“The South … [and] the … Mississippi”

May 13, 1882

Thomas Nast

“The South … [and] the … Mississippi”

Congress; Natural Disasters, Flood; Symbols, Columbia; Symbols, King Neptune; Symbols, South; Women, Symbolic;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.

American South;

No caption

The Mississippi River Valley in the Southern states, where levees had been damaged by the Civil War, experienced severe flooding in 1865, 1867, 1874, and 1882.  The latter was the most severe, and is depicted in this Harper's Weekly cartoon by Thomas Nast.  In it, King Neptune releases his ruthless force through the deluge of the Mississippi River, engulfing tiny villages along its unrestrained path.  In the background, the female personification of the South seeks the protection of Columbia (representing the federal government).

In the decades following the Civil War, little was accomplished in the Mississippi River Valley of the South to prevent the damage to the natural and built environment that occurred during the periodic floods.  Missouri constructed few levees until the 1880s.  The Arkansas and Louisiana state governments made attempts to address the problem, but were largely unsuccessful.  In 1869, the Arkansas legislature placed levee construction under the authority of the Commission on Public Works and Internal Improvements, but the relationship between the commission and construction companies was fraught with fraud.  The Louisiana legislature tried several schemes, assigning the duty first to the Board of Public Works, then to a private corporation (Louisiana Levee Company), and finally to the Board of State Engineers.  Millions of tax-dollars were funneled into the projects with few results.  

Only in the state of Mississippi was some progress made on levee construction between the Civil War and the 1882 flood.  In 1865, a group of planters in the lower Delta formed a regional board to oversee the raising of monies and the repair of the levees.  In 1877, the state legislature set up the Mississippi Levee District to assist them.  Mississippians led the charge for federal aid, and Congress responded in 1879 by establishing the Mississippi River Commission.  The federal agency's mission was to enhance the river's navigability, but it offered some aid to levee boards.

The great flood of 1882 ravaged communities along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers and their tributaries.  In Cincinnati, heavy rains began on Sunday night, February 19, 1882, and lasted for two days, causing the Ohio River to rise at a rate of two inches per hour.  The flood blocked railroad tracks entering the city, submerged homes and factories, displaced hundreds of families and put thousands out of work temporarily.  Similar scenes occurred along the Ohio in southern Indiana and Illinois.

Even more serious was the flooding along the Mississippi River, from Illinois and St. Louis virtually all the way down to the delta of New Orleans.  The 1882 flood was one of the most devastating to the lower Mississippi River Valley.  The water easily broke through most of the levees, burying entire towns, killing livestock and other animals, and forcing thousands of residents to flee for safety.  In Arkansas alone, an estimated 20,000 people were left homeless.  In some places the overflowing Mississippi River transformed the adjacent communities into a lake, 15-miles wide.  Private steamboat companies rescued those stranded by the flood, as did the Army Corps of Engineers and the Quartermaster Corps, which also distributed rations to the victims.

The political wake of the 1882 flood flowed into a Congressional debate over the annual rivers and harbors bill.  Little federal aid had been given to what were called the "internal improvements" of the nation's rivers and harbors before the Civil War.  In the post-war years, however, funding rose significantly to nearly $4,000,000 each year, 1866-1875.  The annual rivers and harbors bill, however, became pork-barrel legislation in the House (where spending bills originate) as Congressmen tacked appropriations for their favorite projects onto the bill.  

Despite calls for increased aid because of the recent flood, on August 1, 1882, President Chester Arthur vetoed the Rivers and Harbors Bill, explicitly labeling it pork-barrel legislation.  Arthur did not oppose internal improvements on principle, and had endorsed the commission's report calling for federal aid to repair and extend levees along the Mississippi.  However, he concluded that the legislation as drafted only benefited select localities, was not in the national interest, and would set a bad precedent for the "extravagant expenditure of public money."  

Led by a coalition of Southern Democrats and Midwestern Republicans from flood states, Congress overrode the president's veto.  The 1882 Rivers and Harbors Act included $5.4 million for the Mississippi River Commission.  For the rest of the century, federal appropriations for rivers and harbors rose from $8,000,000 in 1880 to $29,000,000 in 1898.  The levees rebuilt after the 1882 flood, relying on machine power rather than manpower, withstood flooding in 1884.  A severe flood in 1927, however, was again disastrous for the lower Mississippi River Valley, and led to the federal Flood Control Act of 1927 (amended in 1936), the nation's first law that addressed the problem in a comprehensive manner.  

Robert C. Kennedy

“The South … [and] the … Mississippi”
July 14, 2024

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