A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
As we boarded the Mississippi Queen, a paddle wheel steamer built in 1976, a five-foot-tall, cupola-shaped birdcage inhabited by a flock of finches in the lobby marked the transition from the outside world to the nineteenth century, re-created with chandeliers, overstuffed furniture, and brass trimmings. We stopped to admire the period photographs of grand steamers and playbills announcing the entertainments that once traveled the rivers, stopping at each small town. We then headed to our cabin with a private balcony on the Texas deck, from which we watched the Mississippi Queen pull away from her Nashville, Tennessee, dock and into the Cumberland River. We were looking forward to a week of cruising the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers and visiting important sites in the western theater of the Civil War, hosted by the Delta Queen Steamboat Company. A team of Civil War specialists, led by historian William C. "Jack" Davis, would act as guides to battle sites such as Fort Donelson and Shiloh, conduct on-board lectures, show films featuring Civil War themes, and lead trivia contests. Period music performed by Bobby Horton (the driving force behind the music of Ken Burns' PBS series The Civil War), and appearances by Abraham Lincoln presenter Jim Getty, ensured that passengers were immersed in the 1860s.
In what was then known as the West, the states of Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, and northern Georgia, river transportation proved vital to the outcome of the war. The Mississippi, Cumberland, and Tennessee rivers flowed through the heart of the slave states, and controlling them became the key to holding the region. When South Carolina seceded in December 1860, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and other slave states soon followed. Yet the best interests of Tennessee and Kentucky were less clear cut. Slaveholders were powerful in western Tennessee, and, to a lesser extent, in middle Tennessee, but in the mountainous east, where there were few plantations, support was for the Union. When President Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers after the attack on federal Fort Sumpter, public opinion in middle Tennessee drastically shifted in favor of the South, and in a June 8, 1861 referendum, Tennessee became the last state to withdraw from the Union.
Kentucky, also a slave state, voted to remain in the Union, but as a neutral party. In his introductory remarks on the role of the western rivers in the war, historian Richard McMurry explained the state's unusual position. "The Ohio River, the northern boundary of Kentucky, was the boundary in the middle part of the United States, with the slave states to the south, and the free states to the north. If Kentucky became part of the Confederacy, the Ohio River would be an international boundary between the Confederate States and the United States. A big river like the Ohio is easier to defend than trying to keep an army from getting across a land area...Both the Confederacy and the Union announced, 'We will respect the neutrality of Kentucky,' because neither one wanted to push Kentucky toward the other. Both presidents [Lincoln and Davis] were natives of Kentucky. Kentucky was literally split between North and South." General Albert Sidney Johnston, Confederate commander in the West, ordered that the Tennessee-Kentucky border be fortified from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River. The Confederacy violated the state's neutrality in September 1861 by seizing and fortifying the Mississippi at the towns of Columbus and Bowling Green. The South took this drastic step in an effort to maintain control of the rivers and protect Nashville, Tennessee, an important industrial center, and the region's railroads. The weakest links in this chain were Fort Henry, built on low ground on the Tennessee River, and 12 miles away, Fort Donelson on the Cumberland. Both forts were taken by Union troops in February 1862, earning U.S. Grant the nickname Unconditional Surrender. The victory opened the Cumberland River as far as Nashville, which also soon fell to the Federals. Union forces then went up the Tennessee River as far as Florence, Alabama, where they were able to cut off the railroads. Except for their defeat of Union troops at Chickamauga, the Confederates in the West never recovered these losses.
Today, Fort Henry lies beneath Kentucky Lake, a body of water created when the Tennessee River was dammed by the Tennessee Valley Authority in the 1930s. Fort Donelson National Military Park is open to visitors, and was the first stop on the cruise. Other stops included the town of Paducah, Kentucky, from which Grant launched his attacks on forts Henry and Donelson, the battlefield of Shiloh, the cities of Decatur and Florence, Alabama, and finally, Chattanooga, Tennessee, where we toured Lookout Mountain, site of the "Battle Above the Clouds." Archaeological studies have been conducted at the battlefields of Stones River, Tennessee, and Chickamauga, Georgia, providing new information on troop placement and retreat routes, and at Fort Negley in Nashville, currently closed to visitors.
Jessica E. Saraceni is an associate editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.