Modern history


ANDREW ATKINSON Humphreys was born in 1810, the only child of a Philadelphia family of means and position. From boyhood he assumed that attention and prominence were his right. Often a disciplinary problem, he refused to return to one schoolmaster “who used the rod unmercifully,” so his parents changed his school, then changed it again, and again. When his father was away in Europe, his mother was unable to handle him and he “ran wild.” At sixteen years of age, the age at which Eads went his own way in St. Louis, Humphreys entered West Point. If taming him seemed an odd usage of the U.S. Military Academy, made possible only by his family’s connections, nonetheless he thrived.

The Army Corps of Engineers then ran West Point, and Humphreys enjoyed the intellectual challenges of engineering. In fact, he loved challenges and combat of all kinds, embraced contests, competed with vigor. Unlike Eads, whose inner convictions allowed him to stand alone against the world, Humphreys saw himself largely in the mirror of others’ eyes. He wanted to achieve singularity, to stand out, and, even more, to be recognized for these things; he was driven by his desire for glory, and glory is a reflection of the world’s view. His only problem at West Point was discipline, and demerits for infractions lowered his class rank, but he graduated thirteenth in a class of thirty-three.

Life after West Point was a disappointment. Not yet twenty-one years old upon graduation, he craved action. He found none in Army routine. Assigned to desolate Provincetown, Massachusetts, surrounded by giant sand dunes and facing the gray and wintry Atlantic, he found neither his intellect nor his courage engaged. He sought refuge by exploring scientific questions on his own, dismissing his routine duties as “a source of great discontent to me. I am constantly yearning to return to those contemplations which I hope will lead to some substantial good…. I had reached that point where everything was unsettled. I felt like one who from the ground has caught a glimpse of a beautiful sky and had felt a soft kissing wind…. My duty is constantly calling me away to pursuits which I feel are not of that importance…. It makes me look upon my labor as a dull, uninteresting task and I go about it with disgust.”

His frustrations would only increase. Sent to fight Seminole Indians in Florida in 1836, he became so ill that he had to resign from the Army. It was not a disgrace, but it rankled. He worked as an engineer, a field exploding with opportunity, but in 1839 he sought and received appointment as a first lieutenant in the Corps of Topographical Engineers, a then-separate military unit. It brought him new frustration. In his mid-thirties, an age at which most men who will achieve significant things have begun to emerge—by then Eads was both wealthy and known the length of the Mississippi River—Humphreys had done nothing.

The less he accomplished, the more the measures of rank and title mattered. Assigned to Washington, he devoted himself to personal advancement by cultivating politicians and maneuvering within the Army. First he blocked a rival from receiving a plum appointment by having him accused of conduct unbecoming an officer. Then Humphreys usurped the functions of his own superior, the prominent explorer J. W. Abert, who protested bitterly to the secretary of war that Humphreys’ action constituted a “serious irregularity…seriously injurious to the discipline and subordination of the Corps.” But Humphreys’ high-placed friends protected him from retribution. Senator John Crittenden of Kentucky may well have had Humphreys in mind when he castigated Washington-based Army engineers as “capitoline guards, half officer, half civilian, ‘sprinkled with the dandy,’ who were dancing attendance at the skirts of Congressmen,…never seen in the hour of danger, and found only where favors were to be had.”

Yet Humphreys truly had abilities and wanted to demonstrate them. In 1845 he maneuvered for detached duty as an aide to Professor A. D. Bache, an internationally renowned scientist who headed the U.S. Coastal Survey. Later he recalled: “I went to science because the ordinary military routine nearly killed me; I was so restless and impatient under it, that any pursuit that required thinking would have been an acceptable change.”

The Coastal Survey did far more than simply map the coastline. It and similar offices drew blueprints for the country’s development, especially for the construction of infrastructure—harbors, roads, canals, railroads, bridges. Finally, Humphreys had a position he could embrace with enthusiasm. For six years he did more than well, making in Bache a great and important friend.

But despite all his good work on the Coastal Survey, the world was threatening to pass him by. Even within the Army, Humphreys was being passed by. He had twice had the opportunity to fight a war, against the Seminoles and in Mexico, and while his fellow officers had tested their courage and tasted blood, he had, on the first occasion, returned home ill and, on the second, remained in Washington with Bache.

At forty he had brown hair that could appear golden in a certain light, and steadfast steely blue eyes. In photographs, his shoulders are broad, his mustache bristling, his hands large and thick-fingered. Nothing about him appears relaxed. He always seemed on the edge, always ready to explode. Charles A. Dana, later assistant secretary of war, described him as “very pleasant to deal with, unless you were fighting against him, and then he was not so pleasant.” Dana also called him “intolerant” and capable “of the most distinguished and brilliant profanity” in the Army.

Then, in 1850, Humphreys saw his main chance.

FOR DECADES the increasingly populated states of the Mississippi valley had been demanding that the national government address navigation and flood problems on the Mississippi River. Conventions in Cincinnati in 1842, in Memphis in 1844, in Chicago in 1847 (where 16,000 delegates overwhelmed a city of 10,000) had pressured Washington to act. At last, to keep the West, the upper Mississippi valley, from forging a political alliance with the South and spurred on by a flood in 1849 that inundated much of the lower Mississippi valley—including New Orleans itself—eastern politicians acceded to the demands, and Congress ceded millions of acres of federally owned “swamp and overflowed lands” to the states.* The states were to sell this land and spend the proceeds on flood control. And floods were not the only river problem. At the mouth of the Mississippi enormous sandbars often blocked access to the Gulf of Mexico. Sometimes fifty ships waited there for the sandbars to dissipate enough to allow passage into or out of the river; the largest ships sometimes waited as long as three months. The sandbars were choking the trade of the entire valley. Solutions were not obvious. Controversy existed over every aspect of river engineering, including both how best to control floods and open the river’s mouth.

So on September 30, 1850, Congress authorized a survey of the lower Mississippi, from Cairo, Illinois, to the Gulf of Mexico. The aim was to discover the laws governing the Mississippi River and to determine how to tame it.

The survey would be a monumental work, by far the most important of its kind ever conducted anywhere in the world, and it would break new ground in science. If successful, it would also frame the development of virtually the entire Mississippi valley, from Bismarck, North Dakota, to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as well as the lush alluvial lands, the most fertile lands in the world, from Cairo to the Gulf.

Humphreys desperately wanted to perform the Mississippi survey. With considerable understatement he wrote when officially requesting the assignment, “It is a work which I should desire, as it is one of much difficulty and of great importance.” Unofficially, he beseeched the congressmen he had earlier cultivated, used old family political connections, employed every professional allegiance. Bache personally lobbied the cabinet for him and wrote Secretary of War Charles Conrad: “To sound knowledge [Humphreys] joins a practical turn…. He is cautious in obtaining data, energetic in using them when obtained, is not likely on the one hand to run into unnecessary refinement or on the other to mistake rough guesses for accurate conclusions.” Conrad recalled Humphreys from detached duty and appointed him to the job.

Ecstatic, home now in the Army, Humphreys had found “the work of my life.”

BUT HUMPHREYS was about to become a pawn in a war between military and civilian engineers that would continue for a century. This conflict threatened both Humphreys personally and the Army Corps of Engineers itself, and it reflected the growing importance of a profession—the first of the technocratic disciplines—that would largely define the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Until the 1830s, West Point dominated American engineering. West Point offered the only academic training in the field in America, and Army engineers were a true elite. Only the top two cadets of each West Point class were allowed to enter the Corps of Engineers, while only the top eight cadets in each class could enter the separate Corps of Topographical Engineers. (Humphreys had fallen short of this mark but, after establishing himself as a civilian engineer, the corps commander personally selected him.)

But these few could hardly supply the nation’s needs. Engineers who left the Army were besieged by job offers, and a civilian profession was developing through apprentice programs, especially on the Erie Canal. In 1835, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute first granted a degree in engineering. By 1850 so did Michigan, Harvard, Yale, Union, and Dartmouth. Meanwhile, technical knowledge was advancing at an exponential rate, and civilian engineers began denigrating their military counterparts for their rigid and dated training.

Of all the civilian engineers in America, the most renowned was Charles Ellet, Jr. Ellet was exactly Humphreys’ age but entirely unlike him. Charming, athletic, brilliant, handsome, and arrogant, he would risk his own life simply to steal a scene. Ellet had, as a future time would say, charisma.

At seventeen, already an assistant canal engineer, Ellet had complained there were “not above 3 Engineers who can be called men of science in the United States.” So he taught himself French, saved his money, solicited the help of Lafayette and the American ambassador to France, and, while Humphreys attended West Point, was admitted to the best engineering school in the world, the École des Ponts et Chaussées in France. He returned in 1829 the only engineer in the United States with a European education, and promptly proposed bridges across the Potomac and across the Mississippi at St. Louis. Neither project went beyond talk, but he did bridge the Schuylkill River at Philadelphia, and followed that with a 1,010-foot-long suspension bridge, then the longest in the world, across the Ohio at Wheeling, West Virginia. (It would later collapse.) While this bridge was under construction, Ellet became the first to cross the gorge at Niagara Falls. Initially, he strung a wire cable, hung a basket from it, got in, and pulled himself across, remarking, “The wind was high and the weather cold, but yet the trip was a very interesting one to me—perched up as I was two hundred and forty feet above the Rapids.” Then he built a catwalk of planks without guardrails, and was the first to cross it too, driving a horse and carriage, standing up like a charioteer, speeding and swaying, and transforming himself into a legend.

In 1850 he had just finished both the Wheeling bridge and a survey of the Ohio River. He had developed theories about the Ohio he believed applicable to the Mississippi as well, and now sought the assignment already given to Humphreys.

The entire civilian engineering profession and its supporters in Congress demanded that the government give Ellet the job. The War Department and its allies lobbied bitterly and intensely to allow Humphreys to proceed. In the end, President Millard Fillmore directed that the $50,000 appropriation for the survey be divided between the two men. Each was to operate independently and produce a separate report.

Humphreys, representing not only himself but the entire Army, was in a competition. He was determined to win it.

“AT THE MOUTH of the Missouri, the Mississippi river first assumes its characteristic appearance of a turbid and boiling torrent, immense in volume and force…[which] impart to it something of sublimity,” wrote Humphreys, describing the survey’s goals, “yet the Mississippi is really governed by laws, the development of which was the first object of these investigations.”

The force did seem sublime in its immensity. Mass and velocity determine the force of any moving object. Volume determines a river’s mass. Slope, chiefly, determines its velocity. The steeper the slope to the sea, the steeper the fall and, hence, the greater the speed, or the velocity, of the current. The Corps of Engineers defines the starting point of the lower Mississippi River as the confluence of the Mississippi and the Ohio at Cairo, Illinois, 290 feet above sea level. The river in its natural state flowed 1,100 miles from there to the Gulf (its many curves lengthen the straight-line distance of 600 miles), giving it an average slope equal to 290 feet, the height, divided by 1,100 miles, the distance, or slightly over 3 inches to the mile. In long stretches the slope drops below 2 inches a mile. The Mississippi, and even more so the lower Mississippi, runs through some of the flattest land in the world. This gentle slope that moves the tremendous volume of water in the Mississippi to the sea suggests that the river moves sleepily through the belly of America. The suggestion is false.

The river’s characteristics represent an extraordinarily dynamic combination of turbulent effects, and river hydraulics quickly go beyond the merely complex. Indeed, studies of flowing water in the 1970s helped launch the new science of chaos, and James Gleick in his book on the subject quotes physicist Werner Heisenberg, who stated that on his deathbed he would like to ask God two questions: why relativity? and, why turbulence? Heisenberg suggested, “I really think God may have an answer to the first question.”

Anything from a temperature change to the wind to the roughness of the bottom radically alters a river’s internal dynamics. Surface velocities, bottom velocities, midstream and mid-depth velocities—all are affected by friction or the lack of friction with the air, the riverbank, the riverbed.

But the complexity of the Mississippi exceeds that of nearly all other rivers. Not only is it acted upon; it acts. It generates its own internal forces through its size, its sediment load, its depth, variations in its bottom, its ability to cave in the riverbank and slide sideways for miles, and even tidal influences, which affect it as far north as Baton Rouge. Engineering theories and techniques that apply to other rivers, even such major rivers as the Po, the Rhine, the Missouri, and even the upper Mississippi, simply do not work on the lower Mississippi, which normally runs far deeper and carries far more water. (In 1993, for example, the floodwaters that overflowed, with devastating result, the Missouri and upper Mississippi put no strain on the levees along the lower Mississippi.)

The Mississippi never lies at rest. It roils. It follows no set course. Its waters and currents are not uniform. Rather, it moves south in layers and whorls, like an uncoiling rope made up of a multitude of discrete fibers, each one following an independent and unpredictable path, each one separately and together capable of snapping like a whip. It never has one current, one velocity. Even when the river is not in flood, one can sometimes see the surface in one spot one to two feet higher than the surface close by, while the water swirls about, as if trying to devour itself. Eddies of gigantic dimensions can develop, sometimes accompanied by great spiraling holes in the water. Humphreys observed an eddy “running upstream at seven miles an hour and extending half across the river, whirling and foaming like a whirlpool.”

The river’s sinuosity itself generates enormous force. The Mississippi snakes seaward in a continual series of S curves that sometimes approach 180 degrees. The collision of river and earth at these bends creates tremendous turbulence: currents can drive straight down to the bottom of the river, sucking at whatever lies on the surface, scouring out holes often several hundred feet deep. Thus the Mississippi is a series of deep pools and shallow “crossings,” and the movement of water from depth to shallows adds still further force and complexity.

High water—a flood—makes river dynamics more volatile and enigmatic. In some parts of the river high water raises the surface seventy feet above low water. By raising the surface in relation to sea level, high water can thus increase the slope of the river by 25 percent or more. And velocity depends upon the slope. The river’s main current can reach nine miles an hour, while some currents can move much faster. During floods, measurable effects of an approaching flood crest can roar downriver at almost eighteen miles an hour.

And, for the last 450 miles of the Mississippi’s flow, the riverbed lies below sea level—15 feet below sea level at Vicksburg, well over 170 feet below sea level at New Orleans. For this 450 miles the water on the bottom has no reason to flow at all. But the water above it does. This creates a tumbling effect as water spills over itself, like an enormous ever-breaking internal wave. This tumbling effect can attack a riverbank—or a levee—like a buzz saw.

But the final complexity of the lower Mississippi is its sediment load, and understanding it was the key to understanding how to control the river.

Every day the river deposits between several hundred thousand and several million tons of earth in the Gulf of Mexico. At least some geologists put this figure even higher historically, at an average of more than 2 million tons a day.

By geological standards the lower Mississippi is a young, even infant stream, and runs through what is known as the Mississippi Embayment, a declivity covering approximately 35,000 square miles that begins 30 miles north of Cairo to Cape Girardeau, Missouri—geologically the true head of the Mississippi Delta—and extends to the Gulf of Mexico. At one time the Gulf itself reached to Cape Girardeau, then sea level fell.

Over thousands of years the river and its tributaries have poured 1,280 cubic miles of sediment—the equivalent of 1,280 separate mountains of earth, each one a mile high, a mile wide, and a mile long—into this declivity. Aided by the falling sea level, this sediment filled in the embayment and made land. Throughout the Mississippi’s alluvial valley, this sedimentary deposit has an average thickness of 132 feet; in some areas the deposits reach down 350 feet. Its weight is great enough that some geologists believe its downward pressure pushed up surrounding land, creating hills.

There were two basic, and to some extent contradictory, approaches that engineers historically embraced to protect this valley from floods: levees or outlets. Levees confined the Mississippi; outlets released it. Levees represented man’s power over nature; outlets represented man’s accommodation to nature. Which approach was the right one depended largely upon the answer to the question of what caused the river to carry more sediment, and what caused it to deposit sediment it already carried.

A LEVEE IS NOTHING MORE than earth mounded into a hill to contain water. Babylonians leveed the Euphrates. Rome leveed the Tiber and Po. By 1700 the Danube, the Rhône, the Rhine, the Volga, and other European rivers had levees, while Holland made the most extensive use of them (a levee and a dike are the same thing).

The Mississippi creates natural levees. When the river overflows, it deposits the heaviest sediment first, thus building up the land closest to the river. Generally, these natural levees extend for half a mile to a mile from the riverbank. “Bottomlands” farther away are lower and often marsh and swamp. New Orleans was founded on a natural levee, and its French Quarter is the highest ground in the region. By 1726, artificial levees with a height ranging from four to six feet also protected the city.

But levee building never stopped; levees were extended above and below New Orleans, then to the opposite bank. Those levees increased the pressure on old ones. The reason is simple: when the river was leveed on only one bank, in flood it simply overflowed the opposite bank. But with both banks leveed, the river could not spread out. Therefore, it rose up. Thus the levees, by holding the water in, forced the river higher. In turn, men tried to contain the flood height by building levees still higher. By 1812, levees in Louisiana began just below New Orleans and extended 155 miles north on the east bank of the river and 180 miles on the west bank. By 1858, levees on the two sides of the river totaled well over 1,000 miles.

In some stretches the levee rose to a height of 38 feet. These heights changed the equations of force along the river. Without levees, even a great flood—a great “high water”—meant only a gradual and gentle rising and spreading of water. But if a levee towering as high as a four-story building gave way, the river could explode upon the land with the power and suddenness of a dam bursting.

From the first, some critics argued that building the levees higher simply increased the dangers should a crevasse, or levee break, occur, and insisted that a means to lower flood heights be used in conjunction with levees. There were three main ways to lower the flood level. One was to build reservoirs on tributaries to withhold water from the Mississippi during floods. A second was to cut a line through the sharp S curves of the river; these cutoffs would move the water in a shorter and straighter line, increase its slope, and hence its speed (a book arguing for cutoffs would later be titled Speeding Floods to the Sea). A third way was to let water escape from the river through outlets. All three proposals had detractors, but outlets had the most—because it also had the most advocates.

As early as 1816, proposals were made to create artificial outlets, also called spillways or waste weirs, on the east bank of the Mississippi near New Orleans. One proposal called for a spillway above the city to drain Mississippi floodwater into Lake Pontchartrain, while another called for one below the city to drain into Lake Borgne. Both “lakes” are really more akin to saltwater bays and empty into the sea, and at the proposed sites the river flowed within five miles of them.

Simple logic drove the argument for outlets. Removing water from the river would lower flood levels, proponents of the scheme insisted, just as removing the plug in a bathtub lowered the water level there.

Critics of outlets who instead insisted upon levees, and levees only—it soon became known as the “levees-only” position—generally subscribed to an engineering theory developed from observations of the Po made by the seventeenth-century Italian engineer Guglielmini. Guglielmini argued that alluvial rivers, like the Mississippi, always carried the maximum amount of sediment possible, and that the faster the current, the more sediment the river had to carry. His hypothesis further argued that increasing the volume of water in the river also increased the velocity of the current, thus compelling the river to pick up more sediment. The main source for this sediment had to be the riverbed, so confining the river and increasing the current forced a scouring and deepening of the bottom. In effect, adherents of this theory argued, levees would transform the river into a machine that dredges its own bottom, thus allowing it to carry more water without overflowing.

Levees-only advocates argued that outlets, by allowing water to escape from the river, were counterproductive since they removed volume from the river, lowered the slope, and caused the current velocity to slow. This not only prevented the current from scouring out the bottom, but actually caused the deposit of sediment—thus raising the bottom and in turn the flood height. According to the levees-only theory, using outlets was like taking water out of a bathtub, then dumping so much gravel into it that the tub ended up holding less water. The levees-only hypothesis argued that outlets, rather than lowering the flood height, would actually raise it.

In an 1850 report to the Louisiana legislature, a professor of engineering endorsed the hypothesis: “Concentration of force increases the abrasive power…. Levees confine and concentrate the waters, concentrate and increase the force, therefore increase the abrasion, therefore the capacity of the channel…. Outlets diffuse the waters, reduce the abrasive force, and therefore reduce the capacity of the channel.”

Strict adherents of Guglielmini’s theory even called for closing natural outlets to force even more water into the main channel of the Mississippi, claiming the increase in volume would also increase its scouring effect.

In fact there was no doubt that levees did increase current velocity, which in turn did increase the scouring out of the channel. But the question was, how much? Floods might carry twenty times the low-water volume of the river. Could levees increase scour enough to accommodate that much water?

As Humphreys observed soon after arriving in New Orleans: “The public mind here is bewildered by the contradictory opinions given by the Engineers in the state as to what ought and ought not to be done. One says cut-offs is the only means of protecting the country. Another says cut-offs will ruin the country, make levees only…. A third says make outlets. Each one quotes opinions of foreign engineers and partial facts and pretended facts respecting the Mississippi to support his views. No wonder the legislature does nothing.” Ellet and Humphreys—rather, Ellet or Humphreys, whoever won their contest—would decide the issue.

AT THE TIME, few would have bet against Charles Ellet in any competition. But the survey was not the work of his life, nor did he intend to spend long at it. He had already developed his ideas studying the Ohio, and, even with his wife and children beside him, he disliked New Orleans. In March 1851, not long before he returned north to write his report, he told his mother: “We have been to see Jenny Lind [who was managed by P. T. Barnum] and I must admit we paid a full price for that music…. I have pretty near come to the conclusion that instead of controlling these floods I would do service to the work to sweep away…New Orleans with all its boardinghouses, grog shops, and music to boot.”

Humphreys had arrived in Louisiana at the same time as Ellet. He came alone, without his family. He never saw Jenny Lind. He worked. While Ellet was preparing to leave, Humphreys was writing a colleague: “I cannot understand how any man can be willing to assume charge of a work without making it his business to know everything about it from A to Izzard…. Having got to work I am ready to go into it up to the armpits.”

The next few months would be the truest of Humphreys’ life. He proceeded deliberately, exploring every issue in exquisite detail, compiling mountains of data, rejecting anything that threatened the integrity of his findings. He protected the survey’s integrity at all times, for example resisting pressure to hire one assistant who was “a most active partisan of levees only, to the exclusion of outlets, and his mind is biased. He could not perceive the force of any factor or argument on the other side.”

For the moment, Humphreys believed truth would make his reputation. He asked himself such questions as “What is the reason that the Po—and the Mississippi—do not carry gravel to their mouths when their velocities in floods are more than sufficient, according to the books? Answer? Make a profile of the bottom and see.” He literally chewed on the problem, tasting mud dredged from the bottom, 150 feet deep, as if it had some mystery to impart, noting, “The clay itself has a somewhat gritty feel between the teeth and a peculiar taste.”

He also chose two outstanding deputies: Caleb Forshey and Lieutenant G. K. Warren. Forshey was a professor of mathematics and engineering and a leading expert on the river; Warren, later a prominent explorer, had just graduated from West Point and had declined an offer of a mathematics professorship there to work on the survey. Humphreys gave each of them detailed instructions; the three each took charge of a work party and proceeded independently, hundreds of miles apart, recording rigorous measurements and observations.

It was hard work, physical work, being constantly out on the river. Humphreys was precise, dressed always in full uniform. On the water there was no relief from the sun. Spring was hot. Summer was hotter. The heat drove him nearly mad. But the work exhilarated! How it must have felt to stand on the bank of the Mississippi in the middle of the nineteenth century, to push one’s way through a wild and thick jungle of cane, vines, and willow, to hear the animal sounds mixed with the rush of water, to see water a mile wide, boiling, dark, and angry, two hundred and more feet deep, to watch it thunder and roll south at a speed so great a boat with six men at oars could not move upstream. How godlike it must have felt to a man who intended to find a way to command it.

Humphreys carefully tested generally accepted theories and found them all wanting. The levees-only theory seemed particularly flawed, and these flaws suggested that outlets would best control floods. He discovered that, for example, contrary to the predictions of Guglielmini and the levees-only theory, the Mississippi did not always carry its maximum sediment load, and water moving at a higher velocity did not necessarily carry more sediment, per unit of volume, than water moving at a slower velocity. He reported, “The opinions of Frisi, Gennete, Guglielmini, and various others adverse to outlets with the facts respecting the Rhine and the Italian rivers, the Po, the Rhône, etc. cited by them…do not apply to the condition of things here.”

Increasingly confident that his investigations might leave a great mark on science, he wrote in March 1851, “Facts of great interest are developing constantly—new facts too that bear upon hydraulic questions of the first importance.” In April he added, “Never was there a finer field for a man!” In May he remained excited: “You see how I shall have to upset pretended facts.”

But he was also becoming erratic. He worked intensively, then more than intensively. The work obsessed him, unbalanced him, pushed him to the margin. He stopped writing his wife because it distracted him. He tried to buy a steamboat for the sole purpose of conducting a few soundings. He tongue-lashed his assistants for speaking with outsiders, even though they had simply been trying to glean information about Ellet. He himself talked to reporters. He basked in their attention, basked in their portrayal of him as a major figure so much that his superiors reprimanded him for talking so much to the press.

The reprimand was a sudden and disconcerting blow. Then came a far heavier one. Deep into summer, rumors filtered into Louisiana that Ellet had nearly finished his report. Soon after, Humphreys collapsed and returned to Philadelphia for an extended recuperation.

It seems to have been a nervous breakdown. The attending physician diagnosed “a lesion of Enervation of the whole system, produced by excessive mental exertion and intense application to business.”

In October 1851, Humphreys still lay in bed. And Ellet officially submitted his report.

Time would prove it an extraordinary document, lacking in hard data but brilliant and intuitive. Ellet began by noting that if floods were controlled, then “the lands which are now annually overflowed…would possess a value that it might seem extravagant to state; while the annual loss and distress of the present population caused by the inundations of the river can scarcely find a parallel, excepting in the effects of national hostilities.” He also warned that “future floods throughout the length and breadth of the delta, and along the great streams tributary to the Mississippi, are destined to rise higher and higher, as society spreads over the upper states, as population adjacent to the river increases, and the inundated low lands appreciate in value.”

Then he discussed river engineering, seizing the scientific glory Humphreys had foreseen for himself by showing that the theories of the famous Europeans “fail to give results in close agreement with recognized facts. It has therefore been deemed advisable, indeed necessary, to derive new and better formulae from a wider range of experiments.”

He dismissed the levees-only theory as “a delusive hope, and most dangerous to indulge, because it encourages a false security.” Indeed, he blamed levees for exacerbating the problem: “The water is supplied by nature, but its height is increased by man. This cause is the extension of the levees [his italics].”

Finally, he proposed a comprehensive approach to control floods, including improving levees, enlarging natural outlets, and adding artificial outlets and reservoirs.

Humphreys had expected his own report to set policy toward the Mississippi River forever. Instead, he lay in bed impotent. He had no response to Ellet. Indeed, Humphrey’s superior, Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Long, could only write, “The continued illness of [Captain Humphreys] renders him unfit for the laborious task of collating and reporting on the proceedings.”

The Army’s office of the Mississippi survey closed. Logs, instruments, and data were shipped to Louisville to be stored and gather dust.

Yet Humphreys swore he would complete his work. He had become not merely Ellet’s rival now, but his enemy.

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