Fort McPherson, in Natchez, Mississippi, was a Civil War fort built primarily by United States Colored Troops (USCT). The fort became a major recruiting center for the USCT, which was comprised especially of African American slaves who ran away from the places where they had been held in bondage. Many of the men who made up the ranks of the USCT at Fort McPherson had previously been sold as slaves at the second largest slave market in the history of the Deep South – the Forks of the Road – situated on the outskirts of Natchez. Together, these two sites, located on opposite ends of the city, help to tell a story enslavement, self-emancipation, and active resistance by African Americans, without whom the outcome of the bloodiest war fought on American soil may have taken a different turn.
Fort McPherson Meets the Forks of the Road: Podcast Transcript
“The Civil War-era Fort McPherson is part of the unique nexus of enslavement, antebellum freedom, self-emancipation, and resistance expressed in the history and cultural landscape of Natchez, Mississippi.
Named for Union Army Major General James Birdseye McPherson, the earthen fort was built in 1864 primarily by the 58th, 70th and 71st Infantries and the 6th Heavy Artillery regiments of the United States Colored Troops.
It sits on the high bluff overlooking the Mississippi River encompassing 1500 acres on the north side of the city between downtown and the Natchez City Cemetery. Deep ravines lie to the north and east. Though orders were given following the war in 1865 to demolish the outer fortifications, some earthworks are visible on the landscape today. Indeed, some stand in dramatic contrast to natural topography.
There are currently no exhibits identifying Fort McPherson or the central role of self-emancipated African Americans in the construction and garrisoning of the fort as members of the United States Colored Troops. Interpretation of African American heritage in the city focuses on oppression and enslavement at the Forks of the Road, the atypical but extraordinarily documented mid-nineteenth-century life of the free African American businessman William Johnson, the mention of servants in antebellum home tours, and persons and events of more recent history such as Madame Nelly Jackson, the tragic 1940 Rhythm Nightclub fire, and the famous twentieth-century African American author Richard Wright .
Visitors from all over the world travel to Natchez year-round and in great numbers during the Spring and Fall Pilgrimage to tour the antebellum homes for which Natchez is so well known. A number of these properties are located within Fort McPherson and were used to house Union officers during the occupation of the city beginning on July 13th 1863 less than 10 days after the fall of Vicksburg.
Local traffic and pedestrians regularly travel along these residential streets with no knowledge of the fact that their drive along Linton Road takes them directly into Fort McPherson’s inner fortification or that the hill they jog past every day along B Street near North Commerce is actually the remains of Battery Gresham. There is no indication to visitors at the City Cemetery, where some members of the 58th Infantry are buried, that the contoured elevations along the southern edge of the cemetery are remains of the northern edge of a Civil War fort.
In addition to building the fort, US Colored Troops at Natchez were responsible for countering confederate guerilla actions and emancipating the enslaved. Detachments of soldiers from Fort McPherson fought locally important skirmishes at Vidalia, Louisiana just across the Mississippi River from Natchez, and at Gillespie’s Plantation, and Buck’s Ferry, among others. The soldiers discipline and resolve brought success in battle and earned the respect of their white comrades and officers.
As a place of African American freedom, power, and patriotism, the fort presents a sharp contrast to the Forks of the Road.
The Forks of the Road site, listed on the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, was the second largest slave market in the Deep South. In the 1830s, the market was intentionally situated just outside of the antebellum city limits to comply with legislation prohibiting interstate slave traders from housing their slaves within the city .
A contraband camp was established at the Forks of the Road to accommodate the thousands of self-emancipated slaves who flocked to the protection of the Union army in Natchez. Though conditions were far from idyllic, the former slave market had still been transformed from a place of unjustified suffering into a beacon of salvation.
Many formerly enslaved men of military age and fitness joined regiments of colored troops raised at the fort.
This historic interplay of Fort McPherson and the Forks of the Road is poignantly expressed in a letter written by a Wisconsin soldier stationed at Natchez to the Milwaukee Daily Sentinel published on February 17, 1864:
“Our first quarters were in a long range of barracks used for a number of years as slave pens. Very many of the men composing the regiment had been sold in them; brought from Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and other slave States, in large gangs ironed, they were placed in these dungeons until a sale could be affected. These buildings were situated in [the] outskirts of the city and owned by an Irishman. The worst secessionists [sic] in the whole country. As the position was very much exposed, we were ordered to construct barracks within the fortifications and to tear down these slave pens to obtain lumber to build them. This order was received just at evening and was hailed with the wildest enthusiasm by these men who had been chained, gagged and whipped, and suffered tortures unutterable within these same walls, and through that long night they worked with a terrible earnestness and the morning sun saw the slave pens of Natchez leveled to the ground, never, it is hoped, to be again reconstructed. During this work many a thrilling reminiscence was recalled of the cruelty of traders, of sad partings of husband and wife, of inhuman fathers selling their own children, and a thousand other incidents illustrating the detestable state of society at the South,”
January 25th 1864
Recognition of an African American heritage site in Natchez not primarily focused on enslavement and oppression as the Forks of the Road is, or focused on the anomaly of slave-owning antebellum freedmen in Mississippi like the William Johnson National Historic Site is, but a site instead focused on the strength, solidarity, and honor of self-emancipated African American Civil War soldiers at Fort McPherson can be a source of pride not only to the people of Natchez but to all Americans.
Today, removed in time by a brief 150 years, it is important for us to reflect on this underserved history lest we forget the struggles that have brought our society to its present state and will no doubt influence our future as we perpetually re-evaluate what it means to be an American.”