Desha County Historical Society

Dedicated to the preservation and declaration
of the rich history and culture of
Desha County, Arkansas

Renovated 1906 Courthouse

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 Photo by McGehee Dermott Times-News

"Death Comes For Napoleon"

     In Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain tells us that he was already "in a pretty sour humor," before he ascended to the hurricane deck and told Captain McCord, "I have come to say good-bye, captain, I wish to go ashore at Napoleon."  The captain glanced up at the pilothouse and said, "He wants to get off at Napoleon!  Why, hang it, don't you know? There isn't any Napoleon any more.  Hasn't been for years and years.  The Arkansas River burst through it, tore it all to rags and emptied it into the Mississippi!"
     Twain reports being flabberghasted.  "Carried the whole town away? - banks, churches, jails,   newspaper offices, courthouse theater, fire department, livery stable - everything?"
     "Everything" came the reply, "Didn't leave hide nor hair, shred nor shingle of it, except the fag-end of a shanty and one brick chimney.  This boat is paddling along right now where the dead-center of that town used to be; yonder is the brick chimney - all that's left of Napoleon. . ."
     What Twain then squinted at was the debris of a long history that included la Salle's participation in America's first Catholic mass; an aristocratic French officer in self-imposed exile from Napoleon Bonaparte's stillborn empire; the wanderings of naturalist Thomas Nuttall; the Trail of Tears; the flames of Sherman's army; and the irreversible decay of the riverbank precipitated by the Civil War.
(From "Death Comes For Napoleon" by Mitch Gould; DCHS journal, "River Towns, River Boats, River People" Spring,1977)

Napoleon, Arkansas, was a flourishing town before the Civil War.  It had served as a landing for the Arkansas River trade, and was a busy, bustling place where flatboatmen, steamboatmen, professional gamblers, and ordinary citizens mingled.  First named the "Mouth of Arkansas", a postoffice was established in April 1832.  After Desha County was created in 1838 and after two temporary county seats, Napoleon became the permanent county seat in January 1843 and the second largest town in Arkansas.  Napoleon was incorporated in January 1851.  Not long after a large block of land was deeded to the United States of America in 1844 for a three story military hospital, the town of Napoleon was inundated by flood waters.  Despite arguments that Napoleon's low river banks were too unstable,  the hospital was completed and opened in 1853. 
     Personal accounts paint polar opposite pictures of culture and corruption in this growing river port.  Some travelers found it to be a shanty town of "a few slightly built, wood houses and the best hotel in the place is an old, dismantled steamboat.  Clouds of mosquitos and buffalo gnats assault on going out of doors"   Others wrote, "Napoleon was a wealthy town supported by a planter aristocracy" that traveled the river to New Orleans and Memphis for grand parties and shopping.
     Napoleon's demise began in the winter of 1862-63 when Union forces occupied the port. Many of the wood structures were stripped for firewood and left to the elements.  Lieutenant Commodore Selfridge, along with Union troops, dug a canal a few hundred yards long from the Mississippi river to the Arkansas river (see insert).  The 25 mile long narrow Beulah Bend in the Mississippi had been guarded well by a confederate canon on the Mississippi side that could easily fire on Union gunboats traveling on the river  from the north and south. The canal not only directed river traffic away from the bend but in time directed the flow of the Mississippi towards Napoleon. 
     With the river slowly eating away at the foundation of Napoleon, the federal government abandoned the military hospital as bare structures crumbled into the ever flowing Mississippi.  While flood waters covered the small remaining area of town in 1874, a steamer patrolled the floodplain, picking up the last family to live in Napoleon. All that remains of Napoleon today is the cast-iron bell of Napoleon's Catholic church (housed in McGehee's Catholic church) and two grave markers from Napoleon's cemetery. 
     Only a few times has the Mississippi been low enough for a chimney to be seen in the river sand that now covers the town site.  Nature and the river have truly reclaimed what belonged to them!

For further reading order: DCHS Publications for 1977, 1980, 1985, 1986 on the publications page

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1860 Survey of Napoleon

  Illustration of Rivers
and Man-made Changes