Battlefields Under Water: Spring Flooding on the Mississippi

Somewhat lost in between the major news items this week is the ongoing spring floods in the mid-west.  As one who has lived near the Mississippi knows the river rises and pushes against it’s bounds this time of year.  But this year the many stations are reporting record flood levels. And since the river’s course is very much part history lesson, many Civil War related sites appear in the news stories.  Three of those sites mentioned thus far are Cairo, Illinois along with Belmont and New Madrid, Missouri.

Here’s an aerial view of the affected area:

Last week, the situation at Cairo reached a critical state.  In order to relieve the stress on the levees, the Army Corps of Engineers blew a levee at Bird’s Point on the Missouri side of the river.  This opened up the New Madrid Floodway intakes.  At present not all the “outlets” for the floodway are open, but there are plans to open more over the next few hours.

USACE breaches levee at Birds Point
USACE breaches levee at Birds Point

Sort of recalls the mortar boats at Island No. 10, perhaps?

Second blast from lower section of Birds Point
Second blast from lower section of Birds Point

Or gunboats along the river.

Edge of the inflow section
Edge of the inflow section

One of the blasts appears in this video:

With the results seen here:

The river’s spring rise currently covers the Belmont battlefield (which I surveyed in an earlier post) and much of Island No. 10.  Although I would point out both those sites are on the river side of the levees and are often flooded this time of the year. Other sites further down river will see river crests, particularly Memphis and Vicksburg.  The rising waters may force the Army to open other floodways further south to further ease strains.

While this flooding places many cities, houses, and farms at risk (including many relatives of mine!), I don’t think there is any significant Civil War site at risk.  After all the river has probably done this 150 times since the war was fought.

What I have found interesting as I track the progress of the flooding is the satellite images from the area.  Consider this view from the days before the levees were blown:

And the same area after the levees were blown:

Significant sections from Cairo down to the Kentucky Bend (the horseshoe in the lower center, where New Madrid sits) was covered with water.

Recall during siege operations at Island No. 10, Federals cut a bypass canal across the swampy bottom land to the east and north of New Madrid.  That canal allowed transports to bypass the Confederate batteries clustered around Island No. 10.  When that bottom land was drained in the early parts of the 20th century, the bayous and traces used by the Federals disappeared.  Well with the flooding this spring, it may be possible to work that same bypass!

I am also reminded of accounts from the war, 1862 in particular, when the Mississippi River reached flood stage.  Some observers described the river as effectively 10 or 20 miles wide due to the rising waters.  Not unlike what appears today after activation of the floodway system.

And one final Civil War connection, if I may.  The Corps of Engineers has a long history of fighting “old man river” –  sometimes failing, but most often with success.  In fact, many Civil War notables were among the first to attempt taming the river with levees, floodways, and dikes.  This guy among them:

General A.A. Humphreys

I mention Humphreys as his work, along side others including Henry L. Abbot, formed the basis for the first comprehensive river control policy.  The legacy of that policy is a system that has thus far worked … at least thus far here in 2011.