For my birthday, Shannon gave me Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild, by the late Chicago writer Lee Sandlin. The book is best described as a history of the Lower Mississippi, focusing on the chaos and violence of the first century of white efforts to settle the river. As a Minnesotan, I was a little disappointed that the book didn’t include anything substantial on the river north of St. Louis – our own saint-named river town has a crazy history that’s worth knowing, as does its bigger, more serious sibling. (Sandlin does mention that the river, like its source state, gets its name from its native denizens – in this case, an Ojibwe term – Mizu-ziipi – for “very big river.”)
But man, does Sandlin make the most of his focus on the lower Mississippi, telling no end of amazing stories about the river as a highway, as a border, as a battlefield, and as a natural wonder. In a set piece early in the book (pp. 12-16), he sails with the reader from the evergreen forests around Lake Itasca down the infamously winding river to the trackless swamps near the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a wonderful passage, as evocative and mournful of the best John McPhee. What a journey that would have been in 1800 or 1700. To have seen the bison herds right up along the river!
In describing the river’s many faces and uses, Sandlin focuses – as the title suggests – on the untamed nature and people that, he says, characterized the Mississippi before the Civil War. Among others, he discusses pirates, traders, gamblers, soldiers, settlers, missionaries, sinners, and both the slaveowners and the enslaved – most of whom encountered or caused trouble, if not disaster, on the river. A long section on lower-river slaveowners’ terror about slave rebellions rings some familiarly contemporary notes of violence and paranoia.
The chapter on the 1863 siege of Vicksburg could have served as the emblem of human experience on the river – a horrific battle that ended in a Union victory, splitting the Confederacy and contributing to the Union’s victory two years later – but instead Sandlin provides an even more awful climax. Just a day after Lincoln’s assassination, a horrifically overloaded river steamboat, the Sultana, suffered a boiler explosion near Memphis and sank. Thrown into the river, 1,700 passengers died, including hundreds of Union troops traveling north from prison camps in the Confederacy.
The Mississippi did not need to sink steamboats to do damage to the people living on and around it, though. In some of my favorite parts of the book, though, Sandlin describes some of the jawdropping natural disasters on and around the river, like a massive tornado that struck Natchez, Mississippi, 1840. He has a great chapter on the amazing New Madrid earthquakes, which were probably the largest earthquakes in U.S. history – so big that they created temporary waterfalls on the river.
The Mississippi’s quintessential natural disaster, though, was flooding – a calamity that recurs throughout the book. The federal government’s post-Civil War efforts to control the floods led, Sandlin says, to the end of the river’s “wild” age. The Sultana‘s death toll in 1865 was so high, in fact, because the river was running high and cold with spring meltwater. Even more cinematically, Sandlin describes a bizarre episode in February 1856, when a brief thaw interrupted an unusually cold winter. At St. Louis, the melt freed a giant ice floe, which then smashed along the city’s famous levee, crushing forty steamboats and countless smaller vessels:
“The day was bitterly cold, and the pieces soon froze into place. By evening the levee had been covered over by ice; by morning there was a mountain range of ice twenty feet high. People peering into it could see the wreckage of the steamboats–the railings and chandeliers, the gambling tables and the wine goblets–preserved within the gleaming shadows of the ice mountains, where it would remain until the spring thaw came.”
Unbelievable, and yet completely in keeping with the character of wild river that Sandlin describes.
Postscript: I noted that Sandlin wrote several other books focused on the Midwest, and thought immediately that they’d be good to read. Then I saw online that he died unexpectedly in 2014. Why does this make me so sad?