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Annual Memorial Day parade follows 147-year-old footsteps

Thomas Graning / The Natchez Democrat — The group walks down Alabama Street during a practice the Memorial Day Parade in Vidalia Thursday.
Thomas Graning / The Natchez Democrat — The group walks down Alabama Street during a practice the Memorial Day Parade in Vidalia Thursday.

VIDALIA — For nearly 150 years, Miss-Lou residents have marched on Memorial Day in honor of those who marched into battle for them.

On Monday, the 147-year old Memorial Day tradition will once again take participants from Vidalia to the Natchez National Cemetery.

Parade organizer Eddie Coleman said he believes the local Memorial Day is one of the most elite in the country.

“It has a snowball effect once it begins,” he said. “People who come to be spectators for the parade, once we get to them, they inevitably fall in behind us. It’s a sight to see.”

The parade dates back as far back as 1867, when residents celebrated Memorial Day by crossing the Mississippi River by ferry, walking to the top of Silver Street and marching to the cemetery. After the bridge was built in the 1940s, residents began marching across the bridge to the cemetery.

Coleman said the parade’s roots were set even earlier in 1864 when a group of soldiers marched to the Natchez landing and crossed the river on a steamboat to land in Vidalia.

Soldiers of African descent had only recently been allowed to serve in the Union Army as a result of an Act of Congress passed on May 22, 1863, which created the formation of regiments of U.S. Colored Troops, Coleman said.

As a result, local black men, all recently emancipated slaves, enlisted in the Union army at Natchez.

Union Lt. Col. Hubert A. McCaleb, commander of the 2nd Mississippi Heavy Artillery, called seven companies to arms and crossed the river on a steamer.

McCaleb’s men opened fire on an estimated 1,500 Confederate soldiers near Trinity Road, which led to present day Jonesville. The skirmish killed one and wounded five before the Confederate troops retreated.

McCaleb said his “force of 300 colored soldiers” carried the day. It was the first time local black men, dressed in a Union uniform, were given the opportunity to fight for their own freedom, Coleman said.

Shortly after, veterans gathered in Illinois and formed an organization called the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR).

On May 5, 1868, Gen. John A. Logan declared that local GAR chapters would honor their fallen comrades with their own celebration.

Two local GAR chapters formed — one in Natchez and one in Vidalia — and the annual Memorial Day parade was arranged to observe the members of the GAR who are buried at the Natchez National Cemetery.

This year’s procession will line up at 8 a.m. Monday and leave from the intersection of Magnolia and Alabama streets in Vidalia walking across the Mississippi River Bridge and on to the Natchez National Cemetery.

In light of a fatality that occurred in 2012 during a 5K running race that had participants cross the bridge and a subsequent ongoing lawsuit filed against the cities of Natchez and Vidalia, organizers and law enforcement are taking extra precautions to ensure parade participants and drivers are safe.

Coleman said the Memorial Day parade would only shut down one lane of traffic on the east-bound bridge. The west-bound lanes of the bridge and two-way traffic were diverted to the east-bound lanes during the 5K.

The Vidalia Police Department is providing 10 police officers to provide an escort and security, Coleman said. The parade, he said, would also have volunteer security officers patrolling on foot.

The Natchez Police Department also plans to provide escort and security once the parade crosses into Natchez, NPD Detective Jerry Ford said.

The department, Ford said, plans to have extra officers in place to help escort the parade participants to the cemetery.

Vidalia Mayor Hyram Copeland said the extra precautions should ensure the safety of those involved in the parade.

“This has been a tradition since right after the Civil War,” Copeland said. “We didn’t want to discontinue it. The town is going to have to take full responsibility and liability. We are going to do the best we can to make sure nothing happens.”

Coleman said he is confident the parade would go smoothly and encourages residents to join the festivities.

“It is done out of respect for our current and lost veterans and for the freedom they fought for,” he said.