Now to continue with our week in Natchez, Mississippi.
The Natchez Historical Park under the National Park Service consists of two sites; Melrose (see Part 1) and the William Johnson House. The William Johnson House honors a seldom mentioned segment of the antebellum South population, that of the free, black middle class. William Johnson was born into slavery. His mother was owned by a planter named William Johnson and it is thought that he was the father of the boy. His mother was freed soon after his birth but current law forbid freeing minors. He was freed at age 11. Again the law required that if at any time the freed slave was unable to take care of himself the owner was responsible for him. William Johnson became educated and trained as a barber however surprisingly he also was a slaveowner. He went on to own four barber shops and integrated into both the black and white economy. He kept diaries that give precious insights into the daily lives of the Natchez middle class. The house and separate kitchen was built after a fire and a tornado damaged much of Natchez downtown area in 1840. The main floor was rented out to other merchants while the Johnson family lived upstairs. This site is within an easy walk of the Natchez Visitors Center or can be seen as part of the historical area walking tour.
One evening we attended the Natchez Little Theatre production of A Christmas Carol Natchez Style. This is community theatre at its best. Natchez Little Theatre has been entertaining people since 1932. The traditional holiday story is adapted where Scrooge is a wealthy cotton merchant and Cratchit is a freedman in post Civil War Natchez. The show stealer was the five year old who played Tiny Tim. As only kids can do he had us all laughing when he made faces at the audience while other actors were saying their lines. The ghost of Christmas Past was also a hoot.
We also stopped at the Rhythm Club Museum which despite the open sign in the window was locked. We later learned that we were to call and have someone meet us there. The museum is in memory of the fire at the Rhythm Club in 1940 that killed 209 black residents who were gathered to hear a band from Chicago. It is in the top three worst nightclub fires in the US.
While in town we needed to stop at Verizon to see why our Mifi internet connection wasn’t working properly. The representative we spoke with turned out to be an amateur photographer. “Would we like to go out on his boat to the St. Catherine National Wildlife Refuge this weekend?” We would, of course, but we were leaving on Saturday. We exchanged information for a rain check next time we are in the area. He did give us a tip on a good local restaurant across the river in Vidalia, Louisiana. So we went to Nikki’s for dinner. It’s a small family owned place. Just the sort of place you’d think Guy Fieri would find. I had gumbo, blackened catfish, cajun fries and fried pickles. I had crawfish tails, frog legs and crawfish etouffe. I had all the leftovers. Thank Goodness for huge portions! We were stuffed to the gills, no pun intended. On our way out we spied the homemade pies. Tomorrow would be another day. So we bought a slice (enough for 2) of peanut butter pie. The best thing I’ve ever put in my mouth!
The Mississippi River is a beautiful sight at night so we spent some time photographing the riverfront.
The next day we went back across the river to Louisiana to see the Frogmore Cotton Plantation, http://www.frogmoreplantation.com . Rand McNally has listed it as one of their “Must See Sites”. This is a modern cotton farm but the owners have recreated an antebellum cotton plantation by moving period structures to their property. We arrived early and watched a film on modern cotton farming. We learned that most of our cotton is sent overseas to Mexico and even China while we import from China… go figure! Another couple from Canada joined us. For a while we thought it might just be the four of us. Then a whole bus pulled up. Inwardly I sighed as a large group of slow moving seniors got off. I know I’m a senior too and one day age will catch up with me but now I just don’t relate to this. As it turns out, this was a blessing in disguise. When they have the buses from the paddle boat cruises Frogmore puts on a special tour led by Lynnette Tanner, wife of the owner. All participants are in period dress. There is music at the church from spirituals and gospel to Cum By Yah with all of us joining in ( yes, I know I can’t sing so I do it very quietly but I can bang a mean tambourine.). On the way from the church to the first building we were “stepping out” to some New Orleans style jazz. We were told the best dancer would get a prize. Steve won and got a Moon Pie. Mrs. Tanner led us through all of the buildings while educating us on antebellum plantation life, the changes after the Civil War and how sharecropping started. Sharecropping continued into the early 1960s when the mechanized cotton picker was invented. Since then the height of cotton plants has gone from 5-6 feet down to 3 feet. Seed today is selected for a lower height and a more branched structure so that yields per acre are higher. Two women from the boat were riding a golf cart due to mobility issues. As one of the woman got off the cart to enter a building she fell. After assuring us she wasn’t hurt, everyone was looking around thinking how do we get her up? So I stepped forward and asked her how she thought it best to get up. She told me she had two total knee replacements and could get to her knees but couldn’t push up. I positioned myself to both brace her knee and offer support for her to pull up. Up she came without much effort. Once a physical therapist, always a physical therapist I guess.
For the last plantation we had time to see we chose Rosalie which is located on part of the land originally occupied by the French fort, Rosalie. built in 1716. Rosalie http://www.rosaliemansion.com/index.html , the plantation, was built in 1823 by Peter Little. He had come to Natchez at age 17 and became a wealthy landowner. When yellow fever took the lives of a ferry boat captain and his wife who were close friends, Peter Little married the orphaned 14 year old daughter, Eliza. After completing her education in the East she returned and they moved into Rosalie. The Littles had no children. When Peter Little died he had no will and sale of Rosalie was done at auction. The next owners, the Wilsons also had no children but fostered many. One of these children became their daughter in fact and when married she and her husband lived at Rosalie with their 6 children. Two of the daughters, referred to as Miss Annie and Miss Rebecca sold the home in 1938 to the Mississippi chapter of the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) with a life estate. The plantation was last inhabited in 1958. Most of the furnishings are those of the families who resided at Rosalie. Unfortunately no interior photography is allowed. Even in winter the gardens were lovely. A quick edit here. I forgot to mention that the large garden bell shown in the pictures came from the USS Mississippi. Steve is a good proofreader. The view of the Mississippi River is excellent. Our tour guide was very informative and since we were the only ones touring at that time, we asked a lot of questions.
While we were in the area, for us that means within two hours, a visit to the Vicksburg National Battlefield was planned. We’ve been to Gettysburg, Shiloh, Chickamauga and Fort Donelson so far. With the 150th anniversary of the Civil War in progress it is interesting to see how these separate battles
interrelate. Now we’ll turn the blog over to Steve.
When we were in Kentucky and Tennessee, I wrote an entry in the blog about the Civil War activities at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson. I spoke then about the importance of waterways during the war, in particular, of the Tennessee and the Cumberland Rivers. And about how an unknown General, by the name of Ulysses S. Grant, became a national hero with his victories at these two forts. If the Tennessee and the Cumberland held such importance, imagine how much more strategic was the Mighty Mississippi, effectively splitting the country into eastern and western halves. And the most strategic point on the river was the City of Vicksburg, Mississippi.
At the beginning of the war, General Winfield Scott devised what became popularly known as “The Anaconda Plan”, whereby the entire coastline of the southern states would be blockaded, and the Union forces would use the Mississippi river as a highway to cut the Confederacy in half. The Union already had control of the northern portion of the river. In April of 1862, Admiral David G. Farragut fought his way from the Gulf past Forts Jackson and St. Philip, and made his way north to take the City of New Orleans. In May, he moved upriver and demanded the surrender of Vicksburg, but had insufficient troops to enforce his demand. The city remained in Confederate hands.
Jefferson Davis said, “Vicksburg is the nail head that holds the South’s two halves together.”
Abraham Lincoln wrote, “Vicksburg is the key. The war can never be brought to a close until the key is in our pocket.”
In the fall of 1862, General Henry W. Halleck was promoted from command of the Western Theater to General-in-Chief of all Union Armies. In November, he assigned to the hero of Forts Henry and Donelson, U.S. Grant, the task of moving down the Mississippi and taking Vicksburg.
A quick look at a map will indicate that this was no easy task. The city is located two hundred feet high on the bluffs overlooking a huge horseshoe bend in the river. North and east of the city lies the Yazoo Delta, an almost impenetrable swamp, roughly two hundred miles long and fifty miles wide. General John C. Pemberton commanded 12,000 Confederate troops in Vicksburg and Jackson, Mississippi, and General Earl Van Dorn commanded an additional 24,000 in Grenada. Grant sent General William Tecumseh Sherman, with 32,000 men down the river toward Vicksburg, while he brought 40,000 to Oxford, hoping to lure the Rebels out.
Volumes have been written about this campaign, and for the next several months, Grant tried anything and everything to accomplish his mission, including attempting to dig canals to bypass the City of Vicksburg. Nothing worked. By spring, he had decided that the only way to take the city would be from the east and south, but to do that, he needed to bring his forces across to the east side of the river. How to get there?
On April 17, 1863, a clear and moonless night, Admiral David Dixon Porter attempted a near suicidal mission. He would take a fleet of seven gunboats and three empty troop transports downriver, past the guns of Vicksburg. Trying to minimize noise and lights, he was nevertheless discovered by Confederate lookouts, and the bluffs erupted with cannon fire. Seeing that his boats were getting hit high, not near the waterline, he guessed, correctly, that the cannon above could not be depressed low enough to hit him if he hugged the east shore. He moved downriver right under the rebel guns, close enough so that he could hear the Rebel officers giving orders to their gun crews. The fleet survived and made it through. Five nights later, six more boats, loaded with supplies steamed south. One boat was lost, but the crew survived by clinging to the wreckage and floating downriver. Meanwhile, Grant marched his troops down the west bank of the river to a point south of Vicksburg. Now resupplied, he had the Navy to ferry him across.
Again, volumes have been written about this campaign, and I won’t attempt to describe all the details of the siege and many battles that were fought in the ensuing months. One battle that deserves mention, however, is Millikin’s Bend. This was a supply area somewhat upriver. It was defended by relatively inexperienced and undertrained black troops. The prevailing sentiment of the time was that black troops would not fight, but when attacked by Confederate troops, they proved everyone wrong. With help from gunboats, they fought off the Rebel forces, but not without heavy losses. The defenders lost 652 men while the attackers lost 185. Grant wrote of how well they fought, and while this was not a major battle, they earned the respect of many. Recruitment of blacks soon began in earnest.
By mid-May Grant’s forces had Vicksburg surrounded. For six weeks, under constant bombardment, no supplies got into the city. On July 4th, when hope of relief ran out, Pemberton surrendered the city. This was one day after Union forces under General Meade defeated Robert E. Lee at a small town called Gettysburg, in Pennsylvania. On July 9th, Port Hudson, which had also been held under siege since late May, heard the news of the fall of Vicksburg and surrendered. Union control of the Mississippi River was complete.
To give credit where it’s due, I got some help from Wikipedia with the images and the details while writing this. Steve
There is a 16 mile drive through the park with interpretive stops along the way detailing events Steve described above. The park brochure available at the Visitors Center is excellent. We bought a CD tour guide too. That was a waste of money. As with other National Battlefields we’ve visited the monuments were impressive. The sculptures and carvings really are artistic.
Troops from 26 states fought in this battle. Illinois and Ohio had some of the largest groups but even states like Iowa and Nebraska that you don’t often think about participating in the Civil War were there. The Illinois monument is the largest one and overlooks a slough where a major battle ensued. Right next door is the only remaining home on the battlefield. The inhabitants were caught in a crossfire for 3 days then signaled for help. A ceasefire was declared while they moved to safety. Then the battle resumed.
General Grant’s statue is shown in the classic pose with all four legs of his horse on the ground indicating he died of natural causes. Two legs of a horse raised according to conventional wisdom means the rider died in battle and one leg raised means he died later of battle wounds. Not all sculptors adhere to this convention.
Our most pleasant surprise was when we reached the second Visitors Center that houses the USS Cairo, a Union ironclad boat. The USS Cairo was sunk in the Yazoo River in 1862 during the Union’s failed campaign to establish a position east of Vicksburg. In 1964 the ship was located and raised. It sits today on a frame to support the fragile remains and is covered by a canvas canopy. You not only see the boat but smell the age of it. A platform has been built so you can board the boat for a closer look. We’ve seen National Historic Landmarks, National Natural Landmarks but who knew there were National Mechanical Engineering Landmarks? This is our first. The Visitors Center houses a small but interesting museum about the boat. It sunk in 12 minutes so the crew did not have time to remove personal items. Everyday artifacts of shipboard life are well displayed. There is even a Lea and Perrins Worchestershire bottle that except for not having a screw top could have come off the shelf today!