Little remains from the once prosperous city of Rodney

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 13, 2009

In the northwestern part of Jefferson County, about 32 miles northeast of Natchez lies the old town of Rodney. Little is there today to indicate that at one time this was one of the most prosperous cities in Mississippi.

Sources conflict on when this town was first settled, but the most reliable is Dunbar Rowland’s Mississippi Volume II L-Z, which states that it was laid out in 1826 and was incorporated by the legislature in 1828. It was named in honor of Thomas Rodney, a popular Federal Judge during Mississippi’s territorial period. Until the year 1864, the Mississippi River ran in front of the town, and it prospered as a river port for the export of cotton.

The river began to shift away from the town after 1864, and is now one and a half miles west of Rodney. With loss of its port, the town steadily declined.

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Some sources report that the population reached a peak of four thousand inhabitants in 1860, but there were probably never more than500 people living in the actual town. However, at its peak in 1860, the town contained two banks, two newspapers, t35 stores, a theatre, a lecture hall, schools, churches and a jockey club. The county fairs held there before the Civil War were considered some of the best in the state.

After the fall of Vicksburg in July 1863, during the Civil War, the Union Navy took control of Rodney. In September 1863 the Union gunboat Rattler was assigned to the town and ordered to guard it against the Rebels. The crew was strictly forbidden to leave the boat, but on Sunday, Sept. 13, 1863, 22 sailors, a lieutenant, and a captain came ashore to attend a service at the Presbyterian Church.

During the service a Confederate Cavalry Lieutenant walked up the aisle and announced to the congregation that his men had the church surrounded, and demanded the Yankee sailors surrender. One of the sailors took a shot at the Confederate Lieutenant, and the Confederates on the outside began firing into the church.

The Rodney citizens dove under the benches for protection, and the crew that was left on board the Rattler began to fire the boat’s cannons on the town. Four homes and the church were hit, and one cannonball lodged itself in the front wall of the church, and there is a cannonball lodged there at present. Surprisingly, only one Union sailor was injured, and he and his comrades were forced to surrender.

After the Confederates left the town, the Federals came to shore and attempted to burn the town. However, the Confederate Lieutenant was notified about what was happening, and he sent word to the Federals that the townspeople had nothing to do with his coming, and that he would hang his Union prisoners if any house or property were destroyed.

This had the desired effect and the town was spared.

After the Civil War, the town struggled to survive after the changing of the Mississippi River course, but this was a futile effort.

To add to its decline, there was a devastating fire in 1869. According to Rowland, one eyewitness who was passing down the river on a steamboat when it happened stated that, “The whole village was wrapped in a mantle of flame, and as at two in the morning, our boat glided swiftly down along the shore, the scene was grand beyond description; lit up as it was by lurid lights from burning buildings, mingled with the moon’s pale beams.”

In the 1870s the railroad had wanted to come through the town, but the citizens refused, and the slow decline of the town continued into the 20th century.

By 1966 the population was at zero and the town was considered deserted. However, a visit to the town today reveals that there are a few people living there at present, as seen by several trailers that are there.

Some of the churches have also survived, including the Presbyterian Church that was shelled by the Rattler. The churchyard is posted and cannot be toured except by appointment.

H. Clark Burkett is a historian at Historic Jefferson College.