Thursday, May 10, 2012

A Battlefield Lost: Plum Point Bend

Old river-men say each bend in the Mississippi River has at least one story to tell.  Well Plum Point and Craighead Bends collectively have several hundred.  One of those occurred on May 10, 1862.

After the fall of Island No.10 on April 8, 1862, the Federal Mississippi River Squadron moved down stream to the next Confederate bulwark.  Roughly thirty miles north of Memphis, Tennessee, the river made a series of sharp bends - first west, then east, then west again - as the river flowed around Plum and Craighead Points.  Inside these bends were a maze of snags and sandbars.  Pilots considered this stretch of the river one of more dangerous sections.  Mark Twain described it as "the famous and formidable Plum Point."

If that was not enough, terrain on the Tennessee side of the river made the Confederate defenses even more formidable.  After passing around Craighead Point, the river turns west against the foot of the First Chickasaw Bluff.  The crest of this rise is about 125 to 150 feet above the river level.  And on top of that bluff, the Confederates built Fort Pillow with some forty heavy guns. 

For a month and a half during the spring of 1862, these river bends were the front lines of the war along the Mississippi.  Federal mortar boats lay on the downstream reach of Plum Point Bend, lobbing shells at Fort Pillow.  Federal gunboats covered the bombardment.  On the morning of May 10, a flotilla of Confederate rams rounded Craighead Point, aiming to disperse the Federal fleet.  And they came close to accomplishing that goal.  The USS Mound City and the USS Cincinnati, both ironclad river gunboats, were so seriously damaged they sank along the river banks.  Other Federal boats moved into the shallow waters, where the rams could not go.  So with a tactical victory, the Confederate rams fell back to the protection of Fort Pillow.  The siege continued until the early days of June when the Confederates withdrew to Memphis.

Today, changes to the river's course have drastically altered the terrain over which the siege of Fort Pillow and the naval battle of Plum Point Bend occurred.   The map below provides a rough outline of the river channel as it ran during the Civil War (very rough):

View Plum Point Bend in a larger map

There are three points, marked on the map, that provide visitors glimpses of a battlefield lost.

Just south of Osceola, Arkansas, a state road leads out to old Sans Souci landing (blue push pin) on the river's bank.  Several interpretive markers discuss the history of the river bend to include the naval battle.  The view up river from there takes in what remains of Plum Point.

Riverboat and barges heading past Plum Point

During the Civil War, the river turned to the northeast.  Today it bypasses the old bend, running more southeasterly.  So the bend in the river, where the mortar boats tied off and Confederate rams fought the Federal gunboats, is now isolated in the swampy bottom land on the Tennessee side.
Looking "across" Plum Point Bend
The straight line distance from Sans Souci to Fort Pillow is between three and four miles.  But, illustrating the remoteness of the site even today, the driving distance is over 100 miles.  Fort Pillow State Park includes a river overlook (red push pin), with a view back to Sans Souci.

View from Fort Pillow Overlook
The smokestack in the distant left is a steel mill at Osceola.  Sans Souci is just below that mill in this view.  As mentioned above, the river flows southeasterly - off to the left of this view.  But in 1862, the river turned northeast, across this view to the right.  It then turned sharply south around Craighead Point (out of view to the right) and then flowed west along the base of the Chickasaw Bluff.  The overlook is roughly a mile from the actual site of the Confederate batteries.  But the point is made in this view - the Confederate defenders had the advantage of elevation.

Fort Pillow (green push pin) today is configured to optimize interpretation for the April 1864 battle.  As such, the works orient to the land side.

Interior of the Fort Pillow reconstruction

But the park visitor center/museum exhibits some artifacts from the 1862 fighting.

Mortar fragments at Fort Pillow
The bluffs on which the original Confederate batteries stood has collapsed in several places since the war.  Dense forest prevents a clear view of the old river channel from what remains. However miles of the Confederate outer works remain today.

Section of Confederate outer works

River channel shifts.  Collapsing bluffs.  It's Old Man River, not development, which has altered this battlefield.

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