Little Egypt in the 19th Century


Click to zoom. Map of the counties, and Southern District of Illinois. From the U.S. Department of Justice.

Traditionally the term “Little Egypt” refers to the bottom 16 counties of southern Illinois. The counties of Alexander, Pulaski, Massac, Hardin, Pope, Johnson, Union, Jackson, Williamson, Saline, Gallatin, White, Hamilton, Franklin, Perry, and Randolph were considered the strict geographic area that made up “Little Egypt.” The southernmost city, and capital seat of the district was Cairo, in Alexander County. (Cross)

The name “Little Egypt” came from the early settlers of the region, who thought the area resembled the Nile in Egypt due to the low lying topography, fertile marshes, and flooding from the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. Thus, the names of both the city Cairo (pronounced kay-ro) and the County Alexander were named after the ancient Egyptian places. The geography of the region is closer in many ways to the Inland South than it is to the Midwest. Unlike the majority of Illinois, Egypt has mild winters and hot summers that resemble Western Kentucky, or Tennessee. The city of Cairo itself is further south than Richmond, Virginia, and sits on a peninsula overlooking the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. This would prove to be a strategic location at the start of the war and was home to the Union’s Ft. Defiance, a naval post that gave the federal gunboats access to nation’s interior water ways. It was in Cairo, Illinois, at the heart of Little Egypt, that many of the Union’s Midwestern regiments were trained, and it was at Ft. Defiance that the Union army’s western campaign was started.