Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild
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A riveting narrative look at one of the most colorful, dangerous, and peculiar places in America's historical landscape: the strange, wonderful, and mysterious Mississippi River of the 19th century.
Beginning in the early 1800s and climaxing with the siege of Vicksburg in 1863, Wicked River brings to life a place where river pirates brushed elbows with future presidents and religious visionaries shared passage with thieves. Here is a minute-by-minute account of Natchez being flattened by a tornado; the St. Louis harbor being crushed by a massive ice floe; hidden, nefarious celebrations of Mardi Gras; and the sinking of the Sultana, the worst naval disaster in American history. Here, too, is the Mississippi itself: gorgeous, perilous, and unpredictable. Masterfully told, Wicked River is an exuberant work of Americana that portrays a forgotten society on the edge of revolutionary change.
flatboats; a keelboat wasn’t the kind of disposable craft whose loss could be shrugged off by its owners. Its crews tended to be proud of their skills—they often considered themselves to be the only true voyageurs on the Mississippi. There were many other varieties of boats. Every possible method for moving up and down the current was somewhere being tried, and sometimes brought to a high art form. Canoes of hollowed-out tree trunks, often fifty or seventy-five feet long, were called pirogues;
undertows that could suck down the hardiest swimmer. As one writer noted, “It is said that nothing that ever sunk beneath its muddy surface was known to rise again.” But the worst danger for a man overboard was the temperature of the water. Since the river was fed by meltwater tributaries in the Far North, even in high summer it could be bitterly cold. The slow-moving waters in the shallows were warmed by the sun and could at times become almost tepid, but the main current remained hidden in the
threatening letters to members of the local vigilance committees, demanding that they leave him alone. No one knew how the letters were sent—they would simply show up in mailboxes out of thin air. One of Vicksburg’s leading committee members got a long succession of these letters, and they grew to be so menacing that he at last hired, on his own dime, an unusually large band of regulators and trackers to find and bring in Phelps, no matter what the cost. It took them weeks of systematic
grassy slope descended toward the Mississippi. Phelps started down the slope while the crowd followed warily at a distance. Then somebody threw a rock at Phelps’s back. It glanced off him without slowing him down. More rocks followed; then brickbats, bottles, and shards of wood. Phelps lumbered on silently. About midway down the slope, one of the brickbats finally staggered him. He let his hostage sag limply to the ground and turned around to face the crowd. The sheriff was cautiously coming
Confederates managed to mount a counterattack and regain control of the river, the Yankee force would be cut off in the middle of hostile territory. The Union command proceeded with extreme caution. They moved their troops slowly and surreptitiously through the swamps on the west bank of the river, out of sight of the Confederate spotters. Meanwhile, they massed their supplies in large transport ships, which they were going to send downriver once the nights were dark enough to give them some