March 15th – March 17th
We survived the rainy night in the tent and were happy to be heading to a Motel 6 in Jackson, the capital of Mississippi. We took the scenic route along the Natchez Trace Parkway, a trail that was first used by Native Americans as a hunting trail and later expanded for traders who brought their goods down the Mississippi River and returned to Tennessee by foot. Today it is a scenic highway with a number of stops with historical markers describing the old route. Our first stop was the Emerald Mound, a large mound of earth built by Native Americans (the Natchez) for special ceremonies. It was a beautiful sunny day and there were dogwood trees blooming along the road. Next, we visited Mount Locust, (built in the late 1700’s) a restored house that was once part of a cotton plantation and also served as an inn for travelers on the road. Rocky Springs was also an interesting stop. The town that was built up here in the 19th century to service the surrounding farms is now a ghost town, with nothing left but a small church. Our last stop before exiting the parkway was inside the city limits of Jackson, an area that people use now for walking, running and cycling. The Natchez Trace continues all the way to Nashville, Tennessee. We took advantage of being in a motel that evening to do our laundry, watch the news and relax a bit.
Jackson was our 3rd state capital visit, and also a rather quiet city, despite the fact that the State Congress was in session. We visited the old state capitol which had been badly damaged during Hurricane Katrina (2005) and recently reopened. We also walked around the old historical center which does have a nostalgic feel for an earlier more prosperous era. By far the most interesting part of the visit was the Agricultural and Forestry museum. This museum was full of exhibits about the logging days, the rise of the railroad (complete with an enormous model train), the catfish farming industry (Mississippi is the biggest producer of farm-raised catfish in the U.S.), and the cotton plantations. Outside, there was a reconstructed village, complete with a cotton mill and working cotton gin. There were quite a few families out that day enjoying museum (I think the kids were on spring break.) Mid-afternoon, we left Jackson to head to Vicksburg where we were planning to camp for two nights. When we got to the Battlefield Campground, we were a little disappointed to see that people were living there and using it as junk yard, so we opted again for the Motel 6.
Vicksburg (like Natchez) was a prosperous trading town on the Mississippi River during the 19th century but is now famous for being the site of the battle considered the turning point in the Civil War. Too late to visit the battlefield, Fabien and I finished the evening by taking a walk down along the waterfront which now is home to a beautiful mural exhibit, highlighting the history of Natchez. Main Street also has some very beautiful red-brick architecture with wrought-iron balconies like those that are popular in New Orleans. There are several nice boutiques and cafes (all closed at 7pm on Wednesday), but unfortunately there is also a lot of empty space with “for rent” or “for sale” signs and honestly there were very few people on the street. We saw the same phenomenon in the historical districts of Jackson and Baton Rouge. As we drove back to the motel, about 2 miles from “downtown”, we saw signs of life again at Pizza Hut, McDonalds and the outlet mall.
Thursday morning, we started our day at the Vicksburg National Military Park Visitor Center where we learned about the Vicksburg campaign through an excellent video and map. By capturing Vicksburg, the Union would cut off the Mississippi River as a supply route to the south and in effect cut the Confederacy in two. The battle raged on for more than six weeks (between March and July 1863) before the Confederates surrendered on July 4th. The locals of Vicksburg protected themselves by hiding in caves. The enormous battlefield is now a state historical site. We drove through 20 odd miles of battlefield markers, memorials, and cemeteries. On the site, they have also recovered the U.S.S. Cairo, a Civil War gunboat that was shot down near Natchez. They salvaged it in the 1960s and today it’s a museum on the site. Seeing the size of it (and the weight it was carrying in artillery), it’s hard to believe that it actually float.