Mansions and monuments mirror the Old South in Natchez and Vicksburg

Mississippi’s river queens: mansions and monuments mirror the Old South in Natchez and Vicksburg

Darlene P. Copp

Both cities claim enviable views of the Mississippi River from their bluff-top locations. Both carefully preserve abundant evidence of the historic dramas that shaped them. Both nurture tourist-friendly services and genuine hospitality.

But Natchez and Vicksburg are not two peas in the same Mississippi pod, which makes them an ideal destination pairing. Separated by just 70 scenic miles, one embodies the most romantic visions of the antebellum South through its extraordinary collection of 19th century mansions, while the other portrays the most die-hard strategies of the Civil War.

In 1716, nearly 100 years before Vicksburg was settled, the French built Fort Rosalie on rich soil high above the Mississippi, launching Natchez (pop. 18,500) on its journey to becoming the oldest settlement on that powerful river and, for a while, the richest. Named for the natives who did not survive the French–but whose culture has been resurrected at the Grand Village of the Natchez Indians the river port attracted enterprising men seeking their fortunes. Cotton plantations sprawled across the territory, especially in the Louisiana lowlands across the river. (At Frogmore, a working plantation 20 minutes west of Natchez, you can learn about cotton production–past and present.)

Because Natchez was of no strategic importance, dozens of exceptional houses erected by the cotton aristocracy survived the war. Widely praised as a national treasure (10 are National Historic Landmarks), they are counted among hundreds of buildings from the territorial and antebellum eras in present-day Natchez. Directions to year-round tour homes are provided inside the Visitor Reception Center at the Mississippi River Bridge. Murals, exhibits, and a short film shed light on matters like the craftsmanship behind the town’s architectural legacy and how the boll weevil invasion of 1908 did more economic damage than the Civil War.

Easy drives lead to the town’s notable dwellings, among them Longwood, an amazing octagonal “summer home” left unfinished since the outbreak of war in 1861. Other choices include The Briars (1818), where Confederate President Jefferson Davis was married; Dunleith (1856), surrounded by 26 white columns; and Melrose (1845). In the beautifully photographed Great Houses of Natchez, authors Ron and Mimi Miller of the Historic Natchez Foundation recognize Melrose as one of the most significant historic houses ill the South. Complete with outbuildings, it is the centerpiece of the Natchez National Historical Park, which presents a thoroughly researched and unromanticized interpretation of antebellum life.

The authenticity of Natchez interiors is as touted as its architecture. At Rosalie (1823), the 20-piece, hand-carved rosewood parlor furniture by John Henry Belter is the star attraction. This magnificent Federal-style house served as Union headquarters for three years, and the much-revered general who lived there protected its furnishings by locking them in the attic.

While downtown Natchez begs to be walked, don’t pass on a horse-drawn excursion because, besides the carriage drivers being storehouses of local facts and fancy, it’s the best way to appreciate block-long Stanton Hall (1857). Remember, too, that during the month-long Spring or Fall Pilgrimage, many private houses are added to the tour lineup. Whenever you visit, indulge your romantic side by lodging in any of the dozens of bed and breakfasts that feature sumptuous antiques, memorable porches, and gorgeous gardens.

Vicksburg (pop. 26,400) also celebrates its architectural prizes during annual Pilgrimages. Unlike Natchez, however, the town founded by Rev. Newit Vick in 1811 was substantially scarred by the war, especially having endured a 46-day siege. Because of its promontory position, the “Gibraltar of the Confederacy” was targeted by General Ulysses S. Grant, who made several attempts to topple it before pushing in from the rear. Battle memorials and siege memories enliven the presence of the past felt throughout the city.

A 16-mile driving route weaves through Vicksburg National Military Park, one of the most visited battlefields in the nation, exposing both Confederate and Union lines marked by earthen forts, gun emplacements, and trenches. The drama of May 19-July 3, 1863, unfolds at 15 stops, not including pauses at memorials. Hundreds of stone monuments and bronze castings grace the rolling terrain of Vicksburg National Military Park with one of the largest displays of outdoor art in the Southeast. Since only Vicksburg and Gettysburg offer tours by licensed guides, you experience something special by reserving the services of one of the park’s 17 guides, who often add behind-the-scenes particulars to their expert rendition of siege events.

Two museums in the park amplify the story found on the battlefield. One is inside the visitor center, the other is embedded half-way through the tour route as part of the U.S.S. Cairo pavilion. In December 1862, the ironclad gunboat Cairo sank in the Yazoo River, the first vessel ever to be sunk by a mine. Along with its contents, it was salvaged in the early 1960s and put on display as a time capsule of 19th century naval life.

The Old Court House Museum, a stunning hilltop edifice completed just prior to the war, perfectly conveys the sense of a place frozen in time. Even though its clock tower was an easy mark for Union gunboats, the courthouse escaped destruction by holding Union prisoners within it. Converted to a museum in 1948, “Vicksburg’s attic” enshrines every era of its past, while its tour houses enkindle wartime reminiscences. The Duff Green, Anchuca, and Cedar Grove mansions were all pressed into service as hospitals and today function as bed and breakfasts. From Anchuca’s balcony, Jefferson Davis gave one of his last post-war speeches.

The African-American story is told through a booklet entitled “Can You Hear Their Voices?” Having the largest black community in 19th century Mississippi, Vicksburg is replete with churches, schools, homes, and businesses tied to African-Americans, all highlighted in the guide, along with black participation in the war.

Contact: Natchez Convention & Visitors Bureau, (800) 647-6724, www.natchez.ms.us; and Vicksburg Convention & Visitors Bureau, (800) 221-3536, www.vicksburgcvb.org.

COPYRIGHT 2004 World Publishing, Co. (Illinois)

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group