Our recent trip to Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi included stops at three Civil War battlefields – Corinth, Shiloh and Vicksburg.

Everywhere you looked were monuments – scores of them – to the regiments, battalions, companies and individuals that fought there.

We saw marble Yankees and Confederates, bronze horses and caissons, granite cannons, humble infantrymen and dashing generals leading men into the pages of history.

It seems that all the states who sent troops to those battles erected monuments, too.

But the one memorial that I remember best wasn’t on a battlefield at all. It was in a rather nondescript street in the historic little city of Natchez, Miss.

The so-called “Cotton Kingdom” enriched Natchez, a Mississippi River port. The Industrial Revolution in England had created high demand for cotton.

After Native Americans were removed, Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana became major cotton producers, reliant on slave labor. Many planters built big columned houses on their plantations, plus elegant mansions in Natchez, high above the flood plain.

As tobacco farms became unprofitable, slave traders bought surplus slaves in Maryland, Virginia and Kentucky, marched or shipped them to Natchez and sold them – at inflated prices – to cotton planters. Some such traders became millionaires.

Which brings me to the “Forks of the Road” monument. It marks the spot where tens of thousands of human beings were sold between 1833 and 1863. Natchez was the second-largest slave market in the United States, and the Forks of the Road was its epicenter.

Slaves had been sold on the streets of Natchez.

But the fear of a cholera epidemic led to an 1833 city ordinance prohibiting interstate slave traders from housing slaves within city limits.

So slave traders Isaac Franklin and John Armfield created a central slave market at a “Y” intersection created by Washington Road, Liberty Road and St. Catherine Street, just outside city limits.

Slave auctions were not held there. Instead, a cluster of rough wooden buildings were built.

At times, as many as 500 enslaved men, women and children were housed, fed and offered for sale there.

Potential buyers walked among the stalls, inspected potential field hands, maids, cooks, mechanics and craftsmen, then quietly struck deals with sellers. An optional “Louisiana Guarantee” protected buyers from losses if a slave proved defective.

Franklin and Armfield became the most active slave traders in the United States. They bought several steamboats for moving slaves from their slave pens in Alexandria, Va. to their slave marts in New Orleans and Natchez.

When Natchez fell to Union forces in 1863, the market buildings at Forks of the Road were torn down. Today, the site contains only signs that tell the story, plus a small, flat concrete sculpture filled with broken chains and shackles.

I read the signs. I looked at the chains, and thought about all the things that had happened. Right there. Where I stood. It was powerful, sobering and very sad. I’ll never forget it.

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