Sheffield silver, Sevres porcelain, a Waterford crystal chandelier—Peggy Sue Voss points out rare pieces that furnish Monmouth Plantation in Natchez, Mississippi. The details fade into a blur of grandeur, but two images stay sharp. Earnest portraits show the house’s owners: tall, dashing John Quitman, a war hero and Mississippi governor, and his pretty 16-year-old bride, Eliza. They look every bit the golden couple they were, no hint of the hardships to come—two infants who succumbed to cholera and John’s death at 58 of a mysterious illness.
Somehow, this 1818 mansion, now a hotel, wouldn’t be as fascinating without their story.
I discover that’s true of house after house I tour in this town of 20,000, a treasure trove of scenes from Gone with the Wind on a bluff above the Mississippi River—wedding-cake mansions, gardens blooming as early as February, live oaks, mint juleps and Southern food. This backdrop comes with a vividly recalled cast of characters as tragic and compelling as Scarlett and Rhett.
The grand houses—11 open for tours year-round and another dozen for the monthlong annual Spring Pilgrimage—are the belles among more than 550 pre- Civil War structures standing here. They squeeze into neighborhoods around downtown and hold court on sprawling lawns nearby. (The cotton fields were across the river on the level flood plains of Louisiana.) Natchesians, it turns out, have guarded the histories of their ancestors just as carefully. That’s partly because to be considered a real Natchesian, you can’t just move here, Peggy Sue explains: “You have to have three generations in the ground; that means you’re the fourth to live here.”
Some 500 photos of early Natchez hang in a gallery in the 1817 First Presbyterian Church. Three early photographers took pictures of everything—mansions; prosperous merchants, including a black middle class that emerged after the war; Natchesians dressed up for New Orleans-style masked balls.
More photos and memorabilia fill the fledgling Natchez Association for Afro-American History Museum. Director Darrell White reminds visitors that slaves supplied not only the labor, but also the skill that produced the plantation houses’ fine details. “The houses are a testament to the contribution of the African- American community,” he says.
So much of the Old South survived because the Civil War almost had ended by the time Union troops arrived. They found a cotton-fueled boomtown with palatial houses and a riverfront so wild Mark Twain called it “Sodom and Gomorrah on the Mississippi.” Canal Street marks the site of a moat that separated the planters’ homes and the riverside riffraff.
“Natchez apparently did more entertaining than fighting when the Union troops arrived,” James Hinson drawls as his horse-drawn tour carriage creaks past pillared 1823 Rosalie. Ulysses S. Grant settled into an upstairs bedroom and wrote fondly of the river view.
James and other guides, mostly volunteers, tell the stories of the houses with as much empathy and enthusiasm as if they were talking about their own families. That comes naturally. If they didn’t grow up in one of the houses themselves, chances are they know someone who did—just like in any small town.
“Y’all doin’ all right?” James calls to people working in their yards. I get the feeling that if he got any answer other than “Just fiiiine. How are y’all?”, we would stop to help.
The idea of mansion tours came from that community spirit during the Depression. Leading a group around Dunleith, an 1856 beauty with wraparound, columned porches, guide Ann Ballew, 78, recalls those early days. Everyone was skeptical, but she says: “It struck a chord not just because of the houses. They set out to welcome people as if they were guests in their homes. People felt like they were experiencing a little bit of Old South hospitality.”
Click to the next page for a two-day getaway guide.
Stop at the large visitors center at the south edge of town for maps and an overview of Natchez history and attractions (visitnatchez.org ). Board one of the horse-drawn carriages parked in front of the old depot for an introduction at a pace that suits this Old South enclave.
Now you’re ready to decide which of the 11 mansions open for tours you want to see. Return to the visitors center for mansion tour tickets.
Don’t miss Stanton Hall (stantonhall.com ), one of the grandest and largest homes. Lunch on Southern staples of fried chicken and signature silver-dollar-size biscuits at the Carriage House (Carriage House ) restaurant on the grounds.
Walk the meal off on a tour of downtown sites, including the William Johnson House (free; nps.gov/natc ), an 1840s building that belonged to a free African-American barber, and the Stratton Chapel Gallery in the 1817 First Presbyterian Church, a mesmerizing collection of 500-plus photos by early Natchez photographers.
Check in at Monmouth Plantation, built in 1818 and now a hotel. Wander the garden-studded grounds, then indulge in a five-course dinner (monmouthplantation.com ).
Stop for a cinnamon scone and a lovely latte at Natchez Coffee Company (Natchez Coffee Company ) downtown.
Drive to Longwood, a giant octagonal mansion that was only partially finished before the Civil war started.
For lunch, head back downtown for an oyster po’boy and yam fries at Biscuits and Blues. biscuitsblues.com 
Tour Melrose Plantation (melroseplantation.org ), a restored 1845 Greek revival complete with slaves’ quarters, owned by the National Park Service. Then explore nearby Dunleith, with wraparound, columned porches and plush inn rooms. Do dinner in the estate’s Castle Restaurant, starting with a frosty mint julep (dunleith.com ).
Follow US-61 60 miles south into the Bayou State for more grand mansions.
St. Francisville A half-dozen historic plantations open for tours dot the area around this Mississippi River town. Oakley, where John J. Audubon did paintings for his Birds of America, is a state historic site (Audubon State Historic Site ). Built in 1835, Rosedown, also a state historic site (Rosedown Plantation State Historic Site ), has gardens patterned after Versailles’. The Myrtles, an 11-room B&B with a restaurant, is known as one of the most haunted houses in America (myrtlesplantation.com ). But it sounds like the ghost Chloe, a former slave, is more playful than scary. St. Francisville Tourist Commission. (800) 789-4221; stfrancisville.us 
Baton Rouge to New Orleans More mansions scatter along the riverbanks between these cities. In Vacherie, 300-year-old oaks shade the entry drive of Oak Alley, one of the best-known. In White Castle, Nottoway, built in 1859, is said to be the South’s largest surviving plantation home. It has 64 rooms and 365 doors and windows, one for every day of the year. Louisiana Office of Tourism. (225) 342-8119; louisianatravel.com 
(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® January/February 2009. Prices, dates and other details are subject to change, so please check specifics before making travel plans.)