In 150 years the Mississippi River, with the aid of man, has pushed and pulled this battlefield into oblivion.
Despite its location practically in the middle of the United States, Island No. 10 is perhaps the Civil War’s most inaccessible major battlefield. The landscape looks much different today than it did 150 years ago, even though the property has never been developed. Over the last century and a half another battle has altered Island No. 10—one fought over time between man and the river. The river has won.
The battle between blue and gray took place in the spring of 1862, when Union and Confederate forces faced off in a month-long stalemate along the Mississippi River just upstream from New Madrid, Mo. Within the sideways “S-bend” where the river snaked through the junction of Kentucky, Tennessee and Missouri, Confederates built a formidable series of river defenses. Unlike positions farther south, such as Fort Pillow and Vicksburg, these strongholds sat low to the river. Well-sited batteries along the shoreline and on Island No. 10 created a “kill zone” that deterred passage by even the vaunted Federal ironclads, and a vast surrounding area of lowlands and swamps protected against a direct assault by land.
On the river itself, Union naval forces under Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote dueled with the Confederate batteries, using new 13-inch mortar boats in an attempt to smash the defenses. Even after army forces under Brig. Gen. John Pope captured New Madrid on March 14, the defenses centered at Island No. 10 kept the Federals from opening the river bend. Through the remainder of March, Pope’s engineers labored to clear a bypass canal around the troublesome defenses. Finally, after two of Foote’s gunboats made a daring run past the position, the Federals mustered sufficient combat power to cross over to the Tennessee shore. That move cut off the Confederate defenders and resulted in their surrender on April 8.
At a cost of fewer than 100 casualties, Pope and Foote had untied the first knot in the critical campaign to open the Mississippi. The low cost of their victory was in striking contrast to the butcher’s bill being compiled nearby at Shiloh. The triumph at Island No. 10 also served to boost the fortunes of Pope, who was reassigned to the Eastern Theater—and ignominy at Second Bull Run—months later.
The Union engineering operations around Island No. 10 were just the beginning of several significant alterations to the landscape. The sharp bend in the Mississippi was notoriously difficult to navigate, and the Army Corps of Engineers built a series of levees and flood control structures in an effort to manage the river.
The Mississippi’s course now cuts deeper into the waterway’s bends, covering many of the Confederate positions. Despite these alterations in the terrain, however, a 2011 American Battlefield Protection Program study estimated that 37,000 acres of core battlefield area remained intact. The “Big Muddy” might still have something to say about that.
Craig Swain writes from Leesburg, Va. Check out his blog, “To the Sound of the Guns.”
Originally published in the April 2013 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.