64 Parishes

Crossing Over

The Miss-Lou Memorial Day Parade

Published: February 29, 2024
Last Updated: June 1, 2024

Crossing Over

Peek Creative Collective, Alamy Stock Photo

The current bridge between the cities; Vidalia is on the right.

Amighty river separates the towns of Vidalia, Louisiana, and Natchez, Mississippi. But a historic event and a chance to honor those who have served the United States in military conflicts unites the neighboring towns every Memorial Day.

The Miss-Lou Memorial Day Parade, as it’s known today, dates to the Civil War.

“It is definitely the oldest tradition here in Natchez–Vidalia that’s related to the military and one of the oldest in the country,” said Dr. Roscoe Barnes, Cultural Heritage Tourism Manager of Visit Natchez.

It began on a Sunday afternoon in February 1864, as the Civil War raged throughout the South. Natchez had surrendered, and the town was occupied by Union troops, including the 58th Regiment, US Colored Infantry, at Fort McPherson. Word came that Confederates were approaching on the Mississippi River near Vidalia, so Union Lieutenant Colonel Hubert A. McCaleb assembled his troops, many of whom were formerly enslaved men from area plantations. The 300 soldiers crossed the river on a steamer backed by four federal gunboats and won the skirmish.

“The commander spoke highly of the troops and said they fired ‘one splendid volley, well aimed,’” Barnes said.

Soldiers who perished in that battle were interred on a bluff overlooking the river at an eleven-acre site in Natchez in 1866, called the Natchez National Cemetery; bodies of soldiers from the 58th Regiment, originally buried in the levees at Vidalia and at other sites in Adams County, Mississippi, were reinterred at the site as well.

Immediately after the war, an organization formed by former Union soldiers, the Grand Army of the Republic, encouraged chapters to honor the war’s veterans. The Natchez chapter, named for Union General John A. Logan, and the Vidalia chapter, named for Tennessee Governor Parson Brownlow, united to hold a memorial service.

“In 1866, the community came together to honor not just those troops but the Colored Troops in general,” Barnes said. “They [the Colored Troops] made a major contribution and helped win the war.”

For many years following the Civil War, the event was attended by African American and white citizens of both cities, wrote James Theres in “The 30th of May: A Memorial Day Tradition Like No Other” in VA News, the website for the US Department of Veteran Affairs. By 1890 Jim Crow put an end to the united front, and two celebrations began, one Black and one white.

As a young girl in the 1950s, Laura Ann Jackson, today’s Miss-Lou Parade chairperson, who is Black and based in Natchez, watched a segregated parade. African Americans marched at 11 a.m. and white residents at 2 p.m. Eventually, parade participants attended together once again.

“As we grew older, we decided that this shouldn’t be that way,” said Jackson, who has attended the parade since she was five. “We just networked with each other and got to a point where everyone realized it’s about veterans—whether you’re black, white, blue or green.”

“Today, it is diverse but it’s predominately African American,” said Barnes.

In the early years of what would become the Annual Miss-Lou Memorial Day Parade, from 1866 until a bridge was built in the 1940s, residents of Vidalia gathered on the river’s banks and took ferries to the Mississippi side. They then walked the streets of Natchez to the National Cemetery, where they held memorials to the fallen soldiers.

The parade now begins at the Zion Baptist Church in Vidalia. Individual marchers, members of the military and ROTC, students, the Miss-Lou Memorial Day Band (made up of teenagers from Ferriday and Vidalia schools), and many others span the river on the south side of the Natchez–Vidalia Bridge.

“Most of the participants come from Louisiana,” Jackson said, but added that the parade attracts people from surrounding states.

A parade grand marshal is chosen each year. In the past, parade leaders, school principals, former law enforcement officers, and other dignitaries have served in this role. “These are veterans or veterans’ wives,” Jackson said, adding that wives were a vital support to military personnel.

Once on Mississippi soil, the parade pauses at the Natchez Visitor Center to allow participants a chance to rest on the 4.5-mile route. The parade then proceeds for a noon program at the cemetery that includes a flag raising in sync with the Memorial Day program in Washington, DC. The US flag is flown at half-mast from sunrise until noon, commemorating those who have died while serving in the US military.

The impacts of the Miss-Lou Memorial Day Parade are felt beyond Memorial Day, Barnes said. Visitors stay for the weekend; family reunions and other gatherings such as school homecomings are organized around the event.

And the event is not only focused on soldiers who have passed, he added.

“The emphasis of the event is on the military,” Barnes said. “The organizers see it as honoring all who are still with us as well as those who have passed.”

May 27, 2024, will mark the 158th anniversary of the Miss-Lou Memorial Day Parade, which was briefly paused during the pandemic.

“We are on our feet again, and we want to continue,” Jackson said. “We want to be bigger and better—and every year, we are.”

Cheré Dastugue Coen is a food and travel writer. She is the author of Exploring Cajun Country and Haunted Lafayette, Louisiana, plus Louisiana novels under the pen name of Cherie Claire.