“When we see someone we don’t know, we stop and visit,” said Mark King of Bardwell, Ky.
I had found a remote road by the Mississippi River in Kentucky. A boat launch offered a place to hang my hammock for a brief afternoon nap. And even though my knots gave out twice and I landed with a thud onto the hard ground, I still was able to catch a few winks.
King pulled up on his three-wheeler. Sitting on his lap was his dachshund, Charlie.
Charlie jumped off the three-wheeler, with his tail wagging, to give me a Kentucky greeting.
“You see, we pretty much know everyone who comes down here. That’s why we wave at everyone; it’s just that way here. And if we don’t know them, by the time we’re done visiting, they are no longer strangers,” King said.
King worked at a local concrete plant and also had his pilot’s license. After a long day at work, he said his favorite place to spend time is the Mississippi River.
I told him about how people wave at you in Nebraska when driving down country roads.
“You see, people up in Nebraska are just like us. You just talk faster. We tend not to be in such a rush,” King replied.
He told me to stop in Columbus, Ky. “It’s a special Civil War location,” King said, waving goodbye.
Columbus is the oldest town in Kentucky's Jackson Purchase. President Andrew Jackson bought the land from the Chickasaw Indians. It was first settled on the Mississippi floodplain in 1804.
It was quickly getting to the end of the day as I drove into Columbus.
My Civil War knowledge is rusty at best. But, one event did stick with me. It was when Confederate General Leonidas Polk had a massive chain stretched across the Mississippi River to Belmont, Mo. It was to block the passage of Union gunboats and supply vessels. The idea was to blast them out of the water as they got hung up in the chain.
How do you drag a heavy chain across the river?
This question entered my mind as I picked up just one heavy link. The chain is estimated to have been over a mile long before flooding and erosion destroyed part of it. At the end of the chain is an anchor that weighs between four and six tons.
A 1925 landslide revealed a chunk of the chain and the large anchor lost during the war. It’s now on display at the Columbus-Belmont State Park.
A groundskeeper for the park pulled up in a pickup truck. I asked him about a place to sleep.
“You have to go all the way to Union City, Tenn., just across the border,” he replied.
“What brings you to Columbus?”
I responded that I was learning about the Civil War and the Mississippi River so I could share information with students.
“That’s cool. Here, I have something for you,” he said. From a plastic Advil bottle, he removed a Civil War slug.
“Here, show them this. Over 250,000 Civil War soldiers passed through this area. I tend to find some of these after a rain. Good luck and enjoy your time in Kentucky,” he replied before driving away.
Another Civil War artifact that intrigued me was a steamboat converted into a river battleship. Near Vicksburg, the Union ironclad gunboat U.S.S. Cairo hit a mine in the river placed by the Confederates, sinking it in 12 minutes. For years it was hidden and forgotten, held captive by the river and the sediment covering it.
In 1956, it was found again. After years of work, the boat was raised from the river and put on display in a museum at Vicksburg National Military Park.
Vicksburg to Port Hudson on the Mississippi River was the hinge that connected the western Confederate states to eastern states. After long sieges, both eventually surrendered to the Union forces. When they fell in 1863, the Confederates were split in two by the Mississippi River. Two long and bloody years later with 600,000 dead soldiers, the Civil War ended.
For some, the Civil War is not over. For the South, it wasn’t about slavery; it was about a state’s rights versus the power of the federal government.