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.

150 years ago: Arms buildup for Vicksburg

The string of tactical defeats and strategic withdrawals for the Confederates in the Western Theater through 1862 not only conceded territory to the Federals but also translated to lost war material.  At the Iron Buffs of Columbus, Island No.10, Fort Pillow, and Memphis, the Confederates shed much needed heavy ordnance and material.  Likewise, the rebels left many small arms on the field at Fort Donelson and Shiloh.  Not to mention the loss of production facilities in Nashville, New Orleans, and Memphis.  All of which was sorely lacking at the next bastion under pressure – Vicksburg.  During the fall of 1862, as the center of gravity in the west shifted towards that particular bend of the Mississippi River, Confederates shipped large quantities of equipment to Vicksburg.

But “shipped to” does not necessarily mean “received at” when one balances the books.  In the last days of November, those in Vicksburg complained of delays.  A message sent on November 30, 1862 complained of receiving only 1,700 small arms.  In response, on December 2 Colonel Joshia Gorgas reported in detail the support offered to that point by the Confederate Ordnance Department:

  • October 29, Richmond: One thousand seven hundred small-arms.
  • October 29, Richmond: Four 4.62 rifled and banded guns, with carriages and ammunition complete; four 12-pounder bronze guns; four 24-pounder howitzers, with carriages, caissons, and ammunition complete.
  • November 9, Richmond: Four thousand rounds ammunition for 6-pounder gun and 12-pounder howitzer (three-fifths gun and two-fifths howitzer); 80 rounds 20-pounder Parrott ammunition; 200 rounds 3-pounder Parrott ammunition.
  • November 10, Charleston: Eight hundred arms to General Smith, Vicksburg.
  • November 10, Atlanta: Five hundred 3-inch rifle shot and shell.
  • November 11, Richmond: Seventy rounds 20-pounder ammunition.
  • November 18, Richmond and Lynchburg: One thousand five hundred arms and ammunition.
  • November 18, Knoxville: One thousand five hundred arms and ammunition.
  • November 18, Atlanta: Five hundred arms and ammunition.
  • November 24, Richmond: Three 10-inch columbiads.

In short about 6000 small arms forwarded from depots in Richmond, Charleston (South Carolina), Atlanta, and Knoxville to Vicksburg.  But of course the majority of those (save the first 1,700) didn’t get on a train until November and thus were likely still on the rails when Gorgas responded. (*)

But that was just the muskets and such.  The “fun” stuff we discuss on this blog is the artillery, right?  Four 4.62-inch rifled and banded guns, four 12-pdr guns (likely Napoleons), four 24-pdr howitzers, and three 10-inch Columbiads.  At least one of the 4.62-inch rifles ended up at Port Hudson and another ended up in Little Rock, Arkansas.  Because of that scattering, its hard to say for sure all three 10-inch Columbiads served at Vicksburg.  The river defenses contained at least two weapons of that caliber before hand, so mention in action reports is not proof of presence of these big triplets.

But there is a good line on when the guns left Richmond.  Tredegar often filed claims for hauling equipment and stores for the Confederacy.  A tally of the “hauling account” for November lists an entry for November 22:

On the 15th, Tredegar unloaded three 10-inch Columbiads shipped downriver from Bellona Foundry, from the wording “boat in basin,” likely using the James River Canal.  The entry also indicates one of the Columbiads went to the proving grounds.  Tredegar also loaded up two 4.62 inch rifles for shipment to Danville at that time – which may or many not be part of the set Gorgas ordered shipped on November 9.  The going rate to unload a gun from a canal boat was $5.  The rate to haul a gun to the range was $10.  Loading two guns on the railcars cost $15.

On November 22, Tredegar loaded three 10-inch Columbiads  on cars heading to Danville, and from there points west.  Since the entry mentions handling one Columbiad from the proving grounds and the other two from the basin to the depot, that covers the weapons mentioned on the 15th.  Tredegar also loaded three carriages for the Columbiads.

Notice the costs of the labor for the 22nd.  Just as on the 15th, $10 a gun to transport to the depot (either from the basin or proving range).  Counting gun and carriage, Columbiads cost $7.50 per gun to load onto rail cars.  The 4.62-inch rifles loaded on the 15th were mounted on siege carriages, so handling costs were fifty cents left.   Again, let me highlight the rather tight bookkeeping done for the Confederate government.

A look further down on the “hauling” tally indicates Tredegar handled five more of the 10-inch Columbiads a few days later:

On the 29th, Tredegar’s workers loaded three of five 10-inch Columbiads handled that day onto rail cars.  The tally does not indicate where those were sent.  Either date (the 22nd or the 29th) would fit for the day those Columbiads rolled out bound for Vicksburg.  I’m inclined to go with the 22nd since the name of the connecting destination was provided.  And again look at the handling costs – $10 to move a gun, $5 to load a gun on a railcar, and $7.50 to haul and load a carriage.

But before leaving the tally sheet, consider this entry made between the two clipped above:

Anyone care to venture a guess about those pieces and where they were used?  I’ll give you a hint.

Fredericksburg 24 Nov 12 051

In late November 1862, the Confederacy rushed guns to several threatened points.


* For Gorgas’ report and the original inquiry from Vicksburg, see OR, Series I, Volume 17, Part II, Serial 25, pages 775-6.

The receipt for hauling is located in the Confederate Citizens Files for J.R. Anderson & Company.

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.

150 Years Ago: Defending New Orleans

One-hundred and fifty years ago, Admiral David Farragut faced the difficult task of reducing or bypassing Confederate defenses to capture New Orleans.  The Confederates inherited an extensive network of fortifications constructed under the “Third System” by the U.S. Army from 1815 to 1860.  As such, the defenses provide a good study of the seacoast defense theory of the antebellum years.

The scheme of defense for New Orleans contained the lessons learned from the War of 1812, considering the British attempts to take the city in 1814-15.   During that war, an old colonial fort, Fort Saint Philip, successfully prevented British Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane from moving directly up the Mississippi River.  Instead the British moved by way of the backwaters southeast of the city.  After a delaying action by Lieutenant Thomas ap Catesby Jones (you may be more familiar with his nephew Catesby ap Roger Jones of the CSS Virginia), the British moved through Lake Borgne and a series of bayous to reach a spot downstream of New Orleans.  Had the British ground commanders moved quickly, they might have captured the city.  Instead, indecision and a spoiling attack by General Andrew Jackson bought time for the Americans to establish defenses just outside New Orleans.  Admiral Cochrane proposed using Chef Menteur Pass to reach Lake Pontchartrain and outflank the Americans.  But he was overruled.  I’ll let Johnny Horton pick up the story from there….

Military minds realized even in victory, Andrew Jackson’s success revealed many weak points in the defense of New Orleans.  As result, the lower Mississippi River received much attention from those planning coastal defenses in the antebellum period.  Instead of a single point defense, as might be employed at a harbor entrance, New Orleans required a system of defenses covering the waterways leading to the city. The bayous connecting Lakes Borgne and Pontchartrain required special attention.  Technology of the time provided 24-, 32-, and 42-pdr guns with practical ranges of around 1500 yards.  The expected opponent in the most likely scenario was a European navy, using wooden, sail-powered warships (meaning for riverine purposes, good old muscle power via oars or capstans).   Such forces, unable to “run” the batteries as later steam-powered ships might, would lay at anchor and bombard the shore defenses.  Furthermore, the defense assumed a long lead time, given the travel time from Europe, in which Americans could activate the militia and concentrate (or constitute) naval forces.

To start with, immediately following the War of 1812 the Army improved the defenses of the Mississippi River itself.  Old Fort Saint Philip received updates and a new mate across the river.  With Fort Jackson on the west bank, any attacker faced a gauntlet of fire along the river.

In the 1820s, Army efforts shifted east towards the route used by the British.  Battery Bienvenue grew from a few guns in 1816 to a twenty-four gun fortification by 1830.  (I’ve mentioned this fort in relation to some rather rare guns.) This covered the juncture of two bayous leading back to Lake Borgne.  Further down, in Tower Dupre, completed in 1833, blocked one entrance from the lake to Bayou Dupre.  Another tower, not complete at the time of the Civil War, blocked another pass between Lake Borgne and Bayue Dupre at Proctor’s Landing.

But the main effort went towards two very similar forts sealing off the passes between Lakes Borgne and Pontchartrain.  Completed in 1827, Fort Pike covered the Rigolets, a northern channel between the lakes.  The Army completed Fort Macomb the same year, covering Chef Menteur Pass to the south.  Engineers laid out both forts with triangular traces using an arc of casemates to optimize the number of guns facing the channel, while offering no blind angles to any waterborne attacker.  Terrain and topography allowed the Army to dispense with elaborate outer works for these forts.  Any besiegers would fight the water table in addition to the fort’s defenders.

After completing defenses to address the eastern approaches, the Army turned to those west of the river.  Construction on Fort Livingston, to cover the main entrance to Barataria Bay, began in 1835.  Work at that isolated location proceeded in spurts.  The fort was barely completed before the Civil War, and never properly armed.

As weapons technology improved, the Army was able to extend the system of forts further out.  In 1858, the Army started construction of a fort on Ship Island, Mississippi, to protect Mississippi Sound.  That sound connected to Lake Borgne and to inland waterways around Mobile, Alabama.  A battery of heavy columiads, or better still those heavy Rodman guns undergoing tests, could command a wide expanse of water from that fort.  The Confederates briefly held the incomplete fort in 1861, but the Federals seized it back in September that year.  Fort Massachusetts, as it came to be known, then became a base of operations along the Gulf Coast.

So in April 1862, the defense of New Orleans was a series of strong points covering the likely avenues of approach:

The Confederates added a few batteries along the Mississippi to supplement the system they inherited.  But the existing forts remained the heart of the defense.

In retrospect, we would be hasty to claim this defensive strategy was flawed.  As designed within the construct of a national defense, the system might have worked.  I disdain “alternate histories,” but if we flip history on its head considering a repeat of 1814, an American defense (benefiting from a larger manpower and industrial base) compares well with potential adversaries.  But reality is the Confederates didn’t have a concentrated “blue water” navy, “Pook’s Turtles”, Rodman’s guns, or legions of mid-western militia to aid in the defense.  I contend the very things the defensive strategy depended upon became the force undoing of the Confederate defenses of New Orleans.

So how’s that for a War of 1812 bicentennial and a Civil War sesquicentennial cross thread post?

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.

Here’s why Polk needed that Gun

Why did General Leonidas Polk need an 8-inch rifled gun?

Maybe due to rumors of this “turtle.”

USS Essex

Starting in the summer of 1861, rumors floated down river of ironclad gunboats under construction in the shipyards of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers.  Just as similar rumors about Confederate river ironclads caused concerns on the Union side, the southern commanders had to fear a Federal gunboat fleet descending the Mississippi (as it eventually did).   Regardless of the validity of rumors, the Confederates recognized the strategic importance of the Mississippi and the need to strongly fortify key points on the river.

When Polk first violated Kentucky’s neutrality on September 3, he moved straight for the high bluffs at Columbus which overlooked a bend in the Mississippi.  Compared, with no small exaggeration, to the straits of Gibraltar, the combination of high bluffs and sweeping river bend made the position formidable.  Naturally the Federals probed this new Confederate stronghold.  Just days before Tredegar sent the 8-inch Rifle west, on October 7 the gunboat USS Tyler under Commander Henry Walke tested the Columbus defenses.

Thus with the Confederacy threatened at points all along the coast, the largest rifled gun available went west to a rust-colored bluff overlooking the Mississippi.

The gun itself was bored and rifled from either an 8- or  10-inch Columbiad casting block.  Externally, the 8-inch rifle may have resembled this gun presently on display at Fort Donelson, Tennessee.

Fort Donelson 360
Tredegar 10-inch Columbiad at Fort Donelson

Tredegar cast this 10-inch Columbiad in January 1863.   At first glance this gun appears to be a Rodman gun.  But subtle differences give away it’s Confederate origin.  The rough exterior is due to Tredegar’s reluctance to perform additional (arguably superfluous) machining.  The long trunnions (emphasized against the cast iron carriage) fit wooden carriages often used by the Confederates.  And the reinforce of the gun is not a blended “bottle” curve, but rather a cylinder.

The most prominent “Rodman” feature is the mushroom knob.  But unlike most Federal Rodmans, the Confederate Columbiads used ratchets instead of sockets to engage the elevating gear.  Some early war Confederate Columbiads featured standard round knobs.

At the time of casting, the 8-inch gun was the largest rifled weapon available to the Confederates.  Some accounts reference the gun’s projectile weight as a 128-pdr gun (two times the 64-pdr of an 8-inch smoothbore).  But this particular gun received its own name in honor of the commander’s wife  – “Lady Polk.”

Mississippi River Memories

When I was young, the family would often take a Sunday afternoon trip over to “see the river.”  There was little need to specify which river, as everyone assumed you meant the Mississippi River.   Our usual stop was along the river levee at Caruthersville, Missouri.

Caruthersville 029
“The River” at Caruthersville, Missouri

I can’t say this rather average section of North America’s largest river saw any momentous events.  As a young boy who’d read about every history book in the public library, I lamented that our locality was perhaps the most boring spot in the nation.   Nothing happened here.

Or did it?

On one of our Sunday trips, maybe I was thirteen or fourteen, I realized there was history out there on this average section of the old river.    Native Americans certainly passed this way, trading between those pre-Columbian cities built along the river.  Hernando de Soto may have gotten this far up the river, but we just don’t know for sure.  But we know Marquette and Joliet, LaSalle, and other explorers after them passed by here.

Uncounted thousands (if not millions) of flatboat crews worked past this bend of the river, heading to Memphis, Natchez, and eventually New Orleans.  One of those crews included a lanky young man who would later become President – Abraham Lincoln.

Steam power came to the river, with flat-bottomed paddle-wheelers plying along the muddy river.  A fellow named Samuel Clemens piloted through these waters.  When war came,  iron covered warships joined the steamboats passing downriver to attack Confederate strong holds at Fort Pillow and Memphis.

But not all the river history is about explorers and boats.  In January 1811, a great earthquake centered about twenty miles north of this river bend caused the Mississippi to flow backwards for a time.  The shocks created Realfoot Lake on the opposite shore in Tennessee.

In the last decade of the nineteenth century, men figured to “tame” the river.  Toward that end the levees, massive berms, lined the river.  Not content, drainage systems transformed the swampy bottom land into cotton fields.  That engineering achievement, at the time the largest man-made drainage project in history, changed the flow tributaries but brought productivity to the area.  The Caruthersville riverfront saw loads of timber harvested from the cleared swamps.  Then Caruthersville became a cotton town.

When war clouds came again in the 1940s, air craft crews flying from nearby Dyersburg Army Airfield used the bend in the river as a navigation check-point while honing their skills in preparation for missions overseas.

And I could probably continue for thousands of more words relating events.  In short, this “average” section of the river is not so boring as I once thought.  The lesson I learned that day on the river has remained with me since.  Everyplace has a history.  You just have to know what you are looking at.