Natchez is a port city on the Mississippi River that played an important role in the cultivation of cotton, mostly on the other side of the river in Louisiana, but also in the War of Southern Secession (or Northern Aggression, if you are a Southern partisan) that started when hotheads in South Carolina bombarded a Federal fortress in Charleston bay. King Cotton and the steamboat trade brought the world to the otherwise isolated town, that had been successively occupied by the eponymous native Natchez people, France, Great Britain, Spain, the United States, the Confederacy, and finally the United States again. Black slaves toiled in the fields or served their masters in the palaces that still can been seen by tourists visiting Natchez.
By 1860, Natchez had more millionaires than any other settlement in the United States. Many of these were originally from the north, as was the Nutt family who came from Pennsylvania. The Nutt family plantation had slaves, too. The family’s Pennsylvania origins apparently did not make them shy about human bondage and exploitation, even while the Nutts would remain faithful to the Union throughout what became known as the Civil War. The bargain that President Thomas Jefferson arranged with Napoleon Bonaparte in making the Louisiana Purchase had proven to be profitable to the nascent United States.
The wealth and gentility of the place attracted immigrants to Natchez, adding a further cosmopolitan air to the place that more resembled New Orleans than the backward state of Mississippi in which it stood. Steamboats provided regular service up and down the Mississippi, connecting the American hinterland with the rest of the world and its influences. There were not only immigrants from the rest of the United States, but also foreigners hailing from Ireland, France, Germany, and Russia. And unlike the rest of Mississippi, Natchez also had a variety of faiths. It was in Natchez that the Spanish had established a Catholic church and paid for English-speaking priests from Ireland to minister to their congregation of mostly Irish or English ancestry. The area also attracted Jews from Europe, who were to establish a minyan and later a synagogue in one of the oldest Jewish communities in the Deep South.
Jewish peddlers had come as early as the 1700s, even during French rule which by 1722 had established the Black Code that not only regulated slavery but also expelled Jews from the territory. Even so, toleration of Jews was observed, even while French laws were frequently ignored. Conditions improved for Jews in the area under British rule, which permitted the children of Israel to settle. There were enough Jews in Natchez after the American Revolution, when Spain ruled from 1783 to 1795, that their names are inscribed in legal records of the time. Once Spain ceded the territory to the United States, Jews went on to become prominent in the economic and political affairs of Natchez, as in the rest of the South.
Natchez, because of its financial and family ties to the North, was divided in its loyalties as the federal government and the Confederacy contended over the future of the Union from 1861 to 1865. Natchez, because of its location on the river and its stores of cotton, became a strategic point of contention between the warring parties. Serving President Abraham Lincoln well, General Winfield Scott devised his so-called Anaconda Plan with which the federal navy blockaded ports throughout the South and thus bottled up its considerable production of cotton. Iron-sided federal gunboats entered the Mississippi River once New Orleans was secured from the Confederacy, and tightened ever so carefully the federal coils around the hapless and embattled Southerners.
While the Confederate hero, General Robert E. Lee, was fighting Union troops in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, an equally important battle was underway not far from Natchez. The port of Vicksburg, just a few miles upriver, held out for weeks under bombardment from federal gunboats, as well as infantry and artillery. Some of the people of Vicksburg even hid in dugouts cut from the loess soil to escape the destruction. But Vicksburg finally fell on the Fourth of July of 1863. The people of Vicksburg, and most Mississippians, considered it the darkest date of the calendar for a century afterwards. And while it was a federal holiday elsewhere, the Fourth of July was not observed in Vicksburg for generations. But opinions were somewhat divided in Natchez about the Confederacy since many of the 340 planters in the area were recent arrivals and opposed secession. But events of the devastating war would prove to alter many fortunes, as did opinion.
Vicksburg, destroyed by federal firepower, became a mythic symbol of resistance, while divided Natchez - nearly untouched by the war - was every more viewed with suspicion and disdain by Mississippians because of its supposed collective treason. That it was known for cut-throats and whores, foreigners and Catholics, gambling and booze, even into the 20th century, did not foster its acceptance by the white and largely Protestant Christian majority in Mississippi.
It was on September 3, 1862 that the 1000-ton ironclad USS Essex landed at Natchez, which sits on a steep bluff overlooking Old Man River. Originally an Army vessel, it had passed into the hands of the Navy and was skippered by Commander Robert Townsend. By mid-1862, the Essex had seen considerable service, and had even twice engaged the better armed Confederate warship, the Arkansas. During its Army service, the Essex was outfitted with iron armor consisting of 1¾ inch forward casemate and ¾-inch sides, which was considered insufficient. Nevertheless, the former civilian steamboat had a crew of 134 and a panoply consisting of a 32-pounder muzzleloading cannon, three 11-inch Dahlgren smooth bore cannons, one 10-inch Dahlgren smoothbore cannon, and one 12-pounder howitzer. By September of that year, the Essex was the only federal ironclad on the Mississippi River.
Having seen the steely resistance of Mississippians, Townsend was apparently in no mood to truck with any defiance. When the Essex landed at Natchez, residents refused to provide any supplies, such as ice, to the hated federals. The plucky people of Natchez even started taking pot-shots at the sinisterly black vessel bearing the American flag. The Essex, in response, opened fire with one of its formidable cannons at the Under-the-Hill section of Natchez, which lay on the bank of the river at the base of the bluff. It was under the hill in Natchez that much of the commerce for the town took place, and thus it was replete with merchants and their stores.
Seeing the report of artillery from the Essex, people fled from the bank of the river to seek safety. And it was in attempting to escape that seven-year-old Rosalie Beekman, the daughter of a German Jewish merchant by the name of Aaron Beekman, was mortally injured by shrapnel from the blast. The little girl’s last words to her distraught father were “Papa, I’m killed.” It was thus that she became Natchez’s only fatal casualty of a nearly suicidal war that had claimed hundreds of thousands of lives elsewhere in a country that paid a heavy price to eliminate the stain of slavery and restore its union.
Support for the Confederacy and secession, even while it was shaky before the Civil War, became galvanized after the hostilities when federal troops, many of whom were manumitted slaves, occupied the town. The myth-making soon began and continued right through the retreat of federal forces and the return of state sovereignty in the 1880s. Little Rosalie now symbolizes Southern resistance to federal coercion and is part of self-identity of the town where once a sign on Route 50 greeted visitors with the words “Welcome to Natchez: where the old South still lives.” The rather sanguine approach to slavery of the ante-bellum days and subsequent post-bellum Jim Crow days lends itself to what Southerners call the “moonlight and magnolias” époque of exquisite manners, dandified cavaliers and hoop-skirted ladies. Those who seek to memorialize the myth turn out every year for pageants and tableaux in Natchez where an expurgated history of the town is offered by residents dressed in period costume, dancing and miming a choreography written in the 1930s. No longer, however, are black descendants of slaves on hand at the tableaux to sit on stage picking through cotton while white aficionados of the Confederacy prance.
And little Rosalie Beekman is now a part of that Southern cult of the dead and historic memory. Every year, visitors come to the elaborate cemetery on the Natchez bluff where Southern planters and matrons, Confederate soldiers, and even a few slaves lie waiting for the Last Judgement. Every year, visitors come to the historic cemetery to visit the graves of people prominent in Natchez history to hear costumed re-enactors recall the lives of the dead they portray. And it is there that a child re-enactor portrays little Rosalie, now immortalized as a mythic rebel in the Southern Cause and in the shadow of moonlight and magnolias.