Cue the cannon.
The theatre of war promises drama and more on the Civil War trail of the Natchez Trace Parkway.
Ulysses S. Grant began his own march to destiny on the road that is now the Natchez Trace Parkway, and today history buffs, Civil War enthusiasts and people who simply love adventure are all still following his trail into some of the most exciting Civil War history in America, through the blaze of re-enactors’ muskets and into history-rich towns and battle sites where the course of a nation was determined, and where the stories of courage and dedication are still beautifully preserved, waiting to be experienced.
Civil War history threads the length of the Parkway. In fact, “people who are knowledgeable about the subject consider the Trace a Civil War Trail,” according to David Carney, Natchez Trace Supervisory Interpretive Park Ranger.
So the stage is set, the scenes are dramatic, and as the curtain rises, here is a taste of the drama that lies ahead:
The Action (Battles, Beauty and More):
Some of the actions here changed the course of the war, some came at the end of the war, but each was significant in its own way.
- A daring pre-dawn river crossing by U.S. Grant in the largest amphibious operation prior to WWII, which led to two cities captured on the way to Grant’s conquest of Vicksburg and control of the Mississippi. Yet it would be Grant who would surrender to the charms of the beautiful city of Port Gibson, sparing it from the torch, and the people of Raymond who proved to have winning ways in caring for wounded Union soldiers.
- A capital city reduced to such smoking ruins it was dubbed Chimneyville, when General William T. Sherman wielded his infamous torch in Jackson, Mississippi.
- A heart-stopping 11th hour victory by Nathan Bedford Forrest, commanding forces outnumbered two to one—a drama so intense that it is replayed every year in the annual re-enactment at Brice’s Crossroads in Tupelo, Mississippi.
- A fierce battle fought seemingly in complete silence, in Iuka when General William Rosencrans and his men would have to fight without reinforcements as an aberrant wind known as an “acoustic shadow” sent battle sounds away from the direction of General E.O.C. Ord, whose troops stood by idly, waiting for the battle to begin even as the fighting raged on for hours.
- The largest cavalry force ever amassed in the Western Hemisphere, in an invasion that ultimately resulted in the capture of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
- The “five bloodiest hours of the Civil War,” at the Battle of Carter Farm in Franklin, Tennessee, where Confederate forces made a late-afternoon charge that dragged on to a savage and bloody contest beneath the moonlight that left 9,000 men dead, 7,000 of them Confederate soldiers.
The Cast (Generals and Angels):
The trail of the Civil War offers a host of fascinating characters. A few of the stars include:
- General U.S. Grant—As one Union soldier put it, “Gen. Grant habitually wore an expression as if he had determined to drive his head through a brick wall and was about to do it.” Yet the hard-headed Grant proved to have a soft spot for a beautiful city like Port Gibson.
- General William S. Rosencrans—Although wind currents changed the outcome at the Battle of Iuka, a subsequent current of whispers laid the blame on U.S. Grant, while Rosencrans was lauded as a hero; not surprisingly, a lasting rivalry between the two men ensued.
- General Nathan Bedford Forrest—Determined to bring down Sherman’s supply lines between Chattanooga and Nashville, the Confederate general nearly succeeded with a dramatic victory at Brice’s Crossroads.
- Carrie McGavock—A Tennessee planter’s wife and angel of mercy. McGavock tended the wounded at the Battle of Franklin, then turned her own lawn into the nation’s largest privately owned Confederate cemetery where the remains of 1,500 dead are interred. Her story of compassion would inspire a best-selling novel, Widow of the South.
The Hot Spots (Tour Must-Stops):
There’s much to see, much to explore, all along the Parkway, including these historic hot spots:
- Grand Gulf Military Monument Park: The hot fire from the redoubts here forced Grant onward to Bruinsburg, and today that exciting history is preserved in the 400-acre landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places, where visitors can explore Fort Wade, the Grand Gulf Cemetery, a museum, as well as campgrounds, picnic areas, hiking trails, an observation tower, and several restored buildings.
- Old Rodney Road: Grant’s forces began their advance on the city of Port Gibson in a moonlight march down this road, which still offers much the same secluded ambience. Shots first rang out at the Shaifer House, now carefully preserved, still sporting bullets holes in its exterior.
- Port Gibson: Today, vivid proof still remains why Grant declared this historic city “too beautiful to burn,” with more than 40 gracious homes and churches listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The appropriately named Church Street makes an ideal start for a city tour.
- Raymond: The blood stains are still visible on the floor of Raymond’s St. Marks Episcopal Church, used as a hospital to treat Union soldiers after the Battle of Raymond and now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The imposing Greek Revival Hinds County Courthouse, converted into a Confederate hospital, still stands as well. And visitors will want to take a walking tour through the Raymond Battlefield site, which has been featured on the History Channel program “Sacred Soil.”
- Jackson: Today, Mississippi’s capital city is a veritable museum central, including two historic venues, and the Chimneyville name lives on in the delightful Chimneyville Arts and Crafts Gallery.
- Tupelo: Nathan Bedford Forrest fought two battles here, one in Tupelo and one at Brice’s Crossroads. While the Tupelo National Battlefield is a one-acre site inside Tupelo city limits, lands surrounding the site at Brice’s Crossroads have been largely undisturbed, so that visitors (and the annual re-enactors) enjoy a panoramic, you-are-there feel. The site also includes a visitor and interpretive center, two battlefield trails and two cemeteries.
- Iuka: While the Battle of Iuka was marked by the “acoustic shadow” that swallowed sounds of the battle, word has gotten out with no problem about the city’s exciting reenactment of this dramatic conflict. Between 15,000 and 20,000 visitors converge on the city for the Battle of Iuka reenactment, held annually on Labor Day weekend, with a skirmish on Saturday and the battle re-enactment on Sunday. Several of Iuka’s homes that served as headquarters or hospitals have been preserved, while Civil War relics are exhibited year-round in the Old Tishomingo County Courthouse Museum in historic downtown Iuka.
- Franklin: This charming city just outside Nashville offers a Civil War tour through its picturesque downtown. At the battle site, the Carter House museum and interpretive center, a Registered Historic Landmark, provides an in-depth exploration of the battle through a video presentation and battlerama. The beautifully restored 48-acre Carnton estate, where Carrie McGavon once tended the elegant mansion and ornamental garden, is another inspiring stop.
With so many attractions and historical sites, a Civil War tour on the Natchez Trace Parkway may consist of day’s outing or a weeks-long campaign. The stories here are fascinating, and the people are friendly and welcoming, ready to share their history. The drama of the Civil War on the Natchez Trace Parkway awaits. So cue the cannon and start the car!
FOR VISITOR INFORMATION: 866-TRACE 56