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It’s timeless, it’s storied, and a river runs through it.

It was 5:30 a.m. and I was bumping down a deserted highway in an overheated school bus packed with dozens of hyper, hydrated paddlers en route to the start of a 42-mile kayak race on the Mississippi. I had my cap over my eyes, pining for a nap, but the race director, Keith Benoist, had other plans for my time. “Have you ever heard of the USS Cairo?” he asked.

I’d spent enough time with Keith since I arrived in Natchez three days earlier to know I was in for a good yarn. The silver-haired, 54-year-old native of the city (a former Marine who had spent three years conducting deep intelligence behind enemy lines) has four unpublished novels in his desk drawer and a brain filled with military lore. The Cairo, I soon learned, was a 175-foot, iron-plated Union gunboat, mounted with 13 cannons and “considered impenetrable from almost any artillery fire,” he said.

The ironclad was part of the Union strategy to split the Confederacy in half: If the Federals controlled the Mississippi River, Confederate forces in the East would be unable to get supplies and troops from the West. “In December 1862,” he said, “a flotilla of Union ships under the command of Thomas Selfridge was heading up the Yazoo River, north of Vicksburg. Reb forces on the bank fired on them. As Selfridge turned his guns to shore, Confederate soldiers detonated two mines—bottles that they’d packed with black powder and attached to a float on the bottom of the river. The blasts sank the Cairo in minutes. It was the first ship in history to be downed by an electrically detonated mine.”

Keith sounded proud of the maneuver—not necessarily because he sympathized with the Rebel cause, but because it was an industrious bit of subterfuge. And why was he telling me this story now? The Cairo went down just upriver from our destination, Grand Gulf, which was also a key supply point for Ulysses Grant during his 47-day siege of Vicksburg a few months later.

Natchez is not a typical stop on a Civil War tour of the South. Though more than half of Natchez’s white population took up arms for the Confederate cause, there was no fighting in the city and only two war-related deaths: Rosalie Beekman, a 7-year-old Jewish girl, was struck by a shell fired by the USS Essex, and in the legendary “Battle of Natchez” an elderly man died of a heart attack after a Union gunboat fired a blank cannon shot meant to rile up the troops at Fort Rosalie. Still, Natchez played a critical role in the war. The fact that most of the antebellum mansions survived the conflict—and that I met a handful of descendants of the original owners— meant that, for me at least, history felt not just present, but three-dimensional.

The invention of the cotton gin in 1793, advent of the steamboat in 1811 and development in the 1820s of new cotton strains that thrived in the humid climate made way for the rise of the planter class. When the rich alluvial soil on the Louisiana side erupted in white each fall, local plantation owners loaded their cotton onto steamboats at the landing known as Natchez-Under-the-Hill and shipped it downriver to New Orleans or upriver to St. Louis, where the cotton would be sold and transported to Northern and European spinning mills. What made it so profitable was slavery. By 1861, the dawn of the Civil War, Natchez boasted over 500 millionaires, more than any city in America except New York. Today, this mini-city of 18,000 has more antebellum homes than any other in the United States.

I was heading down Main Street to one of them—Rosalie, a celebrated mansion overlooking the river—when I bumped into a burly black man in a Civil War U.S. Colored Troops uniform.

The son of a maid, Clifford Boxley was born in 1939 and raised in Natchez during the Jim Crow era. As a boy he sold daffodils outside antebellum mansions. He spent 35 years in Los Angeles, where he studied urban planning and worked in anti – poverty programs. In 1995, he headed home and began a one-man crusade to uncover the facts behind a site called “Forks of the Road.” While it was well documented that slaves-turned-Union-soldiers were housed in the crude structures at the intersection of Liberty and Washington, it had also been the second-largest slave market in the South; a grim truth that generations of town fathers had allowed to fade into obscurity. For nearly a decade Boxley labored with the zeal of an archaeologist searching for a lost city. Finally, after he’d secured $130,000 from the Mississippi State Department of Archives and History, landmark signs were erected in 2004.

Boxley had to return to a conference across the street—the Second Annual Black and Blue Civil War Living History Encampment—so we made a date to talk later. “Go check out the Forks,” he said. “And then come by my house; it’s like a museum.”

First, I plunked down $10 for a tour of Rosalie. Built by Peter Little in 1820, the Federal-style home sits on 23 acres overlooking the Mississippi where Natchez Indians attacked the French Fort Rosalie in 1729. More than 200 colonists were killed, making it the deadliest Indian attack in Mississippi history.

Inside, antebellum Natchez came alive, central air conditioning and electricity aside. Rosalie was built with local cypress and imported mahogany, and more than 700,000 bricks (fired by slaves). There were prints by John James Audubon and a table where Jefferson Davis sat. The marble mantle came from Italy, the carpet from Brussels, the Rococo furniture from New York, the china from Paris. We learned about the subsequent owners, the Wilsons, who arrived in 1857. But Rosalie’s biggest claim to fame—or infamy, depending on your point of view—is that on July 13, 1863, nine days after the fall of Vicksburg, Grant arrived and turned it into his army’s headquarters. Sentries were placed in the mansion’s observatory, and army tents covered much of the property. Mr. Wilson skedaddled to Texas, slaves in tow, while Mrs. W. stayed. Judging from the scowl in her portrait, Grant and his successor, General Walter Gresham, had their hands full.

When I left Rosalie, I drove a mile out of town to the Forks of the Road, a nondescript suburban intersection across from a car repair shop. The contrast between a mansion that took 22 slaves to run and a series of historical markers framed by Do Not Enter and One Way signs on Liberty Road could not be more stark, nor more informative.

In 1833 Isaac Franklin rented the land on a prominent knoll at the terminus of the Natchez Trace, a 450-mile wilderness trail extending northeast into Tennessee and used by everyone from native Americans to Hernando DeSoto to Meriwether Lewis—and now, professional slave traders. At the peak of their business, Franklin and his partner John Armfield were among the most active slave traders in the United States, transporting more than 1,000 slaves annually from Alexandria, Va., to Natchez and downriver to New Orleans.

As I read about the march down the Natchez Trace—manacled blacks driven like cattle by mounted white drivers with whips and guns—the drone of the cars whizzing by receded, replaced by images of frightened humans in a sprawling prison camp, waiting their turn at auction.

The classified ads placed by slave traders in the Natchez Daily Courier, reproduced on the roadside signs, were equally depressing: “$20 reward for slave named Peter (1820). Easily frightened by the whip.” Or the $25 reward for a runaway named Wash “who can read and write.”

In the early 1850s, male slaves at Forks of the Road were advertised at $825 each; females could be had for $600 to $700.With the Civil War looming in 1861, prices for Virginia field hands had climbed to an average of $1,200. Only after the fall of Vicksburg in July 1863, when Grant led the 5,000 Union soldiers into Natchez—3,150 of whom were black— did slave trading end at the Forks.

Late the next morning, I drove to Boxley’s house just out of town. A Rastafarian flag flew above his porch. The screen door was askew and the roof above the porch sagged like my Aunt Ida’s stockings. His one-story house was indeed a museum, but one that reminded me of a secondhand bookstore run by a pack rat. Books, magazines, paintings, photographs, papers, albums, CDs and cassettes, on all manner of African-American topics, spilled from the shelves. The cumulative effect, however, was not one of chaos as much as passion, purpose and the perspective of a poor Southern black boy who had grown into a powerful black man.

Boxley had a professor’s facility with facts. Pointing to a poster of the Nile River Valley in Egypt that hung on the back of his front door, Boxley, who uses the African name Ser Seshs Ab Heter, detailed the origins of slavery. In the next room he gave me the bios of the faces on the walls: scholars like J.A. Rogers, J.H. Clarke and W.L. Hansberry, “the father of African studies”; Hiram Revels, elected the first African-American senator of Mississippi in 1870; Nat Love (aka “Deadwood Dick”), a slave born in 1854 on a plantation in Tennessee owned by Robert Love, who grew into “the baddest cowboy that ever lived”; and the activist Malcolm X.

The kitchen, with a wood stove and kerosene lamp, was filled with “denigration images” from the Jim Crow era: a poster of Aunt Jemima, black lawn jockeys and actual wrist manacles. Another room featured poster-sized photographs of Boxley at slave prisons in Ghana, Gambia and Goree Island off the coast of Senegal; fortifications dating back to the 15th century that were once controlled by colonial powers in Portugal, Holland, England and France. A photo taken in 1982 featured Boxley staring defiantly up at the camera from the bowels of a bloodstained stone pen in Sierra Leone. Pointing at the image with a sword that had been leaning against the wall, he said, “It was a dungeon called ‘the Doors of No Return’ used to suppress the strongest, most defiant men.”

We drove to an overlook atop the bluff. Far below was the river; off to the north was the Magnolia Vale plantation. We were standing on the site of Fort McPherson, built by Union troops occupying Natchez. “Union officers lived in a mansion nearby and the white soldiers pitched their tents on the grounds. The black troops were quartered down there,” he said, pointing to Magnolia Vale. “Each day they walked up 1,000 steps to drill with the white soldiers.”

Boxley reached into his car for his thick blue jacket worn by the U.S. Colored Troops of the 6th Heavy Artillery and launched into a tutorial. Confederate propaganda depicted blacks as cowards who ran away from the field of battle; white Union troops did not want to fight with them. And yet their contributions to the Union victory, while underreported and undervalued, were significant. “On June 7, 1863,” he said, “the Confederates attacked a Northern supply depot, manned and guarded by black soldiers north of Vicksburg on the Louisiana side of the Mississippi at Milliken’s Bend. Their aim was to relieve pressure on the Confederate garrison that Grant had been pounding for weeks. With minimal training, using rakes, hoes and pitchforks, these recently freed slaves fought valiantly against Walker’s elite Rebel troops from Texas.”

As he spoke, sweat trickled through his patchy white whiskers on this relatively cool morning in October. How, I wondered, could a soldier endure hand-to-hand combat in heavy wool on a sweltering afternoon in June? “Had the Confederates captured Grant’s army’s supplies at Milliken’s Bend and Young’s Point,” he continued, “they would have had a clear path to get those supplies and food over to their troops at Vicksburg and gaining control of the Mississippi River.”

The next day, after a 42-mile paddle from Grand Gulf to the boat ramp in Natchez, I was keen to zone out with a pizza in front of the tube, but my hostess, Louise Peabody, was down by the river in full barbeque mode. A fire was blazing. Oodles of homemade sausage, courtesy of a feral pig that one of the guests had shot, sizzled on the grill. I cracked a beer, dug into the spicy meat and, once again, the conversation got historical fast. I learned that Jews comprised 5 percent of the population in Natchez but owned half the real estate and retail businesses in the mid-1800s (who knew?). I heard about cows roaming abandoned mansions after the war, or, to be exact, “the war of aggression against the South.” Recent history was equally colorful, like the story of Nellie Jackson, “the Madam with the heart of gold,” who ran a brothel out of her house in town for 60 years and was murdered a few years shy of her 90th birthday. I chatted with a man whose daddy had shot and killed a man who’d harmed his girlfriend, only to be shot and killed himself, and I could see where Mississippians like William Faulkner, Shelby Foote, Walker Percy and Larry Brown got their material.

The sun had nearly set and the brackish river faded into the early evening light. Swimming across the river toward Louise’s property was a 9-point buck. I stood still as it strained against the swift current and clamored up the slippery bank. It was moving to see an animal that large struggle to find solid ground before it bounded off into the thick brush lining the river.

I could have expounded on the symbolism. As it was, I felt time stop and an era long past but not gone, re-emerge. Yes, I’d paddled hard and had a bit too much to drink, but it was not the first time I’d had this sensation in Natchez. Maybe it was something in the water—the Mississippi, that is.


Joe Glickman is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer whose articles have appeared in Outside, Men’s Journal, National Geographic Adventure, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine and more. He is a two-time member of the U.S. National Marathon Kayak Team.

Originally published in the July 2010 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.