The Mississippi River is powerful. I’ve seen it. I grew up in the northern tip of the river’s delta and now live near one of its major tributaries. John M. Barry’s history of the 1927 flood of the Mississippi, Rising Tide, is only partly about the power of the river. It is more about the power of men, particularly the political power of the men who have tried to exert control over the river.
The first political battle related to the river took place in the 19th Century. It was a conflict between the nation’s military engineering establishment and their increasingly influential civilian counterparts over who would control Mississippi River policy. The principal actors and figureheads for the two sides were Andrew A. Humphreys, chief of the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, and James B. Eads, St. Louis-based civil engineer. The Corp largely won this battle, maintaining a controlling voice in river policy, but the resulting agency, the Mississippi River Commission, adopted a theory of practice that neither Humphreys or Eads supported. It would lead to floods on the river becoming increasingly bad.
That conflict doesn’t completely disappear, but it is overtaken by the greater flow of money, politics, society, and race, mostly centered in New Orleans, Mississippi’s Yazoo Valley, and Washington, DC. It is hard to give each player his due in a brief review of Barry’s book. Barry focuses on Leroy Percy, who had great influence on river policy before, during and after the flood. He was a planter in the Mississippi-Yazoo Delta and, briefly, a U.S. Senator from Mississippi. He was also a relative of Walker Percy, one of my favorite authors.
The flood made political careers and had lasting effects. President Calvin Coolidge appointed his Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover, to lead relief efforts after the flood. The publicity and public goodwill that accrued to Hoover during this period helped to usher him into the White House as Coolidge’s successor. Hoover’s lack of follow-through on promises to black leaders created a crack between in the relationship between African-American’s and the Republican Party that led to a serious split.
Huey P. Long also owed some of his success to the flood and its aftermath. New Orleans business leaders promised to provide relief to neighbors who would be flooded by the dynamiting of levees to protect the city. Afterward, these men did everything they could to minimize their liability and did not even pay one-tenth of the cost of damages caused by the flooding. Long rode a wave of resentment against New Orleans aristocrats into the Louisiana governor’s office. Once there, he used his position to strip the New Orleans elite of as much power as he could. As the city elites became more insular and focused on protecting what they had, rather than growing their businesses and community, New Orleans lost its position as the leading city of the South as other more welcoming cities grew.
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