Before the Civil War, Natchez was the location of the second busiest slave-trading market in the Deep South at a site known as the Forks of the Road. Natchez was the epicenter of American capitalism in the mid-19th century with the trading of the world’s three greatest commodities – land, cotton, and enslaved people of African descent. With the invention of the cotton gin and an ever-expanding steamboat transportation network, Natchez was the ideal location to create an economy centered around slave labor-generated cotton.
Prior to the establishment of the market, slave trading was a common sight on almost every street corner in the town. In 1832, however, the fear of a cholera epidemic caused municipal officials to force human traffickers outside the city limits. Traders set up business at the Forks of the Road, at the intersection of what is today known as Liberty Road and D’Evereux Drive, one mile east of downtown Natchez and at the end of the Natchez Trace. Tens of thousands of enslaved men, women, and children were transported from Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky, and the Carolinas to the market at Natchez. The slave market operated from 1833 until the arrival of Federal troops on July 13, 1863.
In the fall of that year, members of the 12th Wisconsin Infantry, stationed in Natchez, were given orders to tear down the slave pens at the Forks of the Road. They were joined in their efforts by the men of the newly created 58th Regiment of the U. S. Colored Troops. In a letter to the Milwaukee Sentinel, an unidentified member of the 12th Wisconsin described the event.
Our first quarters were in a long range of barracks used for a number of years as slave pens.
Very many of the men composing the regiment had been sold in them; brought from Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and other slave States, in large gangs, ironed, they were placed in these dungeons until a sale could be affected. These buildings were situated on the outskirts of the city and owned by an Irishman, the worst secessionists in the whole country. As the position was very much exposed, we were ordered to construct barracks within the fortifications and to tear down these slave pens to obtain lumber to build them. This order was received just at evening and was hailed with the wildest enthusiasm by these men who had been chained, gagged and whipped, and suffered tortures unutterable within these same walls, and through that long night they worked with a terrible earnestness and the morning saw the slave pens of Natchez leveled to the ground, never, it is hoped to be again reconstructed. During this work, many a thrilling remembrance [sic] was recalled of the cruelty of traders, of sad partings of husband and wife, of inhuman fathers selling their own children, and a thousand other incidents illustrating the detestable state of society at the South.