Barry O'Brien joins an American Duchess for a trip back in time along the mighty Mississippi.
Driving through the 1800-acre Vicksburg National military park, the site of the second most important battle of the American Civil War of 1861 to 1865, we pass a row of small cannons. Our guide, Miss Myra says, "Those little cannons were nicknamed Napoleons. Do you know why?" The obvious answer was tendered, "Because they are small?" "No," said Miss Myra, "Because if you stand in front of them you'll be blown apart," she laughed. "That's a Confederate joke." We were on a Mississippi River cruise from New Orleans to Memphis on the American Duchess riverboat. It was one moment of levity in an afternoon of sad stories of the Union Yankees v Confederate Johnny Rebs, but this was no baseball game. In the Vicksburg Civil War battles, Union casualties were 4835; Confederate were 32,697 (29,495 surrendered).
For every soldier killed in battle, it is thought two died of disease such as yellow fever. Brother fought brother, neighbour fought neighbour, fighting for different principles. At night, Union and Confederate soldiers would banter back and forth across the trenches, causing much merriment in the depressing environment, then at first light, tried to kill each other.
The bloodied hills and trenches that took so many lives are still clearly visible. Rows of cannons point at marked sites to signify where the enemy was located.
Meanwhile, deep South city Natchez was a major player in the insidious slave trade that made multi-millions for cotton plantation barons and caused lives of misery for the African-Americans treated as assets.
We visited Forks-of-the-Road, the centre of slave trade misery where the trafficking in human flesh, described as "goods and chattels", was conducted. A small marker of ankle chains set in concrete marks the spot. Slaves on offer were often dressed immaculately in calico dresses and ribbons, the males in suits and top hats, in the hope of bringing a higher price.
On board, a Mark Twain impersonator gave a very good telling of "his" life. The famous author himself once said, "The Mississippi River is too thick to drink and too thin to plough." When we were there the river was at its highest peak since the 1927 floods and rising. It was very brown and muddy as it carried the alluvial soil picked up along the way. Before the levees were built, the soil would disperse into Delta farmlands — New Orleans was built on mud from the river. Now much of the soil washes out to sea.
With its source in Lake Itaska in North Minnesota and flowing at 0.17 cubic metres per second at the source, it expands over the 4000km journey to 17,000 cubic metres per second at New Orleans. Broken down into two
Native American words, Mississippi means big water. Spaniard Hernando de Soto left a trail of dead indigenous people on the way to "discovering" the Mississippi that the locals had known about for 8000 years. An evil man, de Soto befriended the local tribes to get what he could from them, then slaughtered them.
After traversing the deep channel from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, we passed very little river traffic. There were no pleasure craft or fishers for the entire journey although the river is loaded with catfish and other species. Our informative Riverlorian, Bobby Durham, who also excelled on the banjo, explained that the river was treacherous, with whirlpools, eddies, currents, and submerged logs. "It would be almost suicidal to venture out into that water, although I've seen kayakers doing it alone for the whole length of the river." We'd had two previous cruises in the south, from Memphis to Nashville on the now defunct Mississippi Queen, and Memphis to Cincinnati on the larger and more luxurious American Queen.
You don't do a Mississippi cruise for the scenery — there is nothing to see on the wide river but (mostly cottonwood) trees. On our previous two cruises the entertainment had been spectacular with visiting groups and comedians getting on and off, complementing the boat's entertainers. It was one of the reasons we chose to cruise with the company again. We anticipated another musical feast of perhaps Dixieland, bluegrass, cajun, blues, maybe country, but for the first few days all we heard in the lounge was modern jazz — self indulgent modern jazz.
After three days a woman passed me, shaking her head and saying to no one in particular, "They haven't played one song I know." I recognised the Hank Williams country music song Jambalaya being played on the saxophone. It was terrible.
However, the evening stage performances were full of life and energy with great vocalists led by cruise director Max Demers — and songs we knew. A 50s and 60s night had the dance floor jam-packed — as you would expect from a mostly over-60s crowd.
The deep southern accent is sometimes as hard to understand as our antipodean voices must be to a southerner. One morning, looking for a saucer for my coffee cup, I inquired of the woman looking after the area, "No saucers this morning?" She replied, "Thank you, I made it myself."
Some interesting terms have arisen from the early steamboat days. When soot built up in smoke stacks, they had to be hosed out. If not, you could "blow your stack". When pressure built up in steam engines a lever had to be released to "let off steam". There were 18 states of America when a second deck was first added to a steamboat for passengers. Each room was named after a state, hence "stateroom".
On early steamboats, cattle were transported on the bottom deck, cotton on the second deck and passengers on the top deck, near the stacks that had flutes on top with fingers to disperse any burning material, so the top deck was "high faluting". Dry cattle manure that poorer operators used to burn in the engines was known as "Proud Mary".
We chose an upstream voyage, so we could have a Saturday and Sunday in New Orleans. One night's hotel accommodation is included in the fare, but we found it cheaper to book the second night independently.
The American Duchess is an elegantly decorated, converted casino boat and holds 166 passengers but there were only 93 on board for our cruise, of which 20 were Australians and New Zealanders.
The grand paddle turning gently at the back is purely for show, with the ship running on a diesel- powered engine.
But the rich and bloodied history on the hillsides around the river is very real.