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Port Gibson, Mississippi: Spared During the Civil War, but Threatened Again

First Presbyterian Church in Port Gibson, Mississippi

First Presbyterian Church in Port Gibson, Mississippi by Brett Gover

When I was a teenager, my family passed through Port Gibson once on a spring vacation. I remember my mother reading from a guidebook as we drove through the town. We learned that it had escaped destruction during the Battle of Port Gibson in the Civil War because General Grant declared it “too beautiful to burn.”

Ever since that day, I’ve carried around a hazy mental picture of the town: well-kept old brick homes along a quiet, shady street, the late-afternoon sun throwing long shadows and casting a warm glow over the whole scene.

Today, en route from Natchez to Vicksburg, I stopped in Port Gibson. I drove along Church Street, which is also US 61 and almost certainly the street on which my family passed through the town all those years ago. I looked for the place where I had snapped my mental picture, but I couldn’t find it.

But there were other things to see. Thanks to Grant’s clemency, Port Gibson has dozens of pre-Civil War homes and churches, and many of them are located along Church Street. I parked my car and walked a few blocks, pausing to look at the First Presbyterian Church (circa 1859), the Methodist Church (1860), St. Joseph’s Catholic Church (1850-51), and Oak Square (1850), the town’s largest antebellum mansion.

It seemed unfortunate that all of these lovely historic buildings should be located along a busy four-lane street.

And then I noticed that in almost every yard there was a “Save Church Street” sign. “Save it from what?,” I asked a woman walking a dog. Her answer shocked me. She explained that the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) had announced plans to make Church Street even wider and more expressway-like. She spoke darkly of powerful local timber interests whose only concern was how quickly their big trucks could race through town. She said that the project threatens the beautiful old oak trees that line the street and give it much of its character.

Could all of this be true? Was there more to the story? I couldn’t stay around to find out. But as I drove out of town I was hoping that the townspeople would win this Second Battle of Port Gibson.—Brett Gover