Natchez Trace, Day 5: Natchez

Tuesday, July 23, 2013 Road Junkies 0 Comments

As much as any other city, Natchez, Mississippi, offers a glimpse into the history of the American South.  Home to more than 75 neoclassical and Greek revival homes and an enviable collection of more than 500 antebellum structures, Natchez offers visitors the opportunity to step into a 19th century atmosphere and experience its grace and charm without some of the ugly institutions that underpinned the plantation way of life.

Entrance to Dunleith (c.1856)
How did Natchez manage to hold on to all this antebellum finery when cities such as Vicksburg and Atlanta were decimated during the Civil War?  Prior to the war, Natchez had more millionaires per capita than any other American city.  Many of these wealthy planters were new to the region and had no emotional ties to the Old South, nor were they particularly eager to see the state of Mississippi secede from the Union.  In the absence of any desire to fight against federal forces and wanting to avoid destruction, Natchez offered no resistance when Federal forces demanded surrender of the city in 1862.  (In an ironic footnote, the only conflagration that occurred around Natchez in this period was ignited by Confederate forces, which responded to the city's surrender by ordering that all cotton crops within 10 miles of the treasonous city be torched—to keep the valuable resource out of Yankee hands, no doubt.)

Stanton Hall (c.1858), widely considered the grandest of the Natchez mansions
What all this means for today's tourist is a smorgasbord of white-columned luxurious mansions available for touring.  A dozen or so welcome visitors year-round, and numerous others open their doors during the annual Natchez pilgrimages.  Many are located in the middle of the city and can be viewed from the exterior, even if you opt out of the tours, which are quite reasonably priced ($12 each or $30 for three).  With limited time, we chose the drive-bys today.  We still had a few letterboxes to find and a historic cemetery to check out.

Turning Angel, Natchez City Cemetery
As we were searching for a letterbox in the Natchez City Cemetery, we were struck by the presence of the Turning Angel statue.  Engraved on its base was a poignant epitaph for five local young women killed in a tragic factory explosion in 1908.  The factory owner, bankrupted by the fire, had the monument erected to watch over these lost employees.  But that didn't explain why the angel seemed so familiar.  Then I remembered where I had seen it before—on the cover of a mystery novel by Natchez native Greg Iles.  In the book, called Turning Angel, Iles explained that the monument has become an object of both legend and ritual in the town:
When you drive down Cemetery Road, the angel appears to be looking directly at you.  Yet once you pass the monument and look back over your shoulder, the angel is still looking at you.  Thus the appellation:  the turning angel....So famous is this legend that every Natchez teenager at some point in his life drives or is driven down the dark stretch of road to watch the angel turn. Thus has legend spawned a rite of passage for all the children in the town.  (Turning Angel, Greg Iles, 2005)

We did not observe the optical illusion, but it seems to be a phenomenon best observed at night—and maybe in the presence of locals to convince you that you saw the angel turn.

St. Mary Basilica
Before we left the city, we stopped to check out the richly ornamented St. Mary Basilica.  Constructed over a 44-year period as the cathedral for the Natchez diocese, the church was finally dedicated in 1886.  Original construction cost for this elegant sanctuary was $78,241.  No doubt the expenses for its meticulous maintenance have increased that amount manyfold in the ensuing century plus.

With hopes of getting home today, we were unable to sample much that Natchez has to offer.  Though we didn't put the city high on our list of places to return to, we certainly wouldn't object to passing this way again.  As some of the promotions by the local Chamber of Commerce suggest, Natchez is well-suited as a destination for a "Girlfriends Getaway."   Lest we get too frilly here, consider that the Natchez Pilgrimage is held annually in the spring and fall, same as the Angola Prison Rodeo at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, and the two cities are only an hour and a half apart.  Hmmm.  It does set the mind wandering...

Photos Tell the Natchez Story Better

Dunleith (c.1856), operated as a historic inn today
Glen Auburn (c.1875)
Magnolia Hall (c.1858)
Melrose (c.1849), under restoration by National Park Service
Stanton Hall (c.1858)
Rosalie (c.1823), served as Union Army HQ during occupation
Detail, Stanton Hall portico
Natchez City Cemetery
Even the town water tower is picturesque.