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Longwood has fascinating Fourth of July story to tell

One hundred and fifty-two years ago, something extraordinary happened in Natchez.

“At an early hour of the Fourth, the streets of the city, the roads leading from the country, the ferry-boat and all avenues of approach, were thronged,” The Natchez Democrat reported four days later on Monday, July 8.

So starts the article that detailed one of the biggest celebrations ever hosted on the grounds of the historic house Longwood. I did not know about this event until an email with the subject line “July 4, 1867” popped up in my inbox Monday morning.

Intrigued, I opened the message from Linda Metcalf, an author who has written a self-published fictional account of Longwood homeowner Julia Nutt, titled “Julia Nutt: Mistress of Longwood.” 

Although fictional, the book is based on Metcalf’s research of old letters, court documents, pictures and past newspaper articles, like The Natchez Democrat account of the 1867 Fourth of July picnic at Longwood.

With the help of Mimi Miller at the Historic Natchez Foundation, I obtained a transcript of the article, which details a fascinating chapter in the history of African Americans during Reconstruction.

“At about ten o’clock, the procession was formed, consisting of the Union Leagues, and negroes from the surrounding country, nearly all decorated with ribbons, and many carrying flags, moved up Main Street, from Broadway, in an orderly and quiet manner,” the article says. “There were in line about twenty-five-hundred males, and a few of the marshals being white persons.”

Julia Nutt, the widow of Haller Nutt, allowed the grounds of Longwood to be used for a large picnic attended by freedmen and freedwomen. People came from all over. Some came down the river by steamboat. Others came on foot from the surrounding countryside.

Haller and his wife were known to be Union supporters during the Civil War. Even though Haller died of pneumonia in 1864, Julia remained at the house, where construction was suspended at the start of the war.

What is most remarkable about the 1867 picnic is the number of people who came to celebrate on Julia’s land.

The newspaper described the procession leading to the Nutt property:

“The sidewalks were thronged, and it would not be an exaggeration to state that there were at least 8,000 persons on the streets, and in the procession.”

At the picnic, the crowd grew even larger, according to the news account.

“It is estimated that there were not less than 9,000 people on the picnic grounds during the day.”

The crowd that had assembled came despite a storm that came “in considerable fury,” the article said.

James Mercer Langston was the main speaker of the event — a last-minute replacement.

An Ohio lawyer who recruited “colored troops” during the Civil War, Langston discussed the importance of land ownership.

“He told his hearers that they ought to have land; yes, God intended that all should have land who labored; but they were to get it by proceeds of honest toil and economy, and by these alone,” the paper wrote.

Before the event, the newspaper had expressed concerns about such a large crowd of people in town, but reports from the day put to rest such concerns.

“We have never seen a celebration so numerously attended and yet more quiet and well-behaved than this was,” the paper wrote.

The Fourth of July picnic, as Metcalf identified for her book, is another example of the captivating and complex stories that make up our collective experience — one worth sharing to a broader audience.

Ben Hillyer is the news editor of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at ben.hillyer@natchezdemocrat.com or at 601-445-3549.