In the Bamboo Forest
by Morgan Gates
Today I stood in the middle of a bamboo forest and listened to the wind in these giant reeds. The sound was that of a bamboo wind chime, just like those sold in the gardening stores, you know the ones that say made in China! The sound was the same yet different, larger grander, but not really louder. The sound was around me it came from above and behind, and in front, and either side! Perhaps it even came from inside? The sound was soft and melodic and hypnotic, it soothed and caressed me, in a way no words can truly describe. Perhaps this is the reason the Orient has been such an inspired place throughout history, a place of philosophy and art, for the wind in the reeds whispered them to sleep each night.
I did not come out to visit the forest today, I was on another mission to explore an old cemetery nearby. The old cemetery is off a dead-end road. It seems there is always something interesting at the end of a dead-end road. We are such a road bound society, that we almost never venture beyond the road. A dead-end sign might as well read “Here thar be Dragons”! Indeed, where the road ends the forest begins. The Bamboo Forest is no secret, I have known about it for years, in fact I often drive right by it. I have never before taken the time to step off the pavement and walk into it. Today however, as a low winter sun hung in a bright blue sky and a cool winter wind chased a few high thin clouds across the sky, I walked past the road closed sign, past the pavements end and stepped off the edge of the world. This is not a typical southern “canebrake” as described by Faulkner, this is true Chinese Bamboo. It is not a big forest as are the vast hardwood and pine forest that cover much of my home state, it is only about an acre or two, but it is an acre or two plopped down from the other side of the world.
Of course, I know its history, that is what I do, I always know the history, and if I don’t I’ll find out! The Bamboo Forest is old at least 160 years old, the man responsible for it died before the Civil War began. The shafts are enormous compared to southern cane, more than 3 inches in diameter, I wear an extra-large glove but my fingers will not close around it. It was not deliberately planted; its origin was an accident. This land once belonged to a man named William W. Williamson –no I’m not kidding, that was really his name, perhaps his parents weren’t very imaginative. Mr. Williamson loved cock fighting – roosters, get your mind out of the gutter – and the best fighting roosters came from China. The fighting cocks arrived in bamboo cages, Mr. Williamson, just like a kid on Christmas morning ripped the cages apart to obtain his prize within and carelessly tossed the bamboo gift wrapping on the ground. The fertile soils and warm rains of the south did the rest, and today I Rediscovered a part of Historic Vicksburg.
The Vicksburg Bed and Breakfast Association is a group of local history-related businesses that are coordinating their efforts to improve and enhance the experience of each person who visits Vicksburg, MS.
Imagine a town so charming that a president of the United States owned property there and planned to make it his retirement home. Imagine a town that was home to one of the great technological innovators of his day. Imagine a town that was well known for its sophistication and culture, a place regularly visited by important people, a place well known for its expositions, where public concerts were common. A place of faith that was home to beautiful churches and was a strong supporter of a nearby college, that still operates to this day. A place that almost became the capital of one of the wealthiest states of the United States, it fell short by three votes. Now imagine that this town no longer exists!
I have just described for you the old town of Rodney. Rodney lay about 40 miles “as the crow flies” south of Vicksburg. The area was named Petit Gulf –little gulf—by the French who were the first European settlers of this region. The area was first settled when General Phineas Lyman led and expedition from New England about 1774. Lyman, a colonial officer had fought with distinction in the recently concluded French and Indian War and was rewarded with a sizable land grant in the new British West Florida colony. Captain Matthew Phelps, a member of that expedition describes the area a firm rock on the east bank extending about a mile inland. The wooded bluffs are high and very broken but the soil is rich and several plantations have been established there. Firm rock along the lower Mississippi is somewhat rare and this made the area very attractive as a settlement. During the American Revolution, the area is annexed by Spain, the land comes into possession of a man named Thomas Calvit via a Spanish land grant, there he establishes the Town of Rodney in 1828. Although apparently, there was a sizable unincorporated settlement there before this, that went by the name Petit Gulf, for when the French naturalist Charles Lesueur sketched the area in 1828 he described a village with 20 buildings of both one and two stories.
The town was named for Thomas Rodney -- a territorial judge that had been involved in legal actions involving the ill-fated Arron Burr expedition. By the 1850’s there were many stores, a bank, a newspaper, and the area was noted for its county fairs, which exhibited some of the finest livestock in the lower Mississippi Valley, and the trophies awarded were made of silver. The congregation of the Presbyterian church donated 1000 silver dollars, to be made into a bell for the church tower. Exact population figures are hard to find, but from the number of stores and the size of the remaining structures, there may have been 1000-1200 people living and doing business in or around the small town.
The town was a strong supporter of Oakland College in fact the minister of the Rodney Presbyterian Church became the college’s first president. Today that school lives on in the form of Alcorn State University. Such notables as Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson visited the town. Zachary Taylor who was one of the most famous men of his day was so impressed with the town that he bought a large plantation named Cypress Grove nearby, selling properties in both Mississippi and Louisiana to do so. Taylor was living at Cypress Grove when he was elected President. Another nearby plantation, Laurel Hill, was owned by Dr. Rush Nutt. I know you have never heard of Dr. Nutt today but think of him as the Steve Jobs of his day, an innovator in agriculture just as Jobs innovated in technology. He encouraged soil conservation, made improvements to the cotton gin and developed a strain of cotton that put Mississippi on the map at a time when cotton was 60% of the economy of the whole country. His son Haller was the builder of Longwood, the famous unfinished mansion of Natchez.
So, what happened, the same thing that happened to small towns across America when the interstates came through, it was bypassed! Shortly after the Civil War the current of the Mississippi began to shift as it was wont to do in those days, and a sandbar began to form in front of Rodney and continued to grow as the current shifted west, today the town site is almost two miles from the Mississippi. Still the town might have limped on in a diminished state if not for a mighty one two hammer blow in the form of a terrible fire in 1869. The officers of the steamer Richmond described the scene:
The whole village was wrapped in a mantle of flames and as at two o'clock in the morning our boat glided swiftly down along the other shore, the scene was grand beyond description, lit up as it was by the lurid lights from burning buildings, mingled with the moon's pale beams
Another blow came from Yellow Fever in the late 19th century, and when the Rail Road chose to go through the town of Fayette 12 miles to the South East it effectively nailed the coffin lid shut on a once thriving town. Even the Presbyterian church shut its door in 1923 when the congregation dwindled to sixteen. In 1930 the governor of Mississippi signed the death certificate of Rodney when he officially pulled the town charter.
The Presbyterian and the Baptist church still stand, though bereft of any congregation. The Baptist will not last much longer, flood waters damaged it in in 2011, the remnants of an old wooden store stand nearby. A few houses and trailers dot the landscape some of them also abandoned by the looks of it. The sole structure that has any long-term prospects is the Catholic Church for it was disassembled and moved to Grand Gulf State Park a number of years ago, but it too is just a ghost another spirit of a time long ago, another inhabitant of Mississippi’s Ghost towns and Graveyards.
So, last weekend was one of those vacation days, and the “better half” and I decided to go exploring. This part of the South is a treasure trove of hidden gems if you love history, and I feel sure you do if you are reading this blog. We decided to find Hopewell Cemetery, the oldest –still identifiable--graveyard in the county. I had heard of this graveyard for years but had never actually visited it. I knew it was maintained by the Warren County Historical Society of which I am a member. I asked directions and discovered that it is right behind a modern elementary school, so off we went. A few miles west on a modern Interstate highway, then a number of miles further down a modern state highway---made a couple of wrong turns, what’s the fun of exploring if you don’t make a few wrong turns?—then down the “right” country road. I drove around behind the school and then took a slight left turn. Exiting the truck, I walked between the towering forest giants and the ancient tombstones, then I crested the ridge and stepped into the past…
The forest opened up and I stood on the top of a ridge looking across the broad valley in the direction of the Mighty Mississippi. Suddenly I was no longer in the 21st. century less though than 50 yards from blacktop. I was a settler of the early 19th century laying eyes on this fertile valley for the first time, seeing the promise of a new country, where a man’s success depended on his own industry and not a noble name.
Perhaps I am a veteran of the Revolution awarded a land grand in lieu of unpaid wages, his stone is nearby. My fellow settlers and I will found a church here, and name it Hopewell, for this is a land of hope. Here we will pray to our God for all to be well, for life is hard on the frontier, and the death angel is always close by. Nearby a tombstone depicts a mother weeping for a lost child. The stones are worn with age and weather, some have been broken by falling trees, but still they speak to us across the years. Not every stone here is ornate. Not far away, a simple marker is obviously homemade. Over sixty years old, it is crudely cast from cement with the name and date etched by hand. A land of plenty and poverty that is the enigma that is the South.
The Church is gone; the small riverport town it served is gone as well.
I turn and walk back to my truck. My wife was already beside it waiting. She does not realize that it is in fact a time machine which, in a moment, will carry us a few miles and almost 200 years into the future…
…To see a slide show of my visit to Old Hopewell visit my Facebook page
Historic and Haunted Vicksburg …
Is Vicksburg Older than Natchez?
By Morgan Gates
---Disclaimer: I am discussing European based settlement here for the Native Americans have us both beat by thousands of years---
Well that is a no brainer you might well say. All you have to do is go to visitnatchez.org to see they are celebrating their tricentennial this year. A quick wiki search will tell you that Vicksburg was founded in 1819 and will not celebrate its bicentennial until 2019. Open and shut case as the cop shows like to say!
But wait a minute, first let us define city a little more carefully. For you see, the City of Natchez IS NOT three hundred years old. Fort Rosalie is three hundred years old. The city was lain out by the Spanish Territorial Governor Manuel Gayoso in the 1790’s. The “city” of Natchez is only about 225 years old.
So! You say, that is still 27 years older than Vicksburg. But wait…you see this claim broadens the “definition” of city to oldest permanent, or at least semi-permanent settlement. Ok that narrows the gap even more! For you see the Town of Warrenton, the county seat of Warren County, was founded in 1809. Vicksburg is the current county seat and therefore Warrenton is in Vicksburg’s lineage, and it was founded in 1809. That narrows the gap to only 18 years!
Foul you cry! Warrenton no longer exists! True, but neither does Ft Rosalie. It literally fell off the bluffs during the Civil War. The town site for Warrenton does still exist, albeit as willow thicket, within the boundaries of the modern city of Vicksburg.
Eighteen years is still eighteen years you say.
Wait, I’m not through. You see at the same time Gayoso is establishing Natchez he is also establishing a military outpost about 75 miles – as the crow flies—north on a high walnut covered bluff on a sharp bend in the Mississippi. The new outpost is called Ft. Nogales –walnut trees—in Spanish. His primarily English speaking subjects use the more common English Name “The Walnut Hills”! Military outposts always become de facto villages or even towns and Walnut Hills in no exception --- I have also heard, though I cannot confirm that The Reverend Newitt Vick originally planned to name his city Walnut Hills but when he died suddenly of Yellow Fever in 1819 his heirs named the town Vicksburg in his honor. The site of this village lies near the National Cemetery within the city limits of Vicksburg! Vicksburg; therefore, is the same age as Natchez!
Wait you say, but Rosalie is still older! Now I produce my trump card! Rosalie was established in 1716 but Fort Saint Pierre and its surrounding village “Yazoo Post” was establish by French Jesuit Missionaries in 1698! Pierre was inhabited for 31 years until and Indian uprising in 1729 wiped out the inhabitants, Rosalie suffered the same fate. Rosalie was rebuilt Pierre was not. Vicksburg is 318 years old!
OK..OK.. you got me, I’m really reaching on the last point! There is about a 62-year gap between the end of Ft. St. Pierre and beginning of Ft. Nogales, and Pierre/Yazoo Post is several miles north of modern Vicksburg but still inside Warren County. As a counter point to that, the historical site of Ft. St. Pierre, still exists and the historical site of Rosalie does not, but up to that point, my argument is on firm ground. So, I’ll see you in 65 years for Vicksburg’s and Natchez’s Tricentennial!
--- so, all tongue and cheek stuff aside, Vicksburg is a very beautiful and historic city we will be celebrating the State of Mississippi’s bicentennial next year and our own bicentennial the following. See you soon in Historic Vicksburg. ---
Most Civil War Generals were either Graduates of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, or political generals who had used political influence to gain high command, but Confederate Major General William Loring was neither. He never attended a military school and he was far from a political man. He had come up through the ranks, he began fighting the Seminoles in Florida at fourteen, while still a boy he ran away to Texas and fought in the Texas Revolution, until his father found him and brought him home. Schooled in Virginia he was admitted to the Florida Bar and served one term in the Florida State House of Representatives. Then at the beginning of the Mexican- American War he returned to his true vocation, war! Leading a charge in Mexico his left arm was so badly wounded that it required amputation. It is said that he refused any anesthesia, and calmly smoked a cigar as the surgeon removed the mangled limb. In the years between the wars he was for a time in command of the Oregon Territory and again fought Indians, this time in the west. He also traveled in Europe studying their military theories and tactics.
At the beginning of the most un-civil war he probably had more actual combat experience than most of his contemporaries, perhaps for this reason he was contemptuous of West Pointers in general and Lt. General John C. Pemberton in particular. Then as now, one’s position in life often has little to do with actual ability and much more to do with the politics of life. Loring was not West Point; however, neither was he a very political man. He once went over the head of “Stonewall” Jackson. This so infuriated Jackson that he threatened to resign. Another incident provoked Robert E. Lee to say “there is no room in this army for that man”. Loring landed in Mississippi under the Command of Lt. General John C. Pemberton.
If one has little respect for the likes of Lee and Jackson, what hope would a Pennsylvania expatriate like Pemberton have with this man in his command? Despite his problems with authority, Loring was well liked by his men and preformed quite well on the battlefield, including turning back the Union fleet at Fort Pemberton in the Mississippi Delta in the winter of 1863.
One might stop and wonder if things might have been different if Loring had been in overall command?
War is, of course, the ultimate team sport and a man who is not a team player is often more a liability than an asset no matter how high his individual skill level. In the Vicksburg Campaign this insubordination comes home to roost at the Battle of Champions Hill on May 16th 1863 (see Campaign in a Nutshell part 3). First, he refuses to send reinforcements to help S.D. Lee’s Brigade because of the action to his front, which amounts to little more than a stalemated artillery duel, thus the Confederates are overwhelmed and flanked by Grant’s troops.
Had it not been for the ingenuity of Pemberton’s chief engineer, Vicksburg might have fell that very day. Then as Pemberton’s battered army retreats across the newly repaired bridge across flooded Baker’s Creek General Loring’s division --- likely about 6-8,000 men --- had the task of holding this bridge as Grant’s much larger Army pressed close behind. By the time, Loring’s Division is ready to cross the bridge the Union fire was too close and intnse, and Loring wisely decides not to risk having his men captured or worse slaughtered at the bottleneck of the bridge and retreats to the southwest paralleling Baker’s Creek.
He was not pursued as Grant was intent on capturing Pemberton, Loring’s men get bogged down in the swampy land around Jackson Creek and lose their artillery but instead of crossing the Big Black River at Baldwin’s or Hall’s Ferry, both of which were just a few miles further southwest, he turns east and circles around and joins, Joseph E. Johnson north of Jackson. Effectively taking his entire division out of the fight for Vicksburg. Pemberton is already desperately short handed and this loss just makes matter worse. While one can play “what if” all day, who is to say that Loring’s division might not have been just enough to turn the tide?