205 Years Ago: The New Madrid Earthquake and repercussions on the Civil War

Yesterday the US Geological Survey posted this reminder to their Facebook page:

The New Madrid Earthquake is well known though mostly as the answer to trivia questions. The presence of a major and active fault line in the middle of the continent is not unusual.  But as it sits in the middle of the United States, it is perhaps one of the most studied such faults.  What most interests me, having lived in that area and having a strong interest in the history, is how the earthquake affected the land in ways still visible today.  Specific to the Civil War, it is that changed landscape we must consider when studying several campaigns.  Most notably the Battle of Island No. 10.

The USGS website (linked in the post above) provides more details about the earthquake.  An important point to understand is the earthquake was not simply one incident on one date.  Yes, the most violent of the quakes was on February 7, 1812 measuring 7.5 in magnitude.  But that was just one among over 200 recorded between December 16, 1811 and March 15, 1812, “… ten of these were greater than about 6.0; about one hundred were between M5.0 and 5.9; and eighty-nine were in the magnitude 4 range.”  The quakes caused major damage across parts of the central Mississippi Valley.  Shaking was observed as far away as Washington and other cities on the Atlantic Coast.  In short, this was a “big one.” But at the time, the location was among the westernmost settlements in the United States.  So it was not as bad as it could have been – one recorded death in the sparsely populated region.

In terms of physical affects, the web article summarizes:

The earthquakes caused the ground to rise and fall – bending the trees until their branches intertwined and opening deep cracks in the ground. Deep seated landslides occurred along the steeper bluffs and hillslides; large areas of land were uplifted permanently; and still larger areas sank and were covered with water that erupted through fissures or craterlets. Huge waves on the Mississippi River overwhelmed many boats and washed others high onto the shore. High banks caved and collapsed into the river; sand bars and points of islands gave way; whole islands disappeared. Surface fault rupturing from these earthquakes has not been detected and was not reported, however. The region most seriously affected was characterized by raised or sunken lands, fissures, sinks, sand blows, and large landslides that covered an area of 78,000 – 129,000 square kilometers, extending from Cairo, Illinois, to Memphis, Tennessee, and from Crowley’s Ridge in northeastern Arkansas to Chickasaw Bluffs, Tennessee. Only one life was lost in falling buildings at New Madrid, but chimneys were toppled and log cabins were thrown down as far distant as Cincinnati, Ohio, St. Louis, Missouri, and in many places in Kentucky, Missouri, and Tennessee.

And I would point out that many of those affects are still visible today.  Driving through the area, one will often see discolored patches of sandy soil marking the location of a fissure or sand-blow.  However, one very notable remnant of this quake was large subsidence in Tennessee:

A notable area of subsidence that formed during the February 7, 1812, earthquake is Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee, just east of Tiptonville dome on the downdropped side of the Reelfoot scarp. Subsidence there ranged from 1.5 to 6 meters, although larger amounts were reported.

If you refer to the map embedded with the post above, Reelfoot Lake is just to the upper right of the bold Reelfoot Fault line, on the Tennessee side of the Mississippi River.  Where the river crosses the fault line is the area where Island No. 10 was located. I’ve written some on Island No. 10 in the past. Specifically how the topography has changed between 1862 and today, thanks in some part to work aimed at keeping the river in check.

But reflecting back to the earthquakes of 1811-12, there is another geographic and geologic component to consider.  Reelfoot Lake and the expansion of similar low areas on the Missouri side created a natural barrier.  One of my favorite contemporary illustrations to use when discussing the topography around Island No.10, New Madrid, and Reelfoot Lake is this one:


Yes, horribly stylized with exaggerated features.  But the point is served, between Crowley’s Ridge and the Tennessee River lay a vast area of swamps and lowlands, interrupted at intervals with high ground such as the Chickasaw Bluffs.  These swamps inhibited transit on land, making the river a vital transportation and communication artery.

When studying terrain as it relates to military campaigns, normally we are drawn to mountains were passes become key terrain features that might be easily defended.  But in this case the “passes” are in fact waterways. And therefore we see a natural barrier that might be defended – not with fortifications cited on lofty purchases – but by batteries carefully placed on narrow strips of dry land to contest the passage of ships.  The Federals could not by-pass Island No.10 and its associated batteries due to the expanse of swamp.  Eventually, the key to unlocking this barrier lay in cutting a passage through the swamps.  And that effected, Reelfoot Lake turned from a feature anchoring the Confederate right flank, into a roadblock preventing retreat.  You see, those areas of subsidence caused by the New Madrid Earthquake figured prominently in the course of a major campaign.

And those were formed 205 years ago as the earth around New Madrid, Missouri shook.


Chasing guerrillas along the Mississippi: The 34th New Jersey Infantry at Island No. 10

The 34th New Jersey Volunteer Infantry formed in the fall of 1863.  Men from Mercer, Salem, Burlington, and Camden counties filled the ranks (along with some from New York and Philadelphia).  The regiment left Camp Parker, outside Trenton, in mid-November that year, heading to the front lines.  Instead of an assignment to the Army of the Potomac, as one might logically presume, the 34th went west as part of the surge of forces sent to Nashville and then towards Chattanooga in the aftermath of defeat at Chickamauga (with the 34th posted around Bridgeport).  After that crisis passed, the 34th moved down the Tennessee River to garrison western Kentucky, and part of west Tennessee, through the winter of 1864.  (Hat tip here to my friend Jim Lamason for helping track down the background on this regiment.)

Following a brief stay at Union City, Tennessee, and a foray chasing Confederate Major-General Nathan B. Forrest,  Colonel William Hudson Lawrence moved the regiment at Columbus, Kentucky as part of the District of Cairo (Illinois).  The main threat to that sector were guerrilla bands.  So one company of the 34th was mounted as a mobile force.  Furthermore two companies of the regiment went down river to Island No. 10 to help control the area around Kentucky (New Madrid) Bend.  There Captain Robert M. Ekings commanded Companies B and C of the regiment, comprising of 4 officers and 170 men, with seven heavy guns and one field piece.

Throughout the winter, Ekings operated against the irregulars from his base on the river.  On March 6, he sent a detachment of twelve men under First Sergeant John Connor (Company C) to “arrest a gang of 3 men who were reported to have murdered a negro the day previous; and also one Joseph Malady, a notorious guerrilla and horse-thief.”  After moving seven miles upriver, the detachment found Malady and other parties had escaped.  On their way back, a guerrilla force under Captains Parks and Bradford (no first names offered) ambushed the detachment.  Connor estimated the guerrilla force at 75 to 125 men in strength. Late that evening, Connor and his men  made their escape using a raft and reached Island No. 10 that evening.

The action on the 6th promoted Federal authorities to mount a larger operation to clear out these guerrillas under Parks and Bradford, with Ekings leading.  On this day (March 18) in 1864, Ekings left Island No. 10 with a force charged with scouting the area around Tiptonville, Tennessee and clearing out these bands:

I have the honor to report that in obedience to orders from district headquarters, bearing date March 11, 1864, on the evening of the 18th instant I embarked on the steamer John Rowe, and crossing the river landed on the Tennessee shore, opposite the island, 60 colored troops, under the command of Capt. J.B. Rogers, Company C, Seventh Louisiana Infantry, of African descent, with orders to scour the country between Island 10 and Tiptonville. With the remainder of my force, 40 men of Company C, Thirty-fourth New New Jersey Infantry, I proceeded to New Madrid, Mo., where I was re-enforced by 30 infantry of the Second Missouri Heavy Artillery, and 20 men of the First Missouri Cavalry ordered to join me, at my request, by Major Rabb, commanding that post.


I disembarked at Riley’s Landing, 7 miles below Tiptonville, and commenced a northward march, carefully examining the country as I advanced. I could discover no guerrillas, with one exception. A certain Obadiah Green, a brother-in-law of the guerrilla leader Bradford, was captured by us at Bradford’s house. We reached the island about sunset on the 19th instant. From the best information I could obtain I should be inclined to the opinion that the guerrillas under Parks and Bradford had left Madrid Bend about a week previous to the scout under my command.

I would point out, as seen with the notation of earthworks on the fortifications on the map, the area patrolled was that fought over in April 1862 when Island No. 10 fell.  Ekings’ scouting netted far shy of the 75 to 125 suspected in the area, possibly because those men had withdrawn to join with a large raid led by Forrest, which was just kicking off at that time.

But let’s take a few steps back and look at the big picture here.  Over the last month, I’ve posted sections of Colonel Charles Wainwright’s diary in which he asks, “Why don’t they send the men to the [Army of the Potomac]?”  And here we see New Jersey men, who I think Wainwright would argue should have been in the Army of the Potomac, posted to Virginia, sitting on an island in the middle of the Mississippi River.  Not just any island, but a location well behind the front lines, fought over some two years before.

The activities of Ekings and the 34th New Jersey were not the stuff which historians reference often in the “big books.”  Boring, mundane, and inconsequential, you might say.  But the posting of Ekings’ two companies speaks to the problem facing Federal leaders in the spring of 1864 – how to put enough men on the front lines to prosecute the war, while at the same time retaining enough force in the rear areas for security, law, and order.  Why didn’t they send the men to Wainwright in Virginia?  Because the the army needed them elsewhere too.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 32, Part I, Serial 57, pages 491-2 and 623-4.)

In the April issue of Civil War Times: Find Stonewall Jackson’s Arm and Island No. 10

April-13-CWT-200The April issue of Civil War Times is out at the periodical sections of your local store. Several great articles by authors of note, to include Robert K. Krick, Harold Holzer, Sarah Richardson, Jamie Malanowski, fellow blogger Chris Mackowski, and yours truely.

Chris’s article considers the lingering question about Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s amputated arm, which may or may not still be buried at Ellwood Manor.

My article, also explores an artifact of the Civil War long buried – Island No. 10 on the Mississippi River. I discussed activities at Island No. 10 last year, here at To the Sound of the Guns, on the Civil War Monitor Blog, and for the Civil War Navy Sesquicentennial blog, around the 150th anniversary of that often overlooked campaign. For the Civil War Times article, I focused a bit more on the changes to the landscape around that battlefield to include the “movements” of the island with time. Dana Shoaf and the staff at the magazine deserve much credit translating some of my scribbled maps into coherent illustrations.

So you want to locate Island No. 10? Find out if Jackson’s arm is still buried in the Wilderness? Get a copy of the April edition of Civil War Times.

Mortar on a raft: The Navy puts the 13-inch mortar to use

Continuing my examination of the 13-inch mortars, it is time to look at the Navy’s use of the weapon. Two types of naval craft carried the 13-inch mortar and both became very active at this time 150 years ago. Admiral David Farragut brought schooners armed with mortars to the lower Mississippi River, to use them against the forts defending New Orleans. Far upstream, Flag Officer Andrew Foote used similar mortars mounted on rafts to bombard Island No. 10 and later Fort Pillow. It’s those river mortar boats – the mortar on a raft – that I’ll look at first.

USS Tuscumbia and Mortar Boats

Since the post is about ships and boats, I figured it fit best over at the Civil War Navy Sesquicentennial Blog. So please click over to that post for more on the little unpowered mortar boats.

A bit more about Island No. 10

The second of my posts on Island No. 10 is up at the Civil War Monitor’s Front Line Blog, so please click over and check it out.

And while you are clicking, check out this post at Vince’s excellent Lancaster at War blog.  A first hand account from a navy mortar crew-member on the river.  Which dovetails in to my next few posts about those big mortars!


Island No 10 009
View across the Mississippi at Island No.10 (the Island is now part of the Missouri shore in the distance)


Front Line Blog: Considering Island No. 10

Looking for my regular daily post here on “To the Sound of the Guns?”

Well click over to the Civil War Monitor’s The Front Line Blog for the first of a set of articles on Island No. 10.  And if you haven’t done so already, please make The Front Line one of your daily stops as you browse through the Civil War blogosphere.

Over the years I’ve given a few… very few… tours of the area where the battlefield of Island No. 10.  Sort of hard to get folks excited about slopping through the mud to see a place that is almost nothing like its wartime appearance.  I’ve given a few presentations to roundtables and other groups.  One theme I like to emphasize is the engineering work.  In addition to army vs. army, the campaign hinged upon the timeless man vs. river.  That story line was repeated on several occasions from March 1862 through July 1863 (and in smaller ways well beyond).

New Madrid Pushes Sesqui Plans

Reviewing my news catches this weekend, I noticed an article from the Southeast Missourian covering sesquicentennial plans in New Madrid, Missouri.  For you narrow-focused eastern types, New Madrid was the objective of General John Pope’s early-1862 campaign on the Mississippi.  Pope’s great success before placing his headquarters where his hindquarters needed to be.

The article notes the town’s plan to provide more interpretation highlighting the Civil War activities.  A planned driving tour will have stops at the local museum, the sites of Forts Thompson and Bankhead, the Union bypass canal site, cemeteries with Civil War veterans, the antebellum Hunter-Dawson home, and other sites in town.  There are plans to reconstruct a portion of Fort Thompson.  This driving tour may integrate with a larger driving tour, projected by the Missouri State Department of Natural Resources, to show off the Civil War sites in the “Show Me!” state.

To promote the Civil War sites, New Madrid plans to place a billboard along nearby I-55, hoping to draw some of the many motorists passing each day.

Now let me slip into editorial mode here…. I don’t wish to sound mean, but that’s horse-and-buggy stuff.  It is evidence, to this native-Missourian, that once again the state has missed the boat when it comes to promoting its history and heritage.

Decades ago the Missouri State Historical Society placed metal markers in county seats and major towns.  Typical for the presentation of that era, these markers offered an overview of the local history.  The marker in New Madrid stands today on the city’s river levee.  It is verbose, one-dimensional, and oh so 1950s.

More recently, the Department of Natural Resources has erected Civil War focused markers at sites around the state.  The marker for New Madrid and Island No. 10 is typical of this series.  Although somewhat verbose, this marker is focused on the 1862 campaign and offers a map and illustrations.

Those two markers are the main interpretive exhibits for visitors today – unless of course they plan to run the backroads through Tennessee and Kentucky where similar markers orient visitors.  For the modern day traveler, New Madrid’s location near I-55 makes it the logical “entry point” for any visit to the Island No. 10 area.  I hesitate to say “battlefield” because, as I pointed out a few weeks ago, the river has “unmade” that battlefield with 150 years worth of flooding and course changes.  Still there is some value in the study of the campaign, at the river’s edge.

I think the larger issue here is the lack of a integrated state system, and cooperation across state lines.  Missouri’s Civil War Heritage Foundation, a non-profit, has taken up the challenge on the west side of the river.  But I am not clear as to the relation between that foundation and the state’s DNR.   From my “outsider” view, the logical step would be for the state to work with the Civil War Trails program.  Currently Civil War Traveler, the program’s web facing component, lists some sites in Southeast Missouri.  But note New Madrid and Island No. 10 are conspicuously absent.  And of course, since Missouri is not affiliated with the Civil War Trails marker system, there are none of the familiar waysides.  (However, on the Tennessee side of the river, a new Civil War Trails marker is scheduled for the Tiptonville area.)

I’ve drug you through all those links for a reason.  In today’s world with smart phones and wireless internet, visitors are apt to plan their tours in advance.  Further, with gas prices reaching that of the proverbial “arm” and “leg” levels, they are less likely to go “exploring” off the interstate based on a billboard.  Particularly where the locations are 20 to 40 minutes off the main highway.

A cheaper alternative, but one that would require some higher level involvement with the state, would be joining the Civil War Trails system.  How about it Missouri Department of Tourism?