Gunboats

IN ITS April 30, 1864 edition Harper’s Weekly reported that Union Admiral Porter's flotilla on the Red River, “which has done excellent service, consists of twenty-two gun-boats, together with several supply steamers, hospital-boats, etc. … The opening of the Red River region has placed within our reach {Union} a vast amount of cotton, which the enemy {Rebels} had stored away for export or sale. On the 17th 800 bales from near Fort De Russy {on the Red River at Marksville} reached Cairo, and large quantities were still awaiting transportation at the date of our last advices. In the vicinity of Shreveport thousands of bales are believed to be hidden away.” (Harper’s Weekly, April 30, 1864) 

(25th in a Series) 

In 1864, Confederate forces in North Louisiana braced for an invasion of Union gunboats, infantry and calvary. 

At his Llanada Plantation just outside the city limits of Jonesville, General St. John Richardson Liddell had only recently returned after many months of fighting in Tennessee. He now commanded a regiment of calvary and was responsible for protecting an area of North Louisiana from the mouth of the Red River northwest to Shreveport and the Arkansas line, and eastward to the Mississippi River. 

In addition, Confederate forces and citizens were menaced by jayhawkers who plundered and pillaged before returning to safe haven in the swamps from Larto Lake to Catahoula Lake in the area primarily between the Red and Little rivers. Jayhawkers were Confederate draft dodgers, deserters and Louisiana Unionists. The Unionists were dedicated to bringing down the Confederacy. 

General Richard Taylor, the son of former U.S. President Zachary Taylor, was Liddell’s superior officer. Based in Alexandria, Taylor was in charge of the Louisiana Rebel forces west of the Mississippi River. Liddell, an opinionated man who knew many of the Confederate generals, disliked Taylor. He thought of Taylor as an arrogant tyrant who didn’t know what he was doing. 

“Constant orders were received by me from Taylor to seize property in horses and mules on the Mississippi (River} plantations,” Liddell wrote in a book on his Civil War experiences (Liddell’s Record, edited by Nathaniel C. Hughes). “Not satisfied with the supply obtained from this source, orders were also received to impress horses from citizens on the west side of the Ouachita and within our lines. 

“All these arbitrary proceedings depressed the people greatly and created unmistakable dissatisfaction. I saw that the military restrictions on this side of the Mississippi exceeded those of the other greatly, and hence great demoralization and discontent prevailed … I heard new reports of Major General Taylor’s tyranny described with horror. They could see no hope of redress for wrong or immunity from his arbitrary will.” 

Taylor was under much pressure. In January 1864 he reported that the army was badly in need of pork or salted beef, while some of the soldiers were without shoes after wearing them out on marches and during battles. 

 

COTTON: SELL IT OR BURN IT? 

 

Soon, Liddell received a letter from a member of the staff of General E. Kirby Smith, commander of the Trans-Mississippi, comprising Confederate strongholds west of the great river. Smith was based in Shreveport. 

With bales of cotton stacked on the Ouachita and the Yankees planning an invasion up the interior rivers as part of the Red River Campaign of 1864, the Confederacy sought to prevent the cotton falling into the hands of the enemy. Liddell offered a somewhat controversial stance – he suggested jayhawkers who communicated with Union forces at Natchez -- be enlisted to sell the cotton on behalf of the Rebel planters to the U.S. government. 

“Tax it twenty cents per pound,” Liddell wrote. “Let it go to parties authorized to come in the lines for the purpose – parties known to be hostile – who would manage to carry it through the Yankee lines in some way.” 

That way, Liddell reasoned, the planters “should have something to live by. It was hard to strip them of everything. The Confederate Government would be benefited by the proceeds of the tax, in procuring all necessary supplies, which had at last to come through Yankee sources. Why wantonly throw away that which serves both people and Government?” 

But, Liddell wrote, his “views did not meet the cupidity of the Cotton Bureau, which seemed inclined to the absorption of all this interest for selfish purposes, though suspected and condemned by all others.” 

With the Mississippi River in the hands of the Union, transporting cotton west was imperative.  

Soon, according to the Texas Historical Association, the

Confederate government “authorized the creation of a cotton bureau within the Trans-Mississippi Department. Gen. Kirby Smith organized the bureau for the sole purpose of acquiring cotton to be exchanged for foreign supplies funneling in through the blockade at Galveston and across the Rio Grande. 

“The Cotton Bureau authorized civilian agents to negotiate the sale of Confederate cotton to Union buyers and made possible the shipment of cotton grown in East Texas near the Red River to Shreveport, Louisiana, where Union buyers purchased it and then shipped it to New Orleans. This measure, however, was not enough because many cotton producers withheld cotton in anticipation of higher prices in the future. As a result, General Smith routinely professed an authorization to force cotton producers to sell half of their cotton at low prices or risk the impressments of all of it.” 

Liddell soon discovered that his comments on the matter had little influence: 

“I heard no more in reference to the disposition of cotton except to burn it. This bureau had the contract for all the cotton in Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas. What wisdom could there be in destroying that which was useful to us, without being of decided advantage to the enemy?” 

 

A DANGEROUS PLACE 

 

In late winter 1864, Liddell’s son Moses (nicknamed Judge), who had fought at the First Battle of Bull Run, returned from Texas where Liddell’s slaves had been sent. In Houston County, they were charged with feeding cattle. 

That region was much like Catahoula Parish, a dangerous place for anyone to be. Many of the Black River planters had moved to Texas with their belongings. At the plantation of Dr. Andrew Robert Kilpatrick in Concordia Parish in 1863, some of his former slaves decided to follow him to Texas. 

Not long before federal forces arrived in September 1863, teenager Mary Reynolds, born into slavery on the Kilpatrick place at Lismore, was married by Kilpatrick in a ceremony that both he and his wife officiated. 

Mary recalled that Kilpatrick and his wife stood inside the house with a broom “held crosswise” in the door. Mary and her fiancé stood outside the door. 

After a few words by Kilpatrick, his wife placed a wreath on Mary’s head and afterward the couple stepped over the broom into the house. 

“Now, that’s all they was to marrying,” Mary recalled in a recollection of her days on the Kilpatrick place in the “Slave Narratives.” After “freedom,” Mary said she got married legally by a preacher in Texas who recorded the marriage in a book. 

By early 1864, six months after Mary followed the Kilpatrick family to Texas, conditions along Black River had grown even more hostile and dangerous. 

Liddell was forced to be away from home so often tending to his Confederate duties in North Louisiana that he tried unsuccessfully to get his beloved wife Mary to leave, but she refused. 

Accepting her decision, he cautioned Mary “to remain at Llanada. Remain closely at home … seek no cause and create no trouble … be very circumspect in language that might give excuse to our enemies. 

 “If we lose I shall be in exile. Be cheerful, though. Others suffer worse than we. Keep stores in the main house. Keep someone close by. Congregate for safety. Don’t let Judge stay in Llanada. It’s dangerous for him if arrested.” 

 

‘I WAS OVERRULED’ 

 

In late February 1864, Liddell wrote that he went with Major H.T. Douglas “of the Engineer Corps to Trinity {across Little River from Jonesville}” and not far from Liddell’s Black River home, “where it was proposed to construct some isolated parks for heavy artillery. The place is about thirty miles from Natchez, directly west, and is accessible at ordinary stages of water, by the Black River, which is a continuation of the Ouachita River, flowing south from Arkansas. The position so convenient for approach both by land and water rendered the construction of the proposed works open to interruption and extremely hazardous. 

“Major Douglas was instructed to consult with me but not to be governed by me. I used every argument and persuasion with him, and reduced it all to the point, ‘Are these positions expected to be isolated and unsupported?’ He agreed to leave the question to Major General Taylor. 

“Major Douglas, finding his own views sustained by Taylor, began and pushed forward the construction without further reference or notice of my opinions or wishes. My recourse now was to General E. Kirby Smith. I candidly stated that such works could not be held long enough to do any good. I represented that the engineer who insisted upon putting them ought to be required to stay in them … and prove their usefulness. I also told Major Douglas himself that I would not give him more than two hours to hold the place when attacked.” 

Why move the guns to an indefensible post like Trinity, where four rivers meet, from the high ridge at Harrisonburg, where Fort Beauregard commanded the Ouachita River for a mile and had successfully fended off gunboat attacks months earlier? 

“I was overruled in the whole thing” by General Taylor, Liddell wrote, adding that Taylor sent a brigade under General Camille Polignac to protect the workers, all slaves, who built the Trinity works and also protected Confederate property. 

“All haste possible was used,” Liddell wrote. “The guns were brought down on steamboats from Fort Beauregard” at Harrisonburg “and landed close at hand for mounting with dispatch. 

“It so happened at that time, March 2nd, I visited my family living a short distance below the site of this proposed fortification. Previously at the desire of Polignac I had given him three to four companies of calvary to scout for him, to assist in picking the approaches from Natchez, and to watch the movement of the gunboats in the river below. I was at home but a few hours when some reliable scouts gave me the information that six gunboats were coming up the river and would soon be at Trinity.” 

Liddell immediately sought Polignac to alert him of the news. Polignac didn’t believe the Scouts. A disaster was in the making, one that Liddell had feared. 

(Next Week: Six gunboats approach Trinity) 

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