I wasn’t sure of the best way to get to Rodney since the maps I had were limited due to the fact that Rodney is about as far off the beaten path as you can get in Mississippi. Once a vibrant town on the banks of the Mississippi River, Rodney had been left behind by the river and eventually everything else. I knew to get there would require travel on dirt roads, I just wasn’t sure how to get there.
We followed the crude map I had to the gates of Alcorn State University. As we stopped at the guard house, we asked the lady on duty if she knew how to get to Rodney. She didn’t seem surprised and knew where it was. She instructed us to continue on ahead through the campus and take a couple of left turns to get to the Old Rodney Road which would lead us to the town itself. Alcorn State is a college in the middle of nowhere. Although a neat little campus, Alcorn is isolated. On the day we were there it seemed more like a Sunday than a Monday. There was very little activity.
We drove through campus taking the left turns as instructed and ended up at a dead end in a parking lot. I happened to notice a historic marker that said “Old Port Gibson to Rodney Road” and we sensed we must be near the right place, but we still didn’t readily see a road. The sign indicated that this “road,” which we still couldn’t seem to find, was the first established route from Port Gibson and Alcorn to Rodney. It was constructed in the early 1800’s and according to old-timers, the road had eroded very little over the years. The sign indicated that for the 2.4 miles of the route, the road and surrounding area were pretty much the same as they had been 150 years ago. The problem was, we still didn’t see a road – just the surrounding asphalt of the parking lot and new college buildings. Finally, we noticed what looked like a back access or service road. It was a dirt road leading in from a very wooded area. There was a gate with a lock that happened to be unlocked. We were doubtful this was the right way because it looked like a service road and nothing else. Because nothing else seemed like a likely option, we headed off of campus on the lonely dirt road as the gray clouds overhead seemed to darken further.
The road had been constructed out of the surrounding banks and forest. As we’d learned earlier in the trip, this part of Mississippi, due to its proximity to the river, was full of loess soil. During the Civil War, troops on both sides marched up and down this road and others in the area. Grant’s troops were trying to inch closer to Vicksburg from their landing point on the Mississippi southwest of here. The Rebels were trying to stop their advance all the way. I’d read that Jesse Bean, my third great grandfather, who’d fought with the 30th Alabama Infantry during the Siege of Vicksburg, might very well have been on this road trying to stop the Yankee advance. That fact, combined with the dense forest and deep red of the dirt road really made it seem like we’d hear the crack of gunfire in the air as ghostly troops ran after each other across the road.
We drove along the dirt path for a little over two miles, never encountering another living thing or human made structure – just dense forest. We reached a fork in the road and while we were trying to decide which direction to go, the rain arrived. We turned left initially. The further we drove, the harder it rained. It soon became evident that we’d gone the wrong way because it seemed like we were going back towards civilization as more and more houses appeared. Rodney was a ghost town – this couldn’t be right. We turned around and retraced our steps back to the fork and headed straight this time. Luckily the hard, driving rain slacked a bit, but it was still coming down pretty good. I began to worry that we’d have problems on these dirt roads if the rain continued. The last thing I wanted was for this little adventure of mine to end in us being stuck in the mud out in the middle of nowhere in Mississippi.
The road began sloping down gradually as you would expect heading towards a body of water. There were very few homes around and most of those were seasonal hunting cabins. This felt right. Before long we found ourselves entering what was once the bustling town of Rodney. Rodney had once been home to almost 5,000 residents, 35 stores, and Mississippi’s first opera house. Today, little reflects this past. The place that had Andrew Jackson and Zachary Taylor (another relative of ours) walking its streets, now was full of a few falling in buildings, a couple of overgrown churches, and yet more hunting lodges or trailers. Rodney was originally used by Indians as a river crossing. Later it was called Petit Gulf, to distinguish it from the larger town of Grand Gulf that we would visit later in the day. It was settled by white men as early as 1715 – I say white men because the Indians were here much earlier. Petit Gulf became Rodney in 1814, named for the territorial magistrate Judge Thomas Rodney.
The first landmark I recognized was a little white church with green shutters. The remnants of last season’s vines snaked all over the front of the clapboard structure. Luckily we were visiting before the kudzu or whatever vine was taking over the building had come out in full force. If we’d been here later in the summer, the entire building would likely have been covered in green vine. We could see through the front windows of the church that the inside was in disarray, most likely due to debris from the inside. There were green arches above each of the two front windows. They matched the green arch over the door. The two little eight pane windows looked like eyes looking out into the gray mid-morning rain. From the window of the truck, I snapped a few pictures of the front of the church, as the rain continued to fall. The building seemed lonely and sad as if it’s soul knew time had left it behind.
Turning back down the road a bit, we saw another structure still standing from Old Rodney. This was another church, but it was a bit larger and built of red brick. When I first learned about Rodney, it was this building that brought it to my attention. To this day there is a canon ball from the Civil War lodged over one of the church’s upper windows. Back around the time of the Civil War, Rodney was a port town directly on the Mississippi River. When Vicksburg fell, the Union Navy controlled the river and the Union gunboat Rattler was stationed at Rodney to ensure order was kept. As the story goes, the admiral of the Rattler had commanded that no sailor was to leave the ship and go into town. Contrary to those orders, on September 13, 1863, a Sunday morning, twenty-four of the sailors were invited to attend services at the Rodney Presbyterian Church – the church we now found ourselves sitting in front of. Included in this group was a lieutenant and a captain.
While the Union soldiers attended services inside the church, Rebels surrounded the building. As the minister announced his text, a lieutenant of the Confederate Cavalry walked up the aisle to the pulpit and announced his men had surrounded the building. He apologized to the minister for the interruption and demanded that the Union soldiers surrender. One of the sailors jumped behind a door and took a shot at the lieutenant. This caused pandemonium to ensue inside the church as parishioners dove under pews and ran for cover. The remaining crew left on the Rattler heard the commotion and opened fire on the church. The church and four homes were hit by the Rattler’s guns. When the dust settled, the Rebels captured seventeen Union sailors. Fast forward over a 150 years and the cannonball we found ourselves staring at on this rainy day is a souvenir from this day long ago.
Rodney declined as a river town after the river changed course and the town caught fire a couple of times around the Civil War. Today the river is over two miles away, but you can see the flat land that was once the river channel – left behind, much like the town was, as time marched on. The rain began to pick up in earnest, so we headed out of Rodney. I noticed the caved in lumps of other structures – former stores and homes, now just a mass of rotting timber and vine. We noticed an old gas tank on the corner of a rusty building that must have once been a store. It was one of those old types of pumps where the gas percolated and could be seen in a glass tank on the top. I snapped a picture from the window as we drove by.
I was a little disappointed with the weather, as there was an old cemetery behind the Presbyterian Church that I would have liked to scout out. Even in good weather, the pictures I had seen of the graveyard clearly showed it would be hard to find due to how Mother Nature was taking it over. Tombstones from long ago were actually disappearing as trees literally grew up around them and bark covered the fading writing carved into the stones. One in particular stood out in my mind. In preparing for the trip, I did a lot of research online. I found a blog by a photographer who had visited the cemetery a few years back and took a picture of this particular tomb. At that time part of the deceased’s name was still visible in a crack of the tree trunk. A few years after this initial visit, the photographer returned and had a hard time finding the same tombstone – the name was all but covered except for a few letters. The tree bark had literally eaten the tombstone. This phenomenon exemplified Rodney in my mind – all that was once lively in this little town had not only died, but all evidence of life was slowly disappearing back into the wilderness from which it came. In this way, the rainy dreary day during which we visited was exactly perfect.