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Map showing the defences of the Mississippi

Map showing the defences of the Mississippi

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Map showing the defences of the Mississippi

Map showing the defences of the Mississippi and the position of the mortar fleet at the start of the attack.

Map taken from Battles and Leaders of the Civil War: II: North to Antietam , p.36

New Climate Maps Show a Transformed United States

by Al Shaw, Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica, and Jeremy W. Goldsmith, Special to ProPublica, September 15, 2020.

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published.

According to new data from the Rhodium Group analyzed by ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine, warming temperatures and changing rainfall will drive agriculture and temperate climates northward, while sea level rise will consume coastlines and dangerous levels of humidity will swamp the Mississippi River valley.

Taken with other recent research showing that the most habitable climate in North America will shift northward and the incidence of large fires will increase across the country, this suggests that the climate crisis will profoundly interrupt the way we live and farm in the United States. See how the North American places where humans have lived for thousands of years will shift and what changes are in store for your county.

Sources and suggested readings

Baptist, Edward E. The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. New York: Basic Books, 2014.

Johnson, Walter. River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2014.

Moore, John Hebron. The Emergence of the Cotton Kingdom in the Old Southwest: Mississippi, 1770-1860. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1988.

Rothman, Adam. Slave Country: American Expansion and the Origins of the Deep South. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2005.

Rothman, Joshua D. Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012.

Billiards in Biloxi

During the 1830s and 1840s, the population of the state grew. Entertainment opportunities also increased. Many early 19th-century Mississippians went to the Mississippi Coast on the Gulf of Mexico to enjoy its resorts and mild weather. Hotels offered lawn bowling, billiards, sailing, hunting, and dancing. Early tourist destinations in Biloxi included the Magnolia Hotel, the Nixon Hotel, Madame Pradat’s, and the Shady Grove Hotel. All of the hotels provided entertainment and gambling options.

Mississippians also traveled to Natchez and Vicksburg on the Mississippi River where gambling was prevalent, especially at The Landing, a riverside region in Vicksburg, and in the Natchez-Under-the-Hill district. In these two river cities, steamboat travelers encountered gambling houses where billiards, card games, and other betting events occurred. Horse racing and cockfighting were also popular betting sports in antebellum Mississippi, as was riverboat gambling.

Maps of United States

The United States (US) covers a total area of 9,833,520 sq. km. Of this area, the 48 contiguous states and the District of Columbia cover 8,080,470 sq. km. The archipelago of Hawaii has an area of 28,311 sq. km while the remaining area is part of the US territories.

The greatest east-west distance in the 48 contiguous states of the country is 4,500 km. North-south, the longest distance in the 48 contiguous states region is 2,660 km.

This physical map of the US shows the terrain of all 50 states of the USA. Higher elevation is shown in brown identifying mountain ranges such as the Rocky Mountains, Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Appalachian Mountains. Lower elevations are indicated throughout the southeast of the country, as well as along the Eastern Seaboard. Major rivers in the country include the Mississippi, the Missouri, the Colorado, the Arkansas, and the Columbia. Large lakes include the Great Lakes system consisting of Lake Superior, Lake Huron, Lake Michigan, Lake Erie, and Lake Ontario. Denali (Mount Mckinley) in Alaska is the state's highest point wich rises to an elevation of 20,322ft (6,194m). The state's lowest point is at the Badwater Basin, Death Valley, California at -282ft (-86m).


Humans are widely scattered across Mississippi, as are many of its valuable resources. How these two connect is explained in the theme of movement through which geography helps explain how and why people, goods, and ideas move. Major waterways such as the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico provided transportation for early settlers. How much more isolated the area would have been in its formative years without these natural features.

Today, complex systems of communication and transportation connect Mississippians with each other and, increasingly, with the entire world. Gulfport, Mississippi, remains one of the largest banana receiving ports in the world. Both agricultural and manufactured products of the state are shipped globally, even as Mississippians take advantage of goods imported into the state. Blues music and the literature of William Faulkner have spread and have aficionados worldwide.

Geography explores the economic and psychological reasons for the great migration into the Mississippi Territory at the turn of the 19th century, and for the great migrations from the state during the early and mid-20th century, and maps the routes of those leaving. With respect to the great migration, what patterns can be identified and explored that explain this phenomenon? What ramifications did the mid-20th century exodus have on Mississippi and on areas where these thousands relocated? Another example is the hundreds of German prisoners of war who were brought to Mississippi during World War II. Why and “so what?” Finally, what highways, railroads, and airports currently serve as avenues of movement across the state and nation? Charting and analyzing the movement of goods, ideas, and people is essential in understanding how Mississippians are linked to each other and to the world.


Strategy and politics on the Mississippi Edit

From the time the American Civil War started in April 1861, both the U.S. and Confederates made controlling the Mississippi River a major part of their strategy. The Confederacy wanted to keep using the river to transport needed supplies the Union wanted to stop this supply route and drive a wedge that would divide Confederate states and territories. Particularly important to the South was the stretch of the Mississippi that included the mouth of the Red River. The Red was the Confederacy's primary route for moving vital supplies between east and west: salt, cattle, and horses traveled downstream from the Trans-Mississippi West in the opposite direction flowed men and munitions from the east. [3] : 2–6 [4] : 4

In the spring and early summer of 1862, the Union advanced their control of the Mississippi from both the north and the south. From the mouth of the river, a fleet commanded by Flag Officer David G. Farragut fought its way through Confederate fortifications in the Battle of Forts Jackson and St. Philip, resulting in the capture of New Orleans. A second Union fleet commanded by Charles H. Davis occupied Memphis, Tennessee, after defeating Confederate riverine forces in Battle of Memphis. To make sure it could continue to use the middle section of the river, the South fortified positions at both Vicksburg and Port Hudson. [5]

The initial idea of fortifying the heights of Port Hudson came from the south's master of fixed defenses, General Pierre G.T. Beauregard, Commander, Army of the Mississippi. Writing to Major General Mansfield Lovell, Commander of the lower Mississippi in March 1862, Beauregard recommended, "…the fortification of Port Hudson as a measure of precaution against the fall of our defenses north of Memphis." In June 1862, Major General Earl Van Dorn wrote Jefferson Davis: "I want Baton Rouge and Port Hudson". A few days after the fall of Baton Rouge to the Union, Confederate General John C. Breckinridge with 4,000 men, carried out the wishes of General Van Dorn by occupying Port Hudson, situated between Baton Rouge and Bayou Sara, with troops under the command of General Daniel Ruggles. Soldiers of the 4th Louisiana Infantry arrived at the site on August 15, 1862. [6]

According to historian John D. Winters, "Port Hudson, unlike Baton Rouge, was one of the strongest points on the river, and batteries placed upon the bluffs could command the entire river front." It was a position similar to that of Quebec City on the St. Lawrence River in the French and Indian War. [7]

The political momentum behind the Union actions against Port Hudson came from the elections of November 1862. The Republican base, centered in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, had been shaken by embarrassing Democratic victories. A dramatic letter from Indiana Governor Oliver P. Morton to Lincoln claimed that "The fate of the North-West is trembling in the balance." His implication was that unless the independent trade of Union states along the Ohio River was restored by Union control of the entire Mississippi, further breakup of the Union was possible. Morton believed the states of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois were in danger of breaking away from the Northeast to join the Confederacy, which was increasingly becoming the more lucrative opportunity. In addition, the southern areas of these states had been settled by people from the South, many of whom maintained their identification with that region and its culture. [8]

The threat of political fractures galvanized the Lincoln administration into action. Major General Nathanial Banks was diverted from a possible expedition to Texas and given Benjamin Butler's command of the Department of the Gulf. The Union commander of all armies, Henry Wager Halleck, said to Banks that President Lincoln "regards the opening of the Mississippi River as the first and most important of all our military and naval operations, and it is hoped that you will not lose a moment in accomplishing it." On December 4, 1862, Banks and his expedition put to sea for New Orleans. [9] : 21–3

In May 1863, Union land and naval forces began a campaign they hoped would give them control of the full length of the Mississippi River. One army under Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant commenced operations against the Confederacy's fortified position at Vicksburg at the northern end of the stretch of the river still in Southern hands, while another army under Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks simultaneously attacked Port Hudson at the southern end. [10]

Foundation of a fortress Edit

Port Hudson was sited on an 80 feet (24 m) bluff on the east bank above a hairpin turn in the Mississippi River 25 miles (40 km) upriver from Baton Rouge. The hills and ridges in the area of the town represented extremely rough terrain, a maze of deep, thickly forested ravines, swamps, and cane brakes creating a natural fortress. The town was a port for shipping cotton and sugar downriver from the surrounding area. Despite its importance, the city had only a few buildings and 200 people at the start of the war. The river had shifted south and the docks had been moved about .5 miles (0.80 km) south.

In 1862, a railroad was constructed to the town of Clinton, 19 miles (31 km) to the northeast. The entire length of the Port Hudson and Clinton railroad was 21 miles (34 km). It did not connect with the New Orleans, Jackson, and Great Northern railroad that connected Louisiana with other states and with Camp Moore, the main mustering point for Confederate forces in the department. Also by 1862 the railroad was run down, the track consisting of strips of iron nailed flat to rotten ties. The entire rolling stock consisted of one locomotive, one passenger car, and six box and flat cars. This train could accommodate only a few hundred troops at the most and was inadequate for hauling heavy guns and their ammunition. This lack of transport independent of the river would limit the defensibility of Port Hudson. [11]

Initial plans for fortifications were drawn up with the assistance of Captain James Nocquet, chief engineer for General Breckinridge. Along with loaning his engineering staff, Breckinridge also authorized Ruggles to gather needed supplies and tools using the Clinton and Port Hudson railroad, and whatever labor the area could provide for construction. Three different layouts for earthworks were considered: a central fort mounting cannon supported by angled outworks, a line of lunettes arranged along a 400-yard line, and a continuous ring of redoubts, trenches, and parapets surrounding the entire position.

The first option was rejected for concentrating the positions armament into too small a target, and thus making it too vulnerable to bombardment. The third option was rejected because a siege was considered unlikely, and the task of building such extensive works too ambitious since the circumference of the ring would have been eight miles (13 km.) and required 35,000 men and 70 pieces of artillery for defense. The line of lunettes was determined to be the best plan for the defense of the Port Hudson heights, and construction started on a line of seven fronting the river.

General Breckinridge was soon ordered to take most of his troops to Kentucky, however, and on August 18 he left, leaving only 1,500 men to work on the fortifications under Ruggles's command. Ruggles did have a forty-two-pounder smoothbore cannon, which he mounted immediately, manned by former sailors of the CSS Arkansas. it had been destroyed in the Battle of Baton Rouge that year. Two thirty-two-pounders were shortly added from the abandoned wreck of the USS Sumter. [12]

Lunettes mounting artillery, as used at Port Hudson.

Photograph of the earthworks and one of the deep, forested ravines that defended Port Hudson, 1863–1864, Library of Congress collection.

Garrison Housing – Locally improvised Confederate structures that provided housing for the Port Hudson garrison, 1863–1864, Library of Congress collection.

Union Navy assesses the defenses Edit

General Ruggles was ordered to turn over command of Port Hudson to Brigadier General William Nelson Rector Beall on August 29, 1862, and take some of his troops to Mississippi. This was the day that the Union Navy began to contest the guns of Port Hudson for control of the Mississippi. The improvised Union gunboat USS Anglo-American, a wooden side-wheel steamboat, passed Port Hudson moving upriver to join with Commander David Dixon Porter's fleet at Vicksburg. Although struck many times by shot from Port Hudson, it was unable to return fire due to wet cartridges and an ammunition shortage. The Anglo-American joined Porter's fleet and reported the fortifications at Port Hudson.

Porter responded to the new threat by bombarding the Rebel position with the USS Essex and the Anglo-American on September 7. The Union fleet did little damage to Port Hudson, but the Essex received significant damage. Porter reported 35 to 40 heavy guns at Port Hudson, a considerable exaggeration. During the lull in action when the Union delayed bringing more ships into the area, Beall slowly expanded the fortifications. This work was slowed because of interference from Union-controlled portions of the river and the inadequate rail and road system supporting his position. By this time, Confederate President Jefferson Davis realized that connecting the Port Hudson and Clinton railway to Jackson, Mississippi would be invaluable in allowing reserves to be switched between Vicksburg and Port Hudson, depending upon which was most threatened. A desperate shortage of iron and transport within the Confederacy made such construction impossible. Beall asked Davis to impose martial law in the region of Port Hudson in order to commandeer more workers for construction, but Davis denied this also.

Beall was set up a hospital at Centenary College at Jackson Louisiana for invalided troops from Port Hudson and Clinton, but the space proved inadequate. Confederate bureaucracy had made it difficult for Garrison Provost Marshal John C. Miller to construct a logistical system of warehouses and transports to supply the garrison with food, medical supplies, barracks, bedding, and other material necessary for their health. The use of earthworks for fortification, which required unending labor to maintain and were unhealthful to live in, also contributed to the poor health of the garrison.

Poor supply lines, starvation, and disease were to remain the constant problems of the Port Hudson position, and overwhelm efforts to improve conditions for the soldiers of the garrison. Louisiana Private Robert D. Patrick wrote: "…never since I have been in the army have I fared so badly and in truth I have been almost starved." At the same time commercial activity between Port Hudson and areas west of the Mississippi increased, because Port Hudson became the sole remaining link with the Trans-Mississippi. This tended to tie up even more of Port Hudson's limited transport facilities. [14] [15]

Change of commands Edit

Lincoln's new commander of the Gulf, Nathaniel P. Banks, arrived in New Orleans on December 14, 1862, with the 31,000 men of his expedition. The former commander, Benjamin Butler left for Lowell, Massachusetts on December 24, but his 12,000 troops remained behind. This effectively more than doubled U.S. troop strength in the Gulf area. Banks ordered them to re-occupy Baton Rouge on December 17. [16]

The Confederate command reacted to this increased Union commitment by sending a newly promoted major general to take command of Port Hudson. Major General Franklin Gardner arrived at his post on December 27, 1862. Gardner was a career Army officer who graduated from West Point 17th in his class in 1843. The native New Yorker commanded a cavalry brigade at Shiloh and was 39 years old at the time of his arrival. Upon taking command he reorganized the defenses at Port Hudson, concentrating the fields of fire of the heavy guns and rapidly setting up more earthworks by using packed earth and sod rather than the traditional gabions or sandbags.

Lacking an adequate engineering staff, he promoted Private Henry Glinder, formerly a member of the Coast Survey, to first lieutenant of engineers. He also increased the efficiency of the supply and storage operations, along with building protected roads within the defense system to speed the movement of troops to threatened positions. His energy in making improvements and promoting those worthy of command made him popular with his troops, and improved garrison morale. Despite the changes, Colonel Charles M. Fauntleroy, inspector-general for the department, criticized the fortifications for containing excessive numbers of civilians, badly placed magazines, poor transport and storage of grain, and no system for paying the troops on time. [17]

As Gardner strengthened his command, and gathered reinforcements from Pemberton sent by steamboat from Vicksburg, Banks dithered in New Orleans. He had little faith in the system of organization and military government left by Butler's command and spent much time re-organizing the Union administration and establishing a more relaxed civil government to placate former Confederate backers in the city. Banks was a "political general" and felt more comfortable with political organizing and social affairs than leading armies into the field against reputedly formidable fortifications. This lack of military zeal was noted by his officers. Colonel Sidney A. Bean recorded in his diary that under Butler, "much was accomplished with small means. Now nothing is accomplished with great means." The Union leader most offended by this apparent inertia was Rear Admiral David G. Farragut of the U.S. Navy. Although Banks reluctantly agreed to move against Port Hudson, his slow progress and the increased Rebel activity on the Mississippi in the area of Port Hudson caused Farragut's patience to run out. In March 1863 Farragut prepared to confront Port Hudson without Army support. [18]

Farragut's fleet defies Port Hudson Edit

Farragut had gathered his attack force by March 13, 1863. This fleet consisted of four principal warships and three gunboats. The principal warships were the sloops-of-war USS Hartford, USS Richmond, and USS Monongahela and the steam paddle frigate USS Mississippi. The gunboats were USS Albatross, USS Genesee, and USS Kineo. Farragut commanded this fleet from his flagship, Hartford. The first six vessels were lashed together in an attack column of pairs, with Mississippi bringing up the rear by herself. [20] [21]

Farragut had made fairly elaborate preparations of the vessels themselves for a night attack resembling the Battle of Forts Jackson and St. Phillip, clearing the ships for action, whitewashing the gun decks to improve visibility for night action, and bringing up mortar boats for support. He also had the anchor chains of the attacking ships lashed to the sides of the attack ships as improvised armor. He did not however, make the systematic survey of defenses and sustained bombardment that supported the battle for the passage of the forts guarding New Orleans. [20] [21]

The Confederate fortress was ready for the attack, having noticed increased naval activity downriver, and the ranging shots of the six mortar schooners which covered the advance of the Union fleet near Prophet ' s Island, three miles (4.3 km) downriver from Port Hudson. At this time the Confederates had over twenty cannon covering the river arranged in eleven batteries of artillery, including nine batteries of heavy coastal artillery. Lieutenant Colonel Marshall J. Smith commanded these heavy guns, and had instructed the gun crews of his plans before the battle. [22]

Battery Number Seven was a heated shot position, using ammunition particularly effective against wooden warships. Other preparations included preparing piles of pine wood to be ignited to illuminate the river for night action, and observation posts near the river to fire rockets to warn of the approach of enemy vessels. The first of these rockets was fired at 11:20 pm on March 14, 1863, at the approach of Farragut's fleet. Instantly an eight-inch (203-mm) smoothbore shell from Battery 9 was fired at Albatross, beginning the battle. The Union fleet advanced steadily upriver, beginning a general fire of broadsides as soon as their guns bore on the lower Confederate batteries on the Port Hudson slopes. The heavier Confederate guns, mounted over the walls of the seven lunettes on the crest of the bluffs, had difficulty aiming at the ships, which were hugging the shorelines of the bluffs in order to avoid shoals on the western shore near the curve of the river north of Port Hudson. [22]

Coarse black powder was the artillery propellant of the period, and produced dense clouds of white smoke when fired from cannon. Combined with the smoke of the pine wood illumination fires, and the darkness of the night attack, the river valley was rapidly obscured. Blinded by the dense smoke, Hartford and Albatross ran aground on the eastern shore beneath the Rebel batteries. Despite remaining aground for ten minutes, the two lashed-together lead ships had passed the last Confederate gun position by 12:15 am and were out of range of Port Hudson by 12:45 am. [22]

The rest of the fleet was not so lucky. Genesee and Richmond were next in the column. A trick of the wind cleared the smoke momentarily between the batteries and the ships, and Richmond was hammered by Rebel shot and shell. Just as Richmond made the turn in the river north of Port Hudson, a 6.4-inch (163 mm) solid conical shot tore through the starboard side, smashing both port and starboard boiler safety valves. This cut power to the engines and filled the ship with clouds of escaping steam. Genesee alone did not have enough power to stem the current, and both ships drifted back downriver. [22]

Monongahela and Kineo were next in the column, and, also blinded by smoke, ran aground on the western shore. The impact separated the two ships. The stress of backing off the shore disabled Monongahela ' s engine, and a thirty-two-pounder (14.5 kg) round shot split Kineo ' s rudder post, disabling her steering. Both ships drifted downriver. [22]

Mississippi was last in line and also ran aground on the western shore. The large steam paddle frigate was an irresistible target, and was riddled with shot, shell, and hot shot. The vessel being afire in many places, with flames endangering the magazine, Captain Smith ordered her abandoned. The garrison of Port Hudson cheered loudly as the ship went up in flames and drifted loose from the shore and back downriver at about 3 am, panicking the remainder of the Union fleet downriver at the threat of her magazine exploding. At 5:05 am Mississippi disappeared in a terrific explosion, seen in New Orleans nearly 80 miles (129 km.) downriver. [22]

Though Hartford and Albatross passed upriver to blockade the Red River, General Gardner and the Port Hudson garrison regarded the battle as a victory. They had sustained only three enlisted men killed and three officers and nineteen men wounded, compared to the seventy-eight killed or missing and thirty-five wounded on the Union fleet. The blockade of the Red River also had little effect on the strength of the Port Hudson position. [22]

Rear Admiral David G. Farragut

Contemporary Newspaper view of the Union fleet passing Port Hudson published by Harper's Weekly Newspaper April 18, 1863.

The USS Mississippi was completely destroyed by the guns of Port Hudson. Lieutenant George Dewey, later to become an admiral, survived the wreck.

Banks's army moves against the fortress Edit

After the naval attack, Banks retreated the 17,000 troops he had intended as a diversion to support Farragut back to Baton Rouge. The lack of an attack against Port Hudson, and a powerful rainstorm endured on the retreat lowered morale in the Union force. Other than sporadic naval bombardments against Port Hudson, Banks, under pressure from Washington to show progress, launched a campaign against Major General Taylor's Confederate forces in western Louisiana and gained control of Alexandria and a foothold on the Red River. What finally brought him to leading an attack directly against Port Hudson was the prospect of reinforcements from Grant's army arrayed against Vicksburg, and word that a significant part of the Port Hudson garrison had been sent to Pemberton in Vicksburg.

On May 11, 1863, the 3rd Louisiana Native Guards, one of Butler's black regiments, began building bridges to support the movement of Banks's forces against Port Hudson. Leading the advance was the cavalry brigade of Colonel Benjamin Henry Grierson, which had joined Banks's forces on May second after their famous raid through the Rebel lines. The entire advance involved a pincer movement with three army divisions advancing from the northwest from Bayou Sara meeting two divisions advancing from the south from Baton Rouge. The meeting of the two groups would surround Port Hudson.

One of Banks's lead divisions from Baton Rouge encountered Confederates on May 21 at the Battle of Plains Store. The Confederates were driven back, and by May 22, Banks's forces, which increased in strength from 30,000 to 40,000 men as the operation progressed, had completed an investment of the Port Hudson defenses. Banks hoped to overrun the entrenchments quickly, then take his army northward to assist Grant at Vicksburg. [24]

Union Edit

Confederate Edit

The first infantry assault Edit

Sieges and the assault of fortified positions are probably the most complex and demanding of military operations. The foremost authority on these matters at the time of the civil war was still the seventeenth century French engineer, the Marquis de Vauban, who designed many European fortification systems, and organized many successful sieges. The Confederate earthworks of Port Hudson, and their use of artillery lunettes show his influence, and corresponding attacks on such systems would have benefited from his theories. Rather than considering this store of information, Major General Banks chose to simply rush the fortifications with his infantry. He did not do so immediately however.

General Gardner chose to reinforce the picket lines shielding the Confederate grain mill and support shops of the areas near Little Sandy Creek because he did not consider a siege probable, and had not fortified that perimeter. Other Confederate troops remained outside the fortifications, consisting of 1200 troops under the command of Colonel John L. Logan. These represented all of Gardner's cavalry, the 9th Louisiana Battalion, Partisan Rangers, and two artillery pieces of Robert's battery. These troops slowed the encirclement of Banks troops, and prevented them from discovering the weaknesses in the defenses. Due to these delays, the infantry assault was scheduled for May 27, 1863, five days after the encirclement and time enough for Gardner to complete the ring of defenses around Port Hudson. He also had sufficient time to move artillery from the river side of the fort to the east side fronting the Federal forces. [25]

Weitzel's morning attacks Edit

Banks had set up his headquarters at Riley's plantation and planned the attacks with his staff and division commanders. Many were opposed to the idea of trying to overwhelm the fort with a simple assault, but Banks wanted to end the siege as quickly as possible in order to support Grant, and felt that the 30,000 troops available to him would easily force the surrender of the 7,500 troops under Gardner, a four to one advantage. Four different assault groups were organized, under the commands of generals Godfrey Weitzel, Cuvier Grover, Christopher C. Augur, and Thomas W. Sherman (often mistakenly identified as a relative of General William Tecumseh Sherman). Banks did not choose a specific time for his intended simultaneous assault however, ordering his commanders to "…commence at the earliest hour practicable."

The effect of this was to break up the attack, with generals Weitzel and Grover attacking on the north and northeast sides of the fort at dawn, and generals Augur and Sherman attacking on the east and southeast sides at noon. The naval bombardment began the night before the attack, the 13" (330 mm) mortars firing most of the evening, and the upper and lower fleets beginning firing for an hour after 7 am. The army land batteries also fired an hour bombardment after 5:30 am. Weitzel's two divisions began the attack at 6 am on the north, advancing through the densely forested ravines bordering the valley of Little Sandy Creek. This valley led the assault into a salient formed by a fortified ridge known as the "bull pen" where the defenders slaughtered cattle, and a lunette on a ridge nicknamed "Fort Desperate" which had been hastily improvised to protect the fort's grain mill.

At the end of this ravine between the two was a hill described as "commissary hill" with an artillery battery mounted on it. The Union troops were caught in a crossfire from these three positions, and held in place by dense vegetation and obstacles placed by rebel troops that halted their advance. The combination of rugged terrain, a crossfire from three sides, and rebel sharpshooters inflicted many casualties. The Union troops advancing west of the bull pen were made up of Fearing's brigade. These soldiers were caught between the bull pen, which had been reinforced with the 14th, 18th, and 23rd Arkansas regiments from the east side of Port Hudson, and a more western fortified ridge manned by Lieutenant Colonel M. B. Locke's Alabama troops. Once again the combination of steep sided ravines, dense vegetation, and a rebel crossfire from ridge top trenches halted the Union advance. Premature shell bursts from the supporting artillery of the 1st Maine Battery also caused Union casualties.

Seeing that his advance had been stopped, Brigadier General William Dwight ordered the 1st and 3rd Louisiana Native Guard forward into the attack. These troops were not intended to take part in the attack due to the general prejudice against African-American troops on the part of the Union high command. Dwight was determined to break through the Confederate fortifications however, and committed them to the attack at 10 am. Since they had been deployed as pioneers, working on the pontoon bridge over Big Sandy Creek near its junction with the Mississippi, these troops were in the worst possible position for an attack of all the units in Weitzel's northern assault group.

The Guard first had to advance over the pontoon bridge, along Telegraph Road with a fortified ridge to their left manned by William B. Shelby's 39th Mississippi troops supported by a light artillery battery, the Confederate heavy artillery batteries to their front, and the Mississippi river to their immediate left. Despite the heavy crossfire from rifles, field artillery, and heavy coast guns, the Louisiana Native Guards advanced with determination and courage, led by Captain Andre Cailloux, a free black citizen of New Orleans. Giving orders in English and French, Cailloux led the Guard regiments forward until killed by artillery fire. Taking heavy losses, the attackers were forced to retreat to avoid annihilation. This fearless advance did much to dissipate the belief that black troops were unreliable under fire. [26]

In an attempt to support Weitzel's unsuccessful assault, Brigadier Grover, commanding the northeast attack on the fortress, sent two of his regiments along the road leading northeast from Commissary Hill to assault Fort Desperate. This group had no more success than Weitzel's troops, so Grover sent three more regiments to attack the stubborn 15th Arkansas troops defending the fort. These piecemeal and sporadic efforts were also futile, and the fighting ended on the northern edge of the fortress by noon. [27]

Thomas Sherman's afternoon attacks Edit

While the infantry attacks raged against the northern section of the fortress, Brigadier General Sherman lined up 30 cannon opposite the eastern side of the fortress and conducted a steady bombardment of the rebel works and battery positions, supported by sharpshooters aiming for Confederate artillery crews. This effort had some success, but General Banks, upon hearing no rifle fire from the Union center, visited Sherman's headquarters and threatened to relieve him of command unless he advanced his troops. Sherman then began the attack on the eastern edge of the Port Hudson works at about 2 pm.

These attacks included the troops of Augur as well as his own, and had less in the way of natural terrain obstacles to contend with, but in this area the Confederates had more time to construct fortifications, and had put more effort and firepower into them. One feature of the earthworks in this region was a dry moat and more abatis or cut down trees in front of the parapet. The Union attackers therefore carried axes, poles, planks, cotton bags and fascines to fill in the ditch. Another feature of the rebel defense was a battery containing two 24-pounder smoothbore (5.82-inch, 148 mm bore) as canister throwers.

In this case the canister was composed of broken chains, segments of railroad rails, and other scrap iron. Confederate Colonel William R. Miles, commanding the infantry in the sector, had also removed all the rifles from the hospital that had been left by the sick and wounded. He was thus able to equip each of his soldiers with three weapons, greatly increasing their firepower. When the Union infantry closed within 200 yards they were met by a hail of rifle and canister fire, and few made it within 70 yards of the Confederate lines. Union commanders Sherman and Dow were wounded in these attacks, and Lieutenant Colonel James O'Brien, commanding the pioneer group, was killed. At 5 pm the commander of the 159th New York raised a white flag to signal a truce to remove the wounded and dead from the field. This ended the fighting for the day. None of the Union attacks had even made it to the Confederate parapets. [28]

The last infantry attack on the Port Hudson fortifications Edit

The successful defense of their lines brought a renewed confidence to Gardner and his garrison. They felt though a combination of well planned defensive earthworks and the skillful and deliberate reinforcement of threatened areas, the superior numbers of attackers had been repulsed. Learning from his experience, Gardner organized a more methodical system of defense. This involved dividing the fortifications into a network of defense zones, with an engineering officer in charge of strengthening the defense in each area. For the most part this involved once again charting the best cross fire for artillery positions, improving firepower concentrations, and digging protective pits to house artillery when not in use, to protect them from enemy bombardment.

Spent bullets and scrap metal were sewed into shirtsleeves to make up canister casings for the artillery, and the heavy coast guns facing the river that had center pivot mounts were cleared for firing on Union positions on the eastern side of the fortress. Three of these guns were equipped for this, and one 10-inch (250 mm)columbiad in Battery Four was so effective in this that Union troops referred to it as the "Demoralizer." Its fearful reputation spawned the myth that it was mounted on a railroad car, and could fire from any position in the fortifications. Captain L.J. Girard was placed in charge of the function of the artillery, and despite material shortages, achieved miracles in keeping the artillery functional. Rifles captured from the enemy or taken from hospitalized soldiers were stacked for use by troops in the trench lines.

Positions in front of the lines were land mined with unexploded 13-inch (330 mm)mortar shells, known as "torpedoes" at the time. Sniper positions were also prepared at high points in the trench works for sharpshooters. These methods improved the defense, but could not make up for the fact that the garrison was short of everything except gunpowder. The food shortage was a drag on morale, and resulted in a significant level of desertion to the enemy. This drain on manpower was recorded by Colonel Steedman who wrote, "Our most serious and annoying difficulty is the unreliable character of a portion of our Louisiana troops. Many have deserted to the enemy, giving him information of our real condition yet in the same regiments we have some of our ablest officers and men." Miles Louisiana Legion was considered the greatest offender. [29]

On the Union side, astonishment and chagrin were near universal in reaction to the decisive defeat of the infantry assaults. Banks was determined to continue the siege in view of the fact that his political as well as military career would be destroyed by a withdrawal to Baton Rouge. The resources of his entire command were called into play, and men and material poured into the Union encirclement. Nine additional regiments appeared in the lines by June 1. 89 field guns were brought into action, and naval guns from the USS Richmond were added to the siege guns bearing on the fortress. These six naval guns were 9-inch (229 mm) Dahlgren smoothbores. The guns were originally intended for a battery at the Head of Passes in the Mississippi Delta. The fact that four were finally emplaced in Battery Number 10, just east of "Fort Desperate" and two in Number 24, gives some idea of the reach and progress of the Union Navy. Each of the Dahlgren guns weighed 9020 pounds and was 9 feet long, capable of firing a 73.5 pound (33.3 kg) exploding shell. [30] [31] : 204

The second assault began with a sustained shelling of the Confederate works beginning at 11:15 am on June 13, 1863, and lasting an hour. Banks then sent a message to Gardner demanding the surrender of his position. Gardner's reply was, "My duty requires me to defend this position, and therefore I decline to surrender". Banks continued the bombardment for the night, but only gave the order for what was to be a simultaneous three prong infantry attack on 1 am of June 14. The attack finally began at 3:30 am, but the lack of any agreed upon plan, and a heavy fog disordered the attack as it began. Grover's column struck the Confederate line at "Fort Desperate" before the others, and the same formidable terrain combined with the enhanced Confederate defense stopped the attacks outside the rebel works. Auger's demonstration at the center arrived after the main attack had failed, and the attack on the southern end of the line was made after daylight, and stood little chance as a result. The infantry attack had only resulted in even more dead and wounded soldiers, 1,792 casualties against 47 rebel, including division commander Brig. Gen. Halbert E. Paine. He led the main attack and fell wounded, losing a leg. After this, the actions against Port Hudson were reduced to bombardment and siege. [32] [33]

Six of these mortar schooners armed with the 13- inch (330 mm) seacoast mortar supported the Union attack with indirect fire from an anchorage near Prophet's Island, downriver from Port Hudson. (U.S. Army Military History Institute.)

A Confederate 10-inch (254 mm) columbiad on a center pivot mount, similar to the "Demoralizer" in Battery Four at Port Hudson

The Yankee answer: A four-gun battery of Dahlgren 9-inch (229 mm) navy smoothbores from USS Richmond set up just east of "Fort Desperate" in battery ten (see Fortifications and Batteries map) (National Archives).

A nine-inch (229 mm) Union navy Dahlgren gun set up on land for siege work as they were at battery ten at Port Hudson. The gun is whitewashed so it can be more easily worked at night. The projections at the breech are for the navy double vent percussion firing system. The crewman at the far right is wearing the Union navy uniform.

A Union sapper or combat engineer group digs a trench in the direction of an enemy fortification. A gabion provides cover from enemy fire. At Port Hudson a sugar hogshead stuffed with cotton or a cotton bale would serve the same purpose.

Last stages of the siege, June 15 to July 9, 1863 Edit

The day after the last infantry assault, General Banks assembled some of his troops at the corps headquarters and thanked them for their previous efforts and sacrifices. He also asked for volunteers for a special attack group to be trained intensively to breach the Confederate trench line. His speech generated little enthusiasm, but a unit of 1036 men was formed and removed to a training camp in the rear to prepare for the attack. There they assembled siege ladders and organized into two battalions, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel John B. Van Petten and Lieutenant Colonel A. S. Bickmore. Colonel Henry Warner Birge of the 13th Connecticut Infantry volunteered to lead the special assault regiment. [34] : 94–5

Regular siege operations were also reorganized under the command of a new chief engineer, Captain John C. Palfrey. He concentrated the efforts of the siege on three areas of the fortifications, Fort Desperate, the Priest Cap (Confederate batteries 14 & 15), and the Citadel, the southernmost bastion of the fortifications, nicknamed by Union forces as "the Devil's Elbow". These efforts did not involve infantry rushing the trenches, but a siege technique called sapping, or constructing a series of zigzag trenches, fortified batteries, and sharpshooter positions intended to isolate and suppress individual defensive bastions. The sharpshooter or sniper positions were described at the time as trench cavaliers and were raised mounds of earth, reinforced with timbers or other materials to allow riflemen to overlook the enemy trenches and fire down into them.

The Citadel was to be reduced by a powerful siege battery constructed on a hill just to the south, Union battery number 24, intended to suppress the Confederate position by superior firepower. Union batteries were also constructed on the west bank of the Mississippi opposite Port Hudson, completely surrounding it with Union artillery batteries. Union forces also made raids on opposing trenches and batteries, to enhance their own trench lines or disable enemy batteries. Some of the 6th Michigan troops opposite the Citadel were armed with the .54 caliber (14 mm) breech-loading Merrill carbine, which gave them a rapid fire edge in trench raids. On June 26, a general bombardment from Union batteries and guns of the Union fleet began, disabling or suppressing what remained of the Confederate artillery. Along with the trenching operations, the Federals also constructed three mines underneath the opposing works, two of them directed against the Priest Cap, and one under the Citadel. After the mines were finished, chambers at the end of the mines would be loaded with powder, and exploded under the Confederate works, destroying them, and blowing gaps in the trench lines. At this point an infantry assault would be launched, hopefully overrunning the entire fortification. [35]

The Confederates responded to the siege techniques with increased efforts of their own. The grist mill at Fort Desperate had been destroyed by shelling. It was replaced by using the locomotive from the defunct railroad to power millstones, providing a steady supply of cornmeal for the garrison. Expended rifle and artillery shells were salvaged for reuse by the defense, small arms shot being recast for making new cartridges, artillery rounds reused and distributed to Confederate artillery of the same caliber, or reused as mines and grenades. Additional trench lines, obstacles, mines, and bunkers were added to the threatened bastions, making them more difficult to bombard, infiltrate, or overrun. The Priest Cap bastion had a particularly elaborate defense system, including the use of telegraph wire staked up to a height of 18 inches (460 mm), in order to trip attacking infantry. Additional field artillery and infantry were added to the defense of Fort Desperate, making sapping in that area more costly.

Various raids against Union saps were also conducted. On June 26, the Confederates launched a trench raid by the 16th Arkansas Infantry against the Priest Cap sap, taking seven prisoners, and capturing weapons and supplies. Rebel trench raiders and defenders were adept at constructing and using improvised hand grenades. Raids by Logan's cavalry were also made against Union positions outside the siege lines. On June 3 an advance by Grierson's Union cavalry against Logan's position at Clinton was repulsed. The 14th New York Cavalry was hit on June 15 near Newport, two miles from Port Hudson. Other raids struck Union foraging parties returning from Jackson, Louisiana, and captured the Union General Neal Dow, who was convalescing at Heath plantation. The biggest raid set fire to the Union supply center at Springfield Landing on July 2. These raids were annoying to Banks, but could not break the siege. On July 3, a countermine was exploded near one of the Federal mines under the Priests Cap. This collapsed the mine, but surprisingly did not cause any Union casualties. The defenders could not compensate for the constant losses of personnel resulting from starvation, disease, particularly scurvy, dysentery, and malaria, sniping, shell fragments, sunstroke and desertion. The use of mule meat and rats as rations could not maintain the health of the soldiers left standing, and was a further drain on morale. [36]

The siege created hardships and deprivations for both the North and South, but by early July the Confederates were in much worse shape. They had exhausted practically all of their food supplies and ammunition, and fighting and disease had greatly reduced the number of men able to defend the trenches. When Maj. Gen. Gardner learned that Vicksburg had surrendered on July 4, 1863, he realized that his situation was hopeless and that nothing could be gained by continuing. The terms of surrender were negotiated, and on July 9, 1863, the Confederates laid down their weapons, ending 48 days of continuous fighting. It had been the longest siege in US military history. [37] [38] [39] [40] [41] [42]

Captain Thornton A. Jenkins accepted the Confederate surrender, as Admiral David Farragut was in New Orleans.

The surrender and that of Vicksburg gave the Union complete control of the Mississippi River and its major tributaries, severing communications and trade between the eastern and western states of the Confederacy. [43]

Both sides had suffered heavy casualties: between 4,700 and 5,200 Union men were casualties, and an additional 4,000 fell prey to disease or sunstroke Gardner's forces suffered around 900 casualties, from battle losses and disease. Banks granted lenient terms to the Port Hudson garrison. The enlisted men were paroled to their homes, with transport for the sick and lightly wounded. Seriously sick or wounded were placed under Union medical care. 5,935 men and civilian employees of the Confederate Army were officially paroled. 405 officers were not paroled and were sent as prisoners to Memphis and New Orleans, half eventually winding up in Johnson's Island prison camp in Ohio. Since the terms of the parole were not in agreement with parole conditions acceptable to the Union and Confederate armies then current, the Confederate Army furloughed the returned troops until September 15, 1863, then returned them to duty. This outraged some leaders of the Union army, but General Halleck, in charge of US armies, admitted the paroles were in error. [44]

The reputation of black soldiers in Union service was enhanced by the siege. The advance of the Louisiana Guard on May 27 had gained much coverage in northern newspapers. The attack was repulsed, due to its hasty implementation, but was bravely carried out in spite of the hopeless magnitude of opposing conditions. This performance was noted by the army leadership. In a letter home, Captain Robert F. Wilkinson wrote, "One thing I am glad to say, that is that the black troops at P. Hudson fought & acted superbly. The theory of negro inefficiency is, I am very thankful at last thoroughly exploded by facts. We shall shortly have a splendid army of thousands of them." General Banks also noted their performance in his official report, stating, "The severe test to which they were subjected, and the determined manner in which they encountered the enemy, leaves upon my mind no doubt of their ultimate success." These reports had an impact far from Louisiana, or the Union army. On June 11, 1863, an editorial from the influential and widely read New York Times stated, "They were comparatively raw troops, and were yet subjected to the most awful ordeal… The men, white or black, who will not flinch from that, will flinch from nothing. It is no longer possible to doubt the bravery and steadiness of the colored race, when rightly led." These observations did much to support abolitionist efforts in the northeast to recruit free blacks for the Union armed services. By the end of the war nearly 200,000 blacks had served in the Union forces. [45]

A significant result of the siege was the blow it gave Banks's political ambitions. If Banks had overrun the position in May, he could then have taken command of Grant's siege of Vicksburg as the ranking officer and appeared a hero. [46] This would have redeemed his military reputation, and bolstered his political hopes for a presidential candidacy. Since Vicksburg fell before Port Hudson, Grant reaped the promotions and reputation for victory in the west, and eventually attained the White House, Banks's cherished ambition. As it was, Banks had to settle for setting up cotton deals for his northeast constituency, and arrange political alliances for a new state government aligned with Union and Republican interests in mind. He was quite experienced in this kind of scheming, and in the absence of military opportunities, economic advantages beckoned. Banks's armies had gathered $3 million worth of livestock and supplies while engaged in operations in western Louisiana in the spring of 1863. This bounty impressed Banks, and it was also estimated that vast stores of cotton and many Union sympathizers were waiting on the Red River in eastern Texas. In response to these observations, Banks produced his one third holding plan, the idea of re-opening trade with Europe, and diverting one third of the proceeds for the Federal Treasury. This economic bonanza would once again revive his political prospects, and justify the beginning of the Red River Campaign, a military expedition into eastern Texas, the next step in military operations in Louisiana. [47] [48]

After the war, a small number of former soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions at Port Hudson, including George Mason Lovering of the 4th Massachusetts.

The Civil War Trust (a division of the American Battlefield Trust) and its partners have acquired and preserved 256 acres of the Port Hudson Battlefield. [49]


Historic civil rights sites such as the home of Medgar Evers in Jackson are memorialized on the Mississippi Freedom Trail, a network of more than two-dozen markers where visitors can witness how pivotal events in Mississippi changed the world.

Now, the U.S. Civil Rights Trail provides a new entry point for visitors to explore these stories, alongside other noted landmarks of the movement across 14 states. A virtual roadmap of history includes an interactive map, videos and background for sites in Mississippi.

The U.S. Civil Rights Trail recognizes the work of James Meredith at the University of Mississippi in Oxford and Fannie Lou Hamer in Ruleville, where statues and Mississippi Freedom Trail markers serve as monuments to their lives.

Multiple sites important to the Emmett Till legacy are also featured on the U.S. Civil Rights Trail, including the Emmett Till Interpretive Center in Sumner, the Emmett Till Historic Intrepid Center in Glendora and a Mississippi Freedom Trail marker outside the former Bryant’s Grocery. Additional locations include the Canton Freedom House Civil Rights Museum, Tougaloo College in Jackson commemorating the Tougaloo Nine and sites related to the Freedom Summer in Philadelphia, Miss.

Start your tour with a visit to the new, interactive Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and Museum of Mississippi History, where the state is shining a light on its rich and complex history, and embark on a journey of discovery with these suggested African-American Heritage itineraries.


The Mississippi River and its floodplain are home to a diverse population of living things:

Forty percent of the nation's migratory waterfowl use the river corridor during their spring and fall migration.

Sixty percent of all North American birds (326 species) use the Mississippi River Basin as their migratory flyway. Learn more about birds of the Mississippi River in the Minnesota area.

From Cairo, IL upstream to Lake Itasca there are 38 documented species of mussel. On the Lower Mississippi, there may be as many as 60 separate species of mussel. Learn more about mussels of the upper Mississippi River.

The Upper Mississippi is host to more than 50 mammal species

At least 145 species of amphibians and reptiles inhabit the Upper Mississippi River environs.

Wildlife is abundant within the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area. Find out more about our wildlife.

About this Collection

Contains 623 maps chosen from more than 3,000 railroad maps and about 2,000 regional, state, and county maps, and other maps which show "internal improvements" of the past century. The maps presented here are a selection from the Geography and Map Division holdings, based on the popular cartobibliography, Railroad Maps of the United States: A Selective Annotated Bibliography of Original 19th-century Maps in the Geography and Map Division of the Library of Congress, compiled by Andrew M. Modelski (Washington: Library of Congress, 1975). This annotated list reveals the scope of the railroad map collection and highlights the development of railroad mapping in 19th-century America.

The Railroad maps represent an important historical record, illustrating the growth of travel and settlement as well as the development of industry and agriculture in the United States. They depict the development of cartographic style and technique, highlighting the achievement of early railroaders. Included in the collection are progress report surveys for individual lines, official government surveys, promotional maps, maps showing land grants and rights-of-way, and route guides published by commercial firms.

To satisfy Americans' keen interest in the routes of railroads, cartographers have shown rail lines on maps since the first tracks were laid in the United States. There are in the collections of the Library of Congress thousands of American railroad maps as well as numerous general maps showing railroad routes as part of the transportation network. The maps, which are in the custody of the Geography and Map Division, vary widely in area, content, and scale. Some cover major segments of our country and depict the interrelationship of various modes of transportation. Others resemble contemporary strip road maps and show only a ribbon of land immediately adjacent to a specific railroad right-of-way.

The Library's holdings include railroad maps issued for a variety of purposes. Among the collections are official printed government surveys conducted to determine the most practical railroad routes, Pacific Railroad Surveys, U.S. General Land Office maps which show land grants to railroads, surveys for specific rights-of-way, and general surveys prepared to accompany progress reports of individual railroads. Other maps were published specifically to promote particular lines, some of which were never built. Also represented in the collection are maps issued by commercial publishers, intended for ticket agents and the public, as route guides to encourage commerce and travel to the newly settled areas west of the Mississippi River.

The maps selected represent a profile of the development of cartographic style and technique and are not intended to inventory all maps in the division which show railroads. The list does reflect, however, the important achievements of early railroaders in reaching their ultimate goal of providing a transportation network spanning the country and linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

The list includes only separate printed and manuscript maps preserved in the Geography and Map Division. Excluded are photocopies, facsimiles, atlases, and maps which are included in annual railroad company reports or which illustrate volumes classed elsewhere in the Library of Congress.

The 70 Million-Year-Old History of the Mississippi River

In 1758, the French ethnographer Antoine-Simon Le Page du Pratz published The History of Louisiana, in which he wrote that the Mississippi River’s name meant “the ancient father of rivers.” Though his etymology was off—the Ojibwe words that gave us Mississippi (Misi-ziibi) actually mean “long river”—the idea has proven durable. “Ol’ Man River” buoyed Show Boat, the 1927 musical by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II. During the 1937 flood, Raymond Daniell wrote in the New York Times about frantic efforts to raise barriers “faster than old man river could rise.”

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Now it appears that the Mississippi is far older than Le Page thought, and it used to be far bigger than the Ojibwe could have imagined. And it might even become that big again in the future.

These are the extraordinary new findings unearthed by geologists including Sally Potter-McIntyre at Southern Illinois University, Michael Blum at the University of Kansas and Randel Cox at the University of Memphis, whose work is helping us better understand the monumental events, beginning in late Cretaceous North America, that gave rise to the Mississippi, swelling it to gargantuan proportions.

An 1832 expedition led by Henry Schoolcraft identified the Mississippi’s source as Lake Itasca in Minnesota. (Courtesy Minneapolis Institute of Art)

In the late Cretaceous, around 80 million years ago, a mountain chain spanned the southern portion of the continent, blocking southbound water flows, so most North American rivers flowed to the Western Interior Sea or north to Canada’s Hudson Bay. Eventually, a gap in those mountains formed, opening a path for the river we now know as the Mississippi to flow to the Gulf of Mexico. Scientists call that gap the Mississippi Embayment, but the rest of us know it as the Mississippi Delta, the vast flood plain that stretches from southern Missouri to northern Louisiana. As recently as 2014, geological consensus held that the Mississippi began flowing through the embayment around 20 million years ago. But in 2018, Potter-McIntyre and her team concluded, based on the age of zircon fragments they excavated from sandstone in southern Illinois, that the river began flowing much earlier—some 70 million years ago. The Mississippi was thus born when dinosaurs still roamed the planet one can almost picture an alamosaurus bending its prodigious neck to drink from its waters. By contrast, the Missouri River, in its current form, dates back a mere two million years. Old Man River, indeed.

Still, 70 million years ago the Mississippi was nowhere near as large as it would become. Blum has detailed how the waterway grew as it added tributaries: the Platte, Arkansas and Tennessee rivers by the late Paleocene, then the Red River by the Oligocene. Around 60 million years ago, the Mississippi was collecting water from the Rockies to the Appalachians by four million years ago, its watershed had extended into Canada, and the Mississippi had grown to an enormous size, carrying four to eight times as much water as it does today, Cox and colleagues have found. “This was a giant river, on the order of the Amazon,” said Cox.

So the river’s larger-than-life role in culture was perhaps inevitable. Until the early 19th century, the Mississippi marked the western border between Spanish and American territory, and it continues to give life to the cities that sprang up along its route. After Union forces captured Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln saw the emancipated river as a symbol of a nation unified: “The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea,” he wrote. Mark Twain, the best publicist a river ever had, inspired 150 years’ worth of dreams about floating away from our troubles. And among members of the Ojibwe, Dakota and Chitimacha tribes, who still live on portions of ancestral lands in the Mississippi Valley, a spiritual connection to the river remains strong. In 2013, Nibi Walk, a group of Indigenous women walked 1,500 miles along the Mississippi to advocate for clean water—an issue of vital importance to the 18 million Americans who get their drinking water from the river.

The river’s famed fluctuations have shaped American urbanization, too. The Great Flood of 1927 accelerated the Great Migration, as African Americans, disproportionately displaced, sought economic opportunity in cities such as Chicago and Detroit. “Old Mississippi River, what a fix you left me in,” Bessie Smith sings in “Homeless Blues,” one of many songs about the 1927 flood. That disaster also ushered in an era of unprecedented public works, as the federal government sought to remake the river into a predictable route for moving bulk necessities like corn and coal.

The mighty river has inspired more than a thousand songs since 1900, including “Big River” by Johnny Cash and “Proud Mary,” in which John Fogerty (echoed later by Tina Turner) observes that “people on the river are happy to give.” That truism is confirmed every year, when people who live along the Mississippi offer a meal and a shower to the dozens of strangers who test themselves against Old Man River by paddling small boats from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico.

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This article is a selection from the September issue of Smithsonian magazine

Watch the video: Interesting Maps That Teach You About The. (July 2022).


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