Vicksburg

Vicksburg was one of the Confederacy’s direct links to the vast resources of the trans-Mississippi West. The natural environment of the city provided a strategic advantage to whoever controlled the city; the erosion-prone loess soil was deeply carved into twisting ridges by the Yazoo and Big Black Rivers, and the landscape was fractured by an intricate system of bayous (6). Admiral Farragut and Maj, Gen. Benjamin Butler of the Union Army wanted to close off Vicksburg’s access to the river, believing that the city would become irrelevant to military strategy if left high and dry. In 1862, Brig. Gen. Thomas Williams and members of the Army Corps of Engineers began digging a canal across De Soto Point, a parcel of land created by a horseshoe bend in the river, which would create a way for the U.S. Navy to enter the waterway and would force the river to succumb to Federal navigation. The canal building was hindered by many environmental factors, “The soils along the Mississippi are vertisols. The silt and loess deposited by flooding sit on top of these heavier, clay soils. Thus, to dig the canal the Union soldiers, in conjunction with over one thousand slaves commandeered from surrounding plantations, had to contend with tenacious clay, as well as thick vegetation, unpredictable water levels, and mosquito-borne illness” (6).

Despite the building of the canal being a military failure, the few months spent trying to excavate the canal most certainly had an effect on the waterways. Digging canals alters the erosion patterns of rivers, which increases sediments suspended in the water and decreases the oxygen available for aquatic species. Creation of canals also increases the likelihood of invasive species establishing in the waterway (12). Attempts to command the waters of the Mississippi for military and personal gain reflect an all-encompassing ideology of the time that nature is to be conquered. Williams often described nature as an obstacle to overcome, or a problem to be solved (6). Some people during the Civil War believed that nature was somewhat of a sentient being that would succumb to, or aid, the righteous side of a fight. Moses Gage, a Chaplain with the 12th Indiana Volunteer Infantry, describes the beauty of the Mississippi Valley and how it favors those with pure hearts and minds (presumably referring to the Union Army), “Nature, science, law, morals, and religion are all arrayed on the side of truth, in whose defense we were engaged. Hence the difference in the value of motives by which men are impelled to action. Sincerity in error is not the equal of integrity in truth, and even the silent influence of nature impresses the heart of him who is engaged in a noble cause. Hence the dwellers in the lovely valleys among the mountains, before whom nature spreads a scene of mingled beauty and sublimity, are regarded as the firm adherents and defenders of truth. The mighty river, with its beautiful scenery, is also adapted to inspire noble sentiments and give new courage to those who maintain the right” (15). Gage viewed victories along the Mississippi as patriotic duty and acts in accord with nature, despite their potentially devastating effects on the nature of the area.