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History and Heritage in Mississippi

From the first settlements of New France and the sweeping cotton plantations of its antebellum debut as an American state to its strategic Civil War battlegrounds and hopping gospel and blues joints, Mississippi’s landscape is rife with remnants of its rich history.

Groups that travel through the state can take tours through historic homes, notable museums and other sites, and connect with local historians who loyally interpret these stories.

Vicksburg National Military Park Driving Tours

Over the course of more than 40 days, the forces of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Gen. John C. Pemberton engaged in a showdown for the fate of the Mississippi River and the country at large as the Union sieged the hilltop stronghold at Vicksburg, the last Confederate foothold on the river.

Due to the size of the park and the scope of the siege that took place at Vicksburg, most visitors navigate the grounds on a guided or self-guided driving tour. Guides licensed by the National Park Service offer step-on service for groups and make a loop from the visitor center, where a 15-minute film orients the group to the siege and the park, through the National Cemetery and the USS Cairo Gunboat and Museum, passing through a collection of 1,300 decorative commemorative memorials along the way.

Driving tours of the park typically run for two hours, though groups can elect to add a walking tour of the town and the USS Cairo Museum, unique for its incredibly detailed look at the life of a Civil War sailor. When the ship sank, it went down so quickly that everything was left exactly as it was, from food to kits to pencils at workstations, giving the museum a wealth of intact artifacts.

Natchez Pilgrimage Tours

In 2016, Natchez celebrates its 300th anniversary. Due to its strategic location, the French settlers who first brought European culture to Mississippi chose Natchez as their first settlement, and thanks to an almost complete lack of damage during the Civil War, history lovers today are able to enjoy the city’s long heritage in the Natchez National Historical Park and throughout the city.

Natchez’s historic offerings encompass 500 antebellum homes, but only 12 are open to the public year-round, among them the haunting unfinished octagonal Longwood, which was left incomplete when workers dropped their tools and fled at the news that war had broken out.

According to Lynn Beach Smith, sales director for Natchez Pilgrimage Tours, most groups begin in the award-winning, park service-operated visitor center with the “History of Natchez” film and tour Longwood, 1857 Stanton Hall and 1832 Rosalie, eating dinner in a private antebellum home if time allows. For groups looking for something a little different, Smith can also coordinate carriage rides, afternoon tea in a private home or a private gospel concert or living-history experience.

Columbus Historic Home Tours

Though it harbored an arsenal, Columbus was spared from siege during the Civil War, perhaps because it was a prominent hospital town, resulting in an architectural patrimony of antebellum homes that is second only to Natchez.

Columbus’ 678 historic properties include seven homes and mansions that are open to the public year-round, such as the Tennessee Williams Home and Welcome Center, the writer’s first home, and impeccably restored Italianate Rosedale, which has been restored to feature the same paint and wallpaper as when it was built in 1856.

The Amzi Love Home, one of the most popular sites in the spring when its azaleas and wisterias are in bloom, also features the 1833 Lincoln Home bed-and-breakfast, where small groups can steep in Columbus’ history overnight or larger groups can rent the dining room for a lunch or dinner after their tours. While many historic homes remain in private ownership, during the annual pilgrimage in March and April, citizens open their homes to visitors.

Gabi Logan

Gabi Logan is a freelance travel journalist whose work has also appeared in USA TODAY, The Dallas Morning News and Italy Magazine. As she travels more than 100,000 miles each year, she aims to discover the unexpected wonder in every destination.