Natchez preparing to commemorate war, history

Published 12:28 am Sunday, February 20, 2011

NATCHEZ — Historically rich in cotton, oil and hospitality, many see Natchez as the perfect picture of the stereotypical South.

But it might come as a surprise to some that Natchez sent more soldiers to the Union Army than the Confederate Army during the Civil War.

With rich accounts of the Union occupation of Natchez, the untold stories of the U.S. Colored Troops and the 150th anniversary of the Civil War approaching, local and regional organizations are preparing to tell the true story of the South to residents and visitors.

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Twenty-two representatives from community and historical organizations in Natchez and neighboring counties met Thursday to further a framework of Civil War Sesquicentennial events.

Natchez and several communities in Mississippi and Louisiana will host events through 2015. Organizers want to stay on the same page to complement and promote events in each community and avoid repetition.

“We have made a concerted effort to complement, not compete,” Historic Natchez Foundation Director Mimi Miller said.

“The Civil War Sesquicentennial is a nationwide commemoration. We aren’t calling it a celebration, because you cant celebrate so much death. But, we can use the Civil War to build relationships, stimulate thought and encourage the reconciliation both regional and racial.”

Miller said representatives at the meeting came up with four components to commemoration of the Civil War: reconciliation, economic development, legacy and education.

In so many ways, the South never came to terms with the Civil War, Miller said. Organizers feel it’s important to tell the real story of the South, and move away from the romanticized stories that paint a misleading picture.

“There is so much information about the Civil War that’s been propagated that is just not true,” Miller said. “But that’s where education comes in. I think we have an obligation to be honest and educate. If you don’t know history, you are condemned to repeat it.”

Miller said different organizations are offering a wide variety of events meant to inform, provoke discussion and entertain hometown folks and visitors.

In Natchez, organizers are focusing on the 1863 through 1864 period of the Civil War.

“That is when the Civil War story is richest for us,” Miller said. “It was during the occupation of Natchez.”

The next four years will attract tourists to Natchez from all over the county, so the community must be prepared for the economic impact, Miller said.

“The traveling public has changed,” Miller said. “They are interested in the real story.”

Miller credited Natchez Historical Park Superintendent Kathleen Jenkins for bringing so many organizations together in one room to collaborate.

“We have good mixes of programs, history, entertainment and experiential learning,” Jenkins said. “There will be something for everyone.”

Jenkins said she hopes the programs and events will establish a legacy with exhibits, monuments, something the community will retain.

“We are at tip of the iceberg, and still have a long way to go,” Jenkins said. “We will take each goal and expand it. What are the possibilities? How can we connect these stories back to our schools and help our children understand this part of their heritage?”

Jenkins said the truer, more honest stories told now are more complicated.

“It’s where we are in the 21st century,” Jenkins said. “This is not the 1930s, and this is not ‘Gone with the Wind.’ It’s radical news that the Natchez area sent more men to the Union army than Confederate army. We want to tell these stories to each other and the outside world. Fortunately, we have a wonderful range of venues where stories on the lighter side can be told, and heavy stories can be told and dealt with appropriately.”

“The Old Natchez District was pivotal in the economics that led to the War, and although Natchez was spared any direct involvement with major battles of Civil War, the advancements made in the community were not duplicated with same level intensity anywhere,” Darrell White said.

White is the director of cultural heritage tourism and the executive director of the Natchez Museum of African American History and Culture.

“We have the opportunity to tell those stories,” White said.

White said some of the early involvement by blacks in the Union army occurred in Natchez.

“The majority of those soldiers were U.S. Colored Troops, and because of their energy and effort, we have all these antebellum homes to marvel at today. Their contributions were hardly every mentioned. It’s important to tell the story to be are inclusive of the contribution by people of African origin.”

White said two specific roles for the Civil War sesquicentennial were defined at the meeting — producer and promoter. White said it is the responsibility of the Natchez Convention and Visitors Bureau to encourage people to come and participate in various programs over the next few years.

“But, we have to have programs to promote,” White said. “That’s where the producers come in.”

White said any group or organization that plans to do anything in honor of the sesquicentennial are asked to contact CVB for guidelines for promotion. They can be reached at 800-647-6724.

“We need folks to step up to the plate and do something,” White said. “If you have an audience, let us know what you are planning to do.”