The Antebellum Houses of Natchez, Mississippi and Monuments of The Lost Cause
Like a lot of bloggers, we keep an idea list for future posts as well as rough outlines of posts we’ve decided to scrap or for some reason or other just couldn’t figure out how we wanted to write the story about our travels there. But the events several days ago on August 11th and 12th in Charlottesville, Virginia, had us thinking about a road-trip we took last year in September on a loop through Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. We were intent on learning more about the history and culture of some of the southern States of the USA, visiting a few of the Civil War battlefields and following along the path of the Civil Rights Movement landmarks from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. In September of 2016, in the waning months of our former president, we thought we were firmly on the path to social justice. Those members belonging to the radical fringe of civil society, the White Nationalist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, Neo-Nazis and others, slithered underground until given a green light during the presidential campaign to come out in the open. And, after the inauguration of # 45 and despite months of warnings with the “Muslim Ban,” the dismantling brick by brick of years and decades-old statesmanship programs and policies, the threat of our social safety net being ripped out from under us and the deportation of some of the most vulnerable among us, we were still taken aback. We watched with horror and sick hearts, as raw bigotry and hateful, anti-Semitic and racial epithets spewed from the mouths of white men (and a few women) carrying guns, knives, clubs and shields as blatant acts of intimidation. Parading along Charlottesville, Virginia’s streets, the marchers waved their Tiki torches and carried Nazi banners with swastikas along with Confederate flags. It wasn’t hard to compare them to old documentaries we’d watched featuring long ago Klan processions, cross burnings and the news clips from Hitler’s Third Reich rallies. And the impetus? A call to “Unite the Right” and the threatened removal of the statue of General Robert E. Lee, the military commander of the Confederate States of America and a potent symbol of the Lost Cause.
Which brings us to the pretty little town of Natchez, Mississippi, population somewhere less than 25,000, where we spent a couple of nights in September of 2016, en route to Vicksburg. And our decision not to write about this town until now. Because, just as Confederate monuments symbolize white supremacy and a war against the United States of America fought in the defense of slavery, the stunning collection of beautifully maintained antebellum homes pay tribute to the Lost Cause and romanticize a genteel south memorialized forever in the tradition of “Gone with the Wind.” Vast fortunes were made growing and trading cotton and sugarcane and shipping goods upriver on the Mississippi to Northern cities and downriver to New Orleans. Staggering wealth made on the backs of black slave labor.
We’d first learned of this town through the Penn Cage novels of Greg Iles and wanted to see some of the heritage architecture he’d written of. Unlike so many of the South’s grand cities of the era, Natchez came through the Civil War almost unscathed with many of the mansions built before 1860 still surviving. In the historic downtown, block after block of antebellum homes can be admired from curbside with eighty-two of the Natchez homes in the historic downtown and along the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi river, earning a distinguished entry into the National Register of Historic Places. Natchez brags, discreetly and ever-so-politely, that half the millionaires in the US resided there before the Civil War and it’s estimated that almost one-hundred of the grand neoclassical and Greek Revival-style structures could rightfully be called Antebellum mansions.
We stopped by the Natchez Visitor Reception Area and picked up tickets to see a few of the Antebellum Mansions which have been turned into living museums with tours offered hourly. Depending on the time of year, as many as twenty of the mansions may be open for tours. The tours we picked lasted about an hour each and we split them up, doing two the first afternoon of our visit and a couple of tours along with a stroll about the Natchez City Cemetery (also on the National Register of Historic Places) the following day.
Stanton Hall – Occupying an entire two-acre city block and surrounded by a wrought iron fence, this Greek Revival residence perfectly met our expectations as to how an antebellum mansion should look. Built in 1857 by Irish immigrant and cotton merchant, Frederick Stanton, the mansion was occupied by Union troops during the war. The Stanton family lived there until 1894 when the building became the Stanton College for Young Ladies. The Pilgrimage Garden Club purchased the home in 1938 and restored it to its former splendor using many of the original furnishings belonging to the Stanton family. If opulence ever needed a picture to define it, the inside of this mansion would do it. (No pictures of the inside were allowed, so you’ll have to take our word for it!)
Auburn – Completed in 1812, the Auburn home was “designed to be the most magnificent building in the territory” and was built for Lyman Harding, the first Attorney General of Mississippi. After his death in 1820, the home was purchased by Stephen Duncan, a physician and wealthy planter, and his wife, Catherine and remained in the Duncan family until 1911 when the heirs donated the home and 210 acres adjacent to it, now a park, to the city of Natchez. Unfortunately, the original contents of the house were sold at public auction with few being returned and the home is furnished with donated period pieces. If we haven’t conveyed it yet, we were duly impressed by the house but by far, the most striking thing about the mansion is the free-standing spiral stairway that rises between the ground and second floor completely unsupported.
Rosalie – With sweeping views and located on the Mississippi River Bluff near French build Fort Rosalie (1716), the mansion was built between 1820 and 1823 for the original owners, Peter and Eliza Little. The home was purchased in 1857 by Andrew Wilson and his wife, also named Eliza, and was occupied by the family and their descendants until the home and the original furnishings were sold to the Mississippi State Society, Daughters of the American Revolution who maintain the home and give the tours. Occupied by the Union Army in 1863, General Walter Gresham protected the house and its contents and returned it to the family after the Civil War. (Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to take photos inside the home.)
Longwood – If we had to vote for our favorite mansion, Longwood would win hands-down and it wasn’t even completed. Still the largest octagonal house in the US and known as “Nutt’s Folly,” its original owners were Dr. Haller Nutt and his wife Julia, members of Natchez’s planter elite. The couple hired a Philadelphia architect to design an “Oriental villa,” complete with a bright red, Byzantine onion-shaped dome. Construction of the eight-sided, six-story, 10,000 square-foot mansion which had original plans for a total of thirty-two rooms and twenty-six fireplaces, began in 1860 but was halted in 1861. The exterior is mostly finished but only nine rooms on the ground floor were completed when construction workers literally dropped their tools, collected their pay and abandoned their work at the onset of the Civil War. The Nutt family moved their fine furniture inside the finished rooms, living there throughout the war and into the 20th Century with a total of three generations of the family living in the never finished home. The upper five stories remain just as they were when the construction ceased, making the home a great analogy of the South’s rise and fall. The Nutt’s grandchildren owned Longwood until 1968 and the property was deeded to the Pilgrimage Garden Club of Natchez in 1970 who maintain the property and open its doors for tours of the historic house museum. (This time we were allowed to take photos of the unfinished part.)
And here was our conundrum. Should we write about how beautiful we found this pretty town filled with antebellum homes and selling a romantic story of Old South nostalgia? These fine and stately homes are indeed works of art: designed by gifted architects, built of the finest materials, containing the work of talented craftsmen and filled with the finest furnishings. The homes of slave owners, many passed down to their descendants, offer a glimpse into the lives of the wealthy southern aristocrats and are treasures for sure but their beauty is tainted by their history and only tell one side of the story. And the other side? Generations of enslaved blacks who did the work that made the fortunes that built the houses. Generations of people bought and sold throughout the South, who did their owners bidding, cared for other peoples’ needs and wants, raised children belonging to someone else, cooked and cleaned and planted the crops for their owners.
Somewhere over the decades following the tragedy of the Civil War that left 620,000 dead, “The Lost Cause” has evolved for some into a State’s Rights issue where slavery has been romanticized as a benevolent institution and the patriarchal society of the Confederacy as a grand, genteel civilization. And unlike the Antebellum homes that offer a glimpse into the lives of the townspeople of Natchez and the wealthy Southern aristocrats who owned slaves before the war, most of the approximately 700 Confederate monuments standing in public spaces today were erected well after the Civil War. They’re monuments celebrating slavery, secession and white supremacy and were erected as a direct corollary to the rise of Jim Crow laws and the violence and oppression of African-Americans. And, despite what # 45 says, there’s nothing in those monuments that represents the USA’s rich heritage of diverse cultures, races and religions.
By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash