Tiny Port Gibson may often be overlooked on lists of places to visit in Mississippi, but if you’re interested in history, you should definitely add this underrated detour to you itinerary. The county seat of Claiborne County, Port Gibson is tucked away 60 miles southwest of Jackson between Vicksburg and Natchez on the Great River Road (U.S. Highway 61).
Chartered as a town in 1803, Port Gibson had a front-row seat to the Battle of Port Gibson during the Civil War in 1863, which resulted in 200 deaths of both Union and Confederate soldiers. Unlike other towns, Port Gibson was fortunate many of its historic buildings survived the Civil War – thanks to Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s declaration that Port Gibson was “too beautiful to burn.”
“We get quite a few tourists because the Natchez Trace runs right through here,” says Linda Ory, executive director of the Port Gibson Chamber of Commerce. “A lot of history buffs come, too; if you love history, this would be a great area to come to. Port Gibson is the only city in the county, with around 1,800 people. It’s a quiet, peaceful, laid-back little town on the Blues Highway, which you can take all the way to Memphis. People who don’t want to travel the interstate can find us along Highway 61 – the scenic route.”
Read on for seven sites you won’t want to miss in and around Port Gibson. You can see a lot in a day or two, all while social distancing and not spending much money.
Shrouded in the forests surrounding Port Gibson, you’ll discover the iconic Windsor Ruins. The fascinating ruins are all that’s left of the historic Windsor Plantation, which was destroyed by a fire in 1890. Built in 1861, Windsor was a Greek Revival mansion hailed as one of the largest private residences in Mississippi before the Civil War. Only its towering columns, balustrades and iron stairs were left standing after the fire. Designated a Mississippi Landmark in 1985, the Windsor Ruins are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Photographers and ghost hunters especially appreciate the site’s mysterious beauty.
After the Battle of Port Gibson in 1863, the victorious Ulysses S. Grant made Grand Gulf his base of operations. Now a Mississippi Landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Grand Gulf Military Park spans 450 acres and includes Fort Cobun and Fort Wade, the Grand Gulf Cemetery, a museum, a carriage house, campgrounds, picnic facilities, hiking trails, the Confederate Memorial Chapel and an observation tower. Located 8 miles northwest of Port Gibson off Highway 61, Grand Gulf Military Park is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
Have a hankering for fried chicken? Don’t miss the famous all-you-can-eat lunch buffet at The Old Country Store Restaurant in Lorman, between Port Gibson and Natchez on U.S. Highway 61. Owner Arthur Davis (who the locals call “Mr. D”) was featured on the Food Network’s show The Best Thing I Ever Ate. Host Alton Brown admitted Davis makes even better fried chicken than he does. The restaurant also made an appearance on the Travel Channel’s Lots of Cluck in 2018. Besides fried chicken, the lunch buffet includes salads, macaroni and cheese, corn on the cob, sweet potatoes, field peas, turnip greens, dirty rice, cornbread and more.
See where the first shots of the Battle of Port Gibson were fired on April 30, 1863, at the A.K. Shaifer House, built in 1826. The narrow road leading to the house has a reputation for being difficult to travel, with deep gullies and often lots of mud. But those who brave the trip (a pickup with four-wheel drive is recommended) are rewarded with a close look at the home’s fascinating history and involvement in the Civil War. The Shaifer House underwent a restoration project in 2006 as part of the Mississippi Civil War Trails program.
Port Gibson boasts one of the many sites along the Mississippi Blues Trail, thanks to the Rabbit Foot Minstrels. African American entertainers of the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, a touring tent show company, helped spread the blues with their tours across the South. The Rabbit Foot Minstrels, headquartered in Port Gibson between 1918 and 1950, and troupe members would stay in train cars or local homes through the winter, holding their rehearsals on a covered stage at the home of company owner F.S. Wolcott. Their tent shows included comedy, skits, song-and-dance numbers, blues, classical, ragtime and popular music. The Rabbit Foot Minstrels also featured a marching band that held a parade upon arrival in a town to let the locals know they had arrived.
Do you believe in ghosts? About 20 miles from Port Gibson, the ghost town of Rodney attracts quite a following. Incorporated in 1828, Rodney once had more than 500 residents, two newspapers, and numerous stores, hotels and banks. There was talk of making Rodney (formerly called Petit Gulf) the state capital after Mississippi achieved statehood in 1817 because it was an important shipping point along the river. But the river eventually contributed to the town’s demise – it flooded so often that residents began moving away. Rodney also suffered from two yellow fever epidemics in 1843 and 1847, losing many of its residents to the disease. Today, visitors can explore the remnants of the eerie town, including two churches (one with a cannonball embedded in the brick), a Masonic Hall, a grocery store and a cemetery.
Experience hospitality and history at Collina Plantation Inn, a charming bed-and-breakfast. The Greek Revival 1830s home has a billiard room and comfortable king-size beds, and sits on 8.5 private, parklike acres, making guests feel as if they’re in the quiet countryside. Like many antebellum homes of its time, the inn was built by the labor of enslaved people. Guests are encouraged to learn about the history of the property, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.