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Vicksburg History

The Mississippi River changed course overnight



Mississippi river
(Courtesy of the Old Courthouse Museum)

One of the most frequent questions I get asked by visitors to the Old Court House Museum is, “Where can we get a good view of the Mississippi River?” They are often surprised to find out they will have to travel roughly a mile south of downtown Vicksburg to see it. Even more surprising are those who have studied up on the Siege of Vicksburg beforehand, as the river passing in front of Vicksburg is what made it such a significant location during the Civil War.

The river originally made a sharp “S”-shaped bend passing right in front of the city. Throughout recorded history, the bend in the river, just in front of the high elevation of Walnut Hills, made this area valuable for those settled here. It had a strategic vantage point of the surrounding delta area, was mostly protected from flooding, and provided access to the natural highway system of the Mississippi River.

Throughout the Civil War, these advantages made Vicksburg a vital location. An impenetrable fortress, Vicksburg commanded river navigation. Travel for those upon it was at the mercy of those who occupied the city. (A battery of only a few cannons, high atop Fort Hill, was all that was needed to thwart an approach by the enemy.) The Union Army made several attempts to reroute the river from 1862 to 1863 to bypass Vicksburg altogether, but the feat seemed impossible. Heavy rains, flooding, and shelling on the southern portion of the attempted canal created miserable working conditions that prevented any meaningful progress on the project.

Dredging the Yazoo Canal by Vicksburg Waterfront

Dredging the Yazoo Canal by Vicksburg Waterfront – 1901-1902 (Courtesy of the Old Courthouse Museum)

The Mississippi created the way of life for Vicksburg residents in the nineteenth century. The city’s proximity to both Memphis and New Orleans made it the perfect place for commerce. Arts, entertainment, and literary clubs brought travelers from all over the world. These travelers generated an unlimited necessity for business expansion, and therefore, immigrants had their sights set on Vicksburg to begin their new lives in the United States. It appeared, even despite the devastation brought about during the Civil War, that nothing could stop Vicksburg from outpacing every other city in the state.

On April 26, 1876, in a matter of a few hours, the waters in front of Vicksburg had vanished. Hundreds of years of flooding and erosion of the “S”-bend had led to the narrowest point breaking, and the river changed course. The evacuation of the waters had been so sudden that many of the paddlewheel steamboats remained dry-docked in the mud. Fear among citizens about the fate of their city would quickly grow after this moment. A shift in the river was usually a death sentence for a river-port city. Without a reliable means to bring commerce and travelers into the city, businesses would begin to flee as quickly as the river had. The investments in Vicksburg had been too great, though, and plans began to form as to how to bring Vicksburg back into the fray of port-city status.

The architects who began the process of reestablishing a water presence at Vicksburg were a group known as the Citizens Harbor Committee. They had raised $2,500 among residents to conduct a survey to study the harbor. By 1879, the Mississippi River Commission had been appointed, and proposals were being made by engineers on how to handle the issue. Attempts to build dikes across Lake Centennial to DeSoto Island had been made, but they had little impact. In 1894, a new plan to divert the Yazoo River was adopted, and work began immediately. The project was overseen by U.S. Engineers Maj. J. H. Willard and Capt. C. L. Potter and completed in 1903 with a grand gala celebration for the official opening of the Yazoo Diversionary Canal.

Despite not having access to the Mississippi River for over twenty-seven years, Vicksburg refused to go the way of the ghost towns that had succumbed to the same fate. The Yazoo Canal still brings traffic to our city’s port, and its work made way for the Corps of Engineers to settle here.

Dynamiting the Yazoo Canal dam in front of Vicksburg when the canal open

Dynamiting the Yazoo Canal dam in front of Vicksburg when the canal open (Courtesy of the Old Courthouse Museum)

Vicksburg & Warren County Historical Society

If you enjoyed this story about the course change of the Mississippi River and want to learn more about this area, please consider visiting the Old Court House Museum here in Vicksburg, MS. We’ve been a museum for 74 years, and all items on display were donated by families from this area. We also have a vast archive in our McCardle Research Library that is accessible by appointment. Members of the Historical Society get free admission to the museum, so please also consider becoming a member! All proceeds raised through membership go directly to the preservation of the museum and its contents. For more information, visit our website at or give us a call at 601-636-0741. You never know what you’ll find at the Old Court House!

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