More than one hundred and fifty years ago, Brigadier General John Pope faced a tactical dilemma on the Mississippi River. Confederate batteries at Island No. 10 blocked passage through a complex series of river bends. Although Pope held New Madrid, downstream from the Confederates, his troops were on the wrong side of the river. With transports and gunboats, Pope could cross the river into Tennessee and turn the Confederates out of their fortifications. However, Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote, commander of the Mississippi River Squadron above Island No. 10, declined to risk running the Confederate position as he was still felt the sting of repulse from the February Fort Donelson expedition. Foote preferred a standoff bombardment while waiting for an opening to exploit, but Pope was a man in a hurry and could not wait for developments.
In mid-March 1862, Colonel Josiah Bissell, commanding the "Engineer Regiment of the West," surveyed the land north and east of New Madrid. Reporting to Pope, Bissell found swamps and bottomland inundated with the early spring floodwaters. Bissell suggested a canal to provide passage for steamboats. Bissell's plan called for a path through some 12 miles of swamp, using some of the natural bayous and sloughs, cut 50 feet wide and 4½ feet deep. The chosen course followed Wilson's Bayou into the swamps, and then cut across to join St. John's Bayou—north of New Madrid. The mouth of St. John's Bayou provided a save (sic) cove to hide the transports from Confederate observers. Instead of facing an enemy force, Bissell's engineers would fight the barriers set in place by the Mississippi River.
For nineteen days Bissell's men worked to clear the passage. Where open bayou allowed, the engineers used a submerged saw to clear the trees. In other cases, the only practical method to clear the way was by hand. When completed on April 4th, the canal, or more accurately a channel, allowed passage of four steamboats and several barges—but no gunboats. The gunboats ran on Island No. 10 and were able to success with help from the forces that came around through the channel and up behind the Confederates leading to a Union victory on April 9, 1862.
A great deal of imagination is required to visualize steamboats working through what was once a swamp. A visitor to the battlefield of Island No. 10 today will see a landscape vastly different than that of 1862. The site of the canal is not easy to find. In the decades after the Civil War, flood control measures and bottom land reclamation projects turned swamps into farmlands. As a result, the swamps around Wilson's Bayou became little more than a strip of trees.