Ghost Town of Rodney - Mississippi
The "Almost" Capital of Mississippi
The most famous story about Rodney comes from the Civil War. After the fall of Vicksburg, the Union Navy was left in charge of the Mississippi River. The gunboat Rattler was stationed in front of Rodney to be sure nothing strange went on in this important little town. One of the favorite pastimes of the men on board was to line the decks on Sunday mornings and watch the southern belles as they paraded into church.
had left strict orders that no one was to leave the ship, but on September
12, 1863, 24 of the sailors, including a lieutenant and captain, could
stand it no more. Just before services began at the Presbyterian church,
they came in, dressed in their best uniforms, and quietly seated themselves
in the congregation. As the second hymn was being sung, a Lt. Allen of
the Confederate Cavalry walked up the aisle to the pulpit. Apologizing
to the Reverend Baker, he turned and announced his men had surrounded
the building and demanded the Yankee sailors surrender. One of the Yankee
sailors jumped behind a door and took a shot at Lt. Allen. General melee'
broke out and most of the citizens dove under their pews for safety. One
Yankee sailor hid in the undergarments of his local southern girlfriend.
One older lady, however, would not run. She stood on her pew and shouted "Glory to God!" A skeleton crew had remained on board the Rattler,
and when they heard the commotion began firing their guns at the church. The church and four homes were hit.
When the dust
cleared, the Rebels had taken 17 prisoners, including the lieutenant and
captain. Ordinarily, the Yankees would have burned down the town, but
Lt. Allen sent word stating that "the people of Rodney were in no
way responsible for what my men have done, and if a solitary shell is
thrown into the town, I will proceed to hang my prisoners." The crew
of the Rattler became the laughingstock of the nation, for it was the
first time in history a small squad of cavalry captured the crew of an
ironclad gunboat. Located up on the hill behind the church is the old
abandoned cemetary where the Rebels had camped. The Catholic church that
was located in town has since been moved to the Grand Gulf State Park,
located outside of Port Gibson.
To understand the significance
of the Mississippi River to the town, we must go back in history, pre-American History.
Early records show settlement of Rodney, then known as Petit Gulph, began
in 1798. There are maps which carry the name back to 1715, and it is believed this is the
spot the Indians used to cross the River. The name of the town was changed in 1814 to
honor Judge Thomas Rodney, the territorial magistrate. It missed becoming
the capitol of the Mississippi Territory by only 3 votes.
Rodney was host to many notable visitors, including Andrew Jackson, Henry
Clay and Zachary Taylor. Taylor was so taken by the area that he purchased
Cypress Grove Plantation, complete with 81 slaves. It
was at this time that Taylor's daughter, Sarah, eloped with Lt. Jefferson
Davis, much to her father's dismay. Taylor's property, which was located
south of Rodney, would later cave in and fall into the Mississippi River.
Although Rodney entertained some important political figures, one of its own residents
made quite a name for himself. Dr. Haller Nutt, a native of Virginia,
came to Rodney in 1815. It would be Dr. Nutt who led the south to become the cotton
kingdom of the world. His contributions were two-fold. The cotton seed being used in the
area had developed a rot that destroyed half-the crop. His extensive research led him to develop new methods to grow cotton. A new strain of cotton called "Egypto-Mexican" cotton was more resilient.
Haller Nutt also improved Eli Whitney's cotton gin. By connecting the gin to steam
power, it became a practical and useful piece of equipment.
Haller Nutt's never-finished Natchez home, Longwood,
was the last burst of southern opulence before war brought the cotton barons' dominance to
an end. Longwood, fortunately, survived decades of neglect and near-abandonment to become
one of Natchez's most popular attractions. Dr. Nutt's son, Haller, grew up at Laurel Hill,
Dr. Nutt's house, just east of Rodney. Laurel Hill's fate was not so kind.
As the town prospered, many
locals became aware of the need for a college. Oakland College was built,
and its auditorium, president's home and one other building are part of the campus of
today's Alcorn State University.
But it was in the 1840's and 1850's that Rodney was at its best. The days
of steamboating, cotton and slavery. It was the busiest river port between
New Orleans and St. Louis. The Natchez and Robert E. Lee steamboats made
Rodney one of their chief ports of call. The chandelier from the Robert
E. Lee would later adorn the Presbyterian Church in Port Gibson (the one
with the 6 foot finger pointing to heaven, which was the trademark of
the Reverend Butler, the first pastor of the church).
There were 1000 permanent residents with several hundred visitors always in town. Rodney was home to a large hotel with ballroom, and two banks, one of them being capitalized at a million dollars. Near the 1850 census, Rodney had at least 35 stores and was home to the first opera house in the state. Citizens from Rodney saw plays usually seen only in Philadelphia and New York. The town had two widely read papers, the "Rodney Gazette" and "The Southern Telegraph." Others included the "Rodney Standard" and the "Rodney Telegraph."
By 1860, the town had 4,000 residents. But, as the course of the River changed, so did the course of the town.The people of Rodney tried to stage a comeback in the 1870's, but these were the days of Reconstruction, and the people were poor. By now, the river traffic was gone. When the railroad wanted to come through, for some reason the people said "no." Now they had neither the river nor the railroad, and the town began a slow death.
While I was there meandering around, several goats came up to me as if to inquire why I was there. There are still a few souls other than the goats. Don't call it a ghost town, the current residents don't think much of that title. There are still a few residents along with a nearby deer camp. Some of the churches still have services. But compared to the Rodney of the 1850's, it is breathing its last breath of life.
For map to Rodney, see our feature on nearby Windsor Ruins.
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