The Great South - Down the Mississippi

Napoleon, Arkansas

Nearly two hundred miles below Memphis, at the mouth of the Arkansas River, and on lowlands which, when I saw them, were drowned and buried under the combined flood of the two great rivers, stands Napoleon, once a flourishing town, but now gradually slipping away into the stream. The only other towns of importance on the Arkansas bank of the river are Sterling, which lies at the mouth of the St. Francis River, and Helena, a rather thriving and vigorous community of five thousand inhabitants. The White river, which was the scene of much fighting during the war comes down from the wilds a little above Napoleon, and pours its floods into the Arkansas.

Napoleon did not have a good reputation in past days. Various anecdotes, not entirely devoid of grim humor, were told of it, as illustrating the manners of the town. It was in Napoleon that the man showed a casual passer by on a steamboat a pocket full of ears, and with a grin announced that he was among the boys while they were “having a frolic last night.” Murder, daily, was the rule, and not the exception. Brawls always ended in burials. Even now-a-days there are occasional scenes which end in furious free fights. A pilot on one of the up river steamers one day went into a saloon where a group were playing cards. The bystanders laughed at the loser, and the pilot laughed too. Being a stranger, his laughter was resented by the loser, who pulled a bowie knife from his boot, and made a desperate lunge at him. The pilot returned to his boat.

But the river is yearly more and more closely embracing the doomed town, and the roughs, like the rats, will leave before the final engulfing comes.

In war time, Napoleon was an important rendezvous for gunboats and other warlike craft; the United States Marine Hospital there had been seized by the Confederates when Arkansas seceded, but was recovered as soon as the Mississippi was partially opened.

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Last updated 10/08/2009.