Natchez during the Civil War

William Ashley Vaughan

Abstract

Natchez in 1860 was a river port with an economy based mainly on the export of cotton raised by slaves on the surrounding plantations of the Adams County countryside. Within the population of Adams County there were divisions of class, occupation, and politics that were reflected in the two most prominent of the volunteer companies which left from Natchez in the spring and summer of 1861 to fight in the Civil War--the Natchez Fencibles and the Adams Troop. The Civil War wreaked many changes on Adams County. As a major cotton exporter and river port, Natchez became the center of the Confederate war effort in Southwest Mississippi. The slaves whose labor on the cotton plantations was the backbone of the Adams County economy proved not to be as enthusiastic about the Confederacy as even the most disenchanted of unionists. Beginning in 1862, slaves continually took advantage of Union military operations up and down the Mississippi River to run away from the plantations and take their freedom. By July, 1863, the end of the Confederate period, the social and commercial institutions of Natchez and the surrounding countryside were mobilized for war under the state and Confederate governments. As part of this mobilization, the people of Adams County raised and sent to war thirteen volunteer companies and one squad that joined a company of Miles' Legion. These companies suffered 510 wounded and dead of wounds and illness. The fall of Natchez to the Federals in July, 1863 changed the city yet again. Natchez went from a center of transportation and production for the Confederate war effort to a Union military outpost under the control of a military government. The Federals, in attempting to govern their new conquest, created institutions which laid the groundwork for Reconstruction. The opening of the Mississippi River to commerce with the North allowed old Natchez merchants and new merchants who came down from the North to revive the local economy which had suffered from the blockade. The over 1,000 Federal troops who occupied Natchez throughout the Civil War and afterwards provided a tremendous customer base. The secessionists of Adams County took almost to the end of the war to realize that the Confederacy was doomed. Some of them aided Confederate forces outside of Natchez with supplies and information. A series of successful Federal military operations in the summer and fall of 1864 that swept away Confederate military resistance in Southwest Mississippi and a crackdown on local Confederate sympathizers brought the secessionists to heel. The end of the war brought a failed attempt to reconstruct the South along lines of racial equality and respect for civil liberties. Some things produced or nourished by Reconstruction survived the end of that courageous experiment: the system of sharecropping and the new black community composed mostly of freed slaves and their descendants. Also surviving into the post-Reconstruction era was a characteristic of the ante bellum period, the dominance of the local economy by the cultivation and sale of cotton. The lost cause myth, an important ingredient of the reaction against Reconstruction, also continued to flourish. According to the lost cause myth, the South fought primarily for freedom from Northern domination and the principle of self-determination, not to preserve slavery where it already existed or to spread the institution south of the border. (Abstract shortened by UMI.)