The Civil War (Western Theater):
A Guide to Several Battlefields
By J. Brent Norlem
This is Part Two of a Five-Part Article
We must decide whether we will leave the Natchez Trace at Interstate Highway 20 and drive west to Vicksburg, Mississippi, or continue down the Natchez Trace to Natchez, Mississippi, then backtrack north to Vicksburg. Assuming that we have time, and the weather is good, Natchez is the better choice for the first stop.
“Trace” is a synonym for “trail.” The gentle curving and sloping of the Natchez Trace Parkway is the result of its being atop, and following, an ancient migratory route of the American Bison and other large animals. These creatures moved between the pastures of central and western Mississippi and the salt (and other mineral) deposits of the Cumberland Plateau. American Indians improved this trail through constant use between villages in middle Tennessee and central Mississippi.
The Natchez Trace Parkway is a limited access two-lane bituminous road with a speed limit of 50 miles an hour. The road was not intended for drivers who want to see if their vehicles will go as fast as their speedometers suggest. Commercial traffic is prohibited. There’s not much lodging directly on the parkway, but traveling a few miles off the road brings you to a selection of accomodations.
Construction of the Parkway began in the 1930s during the Great Depression; the road commemorates the ancient trail and provides a leisurely scenic drive through beautiful countryside. The final two segments of the parkway to be built, one near Natchez, the other near Washington, Mississippi, opened to the public 21 May 2005. (By the way, the parkway is superb for bicycle and motorcycle touring, and for hiking and camping).
The parkway is maintained by the National Park Service and is designated an All-American Road. Parkway headquarters are near Tupelo, Mississippi where you’ll find the Natchez Trace Parkway Visitor Center, with history of the original Natchez Trace and of the parkway. The headquarters also manages two important Civil War sites, Brices Cross Roads National Battlefield and Tupelo National Battlefield.
Historical sites are plentiful along the Natchez Trace Parkway. Highly recommended is the Meriwether Lewis Museum. (In 1809, Lewis died at Grinder’s Stand on the Natchez Trace.) Also worth visiting is the Mount Locust Stand (“stand” is a time-honored word for rest stop) and the Ridgeland Crafts Center in Ridgeland, Mississippi, which concentrates on Mississippi’s native art. Virtually hidden between the parkway and Old Port Gibson Road is Rocky Springs, a ghost town that boomed during the late 19th Century. The Rocky Springs Methodist Church, the cemetery, and several building sites are accessible by foot from the parkway. Scenic Cypress Swamp is at Mile Marker 122; it offers several lovely waterfalls, some requiring a short hike from the parkway to view.
Parts of the original trail are accessible and are worth exploring. All of this sightseeing will likely create healthy appetites, and a superb place to stop for lunch is French Camp, also known as Nashville Trace Historic Village, about halfway between the Tupelo and Jackson accesses. The Council House Café, owned and operated by French Creek Academy, offers overgenerous servings of delicious homemade sandwiches, soups, side dishes, its famous freshly baked French Camp bread, and various desserts (the fresh bread pudding, Mississippi Mud Cake, and pies are outstanding). The café building was originally a meeting place for Greenwood LeFlore, last chief of the Choctaw Nation east of the Mississippi River, and his chiefs during tribal negotiations. This structure was built about 1820 of white oak logs, hand-hewn with adzes and broadaxes. Guests may enjoy their repasts seated inside this rustic dining room, or in the open, on the large deck patio beneath the spreading oaks. Also included in Natchez Trace Historical Village are an antique blacksmith shop, grist mill, and pottery cabin, as well as the restored historic French Camp Post Office.
In Natchez, in addition to the usual modern types of overnight accommodations, you will find several bed and breakfasts in the older great homes of the city; these exude the charm of the antebellum South. Among these are the Briars Inn, the Burn Bed and Breakfast Inn, and the Dunleith Historical Inn, which are as close to time travel to the world of Scarlett O’Hara as we can get. Moreover, Natchez is rightly highly regarded for its many cafés and restaurants that offer the finest in Southern cooking.
Natchez was relatively unaffected, physically, during the Civil War. The city surrendered to Federal Flag-Officer David G. Farragut following the fall of New Orleans in May 1862. In September 1863, a Federal ironclad gunboat, U.S.S. Essex, commanded by Capt. William D. Porter, shelled the city, doing only minor structural damage, but killing a seven-year-old girl. Federal troops commanded by Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant occupied the city in 1863. Grant established temporary headquarters for his Vicksburg Campaign in Rosalie House, an impressive mansion overlooking the Mississippi River. Confederate forces attempted to recapture Natchez in December 1863 but did not attack the city itself as they found themselves heavily outnumbered.
As was the case in the rest of the Confederacy, numerous Natchez residents either took up arms or helped the Confederate war effort in other ways, and many families lost their antebellum fortunes. That Natchez was largely spared the horrors experienced by Vicksburg or even Jackson is verified by a legend Natchez residents tell visitors. It seems that Federal troops were being quartered in the area surrounding Grant’s headquarters, dubbed “Fort Rosalie.” Citizens regularly gathered at the river landing, in the district still known as Under the Hill (in those days a rather rough waterfront area) to watch Federal gunboats traveling between New Orleans and Vicksburg. During one such passing, a Federal gunboat fired a cannon with no projectile loaded, to get a rise out of the troops at Fort Rosalie. An elderly man suffered a fatal heart attack when the cannon was fired. This was the “Great Battle of Natchez.”
Grant’s headquarters, Rosalie House, was built for a wealthy cotton broker in 1823 on the bluff overlooking the river, near the site of the Natchez Indians’ 1729 massacre of the French in Fort Rosalie. The 1993 Disney motion picture “The Adventures of Huck Finn” was partially filmed at Rosalie House. Owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution, it is open to the public.
Another must-see in Natchez is Longwood Mansion, also known as Nutt’s Folly. This is an antebellum octagonal mansion with a byzantine onion-shaped dome. A New England architect designed the mansion in 1859 for a local cotton planter, Dr. Haller Nutt. Construction was halted in 1861 because of the war; Nutt died of pneumonia in 1864, leaving the mansion unfinished. Thirty-two rooms were planned for the mansion, but only nine rooms of the first floor were completed.
Still another must-see is Stanton Hall, a.k.a. Belfast, which occupies an entire city block of Natchez. An especially opulent mansion, it was built during 1851-1857 for Frederick Stanton, a cotton broker. Personnel at the mansion, now operated as a museum, tell that Stanton chartered an entire ship to carry from European sources the marble fireplace mantles, moldings, furniture, wrought ironwork, and other materials for the mansion. Shades of “Citizen Kane”!
Other Natchez antebellum mansions certainly worth visiting are Arlington, Auburn, Dunleith, and Monmouth, and, in Natchez National Historical Park, Melrose.
Natchez National Historical Park is comprised of three sections. Fort Rosalie is a fortification built in the early 18th Century by the French and later controlled by the United Kingdom, Spain, and finally the United States. The William Johnson House is the home of William Johnson, a free African American barber and resident of Natchez whose diary has been published. The Johnson House collection includes furnishings from Johnson’s life and family. Melrose (mentioned above) was the estate of John T. McMurran, a lawyer and state senator who was a Natchez planter from 1830 until the Civil War. The collection in Melrose’s two-story Greek Revival main house and its slave quarters includes painted floor cloths, mahogany punkah, a set of Rococo Revival parlor furniture, a set of Gothic Revival dining room chairs, and bookcases with books dating to the 1700s. Archaeological objects found in the park are also on display. Unfortunately, Fort Rosalie is not open to the public, but the other two units of the park include exhibits that provide a good representation of daily life in antebellum Natchez.
Next on our itinerary is Vicksburg, referred to with some awe during the first half of the Civil War as “the Gibraltar of the Confederacy.” It must be noted that most of the extensive Confederate defensive works of 1863 Vicksburg have fallen victim to development. However, there are splendid things to see, as noted below.
On our way north to Vicksburg we might want to take a side trip to Rosswood Plantation near Lorman, Mississippi. Completed about 1857 as the residence of a huge cotton plantation, this beautiful Greek Revival mansion, which served as a military hospital during the Civil War, has been restored to its antebellum grandeur. Rosswood is a bed and breakfast today. There is much for the casual visitor to enjoy, including examining the early diaries and documents of the plantation.
Another potential diversion is stopping by Provine Chapel in Clinton, Mississippi. Built about 1860 and now part of the campus of Mississippi College, this graceful old chapel was spared from burning by order of Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. During the Federal occupation of the area, the chapel served as a Federal military hospital, and Federal horses were stabled in its basement.
Like Natchez, Vicksburg offers the traveler a wide range of accommodations, including several bed and breakfast opportunities in the city’s fine old mansions. One of these is the majestic Duff Green Mansion, built in 1856 by a Vicksburg businessman for his new bride and designed for formal entertaining. Until the Seige of Vicksburg, the mansion set the standard for entertaining among the city’s elite. In 1863 the mansion was hit at least five times by Federal cannon fire. The Greens donated the structure to be used as a military hospital to prevent further major damage; the Greens lived in two caves dug in the side yard. In one of these caves, Mrs. Green gave birth to a son whom she named William Siege Green. Following the fall of Vicksburg, the U.S. government leased the mansion as a soldier’s rest home for the recuperation of wounded Federal soldiers before they were well enough to be sent home.
Other Vicksburg bed and breakfasts are the Anchusa, the Annabelle Bed & Breakfast Inn, the Belle of the Bends Historic Bed & Breakfast Inn, and the Cedar Grove Mansion Inn & Restaurant. Like Natchez, Vicksburg is awash with dining establishments to satisfy almost any tastes, many of them trying to outdo each other for the unofficial recognition of “Vicksburg’s best” (if not “the South’s best”) in whatever culinary field in which they specialize.
During the first half of the war, Vicksburg was a mighty fortress on high bluffs, controlling passage on the Mississippi River with its multiple emplacements of heavy artillery, and, like Port Hudson, Louisiana, to its south, providing wharf facilities where foodstuffs and other supplies from west of the Mississippi could be unloaded and sent east.
New Orleans surrendered 28 April 1862 to Federal Flag-Officer David C. Farragut. The Confederate guns of Vicksburg continued to control passage along the Mississippi. The initial efforts to seize Vicksburg, by the Federal Army of the Tennessee, commanded by Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, were costly failures (second in command: Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman). Ultimately, Grant moved his army down the western side of the Mississippi River, crossing south of Vicksburg. Grant’s army drove northeast in a superb campaign, battering the Confederate army commanded by Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton at Port Gibson and Raymond. In early May 1863, Grant’s army captured Jackson, the Mississippi state capital, driving Pemberton’s army westward. The Confederates attempted to check the Federal forces at Champion Hill and Big Black River Bridge but were thrashed. Pemberton, who had lost three-quarters of his troops in the preceding battles, knew from scouting reports that an entire Federal corps commanded by Sherman was about to flank him. Pemberton burned Big Black River Bridge behind him, scavenged everything edible along the way, and retreated into the citadel of Vicksburg.
The Confederates evacuated Haynes Bluff with its heavy artillery embrasures, and this site was quickly occupied by Sherman’s cavalry, allowing Federal boats to safely pass by Vicksburg and anchor in the mouth of the Yazoo River, bringing tons of supplies for the Federal army. Grant’s troops, having repaired Big Black River Bridge and crossed en masse, attacked Vicksburg’s defenses twice, 19 and 22 May, but were repulsed with heavy losses.
On 25 May Grant commenced the Seige of Vicksburg, a terrible assault, evoking great seiges of the medieval period and foreshadowing seiges in Belgium and France during World War I. With an excellent supply line established, the Federals pounded Vicksburg with artillery of various sizes and types, while Federal gunboats shelled the city from the Mississippi River. Much of the population emulated the Confederate troops by taking up lodgings in caves. Supplies of foodstuffs quickly diminished, and civilians and soldiers alike began to starve. History records many stories about the deprivations of the defenders of Vicksburg and its civilian inhabitants during the relatively short seige, many of which visitors will hear from the locals or will read about in the multiple historical publications extant.
By late May the situation for the defenders had grown desperate enough that Pemberton, who hoped for relief by Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, and finally realized that help was not coming, considered trying to break out of the Federal encirclement to save as much of his army as possible. However, it was much too late for such an attempt, and Pemberton arranged to meet with Grant to discuss terms for a possible surrender.
From the beginning, Grant demanded unconditional surrender, but as he became more acquainted with the condition of the beseiged, his outlook changed. Not wanting to have to feed 30,000 starving prisoners of war nor to commit the number of troops it would have taken to guard such a number of prisoners, Grant offered to parole the surrendered garrison. Seeing the debilitation of those prisoners who had been taken during the seige, he was relatively certain they would never fight again. Moreover, Grant believed that the paroled prisoners would carry home with them to the rest of the Confederacy the stigma of defeat. Pemberton, meanwhile, told his staff that he was sure that the Confederates would get the best terms if they surrendered on the Fourth of July. So it was that on 3 July 1863, Pemberton put arrangements into motion by sending a note to Grant.
On 4 July, 1863, under the shade of an oak tree, the surrender was formalized. The campaign cost the Confederates 9,091 killed and wounded, and the Federals 10,142.
Vicksburg was now in the hands of the Federals, and the Confederacy had been cleaved in half. The Federal victory at Gettysburg had come a day earlier. It remains debatable which victory was prized more by President Lincoln; suffice to say, he was a happy man that first week of July. Vicksburg residents say that the Fourth of July was not celebrated in their city until World War II.
At the height of its power, the fortress of Vicksburg had a perimeter of 6.5 miles (10.5 km) that incorporated the best topographical features – hills and knobs with deep depressions – that gave the defenders the most advantageous fields of fire (as the Federals found to their dismay during their failed assaults). This perimeter was comprised of multiple forts, gun embrasures and pits, lunettes, and redoubts. The primary fortifications of the perimeter were the South Fort, the Square Fort (Fort Garrott), the Railroad Redoubt, the Great Redoubt, the 3rd Louisiana Redan, the Stockade Redan, and Fort Hill.
As noted above, the majority of the features of Civil War-era Vicksburg have been obliterated by commercial development. However, Vicksburg National Military Park commemorates the campaign, seige, and defense of the city. The park includes 1,330 monuments and markers, a 16-mile tour road, a restored Federal gunboat, and a national cemetery. The jewel among the exhibits is the gunboat U.S.S. Cairo. The Cairo was one of seven Federal ironclad gunboats named in honor of towns along the upper Mississippi and Ohio rivers. Each of these powerful ironclads carried 13 huge cannons. The Cairo’s service at Vicksburg was limited but she still gained a permanent place in military and naval history – she is the first warship anywhere to have been sunk by electrically detonated underwater mines (called torpedoes during the Civil War and for decades afterward). On 12 December 1862, as the boat reached a point about seven miles north of Vicksburg, two underwater mines holed her hull. In minutes, she sank in approximately 35 feet of water. No lives were lost.
As years passed, Cairo was pretty much forgotten by all but the most devoted Civil War scholars. The exact location of the craft was also forgotten. Edwin C. Bears, historian at Vicksburg National Military Park, got interested in the boat, and in 1956 he and two companions were able to locate her. There was some question about whether the vessel they found was the Cairo until 1959 when divers confirmed the find. In 1960, the recovery of artifacts from the boat fired local and national interest, and efforts began to recover the entire vessel. The story of the difficult retrieval of the boat is fascinating; this is one of the great feats of rescuing “lost” elements of United States history. In 1972 Congress passed legislation authorizing the complete restoration of Cairo for display in Vicksburg National Military Park, and there she sits today, high and dry.
Over the last 50 years, many historians, researchers, and students of the American Civil War have arrived at a new appreciation for the conflict’s Western Theater of Operations. An interesting moment for this development came in November 2007 when the excellent magazine America’s Civil War declared on its cover, “The Civil War Was Won in the West!”
If you imagine a line running down the spine of the Appalachian Mountains, you will have a rough division between the Eastern and Western theaters of the war. Action in the Western theater was concentrated in Tennessee and Mississippi.
Heavy newspaper coverage of the Eastern theater – a 19th Century media frenzy – overshadowed vital events in the West (and at sea). The majority of newspapers were in the East; their readers were in the East; thus, such battles as Gettysburg, Antietam (Sharpsburg), and Fredericksburg were covered with special fervor, their reporters having been present at the encounters. Such engagements as the Battle of Franklin, in Tennessee, got scant ink, and the Western theater received short shrift for years. I daresay that some readers of this article will not have heard of the Battle of Franklin.
This piece will focus on the Western theater, providing detailed information about several battlefields worthy of visits, including Franklin. For each battle that I cover, I’ll weave historical background together with details about visiting. I will begin in 1864 in Franklin, and then backtrack to 1862-63, focusing on other locales.
I respectfully suggest that you will get the most from your Civil War battlefield visits if you acquaint yourself with the reasons those sites exist. Many books are available (my choices are listed in Part Five of this article). Various Websites provide an overview of Civil War locales and have suggestions for additional reading. Some of the larger Civil War battlefields offer tour guides for hire (well-versed in all details of the proceedings) as well as audio tapes keyed to maps.
The battle fought at Franklin, Tennessee, 30 November 1864, has been termed “the Gettysburg of the Western theater.” The sequence of events there also involved the Battles of Columbia, Spring Hill, and Nashville. If possible, you should allow two or three days for this tour – perhaps as an adjunct to a trip to Nashville, which, of course, is one of America’s great music cities.
First, some historical background.
In the summer of 1864, following the fall of Atlanta, Confederate Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood led the defeated but still powerful Army of Tennessee into Alabama, then turned north with the idea of investing Nashville, the primary supply depot for the Atlanta-based forces of Federal Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, and the primary Union supply depot of the Western Theater.
Hood reasoned (correctly) that this investment would not only force Sherman to turn his attention from Atlanta to protecting his supply lines, but would endanger all Federal garrisons from Nashville to Atlanta that depended on those supply lines. More importantly, it almost surely would prevent Sherman from joining forces with Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who was in Virginia.
Discerning Hood’s strategy, Sherman dispatched troops to Nashville under Maj. Gen. John Schofield to reinforce the garrisoned city.
A Confederate force met Schofield at Columbia, Tennessee, 24-28 November, 1864. The cavalry of Maj. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest attacked the Federals with the intent of holding Schofield’s forces there until the full Confederate Army of Tennessee could be brought up. Vicious fighting ensued, with a Federal rear guard successfully holding off Confederate forces until the bulk of Schofield’s units were across the Duck River. Nevertheless, 29 November at Spring Hill, Schofield found himself cut off by Hood’s main Confederate force. Hood had a superb opportunity to entrap Schofield’s force and destroy it. Heavy fighting was suspended at nightfall, both sides setting up camp. Hood intended to obliterate Schofield’s smaller army in the morning. But during the night, Federal scouts found a single road north totally unguarded. The Federals muffled the hooves of their horses and mules, also the wheels of their cannons and their nearly 900-wagon supply train, and quietly stole past the Confederate division of Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Cheatham, passing so close that the features of Confederates at their campfires were clearly discernable. For drama and importance, this stealthy movement matches that of Stonewall Jackson at Chancellorsville.
Hood awoke in the morning to find the Federal forces gone. He was enraged, and ordered a frontal attack on the prepared Federal defenses at Franklin.
Hood should have been out patrolling his units during the night. He received reports of strange goings-on with the Federals but he didn’t ride out to survey the appropriate areas. This is unforgivable in any army. It’s the responsibility of the commanding general to see that posts are properly manned, pickets are properly posted, necessary work is performed. (The United States forgot this a few times during World War II, most notably at the Battle of the Bulge.)
Was he drunk that night? Several descriptions of Hood’s supper on the 29th mention “much toasting” late into the proceedings, in anticipation of a big victory the next day, but there is no hard, specific evidence that he was hammered.
Hood’s screw-up at Spring Hill represents one of the most interesting (and overlooked) “what ifs” of U.S. history. If he had destroyed Schofield’s smaller army as he planned, he might have re-invested Tennessee, taken Nashville, brought Kentucky into the Confederacy, and possibly given enough momentum to anti-war Northerners to allow them to prevail in their efforts to end the war. Secession would thus have been confirmed. Terrible damage would have been done to democracy (still a fragile and tender concept in the 19th century) and to efforts to end slavery.
In addition, Hood’s fury in the wake of his screw-up caused him to make decisions that cost his army dearly in the subsequent Battle of Franklin.
It took some time for Hood and his team on 30 November to get their army ready for an assault on the Federal defenses at Franklin. Hood raged about, his anger possibly fueled by pain from his mangled arm and lost leg, his judgment likely clouded by the laudanum he used to subdue the pain (which he should have swigged only when absolutely necessary). His divisional generals counseled strongly against a direct attack on Schofield’s prepared works at Franklin, but Hood was insistent. Perhaps at that moment he was functioning on the razor’s edge between competence and insanity.
At 1600 hours on 30 November, Hood gave the signal to advance, and the Battle of Franklin was underway. A Confederate division led by Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne drove part of Col. Joseph Conrad’s brigade from their shallow, hastily dug rifle pits (many of the pits were dug with bayonets). Conrad’s Federals fled this first line of defense for the relative safety of the prepared defenses at Franklin. Columbia Pike was the only opening in said defenses. Numerous Federal soldiers were shot in the back as they ran along the pike; others were captured.
Another Vicksburg site that deserves attention is the Old Court House, built in 1858, the city’s most historic structure. Federal prisoners were housed there during the seige. The Old Court House has hosted such guests and speakers as Jefferson Davis (who began his political career on its steps), Ulysses S. Grant (after Vicksburg surrendered, Grant raised the United States flag and reviewed his troops at this site), William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and Booker T. Washington. The Old Court House Museum contains thousands of artifacts and exhibits, including Confederate flags (one of which, the curators note, was never surrendered), the necktie worn by Jefferson Davis at his inauguration as President of the Confederate States of America, antebellum clothing and toys, exquisite china and silver, fine portraits, beautifully executed antique furniture, an original Teddy Bear given to a local child by Theodore Roosevelt, Indian and pioneer implements, and the trophy antlers won by the sternwheeler steamboat, Robert E. Lee, legendary in story and song, in a famous 1870 river boat race.
Also on our Vicksburg tour itinerary should be Christ Episcopal Church, built in 1839 and the oldest public assembly building in Vicksburg. Daily services were conducted during the seige despite heavy artillery shelling.
The Historic Downtown Waterfront has been much altered by flood control projects of the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers and the State of Mississippi and by the construction of the Mississippi River Bridge. Still, the waterfront is worth a visit to see the vast, lifelike murals on the flood wall by famed painter Robert Dafford: scenes depicting historic Old Vicksburg, steamboats on the Mississippi, Theodore Roosevelt’s legendary bear hunt, and other themes related to Vicksburg’s past and present. For those so inclined, jet boat tours of the Mississippi leave from the Historic Downtown Waterfront, carrying passengers to Confederate artillery positions, Grant’s Canal, Fort Nogales, and the like.
Leaving Vicksburg, we can travel quite productively either north or south.
New Orleans is 225 miles south. Let’s go there.
On 24 April 1862, Federal Flag-Officer David G. Farragut successfully sailed past the Confederate forts of Jackson and St. Philip, arriving the next morning at New Orleans where he demanded the city’s surrender, which he received 28 April. A Federal army commanded by Maj. Gen. Benjamin Franklin Butler (derisively called “Beast Butler” and “Spoons” by the locals) occupied New Orleans on 1 May.
A “must” in Civil War tours of New Orleans – until 29 August 2005 – was Fort Jackson, one of the twin masonry forts (the other being, as noted, St. Philip) which at the time of the Civil War were situated at the Head of the Passes, the point at which the Mississippi River divided before exiting into the Gulf of Mexico. Sadly, Hurricane Katrina filled the area surrounding Fort Jackson with water, leaving the fort partially submerged. The fort’s structure now shows many cracks and its integrity is suspect. The small but excellent museum in the fort was heavily damaged. An effort is being made to restore it.
The renowned Confederate Civil War Museum of New Orleans, at 929 Camp St., mercifully was undamaged by Hurricane Katrina and continues to exhibit its outstanding collection of Civil War artifacts. The museum is a block from picturesque Lee Circle, commemorating the Civil War generalship of Robert E. Lee (Lee’s birthday remains a holiday in the South). This area, too, is definitely worth touring.
Only a short walk away is the National World War II Museum (designated the nation’s official World War II Museum by Congress). As long as we are in New Orleans, we would be doing ourselves a major disservice to miss touring this magnificent facility. There is no World War II museum anywhere that can begin to match this outstanding collection. The story of World War II is recounted through personal accounts, exciting interactive exhibits, and priceless artifacts (some of them quite possibly the only ones extant).
At Lee Circle we can catch a 1920s electric streetcar to the beautiful Garden District. From the streetcar we will see various examples of New Orleans’ finest residential architecture as we proceed west along St. Charles Avenue. We can exit the streetcar at Audubon Boulevard; to our left (southeast) on the other side of St. Charles is huge Audubon Park, once a large cotton plantation, that runs to the Mississippi River. (Audubon Park also can be reached by riverboat from the Vieux Carre, a.k.a. the French Quarter).
(The vast New Orleans Zoo is in Audubon Park. It’s a substantial hike to the zoo from the St. Charles trolley stop on Audubon Blvd. The walk can be avoided by taking the riverboat from the French Quarter.)
If we exit the streetcar at Audubon Blvd., then cross St. Charles Ave. to its south side, and walk east, we will find a gated enclave of multimillion-dollar mansions, one of which is occupied by the president of Tulane University. This area is well-guarded and must be appreciated from outside the gate. At the southwest corner of Walnut Street and St. Charles Avenue is the Park View Guest House (7004 St. Charles), built to house visitors to the 1880 International Cotton Exposition. (The author lived in the Park View during the summers of 1980 and 1981 while he was working on his doctoral studies.) Across St. Charles Avenue from the Park View, two blocks east, is the entrance to a graceful and lovely Catholic university, Loyola of the South, whose beautiful church is always in great demand for weddings. Also two blocks from the Park View, on Audubon Blvd., is a side entrance to Tulane; the main entrance is on St. Charles Avenue.
(We can catch a river boat at the New Orleans Zoo that will carry us to its landing at the French Quarter, providing a different view from what we enjoyed aboard the streetcar.)
During the Civil War, as the supply of coffee began to dwindle because of the Federal blockade, the enterprising merchants of New Orleans began to extend their coffee stocks by adding root chicory. By the time the Federals occupied the city, people had developed a taste for chicory coffee, and it remains a staple of New Orleans today. We owe it to ourselves to stop at the Café DuMonde, a short walk from the boat landing in the French Quarter, for some genuine New Orleans coffee and beignets (a beignet is a sort of light Creole doughnut served with a copious covering of powdered sugar). From there, perhaps we should stroll through the French Market and pick up some fresh fruit for our next day’s river voyage to the Chalmette Battlefield, part of Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve (the only National Historical Park or memorial named for a pirate) and we should indulge ourselves with some genuine pralines. There are praline shops just a few steps past Café DuMonde along Decatur St.
While we are in the French Quarter we should visit the Cabildo, St. Louis Cathedral, and the Presbytere, and take a stroll around Jackson Square, watching the sidewalk artists at work. The Cabildo was built for the original Spanish government of New Orleans and later served as the seat of the Louisiana Supreme Court. St. Louis Cathedral, established in 1720, is the oldest continuously functioning cathedral in the United States. The Presbytere, once part of the cathedral complex, now houses the colorful and entertaining permanent exhibit “Mardi Gras: It’s Carnival Time in Louisiana.” Across St. Peter Street from the northwest corner of Jackson Square is the Café Pontalba (the author’s personal favorite for authentic Creole seafood gumbo) where one can enjoy a delicious meal while sitting by the open doors and watching the street entertainers at the intersection of Chartres and St. Peter Streets. Across Chartres St. from Café Pontalba is Le Petit Theatre, the oldest community theater in America. Breakfast at Brennan’s is not to be missed, and dining favorites include Antoine’s, Galatoire’s, and the Court of the Two Sisters. (Sunday Brunch at the Court of the Two Sisters is an epicure’s delight.) Another dining favorite is Commander’s Palace, located in Uptown New Orleans.
A few words of explanation for Yankees new to this area. Cajun and Creole are not synonymous! Cajun (a corruption of Acadian) cooking has its origins among the French settlers in the backwoods and swamps of Louisiana. Strongly oriented to the use of crayfish and pork, Cajun dishes employ some rather hot sauces and spices (one Cajun sauce that can be purchased in New Orleans is labeled “Bottled Hell”) such as Tabasco, a Louisiana product. Some of the New Orleans restaurants featuring authentic Cajun dishes offer live Zydeco music and dancing as entertainment (great fun); it can be equally entertaining to watch diners new to Cajun cooking perspiring their way through their meals. Creole cooking is much milder than Cajun, with meals often built around crab meat or shrimp, with a delicate mixture of herbs and spices. Experience indicates that Creole dishes served in a restaurant oriented to Cajun food will be much spicier than the same dishes prepared in a Creole-oriented restaurant (and vice versa).
Other sites we should visit while in the French Quarter include the old New Orleans Mint, which served both the United States and the Confederate States of America as a mint during the 19th century and now is the excellent Louisiana State Museum, and the Old Ursuline Convent, one of the oldest buildings not only in Louisiana but the entire Mississippi Valley, designed by a French military engineer in 1745 and completed in 1753.
As we are on a Civil War-oriented tour, we should also visit the Beauregard-Keyes House and Garden, on Chartres Street near the Old Ursuline Convent. Modern as compared to the convent, this “raised cottage” was built in 1826 by a wealthy New Orleans auctioneer. This structure, with its Doric columns and impressive twin staircases, was the home of Lt. Gen. Pierre Gustave Toutant (P.G.T.) Beauregard and several members of his family from 1865 through 1867. The house had many owners until 1925 when it was threatened with demolition but was saved by a history preservation organization.
In the same vein, we should add to our Vieux Carre itinerary the 1850 House in the Lower Pontalba Building on St. Ann Street, the Gallier House on Royal Street, built in 1837, and the Hermann-Grima House on St. Peter Street, built in 1831. All of these reflect faithfully the Golden Age of New Orleans as it was prior to the Civil War. Of particular merit is the Hermann-Grima House, which comprises, in addition to the fine mansion, an elaborate courtyard, a garconniere, a garden, stables, and a working open-hearth kitchen.
Perhaps in the evening we can relax and compare tour notes while taking the evening cruise of the paddle-wheeler Natchez, enjoying the lights along the Mississippi’s shores as we listen to live Dixieland music. We can hum a bit of the theme song for the TV show “Maverick” of the late ’50s and early ’60s: “Natchez to New Orleans/Livin’ on jacks and queens/Maverick is a legend of the West.” ●