A fraternity brother of mine recently shared this story with me. What a profound black history story about (freed) African-American men who served as defenders of Natchez, Mississippi, in the Union Army from 1863 to 1866. This, after many were previously slaves at this same location in one of the largest and most active – site of the South’s second largest slave market in the 19th century – slave markets in the South and one of the largest in the United States.
NATCHEZ, Miss.–For the 30 years it existed in the 1800s, Forks of the Road was where white dealers sold black slaves unloaded from riverboats docked at Natchez-Under-the-Hill and herded down St. Catherine Street to what was then the town’s outskirts, according to historical accounts.
At its peak, as many as 500 slaves could be found at the market on any given day. It’s believed to have been the second-largest slave market in the South; the biggest was farther down the Mississippi in New Orleans. The two biggest traders shipped more than 1,000 slaves from Alexandria, Va., to the two markets each year beginning in the 1830s. Trade at the Forks of the Road ended only with the Civil War.
The last newspaper advertisements for slave sales at the Forks of the Road appeared in the Natchez Daily Courier during the early months of 1863. All slave trading had ceased in Natchez by the summer of 1863 when Union troops occupied the town. Today, the historic intersection, with its familiar “Y” configuration, remains to mark the location of the once-flourishing slave markets at the Forks of the Road.
During the Civil War, Natchez remained largely undamaged. The city surrendered to Flag-Officer David G. Farragut after the fall of New Orleans in May 1862.Two civilians, an elderly man and an eight-year-old girl named Rosalie Beekman, were killed when a Union ironclad shelled the town from the River. The man died of a heart attack and Rosalie was killed by a shell fragment. Union troops under Ulysses S. Grant occupied Natchez in 1863; Grant set up his temporary headquarters in the Natchez mansion Rosalie.
Volunteers began to respond, and in May 1863 the Government established the Bureau of Colored Troops to manage the burgeoning numbers of black soldiers. By the end of the Civil War, roughly 179,000 black men (10% of the Union Army) served as soldiers in the U.S. Army and another 19,000 served in the Navy.