Exploring Plum Point Bend: More than just Civil War along the river

Yesterday I posted on the Plum Point Bend battlefield for the Civil War Navy Sesqui blog. As with many Civil War sites along the Mississippi River, the passage of 150 years has changed the landscape considerably. Although, the agent for change has been, for the most part, the river itself. The map below shows the general course of the river during the war, in blue.

The pin points reference sites discussed in the post (over on the CW Navy site). So please click over there to see how this river battlefield looks today. In the post I mention activities there in the spring of 1862. 150 years ago that stretch of the river was the “front line” in the Federal advance down the Mississippi, in the form of ironclad gunboats and mortar boats. Overlooking that line were some 40 Confederate guns in Fort Pillow. And the Plum Point Bend is the site of perhaps the greatest Confederate naval victory of the war, on May 10, 1862, when a flotilla of rams sank two ironclad gunboats.

Of course, readers are probably more familiar with the massacre occurring at the fort in 1864. I’ll have to visit that topic of discussion in 2014. But the Civil War story line is but part of a rich local history.

Growing up in that area, I’ve always embraced the river history and lore. Very much analogous to Robert Moore’s attachment to the Shenandoah. The river bends around Osceola, Arkansas offer a bounty of stories. Mark Twain mentioned Plum Point by name, describing it as “famous and formidable” in Life on the Mississippi. Yet at the same time he noted changes to the river in the form of beacons, channel dikes, and other engineering features – man’s attempts to “train” the river’s behavior.

Osceola 208
Plum Point Bend today

What made the river from Osceola, around Plum Point, and further down to Craighead Point, so dangerous were the current shifts as the river doubled back on itself through an extended “S”. Snags and sandbars made each reach treacherous. Such obstacles led to more wrecks than can be counted, and no small loss of life. For good reason, in 1829 Captain Henry Shreve chose Plum Point Bend to demonstrate his “snagboat” to clear river obstructions.

Island No. 30 (Mississippi River islands use the most unromantic convention of numbering the islands consecutively downriver from Cairo, Illinois) lays in front of Osceola today. At the time of the Civil War it was about midway across the channel. It was also among the obstacles hindering navigation. Since that time the island has “walked” toward the Arkansas side.

One day in 1913, the steam towboat Sprague, the largest steam tow ever used on the Mississippi, was making her way around the island with a charge of coal barges. On earlier trips, Sprague set records, pushing up to 60 barges. This time, the steamer would set a new record of sorts. As it passed the island, the Sprague hit one of the dikes, then got caught in cross currents. Soon barges broke and tipped, with the coal dumped in the river. This became one of the largest non-fatal accidents on the river.

The Sprague

Islands No. 31 and 32 disappeared after the New Madrid Earthquake of 1811-12. But further downstream Island No. 33 received a rare “real name” over the years – Flour Island – due to the large number of flatboats carrying flour which came to grief there (or at least that’s the old river story). James Audubon spent a few days on the island in 1820. Yet today, the Island lays one mile east of the river channel, as a foothold of Arkansas on the Tennessee side of the river. A change in the river’s course left it there, and bypassed the 100 foot tall Chickasaw Bluffs on which Fort Pillow was built.

But not all the story line is “river” centric. Osceola sat in the hart of Lee Wilson’s Cotton Plantation. That brings up reconstruction and “the New South” in the discussion. (For those with an interest, I recommend Jeannie Whayne’s Delta Empire.) Wilson’s influence shaped not only the sociological, economic and political landscape, but also the topography as his plantation required protection from the floods.

Looking beyond the “hard history,” remarkably the area around that “S” bend of the river cultivated a large number of musicians – particularly in the blues and country genres. Calvin Frazier, Albert King, Billy Lee Riley, Harvey Scales, Reggie Young, Son Seals, and Buddy Jewell all have roots in the locality (and Johnny Cash lived not too far to the west of there in his youth).

Fascinating when you consider the layers and cross threads of history tied to one geographic location. Thankfully, the Mississippi County Historical & Genealogical Society is very active both preserving and promoting the area’s rich heritage. They are largely responsible for numerous historical markers on the Arkansas side of the river’s bends.

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Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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