MERCURYNEWS.COM: January17, 2014
The “y’all” in his drawl was as thick as Tupelo honey. “In the South, we don’t call it the Civil Wawr. We call it the Wawwwr of Nawthern aggression.”
Our steamboat riverlorian was setting the stage for what we’d be seeing on our cruise between New Orleans and Memphis. There’d be lots of little towns that would remember how the North choked off the river — their lifeline — in the Confederate South.
It’s more than a little ironic that my husband and I chose the Civil War sesquicentennial to mark our wedding anniversary — 25 years of compromises. But we were keen to take a trip on the American Queen — an elegant period steamship that was making a Christmas week run on the lower Mississippi River.
Steaming up the Mississippi in a six-story floating palace is like time travel.
The lower river is alluvial and winds its way lazily past southern plantations and postcard-like towns built on bluffs overlooking the banks. Just watching the river from your deck is supreme relaxation — like being hypnotized by slowly swirling flakes in the first snowfall of winter.
Still, few passengers would turn down a land tour of these ports of call: New Orleans; Oak Alley Plantation; St. Francisville, La.; Natchez and Vicksburg, Miss, and Memphis, Tenn. Each town weaves a tapestry of American history so that you come away with a deep understanding of what the Mississippi meant to our forefathers and to this nation.
Boarding in New Orleans, passengers have a full day to take in this key port in the antebellum South. The Civil War changed everything for the Creole elite in this town. When 15,000 Union troops took control in 1862, French influence was squelched. Yet, the French Quarter is still the No. 1 draw for history buffs, foodies and bead-bedecked revelers.
A day’s stretch up the river is Oak Alley in the heart of the plantation trail. The American Queen docks here much the same way a steamboat would have landed 150 years ago. It pulls up to the levee, a few hundred yards from where the sugarcane plantation’s famous oak trees form an avenue to the Greek Revival mansion and its gardens.
Day three sees the steamboat mooring in St. Francisville — a small town of proudly preserved antebellum homes and the gravesite of Union gunboat commander John Hart. Hart took his own life as the battle raged around him during the siege of Vicksburg. Remarkably, a truce was called so he could be given a proper Masonic burial at the local Episcopal church. The war stopped long enough for enemies to be civil.
But further up the river, folks have a different story about the siege of Vicksburg. They’ll say there was “nothing civil about it.” The Union Army gained control of the entire Mississippi River after that 47-day siege, which some people blame — to this day — on the surrender of nearby Natchez. “There’s no love lost between our two towns,” a Vicksburg historian told my husband, who had made the supreme faux pax of wearing a Natchez cap in Vicksburg. “We still remember how Natchez hung us out to dry.”
If the goal of a traveler is to be touched by the places he or she visits — then this is a deeply rewarding trip. History is documented and celebrated in these southern towns along the Mississippi River. Traversing the region by steamship does much to bring the stories to life.
The American Queen Steamboat Company celebrates history on the Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee, Snake and Columbia Rivers. http://www.americanqueensteamboatcompany.com