Graves of unknown soldiers well tended near Natchez Trace

Friday, May 17, 2013
Tribune photos by Karen Hall Graves of 13 Confederate soldiers may be seen beside the Natchez Trace.

By Karen Hall


Graves of 13 unknown soldiers alongside the Natchez Trace are as well-tended as if they had family members in the area.

The first weekend in May, we drove the Natchez Trace Parkway from US 64, west of Lawrenceburg, almost all the way to Jackson, Miss. The Parkway mostly parallels the old Trace itself, and when I saw a sign saying "Old Trace" I pulled over so we could stretch our legs and see what the old Trace looked like.

It's just visible as a track through the woods, but what was interesting at this marker were these 13 graves, all nicely decorated with flowers and flags, and with coins and stones carefully placed on top of the gravestones.

Historians are not certain how, or even when, these Confederate soldiers were buried here. Perhaps they were retreating, wounded, from the Battle of Shiloh, just to the north, or perhaps they were killed defending Tupelo, nearby to the south.

The Natchez Trace was a path originally made by animals, like deer and bison, traveling from grazing grounds in Mississippi to salt licks near Nashville, according to Wikipedia. Later, as the Native Americans began to settle the area, they used the trail and blazed it further.

The first European to write about the Trace was an anonymous Frenchman in 1742, though Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto could have traveled it over 200 years earlier.

President Thomas Jefferson wanted to connect the Mississippi frontier with the more settled parts of the young nation, and he ordered a "postal road" built from Nashville to the Mississippi River. Soldiers, and later civilian contractors, worked on it, and by 1809 the Natchez Trace was fully passable by wagons.

It served as a road for settlers moving to the fertile lands of Mississippi. Riverboatmen traveled it in the opposite direction, returning home to Kentucky and Tennessee after floating cargos down the great rivers -- Cumberland, Tennessee, Ohio, and Mississippi -- to ports like Memphis, Vicksburg, Natchez, and finally New Orleans.

Gradually, as steamboats appeared on the rivers and railroads criss-crossed the land, the Trace fell into disuse as a long-distance road, though local people continued to use parts of it.

The Natchez Trace was designated part of the National Park System in 1938, and work started on the two-lane, limited access parkway, which was officially completed in 2005. Now you can drive 444 miles from Nashville to Natchez through unspoilt countryside -- no advertising signs, no businesses, no homes, no commercial traffic. There are plenty of places to pull off and hike a nature trail, have a picnic, camp for the night, or study a historical marker.

Where we walked to these graves, the Trace was just a path through the trees, but in other places it's sunken deep into the ground from centuries of foot traffic.

Look at a map and plan a short, or long, drive on the Natchez Trace -- you'll enjoy it.