PORT GIBSON ROAD:
by Rebecca Blackwell Drake
One of the most historic roadbeds in Mississippi, a road steeped in history yet revealing few visible signs of the past, is the Old Port Gibson Road - also known as the Old Natchez Trace. The road, some fifty miles in length, was one of the major routes used by the Union Army in May of 1863, as they marched from Port Gibson/Grand Gulf to Raymond. The historic route extends from the shores of the Mississippi River at Grand Gulf to Fourteenmile Creek and the battlefield in Raymond.
Most of the sites associated with the Port Gibson Road are now extinct. However, they are often mentioned in Civil War diaries, letters and the Official War Records. Of particular interest are: Willow Springs, Hankinson's Ferry, Rocky Springs, Cayuga, Regantown, Auburn, and the Dillon Plantation.
Regarding Willow Springs, one of the most interesting accounts given was that of Frederick Dent Grant, the 12-year-old son of General Grant. Recalling the Union Army's occupation of Willow Springs, Fred Grant told of the angry plantation owner who rode up to Union headquarters on a mule. The man complained bitterly that the Federals had robbed him of everything he owned. General Grant asked General A. J. Smith, the accused officer, to discuss the matter with the man. Facing the plantation owner, Smith bluntly asked, "Whose mule is that you rode up on?" The plantation owner replied, "My own." Smith said, "Well, those men didn't belong to my division at all because if they were my men, they wouldn't even have left you that mule." The conversation was over.
The site where the Union Army lingered was an area on the Big Black River (two miles from Willow Springs), known as Hankinson's Ferry. Hankinson's Ferry was the main river crossing on the road between Port Gibson and Vicksburg. Of Hankinson's Ferry, a Union officer wrote... "Bivouacked near Hankinson's Ferry three days, giving the men ample time to rest and clean themselves, which they needed very much after the severe marches in the heat and dust, which at times was suffocating." Revealing the life of soldier's at Hankinson's Ferry, Charles Dana, Washington correspondent, wrote... "Away yonder, in the edge of the woods, I hear the drumbeat that calls the soldiers to supper. It is only a little after five o'clock, but they begin the day very early and end it early. Pretty soon after dark they are all asleep, lying in their blankets under the trees, for in a quick march they leave their tents behind. Their guns are all ready by their sides, so that if they are suddenly called at night they can start in a moment. It is strange in the mornings before daylight to hear the bugle and drums sound the reveille, which calls the army to wake up." The Union Army spent 3-4 days at this site resting and stockpiling supplies.
During the week of May 3-7, Grant moved his headquarters to the town of Rocky Springs. The Union Army was once again on the march. When the Yankees arrived in Rocky Springs... "They encountered no resistance beyond the icy stares of the people who gathered at the side of the road to watch as the soldiers marched through town." Private Osborn Oldroyd, Yankee, recorded his memory of Rocky Springs in his diary "Here we have good, cold spring water, fresh from the bosom of the hills."
As the Army pulled out of Rocky Springs ready to march for Utica and Raymond, Osborn, took a good look at the Union Army and wrote... "O, what a grand army this is, and what a sight to fire the heart of a spectator with a speck of patriotism in his bosom. I shall never forget the scene of today, while looking back upon a mile of solid columns, marching with their old tattered flags streaming in the summer breeze, and hearkening to the firm tramp of their broad brogans keeping step to the pealing fife and drum, of the regimental bands discoursing 'Yankee Doodle' or 'The Girl I left Behind Me.' I say it was a grand spectacle."
The Yankees continued their march down the Port Gibson Road through areas known as Regantown and Cayuga. At this juncture, Grant sent the left wing of his army under McClernand to 'hug' the Big Black River and Sherman was ordered to 'straddle' the center - an area known as Fourteen Mile Creek. The right wing, under General James McPherson, was to head for Utica - then on to Raymond. The night of May 11th found McPherson and his brigade of some 12,000 men camping at Roach's Plantation, nine miles from Raymond on the Utica-Jackson Road.
As for General Grant, he continued down the Port Gibson Road until he reached a site known as Dillon's Plantation. Here, he established temporary headquarters. On the night of May 11th, from this site, he dispatched a message to McPherson saying... "Move your command to-night ...with all activity into Raymond."
The sites associated with the Civil War history of the Port Gibson Road have disappeared through the passage of time. The Hankinson's Ferry property is now privately owned while Willow Springs is nothing but an intersection in the road. As for Rocky Springs, there are no signs detailing the ghost town's Civil War past. The site of Dillon's Plantation, now a stop on the Natchez Trace, is simply marked as Dean's Stand.
Presently, there is a movement under way to preserve the entire Vicksburg Campaign Trail, including the Old Port Gibson Road. By doing so, our State will have preserved a important portion of our Civil War history. While driving the Port Gibson Road and seeing original portions of the old roadbed as it zigs and zags in and out of view, one can only imagine the soldiers as they marched to the sound of the fife and drum.
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