NATCHEZ, Miss. — “That’s the bullet hole where a carpetbagger shot at my great-great-grandfather,” said Ruth Audley Britton Conner Coy. Dressed in a white blouse and her grandmother’s dark, floor-skimming hoop-skirt, she pointed to a spider-webbed fracture in the glass above the front door of Green Leaves, her family’s ancestral mansion.
A sparkle in her eye betrayed that she enjoys nudging the Yankees who venture into the antebellum house, which displays a letter from Jefferson Davis in the front hall and photographs of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson in the parlor. She could not resist another story, about the family rushing to hide their baby while the Union ironclad gunboat Essex, moored in the Mississippi River, shelled the city.
And so, within minutes of crossing the threshold, the visiting Yankees received a shelling, too, albeit a far gentler one.
Northerners who visit this small city perched on a bluff over the Mississippi will find a history as rich as the delta soil, starting with the mound-building ancestors of the Natchez native people — one of the largest Indian mounds in the country stands 10 miles northeast of the city. The French settlers followed, introducing slavery to the state, and then came the Anglo planters, who grew wealthy raising cotton, thanks in part to the cotton gin and slave labor.
The city is also the southern terminus of the ancient Natchez Trace, a legendary footpath-turned-cart road-turned highway, which stretches northeast to Nashville. The Pilgrimage, the twice-yearly event built around the mansion tours, taps into this pre-Civil War layer — and Yankee visitors will likely discover just how recent the “recent unpleasantness” (as comic actor Charley Weaver once called the war) looms in the collective memory.
That unpleasantness did not include any battles in this mercantile city, which surrendered in 1862 after that drubbing from the Essex. Ulysses S. Grant set up his headquarters at Rosalie, another Natchez antebellum mansion. Otherwise, this showplace of high-style Greek Revival architecture might not exist, at least in its present form.
Time alone would have taken down the homes eventually: They had already started to deteriorate in the early 20th century, when most owners lacked the money to maintain them. Then in 1932, the Natchez Garden Club planned a garden tour, which got rained out on the second day, prompting several homeowners to invite the visitors inside.
“Even in their imperfect state, the homes were beautiful, with elaborate, hand-carved millwork, exquisite chandeliers, and original furnishings from the best cabinetmakers in the Northeast and Europe,” says Marsha Colson, general manager of the Natchez Pilgrimage Tours and president of the Pilgrimage Garden Club, which owns the nonprofit tour enterprise. “The local ladies realized they had something unique to offer: more pre-Civil War homes in one small town than any other place in the country, and most of them were still occupied by descendants of the original owners. They planned a pilgrimage, as they called it, for the following year.”
Against the backdrop of hoopskirted, affluent white women escorting people through their mansions, the reverent title can set a Yankee’s teeth on edge, suggesting, as it does, a yearning for a romanticized “Old South” purged of any unpleasantness. (Indeed, the Natchez motto used to be “Where the Old South Still Lives.”)
“The Pilgrimage, and especially the tableaux” — evening entertainments intended as living pictures of antebellum life — “were created as romanticized interpretations of Southern history,” says Anne MacNeil, president of the Natchez Homeowners Association, whose members offer the tours. “I am sure that the founding ladies saw no disconnect in that portrayal. Most, if not all, of them grew up with grandparents who had lived through the Civil War, and elements of that conflict and its aftermath were originally told primarily from the grandparents’ perspective.”
Seventy-odd years later, though, the reenactment of gracious living feels oddly dislocated, like the Colonial Revival portrayals of 18th-century life in the Northeast. (Not by coincidence, the Colonial Revival also reached a peak in the 1930s.) Yet these genteel mansion tours have proven immensely popular, repeated semiannually now, during four weeks in March and April and 18 days in September and October. To date, proceeds from the tours have preserved more than 30 antebellum mansions, all on the National Register of Historic Places, with a dozen National Historic Landmarks among them. With the addition of year-round house museums, holiday festivities, and various other events, the tours now fuel the city’s economy year-round.
Unlike some house museums, each residence offers a personal peek into the lives of its inhabitants. And the warm hospitality offered by homeowners feels genuine. At Green Leaves, Coy and her relatives — descendants of a local banking dynasty — took their positions in various rooms downstairs. The women’s skirts swayed like bells, seeming to float across the floor as the wearers’ feet padded invisibly. Stopping at her post in the middle parlor, Coy lifted her hem to reveal a pair of sneakers, explaining, “We’re on our feet all day, every third day, for weeks.” Visitors in shorts and T-shirts wander through the parlors, ogling Victorian mourning jewelry woven from human hair, dinnerware with a tropical bird pattern attributed to John James Audubon, dominoes carved from ivory and ebony, and a decades-old wedding cake crumbling under a bell jar. Not even Dickens could have made this up.
The back gallery, or porch, overlooks a courtyard garden shaded by the writhing branches of a 400-year-old live oak. A hoopskirt hangs on a coat rack for curious visitors to try on. A photo propped against a window shows a group of servants from a previous generation — the only sign of an African-American presence in this long family history. The Pilgrimage folks say they are trying to change that. After all, Natchez was not only the most active slave-trading city in Mississippi, but also had the South’s second-biggest slave market, after the one in New Orleans. Aided by National Park Service historians at the Natchez National Historic Park at Melrose Plantation, “homeowners have worked to be more inclusive in our telling of our history,” MacNeil says. “A number of homeowners now tell stories of the enslaved peoples who lived and labored at their properties.”
Not all the destinations are as grand as Green Leaves, but each has its own quirky history. Stone House, for instance, started out as a Greek Revival billiard hall and features pocket doors with a checkerboard of amber-tinted glass. Joseph Stone, whose family bought the house in 1877, now operates it as a bed-and-breakfast. A professional concert pianist, Stone plays while a hostess guides tourists through the rooms.
Longwood, a five-story octagonal “Oriental Villa” designed by a Philadelphia architect, is a house museum open year-round, but it is far from staid. The first floor is pristine and furnished, but the Nutts, the family who owned it, had finished only this level when they fled the Union Army in 1861. Later, descendants occupied the same quarters until 1968, leaving the rest incomplete, with unfastened timbers and plaster molds for Corinthian capitals where workers had dropped them a century earlier. Today you can gaze up through a cross-hatching of floorboards to the hollow, onion-shaped cupola four stories above. And in the drone of cicadas, you can imagine the hoofbeats of horses echoing just beyond the trees.
Jane Roy Brown can be reached at email@example.com.