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I WAS BORN ON THE SANGAMON RIVER in Illinois, grew up on the Rock River in Wisconsin, went to school on the banks of the Mississippi River, and spent most of my career at the mouth of the Mississippi. On these rivers I swam, canoed, hunted deer in Wisconsin and ducks in Louisiana. With my family I've camped on islands in the Mississippi. We walked across it at Lake Itasca. In New Orleans, we cross by ferry. I've driven Hwy. 61 many times, up- or downriver and on the east side, Wisconsin to Louisiana or reverse. This was before the Interstate, so I got to know the towns along the river. The river is in my blood. Wherever, whenever, it is a source of delight. More, it is the river that draws us together as a nation.
Tex McCrary said on June 6, 2000, that he was pleased to see the National D-Day Museum opening in New Orleans "on the river that was Mark Twain's heart of America." It is our lifeblood. Whenever it was blocked or threatened by an enemy, Americans kept it open. To do that, my great-grandfather, Sgt. Pleasant Bishop, actually fought with Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at the battle of Vicksburg during the Civil War.
The river has always drawn me in with its history. I became a Civil War historian because I wanted to know how the Union opened the river. Thomas Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase, agreed to by Napoleon in 1803 when he realized that Jefferson would fight for New Orleans if necessary, did not settle the question of who would control the river. In the War of 1812 the British and their Indian allies, including the Sauk war leader Black Hawk, tried to take control of the upper river. They were stopped at Fort Madison, Iowa. In 1815 the British attacked New Orleans, but were defeated by Gen. Andrew Jackson and his American frontiersmen. In 1832 Black Hawk and the Sauk and Fox, called the "British Band," tried again to drive back American settlers on the Illinois and Wisconsin banks of the river, with the by-then President Jackson to stop them. In the Civil War it was the Confederates who attempted to wrest control of the river, only to lose to Ulysses Grant's Union forces.
In World War I, President Woodrow Wilson made New Orleans a naval base. In World War II, the Germans tried with submarines to close down the river. President Franklin Roosevelt sent anti-submarine patrols to the Gulf of Mexico to end the threat. In that war, Andrew Higgins built in New Orleans the landing craft that helped win victory in the Atlantic and Pacific. St. Louis built airplanes. The Rock Island Arsenal in Illinois made mortars and howitzers. Minneapolis packaged rations that fed the troops overseas.
My life on the Mississippi has included a fine moment: I was 23. I was duck hunting at Pass à Loutre, one of the three mouths of the river. The pirogue tipped. I was standing in muck almost up to my knees-with no other boat nearby.
Rather than think of my predicament, I exulted at the thought of being at the spot where earth meets sea and life began. I was on the last deposit of sediment from the topsoils of every state between the Appalachian and the Rocky Mountains. To my right, the open Gulf of Mexico. To my left, Head of Passes, where the river divides into its three main channels. I thought of Abraham Lincoln and his love for the river. And the love of all those who have lived in the valley from ancient times, including Native Americans, Spanish, French, Asians, African-Americans. All around me were raccoons, water snakes, rabbits, and turtles, egrets, ibis, ducks, hawks, osprey, herons, and more. This primeval spot was bursting with life eons ago and still is today. It is America's opening to the world, and its welcoming to ships from around the world. It seemed to me that the Mississippi River does not divide the United States in half but rather draws the country together, that it is the spine of America.
In December 1956, at age 20, I did for the first time something nearly everyone living in the Mississippi Valley wants to do-go to New Orleans. Sin, fun, commerce, a conglomeration of races-all this and more at the port city. When I left Madison, Wisconsin, hitchhiking, it was below-zero weather. Two days later, New Orleans had bright sunlight and 70 degrees. They let you live here? I thought. Where do I sign? I fell in love with the city on my first day in the French Quarter. I have spent much of my working life there and still love it more than four decades later.
Among many other attractions, New Orleans offers food, music, Mardi Gras. It is America's favorite party city. But above all else it has the river-relatively narrow, deep and fast. It is always in your mind; directions given in New Orleans are "upriver" or "downriver" or "away from the river." Working boats of all types are on it. Walking on the levee gazing at the river on one side and the French Quarter on the other is what I do for pleasure.
New Orleans's love affair with its own history draws me there, especially to Jackson Square, where Gen. Andrew Jackson sits on his rearing horse. Inscribed on the monument had been his words from the Nullification Crisis of 1832, when at a banquet South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun gave the toast, "The Union: next to our liberties, the most dear." Jackson followed with: "The Union: it must be preserved." When the Confederates took New Orleans in 1861 they scratched out Jackson's words. When Union Gen. Benjamin Butler regained command, he replaced and added to them: "The Union: it must and shall be preserved"
Perfect, I thought in 1956 and still do.
In 1957 I went to Baton Rouge to study under Dr. Harry T. Williams at L.S.U. For my M.A. degree. That summer, before school, I got a job at the Dow Chemical Plant on the river's West Bank. For two months I rode the ferry, twice a day. I learned something about that stretch of the river-where the whirlpools were, low water or high, and more.
When working on this book with my friend Doug Brinkley, I traveled upriver on the Delta Queen. Being on a steam-powered vessel designed in the 19th century along the river at the beginning of the 21st century is a reminder that, in human terms, the Mississippi is timeless. Much of what Doug and I saw as we traveled is what the French explorers Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet saw in 1673 when they came from Green Bay down the Fox and Wisconsin rivers, then took the Mississippi to the mouth of the Arkansas. We saw what Robert de La Salle saw in 1682 when he traveled from Illinois to New Orleans, except that the Indians are gone. Their homes are replaced by cities, bridges, power plants, their canoes by barges carrying coal, grain, and fertilizers.
Yet many stretches of the river are unchanged. The banks are tree-lined. The islands are numerous and teem with hawks, eagles, osprey, and deer. As we rode the Delta Queen, a storm drove us. It was followed by a clearing sky and gorgeous light that revealed blue, some clouds, a white wake from a paddleboat, and all shades of green. Sam Abell, a National Geographic photographer, accompanied us. He took scores of pictures, which appear in portfolios throughout the book. He called parts of the river an island paradise.
We saw what then-farmer Abraham Lincoln saw when he descended the Mississippi by raft with cargo in 1828, when he was 19, and again in 1831. On the second trip, to the port of New Orleans, he saw a slave auction and vowed that if he could, he would strike those shackles forever. Huck Finn and his slave companion, Jim, descended the river on a raft in the most famous journey in American literature. They ran past the islands we passed. You don't see rafts nowadays, but close your eyes and you will.
History is about people. Characters sparkle from the Mississippi River from its source to its mouth. In this book, Doug Brinkley and I attempt to describe some of them, what they did on, or to, or in defense of the river. This is not a travelogue, which we wouldn't know how to do anyway, and we decided early on that we couldn't possibly write a history of the river-that would mean volumes. Instead we concern ourselves with the people who lived along it. We look at warriors and what they did, musicians and what they produced, authors and their writings, explorers and adventurers and their accomplishments. We have traveled the length of the river, Doug and I, by boat and helicopter and car. What follows is what two historians talk about when they are on the river, discovering new things about their nation's heritage.
New Orleans, April 12, 2002
The Mississippi River never ran through my boyhood-but it did course through my imagination. The first time I saw the river was from the back seat of a Pontiac station wagon on a summer family vacation. We had left our home in Perrysburg, Ohio, for Disneyland. With great fanfare my mother, a high school English teacher, pointed out to my sister and me the generic highway sign: "The Mississippi River" as we crossed the I-55 bridge that connects Illinois to Missouri. From an automobile zooming 55 miles an hour beside rattling semi-trucks, the Mississippi looked muddy and polluted. With the Jefferson Memorial Expansion Arch looming before us, and the impressive St. Louis skyline, the river offered the excitement of a sewage canal. My imagination had been spoiled by Walt Disney: In his theme park I could hear the calliope on the wedding-cake-like steamboat "Mark Twain," explore "Tom Sawyer's Island," hide in Huck Finn's caves, and ride on Mike Fink's keelboat. It was "one-stop shopping," as Wal-Mart's Sam Walton used to say: the entire Mississippi River romance experience for a C, D, and E ticket. By comparison climbing the Cahokia Mounds near St. Louis, once home to the largest pre-Columbian settlement north of the Valley of Mexico, was dullsville.
In school I did learn that the Mississippi River constantly flooded and abruptly changed direction. Mark Twain used to tell the story of being unnerved as an apprentice river pilot on in 1857. His teacher explained that even if he memorized every detail of the 1,200 miles of river between New Orleans and St. Louis, he might have to "learn it all again in a different way every twenty-four hours." The river was a living entity running through the heartland of America.
My interest in the Mississippi matured dramatically when as a high school senior I read Richard "Dick" Bissell's A Stretch of River (1950), about a roguish deckhand working on a towboat on the upper Mississippi. Brimming with real-life misadventures, the book made the Mississippi both awesome and tangible, a wild waterway I wanted to explore.
But it was New Orleans that made me fall in love with the Mississippi River. I'll never forget the first time I took the free ferry which has run between New Orleans (east bank) to Old Algiers (west bank) without interruption since 1827. Gazing down at the turbulent current, I felt the river's awesome power. It is nearly 300 feet deep at Algiers Bend, a treacherous spot. Ships round this hairpin turn every 15 minutes, sometimes lose power, then twirl sideways, spinning like an unleashed top. The danger is palatable. In December 1996, a 70,000-ton bulk-carrier named the Bright Field acidentally rammed into One River Place, a high-rise condominium on the east bank, causing millions of dollars in damage. Teenagers have made bets, boasting they can swim from New Orleans to Old Algiers-the Times-Picayune obituary page tells their final stories. The Mississippi River bridges, near the ferry crossing, have a strange history of being a suicide jump-off site. There, renegade logs sometimes course down the river at 30 miles an hour. If hit in the head by one, death is almost certain.
In his unpublished "On the Road" journals, novelist Jack Kerouac recalled the first time he crossed the river on the Old Algiers ferry. It was dusk, and a fallen tree passed him. He studied the "Odyssiac log," imagining it hailed from lonely Montana and slipped by Hannibal and Cairo and Greenville and Natchez at night undetected. He imagined that this log, serenely turning over and over, would end up in the Gulf of Mexico, then pass around the Florida Keys, and eventually be found by a sad fisherman in Senegal or Ghana. Rivers, he mused, were the great connectors of people and nature and earth. "And what is the Mississippi River?" he asked. "It is the movement of the night and the secret of sleep and the emptier of American Streams which bear (as the log is borne) the story of our truer fury."
Given our joint affinity for the mysteries of the Mississippi River, Steve Ambrose and I thought traveling its length would be the ideal way to commemorate the bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, deemed the most significant real estate transaction in history. Shortly after the treaty was signed in Paris, Gen. Horatio Gates penned President Thomas Jefferson a congratulatory letter. "Let the land rejoice," he wrote, "for you have bought Louisiana for a song." In doing so Jefferson assured that the Mississippi River would remain an American possession and, to the millions who live along it, for whom this book is dedicated, a passion that never fades.
New Orleans, April 15, 2002