Historian researching Natchez fort for Civil War Sesquicentennial

Published 11:29 pm Sunday, December 30, 2012

National Park Service historian Jefferson Mansell discovered what may be the earliest known photo of the Marine Hospital that was incorporated into the fort. The image was taken by Natchez photographer Henry Gurney. The gun armaments can be seen in the foreground of the picture. The hospital became Natchez Charity Hospital. The hospital remained open until the early 1980s. While awaiting restoration it was destroyed in a fire in 1984.

Union soldiers once walked the streets of Natchez, but to them it was Fort McPherson.

In the fall of 1863, construction began on the fort and was completed in the spring of 1864.

National Park Service historian Jefferson Mansell, at top, has been researching Fort McPherson, pictured from an aerial view on his computer screen, for approximately a year.

Natchez National Historical Park Service historian Jefferson Mansell has been researching the fort through the diaries of Samuel Glyde Swain and will present some of his findings at the Natchez Literary Cinema Celebration on Feb. 23 at the Natchez Convention Center.

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“There was no strategic importance to Natchez,” Mansell said. “Vicksburg had the railroad. They were nervous about Nathan Bedford Forrest. That always sent great angst through Union troops.”

Forrest was a lieutenant general in the Confederate Army.

As many as 4,500 troops were encamped at Fort McPherson in the beginning of fall of 1863. The fort was comprised of an inner fortification, about 10,000 feet in length, and outer batteries.

The inner fortifications could accommodate 1,000 to 1,500 soldiers in the case of an attack.

For many of the soldiers, coming to Natchez was a retreat of sorts, Mansell said.

In many of the soldiers’ letters, diary entries and newspaper clippings Mansell has found, Natchez is described as a lovely city.

Vicksburg was often described as a city of cemeteries, rampant with disease.

Whereas Natchez was a city with “fresh air and good water,” according to a soldier in the 12th Wisconsin regiment.

A soldier in the 14th Wisconsin regiment described Natchez as a lively city with 11,000 inhabitants.

“The buildings, public and private, display both wealth and taste,” the soldier wrote. “The usual avocations of life are pursued as regularly now as before we came.”

On Jan. 24, 1865, Swain writes he’s received orders to demolish the outer line of works of the fort.

“The theater of war was moving,” Mansell said. “Everything was coming to a showdown in Virginia.”

Mansell started researching the fort approximately a year ago, going to state historical societies to find information about regiments stationed in Natchez.

Mansell has been researching the fort for the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

It was at the Wisconsin state historical society, where he found Swain’s diaries.

Architectural drawings of the fort and the military schematics popped up first. Then came Swain’s diaries and letters, revealing information about the forts construction.

“It was pretty exciting,” Mansell said. “You felt like you just hit a treasure trove of information about the fort.”