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The Waterways

By Terry Winschel


July 2007

As our great Republic approaches the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War, a network of preservation organizations have been working steadily and effectively to protect key sites associated with campaigns along the inland waterways that played such a crucial role in the great struggle that engulfed the nation from 1861-1865.

Significant as these successes have been, however, few in the Civil War community are aware of these achievements. Thus, it is with great pleasure that this column serves to announce a string of preservation victories at sites in Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana.

In mid-19th century America, rivers were the major arteries of transportation and control of streams such as the Mississippi, Tennesse, and Cumberland Rivers was economically, politically and militarily vital to the North and South.

"The Father of Waters" and its major tributaries was the single most important economic feature of the continent, the very life blood of America, and control of these rivers proved to be the key to victory or defeat. The words of contemporaries reflect the paramount importance of the river system that drains two-thirds of the continent:

  • General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck wrote: "In my opinion, the opening of the Mississippi River will be to us of more advantage than the capture of forty Richmonds."

  • Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman was emphatic, "The Mississippi, source and mouth, must be controlled by one government." So firm was his belief that Sherman stated, "To secure the safety of the navigation of the Mississippi River I would slay millions. On that point I am not only insane, but mad."

  • Confederate President Jefferson Davis expressed his belief that a determined defense of the Mississippi River would "conduce more than in any other way to the perpetuation of the Confederacy and the success of the cause."

  • And, finally, even Mary Boykin Chesnut, the "Diarist of the Confederacy," readily comprehended the importance of the Mississippi as she recorded of the river early in the war that "The Mississippi ruins us if it is lost."

The campaign for control of these rivers culminated with Union victory at Vicksburg on July 4, 1863, and the surrender of the Confederate bastion at Port Hudson, Louisiana, five days later. This gave the North undisputed control of the Mississippi River, achieved a major objective of the Anaconda Plan by splitting the South in two, and effectively sealed the doom of Richmond.

Waterways Sites

Although several of the sites associated with the campaign for control of the inland waters have been set aside as national, state or local parks, many are yet unprotected and, heretofore, there has been no effort to link these sites with one another interpretively.

Recognizing the historical significance of these sites and realizing the vast potential for economic development based on heritage tourism, efforts spearheaded by U.S. Senator Trent Lott (R-Miss.) resulted in passage of the Vicksburg Campaign Trail Battlefields Preservation Act 2000 (PL 106-487).

This legislation charged the National Park Service to conduct a three-year study to identify all sites associated with the Vicksburg campaign in a five-state area, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana, and to develop strategies for long-term preservation and interpretation of those sites.

These recommendations were to include proposals for establishing new units of the national park system or attaching sites to existing units of the national park system.

The study identified more than 500 sites, exclusive of underwater resources such as ship wrecks, and organized these sites into Tier One, Two and Three categories.

Tier One sites, of which there were 19 listed, are of national importance. Several of these sites such as Vicksburg, Shiloh, Fort Donelson and Arkansas Post are already Federal parks. Others such as Columbus, Ky., and Port Hudson, La., are state parks, but each park is in need of additional land to adequately protect the core area of the battlefields as identified by the American Battlefield Protection Program (1996).

Sadly, other sites listed among the nation's most significant battlefields by the Civil War Sites Advisory Commission (1993), such as Champion Hill and Port Gibson, have little or no protection.

Asserting the need for a comprehensive preservation strategy, the study resulted in far ranging recommendations, some of which have already been acted upon by Congress.

Fort Donelson

Representatives Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) and John Tanner (D-Tenn.) along with Senators Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) were instrumental in drafting and securing passage in their respective bodies of the Fort Donelson National Battlefield Expansion Act 2004 (PL 108-367).

This act provides for the expansion of the park from its current 600-acre ceiling to 2,000 acres and allows for the acquisition of Fort Heiman in Kentucky.

The legislation further instructs the Secretary of Agriculture and the Secretary of the Interior to enter into a memorandum of understanding to cooperatively protect and interpret the remaining vestige of Fort Henry and other remaining Civil War sites in the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area. Thus these three forts will be linked interpretively just as they were militarily during the war.

This trilogy of forts was constructed along the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers in order to block these natural pathways of invasion to the Deep South. Situated along the Kentucky-Tennessee line, the largest and best-known of these forts was Donelson, which was situated on the Cumberland River only 12 miles east of Forts Henry and Heiman that were constructed on opposite banks of the Tennessee River.

These forts fell to combined Union land and naval forces in February 1862, and launched Ulysses S. Grant into the national spotlight when he demanded "Unconditional Surrender" of Fort Donelson.

Debbie Spencer of the Western Kentucky Corporation in conjunction with Tom Fugate of the Kentucky Heritage Council, Judge Larry Elkins of Calloway County, Kentucky, Sandy Forrest, Jerry Lessenberry and Fred Wilhite of the SCV and others, raised more than $1 million that have been used to secure more than 200 acres at Fort Heiman that have recently been turned over to the National Park Service by Governor Ernie Fletcher of Kentucky.

In concert with these activities, Friends of Fort Donelson, led by the energetic Nelma Crutcher, Fred Prouty of the Tennessee Wars Commission, and the Civil War Preservation Trust (CWPT) has in the last few years worked diligently to protect more than 300 additional acres at Fort Donelson.

The park as originally established by Congress, only encompassed the 15-acre fort and line of outer works. However, the area where the battle was fought and the blood shed has remained in private hands since the Civil War.

On Feb. 15, 1862, Confederate forces attempted to break out of Fort Donelson. Although the Southerners enjoyed initial success, the attack ground to a halt as fresh Union troops under Brig. Gen. Lew Wallace arrived. Under the direct eye of Grant, they formed line and stopped the Confederates in their tracks, compelling them to fall back into the fort which surrendered the following day.

Much of the area that encompassed this fighting has been purchased by the CWPT and will eventually be turned over to the National Park Service.

Arkansas Sites

At Helena, Ark., Mark Christ and the Department of Arkansas Heritage have been instrumental in working with private land owners, the Archaeological Conservancy, the Delta Cultural Center and the City of Helena to preserve Batteries A and D and the site of Battery C that played so significant a role in the Battle of Helena on July 4, 1863.

Four battery sites with interlocking fields of fire, along with Fort Curtis, comprised the Federal defenses of this strategic river city. Confederate troops under Sterling Price launched a savage attack against the city in hope of forcing Grant to detach troops from his army then besieging Vicksburg, and enable the garrison of Vicksburg to cut its way out.

The Southerners overran Battery C and advanced on Fort Curtis, but were checked and bloodily repulsed by the Federals who were supported by the VIII-inch guns of the gunboat Tyler.

Plans are currently being made for the reconstruction of Fort Curtis and development of a walking trail to link Battery A with the Confederate cemetery where Maj. Gens. Patrick Cleburne and Thomas Hindman are interred.

Elsewhere in Arkansas, along the Arkansas River, The Nature Conservancy has acquired a 40-acre tract adjacent to Arkansas Post National Memorial where the camps of the Confederate garrison were situated. This post fell to combined Federal land and naval forces under R. Adm. David D. Porter and Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman in January 1862.

Mississippi Sites

Preservation successes also abound in Mississippi where the Civil War Preservation Trust has been active at Champion Hill - site of the largest, bloodiest and most significant action of the Vicksburg campaign. In 2005 the CWPT purchased a 55-acre tract where the Confederate left flank was overwhelmed by Grant's forces on May 16, 1863.

Even more significant, the CWPT has recently secured an easement on the 145-acre Champion tract, which includes the historic trace of the Jackson Road and the crest of Champion Hill itself.

Added to the 823 acres purchased by The Conservation Fund in the mid-1990s and the 200 acres of easements owned by the State of Mississippi, the grand total of acres now preserved at Champion Hill is approximately 1,200. The easement on the Champion tract, which is situated between two large blocks of state-owned property, now preserves a 5,000-yard-wide stretch of battlefield and preservation efforts continue.

Just a few miles southeast of Champion Hill, Friends of Raymond (FOR) have secured 70 acres of the battlefield where on May 12, 1863, Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson's XVII Corps and Brig. Gen. John Gregg's Confederate brigade clashed.

On April 21, 2007, Friends of Raymond dedicated its interpretive walking trail (.75 miles long), eight interpretive panels and an interpretive kiosk.

Working with Vicksburg National Military Park, which donated 25 cannon carriages, FOR has had tubes made for half the number of carriages and placed them on the field of battle and are working to have additional tubes cast. Once completed and mounted, the battlefield will boast of displaying the exact number of cannon used during the action. FOR is aggressively pursuing additional preservation opportunities.

At Vicksburg itself, the National Park Service has acquired a score of adjoining tracts in recent years that serve to consolidate the park's boundary and provide a much needed vegetative screen from the development that surrounds the park.

In 2003, Congress passed the Vicksburg National Military Park Expansion Act (PL 107-238) that authorized the NPS to acquire Confederate Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton's headquarters in the heart of the city's historic district. The NPS is currently performing stabilization and restoration of the building and expects soon to have it open to the public on a limited basis.

Also at Vicksburg, two new monuments will soon be in place. The Commonwealth of Kentucky acting through the Kentucky Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, is placing a Kentucky Confederate Monument in honor of Kentuckians in gray who served in the armies of Pemberton and Gen. Joseph E. Johnston during the Vicksburg campaign.

Connecticut is also preparing to erect a state monument in honor of the gallant soldiers of the 9th Connecticut Infantry who participated in the Vicksburg campaign of 1862 and helped construct the abortive canal opposite the city by which the Federals hoped to render Vicksburg militarily useless without firing a shot. The monument will go at the park's Grant's Canal unit located across the Mississippi River in Louisiana.

Louisiana Sites

And in Louisiana, the CWPT and other organizations are working to secure tracts within the core area of the battlefield at Port Hudson, which was besieged by Union Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks at the same time Grant laid siege to Vicksburg. Once secured, these lands will then be added to the Port Hudson State Historic Site.

Just as during the Civil War when Abraham Lincoln anxiously awaited news of victories in the lower Mississippi River valley, preservationists can delight in news of continuing success at battlefields throughout the region.

Terry Winschel is a 30-year veteran of the National Park Service. He served at Gettysburg and Fredericksburg National Military Parks and Valley Forge National Historical Park and is Historian at Vicksburg National Military Park. In addition to 50 articles and many book reviews he has written five books, the most recent being "Triumph & Defeat: The Vicksburg Campaign, Vol. II" (SavasBeatie 2006) and "Vicksburg is the Key: The Struggle for the Mississippi River" (University of Nebraska Press 2003). Winschel was named National Park Service Preservationist of the Year in 2007 by the Civil War Preservation Trust and has received awards from the Civil War Round Tables of Chicago and New Orleans.

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