(28th in a Series)
By the summer of 1864, days after the Union’s ill-fated Red River Campaign, Confederate General St. John Richardson Liddell spent some time at his home on Llanada Plantation along the Black River just outside the city limits of present day Jonesville.
The previous four years had been hard on everyone. The economy was in a spiral. Cotton, the only source of income for the planters, was destroyed by the Confederate armies to keep it from getting into the hands of the invading Yankees, who would immediately send it to the textile mills in the Northeast, long idle due to the war and a cotton shortage.
After years of Confederate service in Mississippi, Tennessee and Alabama, Liddell had returned home during the in late 1863 after being transferred to the Trans-Mississippi West.
What was on his mind? Mostly the war and surviving it.
In his memoirs of the war years (Liddell’s Record), his deepest thoughts, at least those he put on the record, related to home and family. But not a word did he write regarding another great conflict in his life – the Black River War, also known as the Jones-Liddell Feud.
Liddell’s multi-year feud with Charles Jones, a cotton planter down the Black at Elmly Plantation, had begun primarily over two things – land and a woman.
Rumors were that Jones wanted the land belonging to his neighbors Phillip and Eliza Nichols. When the Nichols refused to sale, Jones began to spread vicious rumors about Eliza.
In a study of the feud written by Michael Lanza decades ago, and housed at LSU, the author writes that Jones “had made some unproved slanderous comment concerning Mrs. Nichols. According to her, she was to meet Jones in front of his plantation so that he could sign a retraction to which he had agreed. What had Jones said?
“One account relates that Liddell was having an affair with Mrs. Nichols, and that Jones became jealous because he had been her lover in Europe. Jones’s comments apparently concerned this matter.”
According to Liddell’s diary, also housed at LSU, a preacher named William H. Tumley said he had a conversation in Natchez with Jones when the subject of Eliza Nichols came up. Tumley reported that Jones stated a “Mr. Reddick” had slept with Eliza as often as she had slept with her own husband.
This insult spread quickly.
Liddell, who had already had troubles with Jones, accompanied Eliza when she went to Elmly to demand that Jones apologize. In his article on the feud, Lanza wrote that instead of apologizing, Jones demanded that Eliza admit “what he had slanderously said was true. She promptly produced a pistol and shot him. The ball passed through Jones’ cheek and left a scar that he carried to his grave.”
Two more shots were fired, one hitting Jones in the back as he ran to his house. Jones would accuse Liddell of firing the shot that hit him in the back, an allegation that Liddell denied multiple times, stating that he was shocked when Eliza pulled out a pistol and opened fire on Jones.
Liddell would express only one regret about that day – that he did not finish Jones off.
‘STRICKEN BY DOMESTIC GRIEF’
During the summer of 1864, as Liddell took a few days to assess the declining fortunes of Llanada and his future with the Confederacy, he was depressed and concerned about the future.
He had recently had a falling out with General Richard Taylor, commander of Confederate forces in Louisiana on the west side of the Mississippi. Taylor’s superior, General Edmund Kirby Smith, also had a falling out with Taylor, who was temporarily relieved of his duties.
Smith was headquartered at Louisiana’s Confederate capital of Shreveport, chosen after Baton Rouge fell to Union forces.
Taylor, who was considered an able tactician, was a hard man to deal with. Abrasive at times and harshly critical of others, he suffered from debilitating rheumatoid arthritis and was at times bedridden. That is believed to have contributed to his ill temperament.
In 1863, he was demoralized, a state he described in his memoirs (Destruction and Reconstruction):
“At this time I was sorely stricken by domestic grief. On the approach of the enemy to Alexandria, my family embarked on a steamer for Shreveport. Accustomed to the gentlest care, my good wife had learned to take action for herself, insisting that she was unwilling to divert the smallest portion of my time from public duty. A moment to say farewell, and she left with our four children, two girls and two boys, all pictures of vigorous health.
“Before forty-eight hours had passed, just as she reached Shreveport, scarlet fever had taken away our eldest boy, and symptoms of the disease were manifest in the other children. The good mother had no acquaintance in Shreveport, but a Good Samaritan appeared in the person of Mr. Ulger Lauve, a resident of the place, who took her to his house and showed her every attention, though he exposed his own family to great danger from contagion. The second boy died a few days later. The two girls, older and stronger, recovered.
“I was stunned by this intelligence, so unexpected, and it was well perhaps that the absorbing character of my duties left no time for the indulgence of private grief; but it was sad to think of the afflicted mother, along with her dead and dying, deprived of the consolation of my presence. Many days passed before we met, and then but for an hour.”
‘A FOOLISH MAN’
A year later, after the Red River Campaign, Liddell and Taylor clashed for the last time. According to Liddell, Taylor blamed him for not attacking federal forces at Alexandria when gunboats were stranded due to low water. To counter the problem, a Union engineer devised the construction of wing dams to elevate a portion of the Red where a waterfall and shallows hampered travel. The plan worked, and the gunboats slipped through the narrow channel and followed the Red to the Mississippi River.
Liddell said he did all he could on the east side of the Red with a limited number of men. Taylor, Liddell charged, had thousands of men on the west side and could have easily captured the gunboats. Taylor indicated that because Liddell failed to follow Taylor’s order to “harass the enemy at Pineville and their works on the falls,” that Liddell would lose his command of about 700 men.
But before Taylor acted, Liddell stepped down.
“I was pleased at the prospect of getting rid of this wretchedly mismanaged business under the guidance of a foolish man,” Liddell wrote in his memoirs.
Shortly afterward, “I reported to General E.K. Smith at Shreveport for orders, and submitted to him for inspection all of Taylor’s contradictory orders, in many instances exhibiting childishness and absurdities unbecoming an officer who presented to be a leader of an army. He looked over several of the papers carefully, then threw them down abruptly on the table before him, saying, ‘General Taylor’s mind is affected from the paralysis he had some years since, and is hardly responsible.’”
Liddell responded that Taylor “should not be in such a place, when so much is at stake for others. I will serve no more under such a man.”
In the meantime, Smith had relieved Taylor of his duties.
‘THE WRECK OF THINGS’
Liddell, back at Llanada, awaited orders.
In a year’s time, the war would be over and Liddell would return to a wasteland.
According to historian Nathaniel C. Hughes, the cotton market was dropping as fast as an anvil. There were now no slaves to tend the fields and finding any kind of labor was just about impossible.
Throughout the war, Liddell had depended on his beloved wife Mary to operate the plantation. In 1861, they had signed legal documents given her power of attorney.
The two had met in Mississippi. The daughter of a judge in South Carolina, Mary had come to Natchez in 1839 to visit her uncle, Dr. Volney Metcalfe. She and Liddell met that year.
Liddell had been settled on the Black River at Llanada since 1837 when he planted his first cotton crop.
Mary and Liddell married in Natchez in September 1841.
Over the years, 10 children – five girls and six boys – were born. The couple also adopted and reared an orphaned niece.
Mary became invaluable in operations at the plantation. She kept the books and sometimes kept up Liddell’s journal. She alone ran the plantation during the Civil War.
Through her influence, Liddell years earlier had joined the Presbyterian Church in Trinity.
He hung on to her every word and as the years passed his love for her grew deeper.
In the weeks ahead, after he returned to war, she had written him:
“I know you must at times feel very much discouraged at the wreck of things, but let us begin again a life of industry and economy and try to provide for those who are dependent on us and at the same time divert out minds from the calamities that have befallen us.”
But that beginning of a new life seemed doomed from the beginning.
Mary’s health began to deteriorate.
And as Liddell pondered a bleak future, Charles Jones would make a bold move involving one of his favorite subjects – land. More specifically, Jones would attempt to buy Liddell’s debt-soaked Llanada.
Things would escalate quickly from that point on.