Battlefields vs. Tearooms
Our first stop was Vicksburg, Mississippi. Mary and Hank and I were looking forward to touring this antebellum town with Tom, an American-history buff of such passion thatour home library includes 130 volumes on the Civil War alone. Personally, I would have preferred touring Civil War tearooms—battlefields holding no allure for me whatsoever, as I consider them places of lingering sorrow, mostly because of a secret talent of mine: I see ghosts. My mother and her sister did, too, as did many of their Louisiana ancestors, especially their great-aunts, raven-haired beauties known as the Artigeaux Belles, about whom I’dnever been able to track down a single fact anywhere, a vexing mystery.
While the other passengers queued up to board a big tour bus, we took off ina minivan that the Delta Queen Steamboat Company’s remarkable public relations manager, Lucette Brehm, had helped us arrange so Tom could play tour guide.
“Two of the most crucial battles of the Civil War ended at about the same time,” Tom began as we approached Vicksburg National Military Park. “The last day of fighting at Gettysburg was on July 3, 1863. Also on July 3, 1863, General Pemberton, who was in charge of the Vicksburg Confederate forces, met with Ulysses S. Grant asking about the terms of surrender.”
Whoever controlled Vicksburg controlled the Mississippi. As Abraham Lincoln put it:“Vicksburg is the key, and the war can never be brought to a close until the key is in our pocket.”
Pemberton, a Northerner married to a Southern woman and, therefore, always suspect, surrendered on July4. “And Vicksburg didn’t celebrate the Fourth of July again until World War II,” Tom added.
The military park was established in 1899 to preserve the site of the Siege of Vicksburg, but to me it had also preserved the grievous energies of war and loss that seemed to pulse from every direction in this hushed and haunting place. And yet Isuddenly heard signs of hope: the unmistakable chip-chip-chip of the prothonotary warbler. Sure enough, a yellow meteor soon flew across the treetops. Could this 1,800-acre graveyard be a haven for migratory birds?
“The military park is one of the top birding spots in Mississippi,” confirmed Bruce Reid of the National Audubon Society’s Mississippi state office in downtown Vicksburg. More than a hundred bird species have been identified there, including tanagers, orioles, vireos, the exquisite painted bunting, and Swainson’s, Kentucky ,hooded, and, yes, prothonotary warblers.
“We try to spread the birding word on the military park,” said Reid, “which should be as much about life as it is about death.”
Buoyed by this benediction, we made our way down the steep jetty back to the Queen, its crown-topped black smokestacks and colossal red paddle wheel etched boldly against the gauzy riparian sky. That evening, after another blowout Southern supper, we skipped the curious movie choice—Fatal Flood—for one of the trip’s highlights: a posthumous performance bynone other than Mark Twain.
“Clothes make the man,” Twain began, resplendent in a white suit with a crimson handkerchief flaring from achest pocket. “Naked people have little or no influence on society.”
Classic Twain always brings down the house, but Lewis Hankins’s shuffling gaitand distracted delivery had the crowd in the Grand Saloon roaring. The Delta Queen Company’s longtime Twain impersonator, Hankins has an encyclopedic knowledge of Twain’s literature. He surprised us all by opening the floor to questions and lobbing back answers, utterly unrehearsed. A woman asked him about his family. “I have been through some terrible things in my life,” he told her, “some of which actually happened.” Music? “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.” Steamboating days? Hankins-qua-Twain turned his inscrutable gaze up to the balcony from which the question had come, then quoted chapter and verse from Life on the Mississippi:“I still keep in mind a certain wonderful sunset which I witnessed when steamboating was new to me. A broad expanse of the river was turned to blood; in the middle distance the red hue brightened into gold.... The surface was broken by boiling, tumbling rings, that were as many-tintedas an opal.... Over the whole scene, far and near, the dissolving lights drifted steadily, enriching it...with new marvels of coloring. I stood like one bewitched.”
And so did we.
We arrived at Dunleith Plantation, just outside Natchez, Mississippi. Built with a complex cage of 26 Tuscan columns, Dunleith is a most stately translation of the Greek Revival style. And the moment I stepped inside the home’s perfect white walls, I saw her: the spirit of a woman who, somehow, I knew had been strongly connected to this place. Clearly the ghost of a slave, she was handsome and broad-boned, and had the endearing habit of standing with her arms folded across her waist. Her silvered hair was parted down the center and pulled sideways into an elegant coiffure, and she wore a shawl fastened in front with a brooch. When I finally found a discreet moment to ask our guide about the ghost, her eyes lit up and she ushered me to a wall of black-and-white photos beneath a staircase.
“Do you recognize her?” she asked.
“There!” I said, pointing to the spitting image of the apparition I’d seen.
“That’s Bessie!” our guide said. “She was the number one house slave here, which in those days was a very coveted position. Everybody loved Bessie.”
“And Bessie loved this house,” I thought, feeling acutely the painful irony that a home like this could never have been truly hers.
The last stop before New Orleans was a Creole estate called Laura Plantation. The word "plantation" usually evokes a sense of stately elegance, but the Laura Plantation’s house was low slung and painted bright yellow. It had a handcrafted, almost Caribbean look about it. We half-expected to hear dance music lilting from its green-shuttered windows.
“That’s the Creole style,” explained owner and tour guide Norman Marmillion. He and his wife, Sand, had bought Laura Plantation in 1993 and polished it into a shining remnant of the nearly extinct, aristocratic Creole culture that dominated southern Louisiana for 200 years. A mix of French Canadian, West African, Spanish, and native Indian influences, these wealthy landowning Creoles by the late 1700s were the kingmakers of Louisiana politics and economy. Their business transactions were done almost entirely through family connections, and the plantation houses served as corporate headquarters, with women as their CEOs.
“And were they mean!” Norman said.
“The women ran my Louisiana grandma’s family, and they were mean, too,” Isaid. “And kind of mystical. My great-great-aunt had a famous parfumerie in the French Quarter.”
“What was the name?” Norman asked.
“Aucoin, but she was born an Artigeaux. My great-great-great-grandfather had a sugar plantation somewhere in southern Louisiana.”
“You mean the Or-te-go,” he said, correcting my assumed pronunciation of Artigeaux.“They had plantations all around here. From the Canary Islands originally.”
“But they all spoke French.”
“You mean I’m…part Spanish?”
“You’re Creole, honey. Best pedigree in all of Louisiana!”