Jeopardy! category: A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES (13-10-2014)
$800 clue: A Confederate senator called defense plans for this vital river “the weakest and most inefficient” possible
The gist: Unfortunately for the South, he may have been right.
To get an idea of its importance, both geographically and strategically, consider that the Mississippi River flows from Minnesota in the north to the Gulf of Mexico, with tributaries extending as far west as Montana, and drainage basins reaching 31 states including all those of the Confederacy except Florida. In fact, although the mouth of the river is found in its namesake state way down in the South, the name “Mississippi” actually comes from the Algonkin for “great river,” a language family spoken all the way near the U.S.-Canada border (there’s even a much smaller “Mississippi River,” a tributary of the Ottawa River, in Ontario). It was called “the Backbone of the Confederacy,” per a clue from May 21, 2005.
The Mississippi had been of huge economic importance for a long time prior to the Civil War, especially with its steamboat commerce of the mid-18th century. Farmers in the mid-Western states along the Mississippi shipped their crops down to the Gulf of Mexico, where it could in turn be taken both large ocean-going ships to coastal states of both the North and South. When the Confederacy closed the river to Union-bound traffic, it created great pressure for the Union to liberate it. The town of Vicksburg, Mississippi, was seen as the Mississippi’s linchpin, as artillery could easily fire at passing ships from its high bluffs. To get there, Union forces advanced both north from the Gulf and New Orleans under John Pope and south from Missouri and Tennessee under General Grant to trap Vicksburg both up and down the river. The Siege of Vicksburg took place between May and July 1863 (ending on the auspicious date of July 4). After two attempts to storm the city led to heavy Union casualties, Grant decided to take the long approach and starve the city out. After over forty days without resupplies or reinforcements, the Confederate forces surrendered, and Union control of the Mighty Mississippi was solidified. This, along with the Confederate defeat at the Battle of Gettysburg, has been considered the most important turning point in the Civil War, after which a Confederate victory was very difficult to imagine.
The clue: A vital river in the southern United States? You could do a lot worse than guess the Mississippi. And, since this clue doesn’t give very much in terms of context (all you really know is that it was important to the South’s defense during the Civil War – the writers don’t even bother to tell you who the senator was who derided its defense), you can be pretty sure your best guess is correct, particularly for a low-value clue.
In Jeopardy!: A search for “Mississippi River” returns 181 clues in the J!Archive, so I’ll instead just talk about some that are Civil War-related. For example, there are four clues that relate to Vicksburg, all about its centrality to both the Southern and Northern war strategies, one with its nickname of “the Gibraltar of the Mississippi” – New Orleans, the biggest city both in the Confederacy and on the river, is only in one clue where the river is mentioned. Confederate President Jefferson Davis comes up 12 times along with Mississippi, which he represented as a U.S. Senator before the state seceded. As far as what you should know about the River and the Civil War, Vicksburg seems to be the most important. Then again, it’s a big American river, and Jeopardy! loves both big rivers and America, so you would be doing yourself a big favour if you took some time to read up.