Modern history


IN THE ABSENCE of a rampaging river, the “government” levees seemed immense, formidable, impregnable. They were massive earth works, thicker than any before and rising three feet higher than the highest water ever known along each stretch of the river. In 1882, one mile of levee contained an average of 31,000 cubic yards of earth. In 1912, the average mile of levee contained 240,000 cubic yards. In 1927, commission standards called for an average of 421,000 cubic yards per mile, 13.5 times the 1882 standard and almost double that of fifteen years before. Levees meeting this standard extended most of the length of the lower Mississippi.

Though made of earth, they were precisely engineered. Between the river and the levee lay the batture, the barrow pit, and the berm. The batture was the land between the river’s natural bank and the levee; often a mile or more wide, it was usually forested (even if that required planting willows) to protect the levee from current scour and waves. Then came the barrow pit, from which the earth came to build the levee; the wheelbarrows used in early levee construction gave it its name, although it was also called the “borrow” pit. It served as a dry moat; the river had to fill it before reaching the levee itself. This pit, generally 300 feet wide and 14 feet deep at its deepest point, closest to the river, had a gradual slope of ten on the horizontal to one on the vertical up to the berm. The berm was flat ground, usually 40 feet wide, between the barrow pit and the toe of the levee.

The levee itself was the fortress, the great redoubt, its bulk melded carefully and seamlessly through a muck ditch into the ground upon which it was built. The crown was flat, at least 8 feet wide, and the sides had a three-to-one slope, so a levee 30 feet high would be at least 188 feet wide—the 8-foot-wide crown plus two sides, each 90 feet wide. The entire levee was planted with tough-textured and thickly rooted Bermuda grass to hold the soil. No other growth was allowed, so that inspectors could easily locate any weak spots during a high water.

On the land side of the levee, a banquette reached halfway up the crown and buttressed it, like a man leaning his weight against a door to hold it shut. The banquette slope was ten to one close to the crown and four to one near the toe: thus a 30-foot-high levee with a banquette was nearly as wide as a football field, not including the barrow pit or berm. The Mississippi River Commission paid two-thirds of levee construction costs; local levee boards paid one-third and provided rights-of-way and land, in effect a fifty-fifty cost-sharing.

At low water, when a person standing on the levee could not even see the distant river, the levee system seemed impregnable indeed. But it was not impregnable.

A dozen things can cause a levee to collapse. A single piece of wood, a branch, left in a levee during construction could cause disaster if it rots and creates a cavity. Burrowing animals, even crawfish nests, also create cavities. The river will find such flaws and can enlarge them enough to cause a massive levee to collapse.

Soil could be a weakness. No levee district could afford to transport the enormous amounts of earth needed, so each used the soil at hand. If it was light and sandy, the levee needed much support and was highly vulnerable to wave wash and water pouring over its top.

The current, roaring downriver at 10 miles an hour, can scour out the levee base, eat away at it. High winds or passing barges can send waves that pound the levee with surf, ripping out chunks of earth, gouging out holes knee-deep, destroying walls of sandbags.

But the biggest danger is simply pressure, constant unrelenting pressure. Water, in seeking its own level, does not simply run over the top of a container; it presses against the side. A rising Mississippi presses against a levee with immense and increasing weight. The longer the river lies against the levee, the more saturated and weaker the levee becomes, and the more likely part of it will slough off. Such a slide increases the chance that the tremendous weight of the river can push it aside. Sand boils also result from pressure; the weight of the river pushes water underneath the levee. This water then erupts like a miniature volcano behind the levee, sometimes 200 yards behind it. When a sand boil shoots up clear water, it is not dangerous. But when the water is muddy, the boil is eroding the core of the levee.

Each of these dangers could be handled, at least in theory. But men had to do everything right, and they had to do so twenty-four hours a day. As long as a flood lasted, the river could only grow stronger, the levees weaker. Since the river was relentless, men had to be relentless. Since nature missed nothing, made no mistakes, and was perfect, men had to miss nothing, make no mistakes, and be perfect.

Even then, even if they matched nature’s perfection, even if they matched the river’s relentlessness, if the river rose high enough, it would still overwhelm all they had done.

Building levees higher also increased by orders of magnitude the potential energy of a crevasse. At Poydras in 1922, river currents had gouged out a deep enough hole to create that moving mountain of water, 115 feet high and 1,500 feet wide. It had all the power of a dam bursting. Conceivably, a crevasse could generate even more force.

WEEKS EARLIER Charlie Williams had divided the levee near Greenville into sectors half a mile long, then gave each sector a captain who organized his own guards and labor. In total, the workforce numbered close to 10,000. At known weak spots tent cities holding as many as several thousand men were set up at the base of the levee. Shock troops lived on barges that fed and slept 400 men and got them to weak spots in a hurry. Wires were strung for lights and telephones to allow twenty-four-hour operation and quick communication. Percy worked with others behind the scenes, assuring that logistics went smoothly, talking to West on the river commission to make sure it was doing everything possible.

As the river rose, even before the Good Friday rains, the levee guards changed. They had been black. Bill Jones, a black man, recalled, “They gave me a shotgun and told me, ‘Don’t let nobody from the Arkansas side come over.’” But Jones had allowed fishermen from Arkansas near the levee; he had not shot them. “They took the shotgun away from me. ‘You ain’t no damn good,’ they said.”

Now the guards were white, mostly World War I veterans. Tough, gritty men defending their homes, they did shoot. The Greenville Democrat-Times reported, “An attempt to dynamite [the levee]…near here was discovered by national guardsmen last night. A pitched battle followed the discovery and three men were shot.”

But if black men did not guard the levees, they worked on them. The whites liked to think a flood fight represented the best of the community, all of it pulling together. Instead, it simply reflected the nature of power in the community, shorn of pretense. LeRoy Percy understood this. In 1922, just after the Klan fight began, he had invited Ellery Sedgwick, the editor of the Atlantic, to visit: “Nothing could be more interesting, so far as racial study goes, than to see five or six thousand free negroes working on a weak point under ten or twelve white men, without the slightest friction and of course without any legal right to call upon them for the work, and yet the work is done not out of any feeling of obligation but out of a traditional obedience to the white man.”

Just inspecting the levee was hard physical work. Not only the crown but the slope had to be examined. The earth would suck a man’s boots off his foot. Just walking was exhausting. White men did that generally.

Black men raised the levee. Where waves were eroding the crown, they built mud boxes, a wall of planks several feet high buttressed with sandbags, or sometimes simply stacked sandbags, laying them carefully like bricks. Each weak spot required thousands of sandbags, each one filled by hand, carried by hand, placed by hand. To fill a sandbag, two men held it, a third shoveled earth into it, then tied it. Dry, each filled sandbag weighed from 60 to 80 pounds; wet earth weighed much more. Bending over to fill one quickly became backbreaking. Carrying them up the long slope of the levee wore men down quickly. Only ten earth-moving levee machines were available for 800 miles of levees. There were few mules. There were only black men. But the white men did not treat them like men.

Bill Jones remembered, after his shotgun was taken away, carrying sandbags up the levee. A black man beside him slipped and fell; he fell the wrong way, into the river, and disappeared, his body never recovered, never even looked for. Work went on without interruption.

Duncan Cope, a white foreman, recalled: “They had a bunch of niggers over there…beating them with a stick and holding a pistol on them and couldn’t get nothing done…. They asked me if I wanted a pistol and a stick. I told them no. I knew all those niggers…. I divided them up in groups, made one bunch fill the sacks, one bunch cull them, and one bunch lay them on. And I got them singing and working, and in about a day’s time I had that levee sacked.”

Get them singing and working; leave the stick and the pistol alone. The white man had learned that much.

There was no relief from the work. There could be none. The river took no rest. And while blacks did the most physical labor, everyone worked. The American Legion ran kitchens at the levee camps, cooking thousands of meals a day. Foremen, all white, levee guards, mostly white, and levee workers, all black, could get a cup of coffee in the middle of the wilderness during breaks. But the breaks were brief. The men worked hour after hour, and day after day.

The river kept rising. All the rivers kept rising, rising and swelling and overflowing and bursting levees.

Saturday, April 16, at Dorena, Missouri, 30 miles below Cairo, 1,200 feet of the government levee on the Mississippi River crumbled. The Mississippi River Commission had repeatedly insisted, “There has never been a single break nor a single acre of land flooded by a break on a levee constructed according to Government specifications for grade and [cross-]section.”

It could say that no more. The river poured through the breach, tearing down trees, sweeping away buildings, and destroying faith.

THE COLLAPSE of the Dorena levee sent a chill all the way down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. The single crevasse flooded 175,000 acres. Few were reassured by Connolly’s statement, “We feel confident that the other [government] levees will withstand the floodwaters.” Virtually everywhere along the lower Mississippi—except in New Orleans—people had embraced the judgment of the river commission and the Army engineers. Now these people watched the river continue to rise, even with hundreds of thousands of second-feet pouring out of the river through the crevasse, and were afraid.

Arkansas Senator Caraway wired Secretary of War Davis: “At Forest City…5000 people without shelter and without food. Both ought to be supplied immediately. Similar help is being extended to Tennessee although not one tenth its area as compared to Arkansas is overflowed.” The Mississippi Flood Control Association wired Davis that another 6,000 refugees in Helena, Arkansas, were “absolutely without food.”

That day the New York Times reported: “Seven more die in flood along the Mississippi…. Additional levees broke today on both the Missouri and Illinois shores…at Big Lake in northeastern Ark., and at Whitehall Landing in Ark. on the St. Francis River…. Additional rainfall in the Missouri and Upper Valleys threatened even higher stages…. Somebody’s house passed through Memphis today en route to the Gulf of Mexico…. In St. Louis thousands of weary men tonight continued their struggle to strengthen the levees against what threatened to be the greatest and most damaging flood in the history of the lower valley. Other thousands of men, women, and children were refugees under the care of the Red Cross.”

The head of disaster relief for the American Red Cross moved to the flood zone and wired headquarters in Washington that they faced “the greatest flood in history.” In fact, this flood had barely begun.

SATURDAY, APRIL 16, as the river began to crash through at Dorena, LeRoy Percy sat down in the levee board office in Greenville for an emergency meeting with Charlie Williams, General Curtis Green, head of the Mississippi National Guard and spokesman for the governor, and every member of the levee board, including Walter Sillers, Percy’s only real political rival in the region. Percy and Sillers had already asked Mississippi Governor Dennis Murphree to send convicts from Parchman Penitentiary to the levee.

Murphree owed both of them politically, Percy in particular. Years before, Murphree had been a strong supporter of Vardaman against Percy, and Murphree had become governor the preceding month, when his predecessor died of cancer. But Percy—because Bilbo was expected to run for governor—had willingly forgiven him and immediately offered support, advising him to announce immediately for reelection: “This is the psychological hour for you. Favorable results eventuate more frequently from acting at the psychological moment than from any other given cause. Those who do so are called lucky; they should be called wise.”

Murphree had sent the convicts and promised to devote himself to helping the Delta. Now in Murphree’s name Green offered every resource the state had. The next day Murphree himself pleaded with War Secretary Davis for supplies and tents to be sent to Greenville.

Vivian Broom worked in the levee board headquarters, listening to the men constantly on the phone repositioning barges, juggling manpower, seeing to supplies of sandbags. “The levee board was a madhouse,” Broom said. “‘Is the levee going to break? is the levee going to break?’ Mr. Elam—the assistant chief engineer—kept on saying no…. That place was a madhouse, payrolls, crowds of people running through, phones calling.”

Florence Sillers Ogden’s father, Walter Sillers, was on the levee board. She recalled, “They kept sending for labor. They sent convicts, they sent everyone they could find. Labor everywhere and trucks were just running through [filled with workers].”

In towns on both sides of the river, every morning the police ran patrols through the black neighborhoods and grabbed black men off the street to send them to the levee. If a black man refused, he was beaten or jailed or both; more than one man was shot. In Greenville, from the corner of Broadway and Nelson Streets, every morning trucks full of black men left, depositing a new load of workers fifteen miles upriver. Two or three times a day the trucks went up there. Wynn Davis, a black man, drove the trucks, and says, “The first of April I started carrying people up there. Never saw any white people on the levee working. I only saw the people I carried up.”

Frank Hall, a white engineer, was then twenty-four years old: “They gave me charge of a stretch of levee. When I got there water was running over the top. I had a hard time keeping labor because we weren’t organized. The feeding was almost nil in some places. Where farmers had their own camps and crews and brought in their own labor they were able to do a better job with their labor than we were with labor picked up by the police department.”

The Mississippi was three miles wide between the levees, darker and thicker and more wild than any man, red, black, or white, had ever seen it. Detritus of the flood—tree branches and whole trees, part of a floor, a roof, the remains of a chicken coop, fence posts, upturned boats, bodies of mules and cows—raced past.

Levee engineers publicly continued to display confidence, but a disastrous crevasse was inevitable. The question was where. If the Mississippi broke through on the Arkansas bank, where levees averaged eighteen inches lower than Mississippi’s, or far enough south of Greenville, then Washington County might survive. News of every crevasse added to their hope. Near Pine Bluff, a crevasse on the Arkansas River doomed another 150,000 acres. Good news, for that water would not threaten Greenville. On April 19, the Associated Press reported “the attempt to save the levees on the White River has been virtually abandoned.” More good news, for Greenville anyway. That same day, near New Madrid, Missouri, the levees burst apart, opening a mile-wide gap. That water would flood as much as 1 million more acres in Missouri and Arkansas. Good news again for Greenville, lessening the pressure at least temporarily. But much of that water would return to the Mississippi. Timing was everything; when the water arrived was everything.

The crest would not reach New Orleans for at least three weeks, but that same day, April 19, near the site of the 1922 Poydras crevasse, levee guards in St. Bernard Parish shot three suspected dynamiters, killing one.

Charlie Williams ordered the automobile ferry from Mounds Landing, a dozen miles above Greenville, to Arkansas City to stop running. Automobile traffic weakened the levee; no more would be allowed. Thirty years earlier this had been the site of a small town called Huntington, where a railroad ferry had operated. A flood had washed the entire town and ferry operation away.

At that spot the levee was particularly and unavoidably vulnerable. Just above the landing the river ran in a straight line for several miles, gathering force and momentum. Then it curved around a 90-degree bend. The water there was in tumult; it boiled. It collided with the bank and generated terrific, literally terrifying, currents. Their swirl threw up waves that made no sense, that came from opposite directions and crashed against each other. The surface of the river rose and fell from one spot to the next, exploding into eddies and whirlpools. As Ellet had reported in 1851: “The apparent slope is everywhere affected by the bends on the river, and the centrifugal force acquired by the water in sweeping around curves, and by the eddies which form on the opposite side. The surface of the river is not therefore a plane, but a peculiarly complicated warped surface.”

Mounds Landing lay not far below the mouth of the Arkansas, and just below where the Mississippi River Commission had closed the Cypress Creek outlet.

THE WHITE RIVER is 720 miles long and the Arkansas 1,459 miles long; together they drain 189,000 square miles and flow into the Mississippi a few miles apart. By April the area between them was entirely submerged.

At their mouths the greatest pressure on the levees began. Even before the Good Friday rains, both the White and the Arkansas had burst through their levees and reached record levels. The rains loosed unimaginable power.

In Little Rock a Missouri Pacific Railroad bridge trembled as the current of the Arkansas tore at its pillars. To steady it engineers parked an engine and twenty-one coal cars on it. The trembling continued; the vibration ignited the coal. Just as the fire started, the bridge crumbled into the river. Great clouds of steam billowed forth. In the roar of the river itself the tremendous hissing was barely audible. No trace of the spans or the cars could be found later.

In the great Mississippi River flood of 1993, the upper Mississippi River at Keokuk, Iowa, carried 435,000 cubic feet of water a second, a record; the old record, set in 1851, was 365,000 second-feet. Downriver from there in 1993, at the mouth of the Missouri, the Mississippi at St. Louis carried 1,030,000 second-feet. (The record of 1,300,000 second-feet was set in 1844.)

The channel of the lower Mississippi, below Cairo, Illinois, can generally accommodate 1,000,000 second-feet without difficulty. In 1927 the Mississippi River at Cairo was carrying at least 1,750,000 second-feet, and possibly 2,000,000. The Arkansas was carrying 813,000 second-feet, almost one-third more than it had ever carried before, while the White approached 400,000 second-feet. James Kemper personally inspected the area. So did engineers of the American Railway Engineering Association. They independently estimated that the Mississippi at the mouth of the Arkansas was carrying in excess of 3,000,000 cubic feet per second.

From the mouth of the Arkansas south, on both banks of the river, the levees trembled. In the worst sections, behind the levees dozens of sand boils spouted water, the weight of the river pushing through every weakness.

Everywhere men were racing to top the levee, racing both the rising river and their counterparts on the opposite shore. Bags averaged 6 inches in thickness. Men had raised the levee at least three bags high for much of the levee line above Greenville, and the Mississippi River lay washing at the top. That meant the river was 1.5 feet higher than the levee.

Levee engineers, for the first time on a large scale, tried a desperate measure. They pumped billions of gallons from the river onto the land, hoping the additional weight of water would stabilize and buttress the levee, preventing sand boils and sloughing.

In the areas it was tried, the new technique did help, but violent storms continued. On April 19, tornadoes tore across four states to the west, killing 31 people. On April 20 those same storms struck the lower Mississippi region. Percy’s friend Henry Ball recorded in his diary: “Stormy tonight with a gale blowing and heavy rain threatened every moment. Hard on levees. Heaven spare us!”

The gale was worse than the rain. Great waves pounded the sandbags and the levee. Men tried to protect it with log booms, but the waves snapped the chains connecting the logs and tossed them into the air; individual logs repeatedly crashed down onto the levee like pile drivers.

The cold rain continued. Water poured out of the Arkansas, poured out of the White, both rivers still rising; upriver, above Memphis, the Mississippi itself was still rising.

Walter Sillers was in charge of one section of the levee. His daughter accompanied him on an inspection tour of the part near their home. It terrified her: “I’d never seen anything like that before and I’ve been in a good number of high waters…. There were streams…of water running through there all up and down the side of that levee…. In front of our house, you can see right across there at the levee, the water was up at the top, running over the top. And the boats would go by and you could see the men’s knees as they were standing in the boat, from across the levee…. They had sacks up there but the water was just running, trickling through them. My mother said she was standing there and saw the reeds moving on the levee, so she went up to see what it was, and it was the water coming over the levee.”

The next day Sillers went down to inspect the levee at Mounds Landing. His daughter asked him, “Is it as bad as Lake Vermilion? It just couldn’t be, could it?”

“It’s worse,” he said.

“Well I don’t see how it can last.”

“It will not. It’s not going to last.”

The Jackson Clarion-Ledger reported: “Forces were redoubled on levees north of Greenville late today, as the Mississippi River, lashed into fury by the strong winds, battered at the great dykes…. Five thousand men labored in a driving rain to place sandbags on the top in the places where the water is almost even with the top. ‘No material damage has been done,’ Major A. J. Paxton, commanding the national guard troops in Greenville, declared. ‘We expect to hold the levee.’”

In fact, upriver from Mounds Landing, water was running over the top of the levee. The sandbags seemed to be holding. But two hours later, for a two-mile stretch the river was pouring over the tops of the sandbags.

That night Seguine Allen told the planter B. B. Payne, “You get all your labor and bring ’em to the levee and work on the sacks.”

Payne snorted, “That’s not going to do you a bit of good for the simple reason the river’s rising an inch an hour. All the labor in Washington County won’t do you any good.”

Bill Jones and Moses Mason were piling sandbags near Mounds Landing. The levee, Jones recalled, “felt like jelly. The levee was just trembling.” When he looked, for a moment, into the dark water of the river, “The water was just boiling.”

“It was just boiling up,” Mason remembers. “The levee just started shaking. You could feel it shaking. You could watch the water—everything was wet, but it was like the water was raising dust.”

Earlier that day the gauge at Cairo had reached 56.4 feet, almost 2 feet higher than the record set a few weeks earlier. The reading did not reflect the record amounts of water downriver pouring into the Mississippi from the Arkansas and the White.

In Vicksburg, Major Lee noted that that night: “From dark until dawn came calls for help [from the entire levee line]. It rained heavily that night and at dawn we tried to get our big Navy seaplane started. It was waterlogged and it took us over an hour to get away.”

Florence Ogden remembered, “All night long we heard the tramp of gun boots through the house. The guards would come into the house to get coffee. It just simply poured down that night. You never heard such a rain in your life. And they began calling for labor, labor, labor, send us labor, early in the morning, before day.”

At Mounds Landing itself, 450 men in one camp were struggling to increase the height of the sandbag wall six more inches. The Mississippi was threatening to pour over the top. The men had no time to build a proper base. The waves pounded the levee and washed over them as they worked. They were freezing—the temperature was in the low forties. At a site a mile north the situation seemed even more dangerous; several thousand more men were working there.

At 3:30 A.M., Lieutenant E. C. Sanders, in charge of the National Guard contingent at Mounds Landing, named Camp Rex, toured two and a half miles of levee. Frequently, he stepped into holes more than knee-deep, dug out by waves. In innumerable places water was seeping through the levee. At the northern edge of his sector a guard reported a sand boil. Sanders went to inspect it and discovered a geyser of water as thick as a man’s leg. He had no labor to spare and telephoned the next base up to take care of it; they did. He also noted a low spot in the levee caused by automobile traffic.

At 4:30 A.M. a new contingent of men arrived and Sanders put them to work setting up tents for even more men. At 6:30 word flashed down—a small break in the levee had appeared.

In a car he rushed to the scene. Water 12 inches deep and 24 inches wide was gushing through the low spot he had noted earlier.

He ran to awaken the labor, rushed another man to a nearby plantation “to arouse the labor” there, notified other camps on the levee. All had their own problems yet sent men. Within half an hour 1,500 men were working on the low spot. By then the flow of water had grown to the size of a roaring stream.

“The negroes ran to the break also,” Sanders wrote in his official report, “but as they arrived they soon became demoralized and ran away. It then became necessary for the civilian foreman and my detachment to force the negroes to the break at the point of guns.”

Hundreds of blacks, held by guns, began risking their lives for someone they had to see as a white fool. Under the guns they filled sandbags, threw them into the breach, passed them down the line to men standing in the breach. The water poured through in a growing torrent, washing the sandbags away as fast as they threw them in. Under their feet the levee quivered, shook. The breach was wider, deeper. The river was overflowing the levee along a front of several miles.

Charlie Williams arrived on the scene. He could do nothing. The river was still rising.

Mason remembers, “You could see the earth just start boiling. A man hollered, ‘Watch out! It’s gonna break!’ Everybody was hollering to get off. It was like turning a hydrant on—water was shooting forward.”

Men began running. Everyone was yelling at the top of his voice. At that moment Sanders was on the phone to his commander in Greenville, Major A. G. Paxton, saying, “We can’t hold it much longer—There she goes!”

Williams remembered that the levee “just seemed to move forward as if 100 feet of it was pushed out by the river.”

A man named John Hall was handling the phones in the levee board office, relaying information, dispatching materials. When word came to him about the break, he went in to see Seguine Allen, the chief engineer. “I took him the message and the old man just sat there and cried.”

Word spread instantly amid confusion. Many papers initially reported the break as having occurred at Stops Landing, a few miles north. Cora Campbell told historian Pete Daniel, “I was…right where it broke. My husband, he was working on that levee…. I run and run and run…. The bells was ringing and the whistles was blowing. Oh it was a terrible time. We made it to the levee.”

The levee was the only land. The rest would soon be water. At plantations all through the district bells rang, dogs barked, cows bellowed, people hurried about gathering necessities—most had long since built scaffolds in their houses and moved furniture onto it. In Greenville at 8 A.M., the fire whistle and every whistle at every mill began to blow, and every church bell rang. Immediately water pressure dropped to nothing as thousands of people tried to fill their bathtubs with a supply of drinking water.

At 12:30 P.M., Thursday, April 21, Lee wired General Edgar Jadwin, head of the Corps of Engineers, “Levee broke at ferry landing Mounds Mississippi eight A.M. Crevasse will overflow entire Mississippi Delta.”

Things would never be the same again.

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