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The Race for Cairo before the Civil War

Tim Sybrant
South Middle School, Arlington Heights

Southern Illinois has an area which is often referred to as "Egypt," because of the names given to towns in that area. One town is named Cairo, and during the early history of the state, when corn crops failed in the North and people were going hungry, men went to Southern Illinois to bring corn back, as in the biblical tale of Joseph's brothers.

In the years preceding the Civil War, Cairo was the gateway between the North and South. Located at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, Cairo was a natural trade center. The town sits upon the point of land in Illinois that is wedged between two slave states, Missouri and Kentucky. Waters from fourteen states reach the Mississippi and pass the city of Cairo: Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, Wyoming, Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana. The Ohio River flows past thirteen states. These twenty-five states joined by the river system made Cairo an important center for these states' economies.

The Southern states were very dependent on Cairo. The Mississippi River was their link to the people in the Northern states, who bought their crops of molasses, sugar, cotton, tobacco, grain, flour, and other crops. Wealthy Southern slaveholders could not maintain their rich' lifestyles without consumers in the Northern states. "King Cotton" lacked manufacturing plants to transform cotton into usable cotton products.

The Northern states needed Cairo as much as the Southern states. For the North, Cairo would become their merchant not only for their supplies, but for their trade as well. Cairo had no rival for a southern city until Chicago, and through Cairo corn, pork, beef, and dairy products were sent.

Even though the river brought much good fortune, it also brought its share of problems as well. The Ohio River shore remained stable and fairly unchangeable. The Mississippi banks, on the contrary, were constantly being eroded due to the strong currents of the river. Dikes and levees were built to control the river but helped very little because of their poor construction and lack of funds as well as the ever-present problem of seep water, floods, and the resulting disease.

An attempt to help the city with river control began with the forming of The Cairo City and Canal Company. It not only controlled the efforts of community development but also had authority over every phase of public life in the community. Unfortunately it failed, chiefly because of a series of financial disasters. Wright and Company of London, which loaned $1 million, went bankrupt. Other financial backers lost confidence in the company, creating a serious financial crisis. Large expenditures were necessary. The Illinois Central Railroad failed to complete any substantial part of the railway system, which would have led to shipment on land of port deliveries. Lastly, the City and Canal Company plan to control Cairo failed to bring people into the decision-making processes.

After these difficulties, the community of Cairo suffered. The population declined from around 2,000 people to less than 100 in about a year. The census of 1845 showed 113 people in twenty-tour families. Although there were many negative aspects to the city, Cairo was about to have another chance with the outbreak of the Civil War.

In the months proceeding the Civil War, the North and South both realized the strategic military importance of Cairo. Both sides realized the first troops that could seize and control Cairo would keep control of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and enjoy a military advantage. For the South to have control meant that military campaigns could easily be launched from Cairo. Cairo is almost one hundred miles farther south than Richmond, Virginia, and it was near the center of the Confederacy. The North wanted Cairo as a base to launch strikes against the Confederacy. Also, because of its location, the North could transport supplies and men through the town.

President Lincoln and those directing military affairs for the nation acted quickly. Governor Yates of Illinois was briefed, and he ordered 595 men from local militia units to Cairo immediately. He did not act too quickly as the Confederates were only eleven miles across the river at the time of their arrival. Although Illinois was a state in the Union, the city of Cairo and the neighboring towns of Marion and Carbondale sympathized with the Confederacy. Troops stopped shipments of ammunition and supplies. Steamers carrying supplies from St. Louis for the Confederacy were forced to land at Cairo, where their military supplies were confiscated and sometimes destroyed to keep the confederates from recapturing them. The Civil War was about to begin. [From: John W. Allen, It Happened in Southern Illinois; Cairo Business Mirror and City Directory, 1864-1865; Victor Hicken, Illinois in the Civil War; Illinois Guide and Gazeteer, 1969; John M. Lansden, A History of the City of Cairo; Herman R. Lantz, A Community in Search of Itself; Mary Logan, Reminiscences of the Civil War and Reconstruction; William H. Perrin, History of Alexander, Union and Pulaski Counties, Illinois.]



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