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I have a friend who has been given an assignment to write a paper arguing persuasively which river in the world is the "largest". Obviously, some people argue it is the Nile and some, the Amazon (most argue the Nile). However, the professor specified that cultural impact and rhetoric should be used as opposed to actual facts (or in addition to actual facts).
Apparently, this teacher is pretty slick and tricky and seems to enjoy the smart-aleck kinds of answers to things, because when I said, "you see that if I got an assignment like that, I'd write something like that the Mississippi is the biggest".
She got really excited about the idea and ran with it asking me why I would say that and what kinds of arguments would I make. I talked about the "breadbasket" of the country getting its water from it and how the US produces a HUGE amount of the world's grain stores, how it drains 31 of the 50 states and how the French explores the Missippi River Valley quite a bit BECAUSE the river was there. It is also an extremely important fly-way for North American migrating birds.
She said, "Okay, what about history?"
I pointed out Chicago and how it probably wouldn't be the city it is today if not for the canal and locks that connect it to the Illinois river and the Mississippi beyond.
I also know the Miss. was a major dividing line between Illinois, a free state and Missouri a slave state - but I couldn't really say the river played a role in the outcome of the civil war.
So, what role did the river play in the outcome of the Civil War AND What role did it play in expansion into the west (or moderation and delay of expansion into the west?)
Don't forget the Jay treaty; differences in the relative value of trade and negotiation during the Articles of Confederation were one of the proximate causes of the US Constitutional Convention. One could make the case that these different perspectives on the role of the Mississippi were one of the causes of the Civil War. Modern Americans tend to forget just how pervasive and long lived the North South divide was in the formation of the Republic.
I'll address the question's significance at two levels, the actual (North-South) Civil War, and the one that the Mississippi might have engendered between East and West,
Running north to south, the Mississippi was the vehicle by which the North was slowly, but surely winning the Civil War by 1863. The North didn't get an advantage over the South in Virginia until late 1864, but the North was already winning in the west by capturing Memphis, Tennesse and New Orleans, LA. in 1862. The capture of Vicksburg, Mississippi in July 1863 gave the Union control of the whole Missississippi River, and separated the three states west of the the river, Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas, plus Tennessee and Mississippi from the remaining six states of the Conferderacy. Sherman' "March to the Sea" (from Atlanta to Savannah, GA) chopped off the states of Georgia, Alabama, and Florida from Virginia and the Carolinas, by the end of 1864. Hence the South had no choice but to surrender early in 1865.
The Mississippi could also have subdivided the U.S. East and West, possibly causing a Civil War that way. Some 60% of the U.S population today lives East of the river, and the remaining 40% to the West. With the notable exception of Texas, and the Pacific states, (Silicon Valley, CA, Boeing and Microsoft in Seattle, Washington), most of the industry is in the East, while the West is largely agricultural.
As President, Thomas Jefferson had the fear that his Louisiana Purchase states, and the ones just east of the Mississippi would form a separate country from the 13 colonies east of the Appalachians (now 16, counting the split up states of Vermont, Maine, and West Virginia, 17 if you include Florida.) In his time the West did not include Texas, California, the states between them, or the Pacific northwest.