STEAMBOATING ON THE MISSISSIPPI IN PEACE AND WAR.
Attempts to Obstruct the Great River.—Chains, Booms, and Batteries.—A Novelty in Piloting.—Travel in the Days Before the Rebellion.—Trials of Speed.—The Great Race.—Travel During the War.—Running a Rebel Battery on the Lower Mississippi.—Incidents of the Occasion.—Comments on the Situation.
No engineer has been able to dam the Mississippi, except by the easy process which John Phenix adopted on the Yuma River. General Pillow stretched a chain from Columbus, Kentucky, to the opposite shore, in order to prevent the passage of our gun-boats. The chain broke soon after being placed in position.
Near Forts Jackson and Philip, below New Orleans, the Rebels constructed a boom to oppose the progress of Farragut’s fleet. A large number of heavy anchors, with the strongest cables, were fixed in the river. For a time the boom answered the desired purpose. But the river rose, drift-wood accumulated, and the boom at length went the way of all things Confederate. Farragut passed the forts, and appeared before New Orleans; “Picayune Butler came to town,” and the great city of the South fell into the hands of the all-conquering Yankees.
Before steam power was applied to the propulsion of boats, the ascent of the Mississippi was very difficult.
From New Orleans to St. Louis, a boat consumed from two to four months’ time. Sails, oars, poles, and ropes attached to trees, were the various means of stemming the powerful current. Long after steamboats were introduced, many flat-boats, loaded with products of the Northern States, floated down the river to a market. At New Orleans, boats and cargoes were sold, and the boatmen made their way home on foot. Until twenty years ago, the boatmen of the Mississippi were almost a distinct race. At present they are nearly extinct.
In the navigation of the Mississippi and its tributaries, the pilot is the man of greatest importance. He is supposed to be thoroughly familiar with the channel of the river in all its windings, and to know the exact location of every snag or other obstruction. He can generally judge of the depth of water by the appearance of the surface, and he is acquainted with every headland, forest, house, or tree-top, that marks the horizon and tells him how to keep his course at night. Professional skill is only acquired by a long and careful training.
Shortly after the occupation of Little Rock by General Steele, a dozen soldiers passed the lines, without authority, and captured a steamboat eighteen miles below the city. Steam was raised, when the men discovered they had no pilot. One of their number hit upon a plan as novel as it was successful.
The Arkansas was very low, having only three feet of water in the channel. Twenty-five able-bodied negroes were taken from a neighboring plantation, stretched in a line across the river, and ordered to wade against the current. By keeping their steamer, which drew only twenty inches, directly behind the negro who sank the deepest, the soldiers took their prize to Little Rock without difficulty.