United States Military Academy in West Point.
Beyond Natchez, at Milepost 10.3, the Parkway leads to a spot where history goes even deeper, wider and higher. Built around 1400 AD, Emerald Mound, a ceremonial mound of the Natchez Indians, spreads over eight acres; it is the second largest of its type in the nation. A trail leads up 35 feet to a quietly inspiring view at the top. At Milepost 12.4 Loess Bluff offers a history that stretches back even farther, to the Ice Age, when deposits of topsoil (or, loess) were blown up onto the promontory.
Following the Ice Age, giant bison and mammoths crashed through the underbrush to create the primitive beginnings of the trail that would become the Natchez Trace. The animals were followed by the Native Americans of pre-history, and then by the tribes of the Chickasaw and Natchez who followed those earlier “traces.” European settlers came, too, to trade with the tribes, and one of the first travelers’ “stands” in Mississippi was Mount Locust, established in 1780. Today at Mount Locus, visitors can tour the restored historic house where exhibits and interpretive programs offer a glimpse of those early years of frontier commerce.
Heading further north, travelers may find themselves swept away by the magnificent remains of Windsor, 23 ghostly Corinthian columns standing guard above the Mississippi River. Before it burned in 1890, the antebellum mansion the columns once adorned was the largest home in the state, an awe-inspiring landmark on the Mississippi. Today, the Ruins of Windsor still exert an indescribable yet irresistible power.
In U.S. Grant’s first attempt to cross the Mississippi on the way to Vicksburg, the general’s force found the fire from the Grand Gulf fortifications too intense. Although Union bombardment pounded the town in return, at the Grand Gulf Military Monument Park, a 400-acre landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places, visitors will still find a whole world to explore—Fort Wade, the Grand Gulf Cemetery, a museum, campgrounds, picnic areas, hiking trails, an observation tower and restored buildings like the Spanish House from the 1790s.
After Grant finally made his pre-dawn crossing at Bruinsburg, his force of 17,000 regrouped, and late in the day advanced toward the Shaifer House, where the first shots at Port Gibson were fired. Today, limited development has allowed the Shaifer site to retain a sense of authenticity; visitors who look closely can see where the house is pocked with bullet holes. A walk down Old Rodney Road, also undeveloped, yields a glimpse of Grant’s moonlight march.
Though Grant defeated Confederate forces at Port Gibson, it was he who surrendered to the city’s charms, declaring it “too beautiful to burn.” Today, the city still retains much of the splendid beauty that disarmed a battle-hardened general: Two historic districts, 40 historic homes and churches and residences, and a wealth of architectural styles, from Federal to Queen Anne to Greek Revival. One of the more remarkable “points of interest” comes on Church Street: The First Presbyterian Church, with its giant golden hand rising from its steeple pointing a forefinger into the sky. The Temple Gemiluth Chassed, Mississippi’s oldest synagogue, is also located on Church Street, and at the Engelson House, visitors can stroll through the oldest formal gardens in Mississippi.
Even as Port Gibson has preserved a great deal of its architecture, it has also preserved its rich history in other creative ways, such as “No Easy Journey,” a permanent exhibit at the town’s administration building, chronicling the Civil Rights movement in Claiborne County, and the 50-photograph exhibit from the renowned Allen collection installed at the Port Gibson City Hall, which provides a fascinating view of times past. At the Cultural Crossroads community center, story telling, folk art and theatre connect past with future. A special treat: The famous and famously beautiful quilts of the Crossroads Quilters who use their gifts to help Claiborne County youth.
A stop at the Port Gibson Antiques Market & Café is also in order to peruse the fine art, antiques and collectibles, fine linen, folk art and more. From this highly civilized retreat it’s time for the rural adventure of Rocky Springs. Though the town was decimated by yellow fever and erosion more than a century ago, there’s still an old church to explore, hiking trails, a stream, an old cemetery and a part of the Old Trace.
While battles—whether people versus disease, or people versus each other—are a common theme of the history here, sometimes the battles were to save the lives of sworn enemies. After the Battle of Raymond, the Hinds County Courthouse was converted to a Confederate field hospital, but when the citizens of Raymond realized Union soldiers were in need, they opened churches and homes as ad hoc nursing stations. That kind of spirit still animates the town as it welcomes visitors and rallies around historical sites.
The city’s preservation of the Raymond Battlefield site earned a feature on the History Channel program “Sacred Soil,” and any visit should include a walking tour through the battlefield. Other important sites are the courthouse, and the St. Marks Episcopal Church, where the bloodstains are still visible on the floors from the church’s turn as a Union field hospital. Today, the church is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
With its picturesque Square and all its historic homes, Raymond offers a real sense of place and a joie de vivre that make it a strategic stop to recharge and regroup before the next charge—into the shopping, dining and museums of Ridgeland and Jackson.