Mississippi River adventures continued

03 July 2008
We (Huck and Tom – Saul and Marvin) stopped in Vicksburg, population 26,000, the site of the biggest battles of the Civil War. Imagine standing on the roof of the Cedar Grove Inn, a “preserved mansion.” One hundred fifty-five years ago, General William T. Sherman supposedly used the place to observe the River from where Union gunboats pounded the city. General Grant ordered a siege to cut off food supplies. It worked. On July 4, after a month- and a half-long battle and faced with starvation, Rebel General John Pemberton surrendered. Confederate diehards will never forgive him. After the battle of Vicksburg, Lincoln’s armies controlled the Mississippi River. One day earlier, Robert E. Lee had conceded defeat at Gettysburg. Not a drop of Civil War blood remains on the upscale B&B (bed and breakfast), but popular myth asserts that a cannonball is still lodged in the Inn’s interior. The mansion once belonged to John Alexander Klein, a banker, lumber and cotton baron who bought marble fireplaces in Italy and shipped them home to Mississippi, along with French gasoliers, Bohemian glass, gold leaf mirrors and old fashioned clocks and paintings that hang throughout the Inn. Klein’s wife was related to General Sherman. Family ties apparently persuaded her to let the Union use their home as a hospital. The pro Dixie elite shunned her ever after. We breathed in the trivia of southern history along with steamy June air in Vicksburg’s sleepy neighborhoods. In 2007, the city’s official unemployment rate was listed as almost 8.5%. 60% of Vicksburg’s population is black where unemployment was higher than white. The median family income was $28,000, $6,000 less than the state average. But the old “preserved” houses sure looked stately. We continued south parallel to the gently flowing River. Iowa towns suffered heavy flooding, but we saw no dead hogs or soggy ears of corn floating downstream. In Port Gibson, MS, we stopped to film a gold-leaf hand atop the steeple on the First Presbyterian Church. Inside the forbidding structure the chandeliers that light the services were supposedly bought or stolen from the Robert E. Lee steamboat -- “it was never there on time,” sang Tom Lehrer. People in passing cars stared at two seniors with one camera standing in intense heat and humidity trying to capture the best light on the shiny object high above. How to respond? Hadn’t they ever seen Yankee filmmakers? “Historic” Port Gibson has an even lower median family income than Vicksburg. From there we drove down the Natchez Trace, the 400 mile road -- once trail -- Indians utilized to go from what became Nashville to Natchez, a road that also links the Cumberland, Tennessee and Mississippi rivers. Supposedly, Indians also showed the route to the “explorers” who converted it into a trade trail in the late 18th Century. A bucolic highway has replaced the narrow horse path as the Mississippi River has replaced the Trace as the efficient commercial route for getting goods down river. We saw no trace of legendary criminal gangs like those of John Murrell and Samuel Mason who once assaulted travelers along the road. Crossing the Mississippi into Louisiana, we anxiously stared as if somehow the River would tell us whether the flood inundating more northern states was intending to move south. The battle against Nature -- now called Global Warming or Climate Change -- did not begin this century. In 1927, the Mississippi flood changed the demography of part of the country, according to John M. Barry. (Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and how it Changed America, 1997) In the Fall and Winter of 1926, Midwestern states got drenched with heavy rain and then snow storms. By April 1927, the Mississippi began to rise with its new replenishment. The Mississippi River Commission fortified existing levees and shut down the Mississippi’s natural outlet, the Atchafalaya River. Just above Greenville, Mississippi, where the levees had held previous rises in River level, 100 feet of water submerged them and everything else around, even the tallest trees. The flood on the Mississippi Delta forced people to evacuate -- some of them forever. Barry calculates that “by early 1928, the exodus of blacks from Washington County, and likely the rest of the Delta, did reach 50 percent.” A new planter class later emerged with its concordant political power and white supremacy attitudes. In New Orleans, the banking elite -- the best and brightest -- decided to dynamite their city’s levees, which they predicted would protect the commerce of the city. After the 1922 flood, the Army Corps of Engineers advised these Poo Bahs to blow a hole in the levee in order to save the business center. Boom went the explosives. The ensuing floods covered the city and nearby parishes as well. A few engineers had predicted such devastation, but their voices went unheard. The aftermath of the floods produced not only black exodus, but a new plantocracy in Mississippi. The power of the old Louisiana banking clique waned and Huey Long rose. Nature in the form of a major flood dictated changes in demographics and politics. By 1927, some engineers understood (remember Moby Dick?) that man cannot rule the river. FEMA by its very name recognizes that obvious fact. But its officials’ incompetence after the 2005 Hurricane Katrina catastrophes also challenged the government’s ability to deal with post disaster damages. The Corps of Engineers now “protect” the Mississippi Delta with “Project Flood.” They built various exits for the raging river to vent -- like emergency truck lanes where semis with bad brakes can choose an uphill path on a downhill section of highway. The Corps learned from the 1927 fiasco to split the flooding river between the Atchafalaya and Mississippi. But they didn’t have enough money to do the safety work; nor can they predict the behavior of the Atchafalaya, which steers a more direct route to the Gulf than the Mississippi. We explored the banks of the Atchafalaya and took note of the sign indicating the location of The River Project, which the Corps credits for diverting the Atchafalaya from joining Mississippi and thus “saving” New Orleans during the 1948 flood. We stopped at a campground on the banks of the Atchaflaya outside of Krotz Springs, and met Tony, his bloodhound and his friend Kyle, an unemployed welder. Tony sneered at Bush’s “throwing away money on Iraq” while the structures meant to hold back the raging rivers went un-repaired. He told us of poorly publicized horrors surrounding Katrina. We discovered -- read about it next week -- that incompetence, ignorance, negligence and stupidity abounded, but even worse behavior took place involving the New Orleans police -- looting and killing. When Tony left with his bloodhound, Kyle asked us to drive him to town to buy some food -- three 12 packs. He showed us the vast Valero refinery on the edge of town where he suffered several accidents and got laid off. We drove to Beaux Bridge, outside of Lafayette, Louisiana, ate dinner at Prejean’s, listened to an inaudible Cajun band while chewing boudin (usually pork, sausage and rice) of alligator, stuffed eggplant (with crawfish) and crawfish etouffee – the sauce containing flour, butter, onion, cayenne pepper, and lemon slices. Our stomachs coated with Tums, we headed for New Orleans, via St. Martinville, where we gawked at the St. Martin de Tours Church, the oldest parish in southwest Louisiana. Martin, a Hungarian knight, saw a beggar, took pity on him and, according later that night had an epiphany. The beggar was Jesus. Based on that “revelation,” Martin switched careers from knight to priest, rose to bishop and got sainted. The small statue on the pulpit, Jerry Dohmann Jr., the church handyman told us, led to a New York City priest getting bounced from the parish. He disliked the statuette and ordered it removed. “That New Yorker didn’t last long down here,” Jerry smugly boasted. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote about St. Martinville, a historic sign marker informed us. We see the magnificent oak where Evangeline waited in vain for her lover. In 1928, Huey Long delivered a major campaign speech in St. Martinville, beneath that sad tree. “Where are the schools that you have waited for your children to have, that have never come?” Long asked, “the roads…that are no nearer now than ever before? “Evangeline wept bitter tears in her disappointment,” he concluded, “but it lasted only through one lifetime. Your tears in this country, around this oak, have lasted for generations.” In New Orleans, tens of thousands continue to weep in disappointment. Like Evangeline’s lover, their government has yet to appear -- except as an adversary. (More on this next week.)
Saul Landau is a Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and a senior fellow of the Transnational Institute. His latest book is A Bush and Botox World. His latest film is We don't play golf here! And other stories of globalisation .