The Mississippi River was key to both the North and South during the American Civil War. The Mississippi flowed south to New Orleans, a major port city that farmers would ship their goods to and through. From 1859-60, over 2 million tons of goods were shipped to New Orleans along the Mississippi. This amounted to nearly $3 million in property. Shipment and passage along the Mississippi was thus crucial to Northern farmers. For Southern farmers, the food that was shipped along the Mississippi was used to feed enslaved peoples on Southern plantations. Thus, free flow and access to the Mississippi was crucial to both North and South.
In January of 1861, before the Civil War even began on April 12, 1861, with the firing on of Fort Sumter, Governor John Jones Pettus of Mississippi placed gun emplacements on the Mississippi. However, to try to quell Northern fears, nearly two weeks later, Louisiana included a guarantee to free navigation of the Mississippi in their declaration of secession. In addition to this, on February 25, Confederate President Jefferson Davis signed a bill establishing free trade on the river. This was in addition to a bill passed on February 18 and one that would be passed on May 21 that barred taxes on imports of agricultural products.
The Mississippi not only held economic importance, but also symbolic importance. With the advent of the railroad and the growth of that industry, river importance had declined. However, the Mississippi stood as a symbol to many Americans. A symbol of trade, growth, and expansion. This added to the importance and desire to control the flow of trade along the Mississippi.
With the start of the Civil War, Kentucky attempted to remain neutral between the Southern rebels and the Northern Federals. However, neutrality proved nearly impossible. The South, worried about an invasion down the Mississippi River, wanted to break that neutrality. Josiah Gorgas, head of the Confederate Engineer Bureau, warned of 40,000 Federals massing at Cairo, Illinois. To counter this, he argued in favor of building entrenchments and placing 30,000 rebels at Columbus, Kentucky.
Then, adding to the importance of the river, general in chief Winfield Scott devised his plan that would be dubbed the “Anaconda Plan.” This plan consisted of a blockade of the seacoast and was designed to cut off the CSA from outside help. In addition to this, there would be “a powerful movement down the Mississippi to the ocean” that was designed to cut the Confederacy in half.
Then, adding to the pressure on Kentucky and their attempt to remain neutral, Confederate Gideon Pillow echoed the cries of Gorgas, calling for the occupation of Columbus. The city processed high bluffs making it more desirable than New Madrid or Island No. 10. The Confederates ultimately decided to ignore Kentucky’s neutrality and take Columbus. In response, Union Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant (born Hiram Ulysses Grant) sent a reconnaissance mission to Belmont, across the river from Columbus. Believing that the Federals were planning to make a move on Columbus, Confederate General Leonidas Polk sent Pillow to seize Columbus on September 4.
In response to this move by the rebels, Grant seized Paducah, a move seeming non-aggressive since the Southerners were the first to invade Kentucky. In response to the breach of neutrality by the Confederates, Kentucky passed legislation ordering them to leave the state. This order was, obviously, ignored. With the moves made on Paducah and Columbus, other moves were made dividing Kentucky. The rebels held Cumberland Gap, Mill Springs, Bowling Green, Forts Henry and Donelson, Columbus, and Island No. 10.
A Fight for the Mississippi
By mid-way through 1862, the Federals had taken control of the Mississippi from Columbus to Memphis. However, much of the Mississippi still lay in rebel hands, including Island No. 10. Island No. 10 had been occupied by the rebels in August of 1861. In February, when the rebels left Columbus, they left behind 7,000 men at the island. By March of 1862, the island was fortified with nineteen heavy guns dispersed in five batteries. In addition to this, there were also floating batteries and emplacements on the Tennessee shore. This amounted to a total of 52 artillery pieces. A few miles downstream, the rebels also had fortified New Mardid.
To take the rebel bastion, Union General John Pope was given the assignment. Pope was given 8,000 men dubbed the Army of the Mississippi. The rebels had fewer men, around 5,000, to defend the island. However, in order to take the island, Pope needed to get to the east side of the Mississippi River. Near the end of the month of March, ten mortar boats shelled the fort repeatedly. The Union forces also used a German aeronaut raised in a balloon, the Eagle, on two separate occasions to reconnoiter the rebels.
In an attempt to take the fort, Pope and his force decided to bypass the island. To do so, 800 men worked for 19 days to open a passage 50 feet wide and four and a half feet deep on the west bank of the Mississippi. This region had been flooded and became known as the New Madrid Channel. With the channel opened up, Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote allowed two gunboats to run the batteries of the island in order to lend support to the crossing of the soldiers. On the night of April 4, the Carondelet ran the guns and on the 6th, the Pittsburgh did as well. This not only protected the crossing of Pope’s men, but it also blocked off the fourth side that the Union did not yet surround.
With the boats in position, on April 7, Pope crossed the river and forced the fort to surrender on the next day. Capturing another position on the Mississippi, Pope also captured some 7,000 rebels.
The impact of Island No. 10 was much bigger than is often remembered. First, this opened another portion of the Mississippi. Each bit that the Union gained control of, made the Confederacy’s chance of survival that much more difficult. This made the Confederate leaders choose between trying to save the important river or focus on the Eastern theater of the war. In addition to this, following this success, Pope would eventually be brought east and given command of the Army of Virginia. He would lead this army to a crushing defeat at Second Bull Run (Second Manassas), a campaign that would culminate in the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest day in American history.