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Barry Pollack's "Going Places"

The Pilgrimages of Natchez and Vicksburg, Mississippi

In the years before the Civil War, many men in the Deep South grew wealthy from "king cotton" grown on great plantations. They and others, who thrived on the South's burgeoning commerce, built great white-columned mansions along the Mississippi River with gardens meant to rival the estates of French aristocrats. But then the "War Between the States" came, armies fought great battles across the lands of these estates, and many of the homes were destroyed or subsequently succumbed to neglect.
For a few weeks in the fall and spring of each year, in the Mississippi cities of Natchez and Vicksburg and a few other smaller towns, you can step back in time and peer into what life must have been like in the Old South during the antebellum years and shortly after the Civil War. These are the weeks of the Pilgrimage Tours (800-647-6742 for Natchez and 800-221-3536 for Vicksburg) when dozens of private homes, most listed on the National Register of Historic Places, are opened for public viewing. The homes are all furnished with period antiques and their owners or pilgrimage hosts, often dressed in regal Civil War era costume, will be waiting at the front door to serve as guides for the tours inside. They'll provide you with fascinating stories about the original owners of the homes, about the travails of those who lived there since, and an education on architecture and décor.
Several of these stately mansions offer bed and breakfast accommodations. We drove about four hours south from Memphis (see my column 5/9/04) to Vicksburg to stay at the Cedar Grove Mansion (800-862-1300) with rates from $100-205. Cedar Grove is an impressive Roman Revival style estate whose décor - from furniture to chandeliers to four poster beds with canopies - appears near exactly as it did in the days when Confederate President Jefferson Davis or conquering General U.S. Grant stayed there. It was built in 1840 by John Alexander Klein for his wife Elizabeth, who happened to be a cousin of Union General Sherman. It was because of that fortuitous relationship that Cedar Grove was not destroyed by Union shelling or the vengeance of battle. Nevertheless, because Union gunboats blasted the rest of city from the river, a misguided cannonball still remains lodged in the parlor wall.
We stayed in Grant's room, the same room that General Grant slept in on July 4th, 1863, when Confederate General Pemberton surrendered the city to him. The only things modernized in the room are period gas chandeliers and candelabras converted to electric, a new mattress, and a modern bathroom. Other than that, you can imagine Grant puffing away on his cigar in a sitting chair by the bed gazing out into the hallway at the parlor with its coal burning fireplace, grand mirror, masterwork paintings, and empire furniture or out the bedroom window at his officers relaxing on the rockers on the porch outside. We dined at Cedar Grove as well, at their restaurant Andres, in the candlelit ambiance of a former smoking room. The prime rib was excellent as was their bread putting and, as in most good restaurants, they had California wines in abundance.
Vicksburg is a city of lovely old homes and churches with the Mississippi River on one side and a Civil War battlefield on the other. Located on bluffs above the Mississippi, Vicksburg was once described as "The Gibraltar of the Confederacy." For history buffs or for those just interested in enjoying a most beautiful park, before you enter or leave the city, visit the Vicksburg National Military Park. There's a 16 mile tour road and audio guides, available at the visitor center, explain much about the battle for Vicksburg and the battlefield. The park is the site of 1325 monuments and markers, 144 cannon emplacements, miles of trenches and earthworks, a fascinating restored Union ironclad gunboat, the USS Cairo, and a national cemetery. It's interesting to note that union and confederate lines were often only yards apart, across a narrow gulley or over a knoll. At nightfall, we were told, the gentlemanly rules of battle often allowed enemies to meet and chat or share tobacco or other staples. And yet, one can hardly imagine the suffering here, where 300-400 men died every day in the 46-day siege of Vicksburg.
Less than a two hour drive south from Vicksburg, also nestled against the Mississippi, is the city of Natchez. Downtown Natchez sits on a hilltop overlooking the river. Here you'll find antique shops, restaurants, some historical churches, small museums, and carriage rides. But the glory of Natchez is best seen in tours of its magnificent antebellum mansions, most of which are only open during the weeks of the Pilgrimage. Besides touring the homes, there is also the historic Natchez Pageant with evening performances that recreate the romantic ambiance of a southern ball with young men in their confederate dress uniforms dancing with their ladies in hoop skirted gowns.
We stayed at the magnificent Monmouth Plantation (800-828-4531) with rates from $165/night. The stately Greek Revival mansion is now a 30-room bed and breakfast with classic period décor but in-room comforts like gas fireplaces and jacuzzi tubs. Originally built in 1818, Monmouth was the home of General John A. Quitman. Natchez' Monmouth did not fare as well in the Civil War as did Cedar Grove in Vicksburg. It barely survived the conflict and remained in a dilapidated state for almost 100 years until it was rebuilt to its former glory and transformed into a bed and breakfast in 1978 by California developer Ron Riches.
I had never heard of Monmouth's founder, General Quitman, but soon learned that he was an American hero and Mississippi legend. Quitman was a wealthy plantation owner, a congressman, the state's governor twice, and once ran for vice-president. In 1836, he commanded Mississippi volunteers in the Texas Revolution. But he was most famous because of his victories during the 1846 Mexican War and was for a time the American governor of Mexico City. There are towns, forts, canyons, even a Texas mountain chain named in his honor. I didn't sleep in Quitman's room however. We were in the old slave quarters. Quit nice actually. Of course, comfortably upgraded over the years.
Monmouth is surrounded by twenty-six acres of manicured lawns and walking trails with gardens of tulips and azaleas, and great moss draped oak and dogwood trees. There are gazebos and statuary and a pond with a wooden bridge. The setting is idyllic with the fragrance of jasmine and wisteria hanging in the air, with ducks meandering across expansive lawns during the day, and romantic lighting at night.
There are two great places to dine in Natchez. The Dunleith (800-433-2445), also a bed and breakfast in a former elegant plantation house, serves dinner in a separate out-building at individual tables. Dining at Monmouth Plantation, however, provides not only a great meal but an unforgettable experience as well. For $40 they offer a five course dinner served as it must have been in antebellum days with ten guests seated in the home's formal dining room at a great Empire hand-carved antique table lit by candlelight under a grand crystal chandelier and laid out with fresh cut flowers and ornate silver. The ambiance was perfect, the meal wonderful, and the camaraderie of meeting other guests equally enjoyable.
We drove south from Natchez and visited a few other great plantations along the Mississippi - Nottaway in White Castle, Rosedown in St. Francisville. But we didn't get to see Afton Villa, Belle Chasse, White Hall, Seven Oaks, or dozens more of the South's great plantations because they no longer exist. They have been lost to fire or neglect in just the last fifty years. So if you visit Natchez and Vicksburg, you'll be visiting places that have defied war and the ravages of time. There was a heady feeling to staying at their antebellum mansions and visiting many others. As you entered each, you almost expected to encounter Scarlett O'Hara. And, while they didn't make me feel much like Rhett Butler, they didn't make me feel like some unwelcome carpetbagger from the North either. Just the opposite, my hosts did "give a damn. " And, "tomorrow is another day" -- for your trip.