Sunday, March 12, 2017

War and Peace, Prosperity and Poverty

I had the opportunity to visit Natchez, Mississippi last week. This historic town that overlooks the magnificent Mississippi River speaks volumes about war and peace, prosperity and poverty.

The Mississippi River from the bluffs of Natchez, MS

Natchez once was the home to more millionaires than any other place in the United States. Our guide told us that 19 of the 26 millionaires in the USA in 1860 had homes in Natchez. I could not confirm that exact number in my independent research but this article states that Natchez had half the millionaires in the US in 1850. This history text states that Natchez had more millionaires in 1860 than in any other place in the world.

Whatever the number of millionaires, Natchez was a very prosperous town of around 6,000 people before the Civil War. Approximately 4,000 of those residents were white and 2,000 were black slaves who toiled in the cotton fields surrounding the city which were largely responsible for the wealth in Natchez.

The vestiges of that wealth and prosperity are still evident today as you tour the city and come across as many as 200 antebellum mansions that were built on "king cotton" and the sweat of those slaves.

Speaking of slavery, I thought it was interesting to see this graphical depiction of the slave trade from Africa in the Natchez Visitor's Center. Contrary to what most people probably believe, North America was the destination for a relatively small number of slaves in comparison to the total slave trade out of Africa.

Credit: Natchez Visitor's Center

Only 4% of the Atlantic Slave Trade went to North America.

Over 10 times (42%) that number went to the West Indies.

38% went to Brazil. 6% to Guyana and 8% to the rest of Central and South America.

2% ended up in Europe which you almost never hear anything about.

Slavery left a horrible stain on the United States but this context is almost never mentioned in the history books or by the media.

The inhumanity and randomness of it all is mind boggling. One day you are walking the plains of West Africa and the next you are on a ship to Brazil, Cuba or Mississippi. In that moment your life and those of all your progeny is changed forever. Truly unspeakable.

This is the Rosalie Mansion that we toured. It was completed in 1823 and originally owned by Peter Little who acquired his wealth through cotton and the invention of a power saw that he fashioned from parts off of a steamboat engine.

Rosalie, Natchez, MS

Rosalie became the headquarters of the Union Army during the Civil War after the fall of Natchez in 1862. General Grant selected the house himself due to its strategic position overlooking the river. From the second floor porches one can see eight miles up and down the river on a clear day.

Natchez fell without much of a fight in the Civil War. A solo cannonball lobbed into the city was all that was necessary for the city to surrender. Most of the monied interests in Natchez were against secession in the lead up to the war. After all, war is usually not good for business. That is especially true when most of your markets are in enemy territory. The fact that Natchez was not the site of a big battle is the reason that those antebellum mansions exist today.

Vicksburg, which is up the river, was not as fortunate. Vicksburg was the last Confederate stronghold along the Mississippi River and Lincoln and Grant knew they had to take it whatever the cost. The rebels knew its importance as well. Grant was able to chase the enemy until they were all concentrated in defensive positions in and around Vicksburg. Grant besieged the city for 40 days and cut off the Confederate Army from reinforcements and supplies. Vicksburg and its antebellum mansions paid a heavy price in the siege. The antebellum mansions survived in Natchez but not in Vicksburg. Such is the difference between war and peace.

Nevertheless, Natchez never was the same after the war. Most of the plantation owners went bankrupt during the war. The big money after the war was made by merchants who profited from the rebuilding efforts in the South and those with shipping interests along the Mississippi. Cotton never was the king it once was in the economy.

Those antebellum mansions in Natchez have the same look of grandeur they had when they were built close to 200 years ago. However, the current owners struggle to paint and maintain them and rely on tourists to take a walk back into that bygone era to feed money into the economy.

Driving around the city of 16,000 today, it is poverty you mainly see rather than prosperity. Three large employers (Johns Manville, Armstrong Tire and International Paper) have closed manufacturing plants in the city since 2000 and the effects on the economy are evident.

Without tourism and the health care industry, which is significant in every town in America, the economic future of Natchez looks pretty bleak. It is haunting to see a city that once was so prosperous now struggling to escape the grips of poverty.

There are real lessons to be learned in a visit to Natchez, Mississippi. It gives you a better perspective on the effects of war and peace and prosperity and poverty on human beings. The contrasts are inescapable as you tour that city on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River.

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