Archives For Mississippi River

Mississippi

The Mississippi River is the fourth longest river in the world with a watershed encompassing all or parts of 31 states and 2 Canadian provinces – 1.2 million square miles worth. 1,200,000 square miles is a lot of territory to cover and yet in his latest book, Old Man River, Paul Schneider provides readers with a sweeping overview of the river from its geological origins to the taming of the river by the modern US Army Corps of Engineers. Schneider serves up a veritable feast with an appetizer of geology, a second course of pre-historic and Indian tales, a main course of 19th and 20th century stories spiced with liberal helpings of Mike Fink, Ulysses S. Grant and Mark Twain and finished off with a dessert of modern events.

Interspersed throughout historical tales of floods, Indian raids and keelboats, Schneider weaves in his own odyssey on the Mississippi and her tributaries. From kayaking the Ohio alone to drifting down the Mississippi with his son, Schneider brings to life the various locales he visits. For those who have spent any amount of time living on the River, Schneider’s book will especially resonate as he perfectly captures the feelings and color of the River’s varying culture. Although a couple passages inadvertently come across as elitist and preachy, overall Old Man River is a beautiful ode to one of America’s defining geographic landmarks. For those looking to lazily drift from the breadbasket plains states past Mark Twain’s Hannibal, St. Louis’s Gateway Arch and Busch Stadium, the antebellum homes of Natchez, the bluffs of Vicksburg where the blood of men in blue and gray flowed and down to the Cajun culture of the Delta, Old Man River is a highly recommended read.

civil war steamboat

Sultana Ablaze
Photo: Library of Congress

In the waning weeks of the Civil War, the riverboat Sultana departed New Orleans with a load of livestock and passengers bound for St. Louis. Having developed a leak in one of its boilers, the ship stopped in at Vicksburg, Mississippi for some makeshift repairs to replace the leaking boiler plates. Following this stopover, the ship proceeded upriver against the strong spring currents of the Mississippi. Aboard the ship were hundreds of recently released Yankee POWs making their way home from Confederate prison camps. On the evening of April 27, 1865, as the ship’s crew piled on steam to overcome the Mississippi’s currents, a massive explosion ripped through the wooden bowels of the ship and set the entire vessel aflame.

Ablaze and adrift, the Sultana ran aground on the west bank of the Mississippi near present-day Marion, Arkansas. Despite the efforts of several rescue ships, hundreds perished in the frigid waters of the Mississippi from hypothermia or drowning. Dozens more were killed by the initial explosion and subsequent fire. Most of the survivors were taken ~9 miles downriver to Memphis where another ~300 died from their burns. The official death tolleventually reached 1,547, however, estimates have ranged as high as 1,900. Regardless of which figure is correct, the sinking is to this day the deadliest maritime disaster in US history. Despite its high body count, the Sultana’s sinking, both in 1865 and in a historical context, has often been overshadowed by President Lincoln’s assassination and the conclusion of the Civil War.