Column: All roads lead to Rodney

By BENNY HORNSBY,

In 12th century France, the theologian Alain deLille said, “A thousand roads lead men forever to Rome,” which later morphed into the well-known idiom “All roads lead to Rome.”

In a similar vein, inhabitants of the early 18th century Mississippi Territory might well have heard “All roads lead to Rodney.”

A few weeks ago, I had the honor of escorting about 15 members of my Sunday School class and their families on a day trip to the “ghost” town of Rodney, near Natchez, and the nearby ruins of the antebellum Windsor mansion.

I use the word “ghost” advisedly, because there are at least three ghosts associated with the Windsor ruins and none that I know of with Rodney.

Even though my MA from San Diego State University is in Asian History, gained during two tours of shore duty, I have always been a Mississippi historian at heart. In fact, the first book that anyone ever bought me was a history of the Battle of Vicksburg when I was 15.

While not exactly the Appian Way, there was a time when many, if not all, roads in the Mississippi Territory did lead to Rodney.

First settled by the French around 1700 and called Petit Gulf, it was earlier the site where the old Spanish El Camino Real, or “Royal Road,” from St. Augustine, Florida, the oldest continually inhabited city in the United States, to Los Angeles, California, crossed the Mississippi River. 

It is also located near Natchez, the terminus of the Natchez Trace, which runs all the way to Nashville; and close to the St. Stephens Road, between Natchez, capital of the Mississippi Territory and St. Stephens, Alabama, capital of the Alabama Territory, Of course, the largest road of all was the Mississippi River, at Rodney’s doorstep.

Settlers, many from Georgia and the Carolinas, were attracted to the vast amounts of inexpensive cotton land available, as were Virginians who were barely making a profit growing tobacco.

Archaeologists sometimes call the area in which “culture flows” occur an “interaction sphere,” a place or region where one society disseminates its symbols, values, and inventions to others. Rodney was such a place.

An early census of the area sounds like a “Who’s Who” of  American history: Rodney is named after Thomas Rodney, the first Territorial Judge of the Mississippi Territory, who assumed office in 1801; his brother, Caesar, was one of the 56 brave individuals who signed the Declaration of Independence; Judge Rodney presided over the treason trial of former Vice President Aaron Burr that was held in Natchez; Andrew Jackson kept a country store nearby before his military and political career; Zachary Taylor, the 12th President of the United States (“Old Rough and Ready”) and Jefferson Davis, the only president of the Confederacy, both had cotton plantations in the area.

In fact, Davis eloped with Taylor’s daughter, who spent many of her declining years at Beauvoir in Biloxi. 

Less well-known was Rodney resident Dr. Rush Nutt, a physician who also developed a variety of cotton soon grown all over the South, introduced contour plowing, and who made improvements to Eli Whitney’s cotton gin.

When Mississippi was admitted to the Union in 1817, Rodney missed being selected as the state capital by only three votes.

The honor went to Washington, just outside Natchez, some 30 miles away, and then to Columbia (1821-1822), and then to LeFleur’s Bluff (Jackson) also on the banks of the Pearl River.

By the 1850s, Rodney had become the busiest port on the Mississippi River between New Orleans and St. Louis.

It was an entrepot for the export of cotton and for the importation of consumer goods needed in the growing communities on both the Mississippi and Louisiana sides of the River.

The town boasted 1,000 residents, 35 stores, two banks, two newspapers, the state’s first opera house, a hotel, a school, and several churches. 

One of these churches, the Presbyterian, established in 1832, figures prominently in Rodney’s most well-known Civil War story. After the fall of Vicksburg, on July 4, 1863, with Rodney’s population now over 4,000, the Confederacy was cut in two and Union warships patrolled the Mississippi River.

The “tinclad,” USS Rattler, was stationed at Rodney. One Sunday morning, its captain and several of his officers decided to attend services at the church and were promptly captured by Confederate cavalry.

In the dust up that followed, the Rattler opened fire on the church and a cannon ball, still visible, lodged in the right front façade of the church.

Actually, the cannon ball you can see today is authentic, but it was added during a 1930s restoration of the building.

Several events in quick succession contributed to the demise of Rodney.

First, the “canary in the mine” was when two bouts of yellow fever drastically reduced the population.

Then, the boll weevil arrived; the Civil War took place and Union soldiers foraged the area clean; the town essentially burned to the ground in 1869; but the “coup de grace” came in 1870 when a sand bar formed in the River, altering its course, and leaving Rodney high and dry two miles from the River.

The railroad later bypassed the town in favor of Fayette, now the county seat of Jefferson County; the exodus continued; and by the 1930s, Rodney’s population was less than 100.

Governor Theodore Bilbo officially cancelled the town’s charter in 1930.

As you walk through what’s left of Rodney, it reminds you of a Potemkin village; however, instead of buildings with false fronts, you find shells of buildings: an old store, the Masonic Hall, the Mt.  Zion No. 1 Baptist Church, now under water from a 2011 flood, the Presbyterian Church, etc., all surrounded by private land. 

The main street, with gaps between the buildings, reminded me of a snaggle-tooth smile.

Just across the county line, in what is now Claiborne County, about 10 miles from Rodney if you take the short cut through the campus of Alcorn State University, which was originally Oakland College and founded by residents of Rodney, are the majestic ruins of Windsor.

The ruins consist of 23 standing Corinthian columns, all that is left of what was the largest Greek Revival mansion ever built in Mississippi.

The mansion, built primarily by slave labor, was completed in 1861 and consisted of three floors, with 25 rooms, each having its own fireplace.

It cost $175,000 or about $4 million in today’s dollars.

There was a glass-domed cupola on top which in his book, Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain notes he sat in to observe steam boats on the Mississippi River some 4 miles away.

During the Civil War, it was commandeered by Union forces and turned into a hospital, but not before a Union soldier was killed on the front porch.

General Ulysses S. Grant, in the area for the Vicksburg campaign, ordered it burned in retribution but was persuaded to change his mind, deciding about the same time that the adjacent town of Port Gibson was “A city too beautiful to burn.”

Windsor survived until 1890 when a careless guest dropped cigar ashes into construction debris, and it burned leaving only the columns.

As far as ghosts, three “manifestations” are routinely reported by paranormal experts: the ghost of the Union soldier killed on the front porch; the ghost of the owner who died only weeks after the building was completed in 1861; and the mysterious sound of music and dancing, no doubt from the gay soirées held by the long dead planter aristocracy. Rumor has it that strange hands softly touch you if you walk the grounds at night.

Reflecting on both Rodney and Windsor, the concluding lines of Percy Shelly’s poem, “Ozymandias,” popped into my head:

“Look on my Works, ye Mighty and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Writing this poem in 1818, Shelly was commenting on the transitory nature of existence and the fleeting nature of life. Presciently, he was also writing a eulogy for places like Rodney and Windsor that burst on the scene and then slowly fade away.

Ironically, just four years later, at age 29, Shelly died when his sailboat sank off Livorno, Italy, the seaport for Pisa. While a poet and not a seaman, he deserves a sailor’s farewell. So, here’s a few lines for Shelly, from an old German submariner’s song:

“There are no roses on a

sailor’s grave,

No lilies on an ocean wave.

The only tribute is the

seagull’s sweeps,

And the teardrops that a

sweetheart weeps.”

     Light a candle for me.

Hattiesburg’s Benny Hornsby is a retired Navy captain. Send him a note at bennyhornsby.com.