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A Cruise in the Woods

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Every war seems to have its General Patton, an officer who, faced with impossible odds, refuses to give up. In the Civil War, that officer would have to be Commodore David Porter, in charge of the Union Naval forces on the Mississippi River.

By the summer of 1863, as General Grant's troops reached Vicksburg in an attempt to regain control of the Mississippi from the Confederacy, Commodore Porter was already legendary as the man who could take his gunboats into ditches, as they said, "where nothing larger than a frog or muskrat could hope to navigate."

Vicksburg's shoreline was protected by an impregnable battery of Confederate guns, and Grant's troops were stopped. However, Porter had noticed that the heavily wooded land back of Vicksburg was already full of creeks, bayous and swamps. A few more inches of water, Porter thought, and I can take a fleet of steamboats around Vicksburg and attack from the south, if I had axe men to clear the trees.

A normally level-headed, but now desperate General Grant gave the commodore the go-ahead. Porter's men cut a hole in a levee, flooding the back country, and a fleet of Union gunboats and troop carriers was soon steaming through the woods. The men with axes were kept busy clearing a path two steamboats wide and cutting overhead branches which tangled with the smokestacks.

Even a wood with trees too large for axes could not stop Porter. He simply went at a large tree with his lead steamboat. One of them had to give, and it turned out it was the tree. Several hits tore the roots out of the ground and bent the tree out of the way. Tree by tree, the Union fleet continued through the woods.

All of this activity did not go unnoticed by the Confederates, who drove the commodore's troops back on a couple of occasions, but not for long.

Vicksburg eventually fell, and with it, the fate of the Confederacy. Porter was proud of the fact that he had engaged in the only steamboat battle ever fought in a forest, but he never realized that he had revolutionized warfare by, essentially, inventing the tank.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by the Scott County Regional Authority, with additional funding from the Illinois Arts Council and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.