Cotton

WORKERS LOAD cotton in Natchez in 1935, seven decades after the Civil War. In 1860, according to historian Eugene R. Dattel in an article published by Mississippi History Now (Cotton in a Global Economy: Mississippi (1800-1860): New York had become the capital of the South because of its dominant role in the cotton trade. New York rose to its preeminent position as the commercial and financial center of America because of cotton. It has been estimated that New York received forty percent of all cotton revenues since the city supplied insurance, shipping, and financing services and New York merchants sold goods to Southern planters. The trade with the South, which has been estimated at $200,000,000 annually, was an impressive sum at the time.” (Photo from Library of Congress)  

(35th in a Series)  

In mid-April 1865, Confederate General St. John Richardson Liddell was a prisoner of war in a Union camp on Dauphin Island, Alabama, when word came of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.  

At the age of 50, Liddell saw himself as a ruined man as his fortune slipped away. His Llanada Plantation on the outskirts of Jonesville in Catahoula Parish was in deep crisis.  

Liddell’s slaves, sent to Texas to work for the Confederacy, has been freed and they would not be returning to the cotton fields of Llanada. Now Liddell faced rebuilding in a time of economic disaster without a labor force.  

Five hundred miles from Liddell’s captivity in Alabama but not far from his plantation along Black River, word of Lincoln’s assassination was received aboard the Union transport vessel Altamont on the Mississippi at Natchez where John Roy Lynch was employed as a pantryman.  

A teenager, Lynch had been freed from slavery by Union soldiers in Vidalia a few months earlier. He was now earning a living as a cook in Natchez and looking ahead to a new life. He would rise to great heights, serving as a legislator and congressman from Mississippi and would hold other high offices during and after Reconstruction.  

But for now, he, like other recently freed slaves, was shocked and pained at the news of assassination of Lincoln.  

“I shall never forget the distressing scenes that took place on the vessel when news of that terrible tragedy was received,” Lynch wrote in his autobiography. “Our hearts were broken, our heads were bowed in grief, and every eye was moistened with the tear of sadness and sorrow.  

“We all felt that the country’s greatest statesman had been stricken down at the hands of a cowardly assassin …”  

 

‘I WAS WITHOUT MEANS’  

 

Since his freedom, Lynch began to build his new life by finding his first job in Natchez in which he would for the first time be compensated for his labor.  

“The problem of making a living was the one that was before me,” he wrote in his book. “I was without means and without an education. The only capital I possessed was youth, health, and a determination to win the race of life.  

“My mother occupied two small rooms in a frame building on Market Street, which building had been converted into flats. Several other families occupied apartments in the same building. My brother had secured employment at army headquarters, as an attendant upon General W.Q. Gresham, the general in command of the Union troops there at the time.  

“As the result of an effort covering about ten days, I finally succeeded in securing employment as a dining-room waiter in a private boarding house at a monthly salary of five dollars. This was a small salary, but I felt that I had to do something to assist my mother in her efforts to make ends meet. Rent, which was unreasonably high at that time, had to be paid promptly at the end of each month, otherwise we would be without a place to lay our heads.  

“My mother was an excellent cook and in that capacity she frequently earned a good sum of money in the course of a month, but the employment was not continuous or permanent, hence the income from that source was uncertain and doubtful. It was absolutely necessary, therefore, that my brother and I should do something to assist in meeting the expense of the home.”  

In his first job at the boarding house, Lynch had been promised $5 a month but when his first payday arrived, he received only $4. The owner claimed that “one or two knives and forks had disappeared” and accused Lynch of stealing them, which was untrue. Lynch began looking for another job.  

 

COOK ON A TRANSPORT  

 

Job number two was as a cook for a company of the 49th Illinois Volunteer Regiment of Infantry. The men in the company hired him.  

“I remained there until the regiment was ordered away, which covered a period of six weeks,” Lynch wrote. “When the regiment was about to leave and while bidding good-bye to the men for whom I had faithfully worked, I was made the happy recipient of a snug sum of two dollars as compensation in full for the services I had rendered.”  

Lynch didn’t feel shortchanged. He knew the men had little money and as he noted: “Of this I did not complain and found no fault, because I felt that I had rendered some service to a few of those who had contributed something to the salvation of the Union and the abolition of slavery.”  

It didn’t take Lynch long to secure his third job: “I found employment in the same line with a small detachment at army headquarters where I remained about three weeks, at the end of which time I was paid five dollars.”  

But before that job ended, he secured employment on the Altamont for a salary of $25 per month. Lynch felt rich.  

“The Altamont, it was thought, would remain in Natchez harbor until the cessation of hostilities,” Lynch noted in his book. “In point of fact, it remained there until shortly after the assassination of President Lincoln” on April 14, 1865.  

Lynch had worked on the Altamont for several months and “had been promptly paid at the end of the month.”  

“I regretted very much to sever my relations with the officers and crew,” he wrote, “because they had been pleasant and agreeable … my relations with all of the officers and crew were so pleasant that the hour of final separation was one of sadness and regret.”  

 

A LABOR PROBLEM  

 

Liddell, meanwhile, returned to Black River and for the first time in many months was reunited with his beloved wife Mary.  

In a book on his Civil War service (Liddell’s Record), historian Nathaniel C. Hughes, who researched scores of letters and documents as well as Liddell’s journal, wrote of Liddell’s return:  

“Cotton factor D.B. Penn told Liddell that the market for his cotton was dropping fast. He had tried to get $0.34 a pound earlier, but not he would settle for $0.29 if he could find a buyer. The money Liddell did realize, he used to purchase $2,700 in gold. To do this cost him $3,908.25 in greenbacks. All of it, however, was applied against the debts run up at Llanada during the war by Mary Liddell.”  

Hughes wrote that Liddell’s “condition mirrored that of Louisiana. From 1865 until 1870, Liddell’s world was one of high inflation, scarcity of goods and money, and exorbitant interest rates. Louisiana, led by 26-year-old embezzler Henry C. Warmouth, could not meet its obligations.  

“The state, therefore, could not pay interest on its debts, so it borrowed more. By 1868 State bonds were being sold in the market for $0.47 on the dollar. They would drop as low as $0.25.”  

During the war, levees along the Mississippi and tributaries had broken and were in dire need of repair.  

To add to this problem, according to Hughes, “A blight in 1866 was followed in 1867 by another failure. Not until 1868 did an average crop come along. That year short-handed Liddell experienced a severe drought … instead of 500-800 bales he produced annually in the 1850s, Liddell’s land yielded ‘only 76 bales made in all and this had to be split.’  

“Aggravating all of these dangerous economic conditions was an acute labor shortage. The Freedman’s Bureau required that contracts be negotiated with the former slaves and approved by the Bureau. In the meantime, Bureau personnel and polices kept changing.”  

Liddell’s son, Judge, went to Texas to bring back Liddell’s former slaves, but they refused to sign labor contracts and in the end, most, if not all, did not return to Llanada.  

“In desperation,” Hughes wrote, “Liddell went into partnership with P.S. Kennard. Kennard would procure 100 good workers east of the Mississippi and bring them back to Black River. The partnership proved disastrous. Kennard, who produced only a handful of workers, made off with the $5,000 Liddell gave him, plus unauthorized drafts … for $3,500 more.”  

Liddell sued, but he lost every penny.  

 

LIDDELL’S FINANCIAL PERIL  

 

Four miles down Black River, Liddell’s enemy Charles Jones was doing much better. Jones had political ties with a few influential people he had met while living in Baton Rouge in the early 1850s and continuing until the outbreak of the Civil War.  

Since the late 1840s, the two planters had been involved in a bitter feud. Jones had started it and it escalated after he was shot in the face and back by a neighbor, Eliza Nichols. Jones had publicly accused her of sleeping around on her husband. When he refused to apologize and a retract his statement about her, she reacted by shooting him.  

Liddell was the only other person standing along the avenue of sycamores in front of Jones’ Elmly Plantation when this incident happened. Jones accused Liddell of firing the shot that hit Jones in the back. Liddell denied it and Eliza said she was the only person who fired a gun that day.  

A few years later, Liddell shot and killed two of Jones’ friends. Both, like Jones, had stated they intended to kill Liddell.  

Historian Michael Lanza in his study of the feud wrote that Jones “became a Republican after the war and thus began to take advantage of his now superior position over Liddell. Liddell did not adapt well to Reconstruction conditions.  

“In 1866, he mortgaged his 1,508 acres of Llanada for $18,114,52, and by 1868 the Citizens Bank of New Orleans held a mortgage for $25,000. By 1868, he was unable to meet mortgage for $25,000. By 1868, he was unable to meet mortgage payments on his plantation, so the bank foreclosed on two-thirds of the property. The bank allowed Liddell to continue cultivation of this part of the land.”  

Downriver, Charles Jones caught wind of Liddell’s financial troubles.  

His main problem with neighbor Eliza Nichols and her husband, Philip, had been born out of their refusal to sell him their land. That’s why he slandered Eliza. He thought this would result in the couple leaving Catahoula Parish in shame and that their land would then become his.  

But it didn’t work.  

Now he sensed his enemy upriver was in financial peril. Jones decided he wanted Liddell’s land.  

The Jones-Liddell Feud, also known as the Black River War, would soon escalate.  

Nothing infuriated Liddell more than the thought that Jones might own the land where Liddell’s relatives were buried.  

He was more than willing to give up his life to prevent that from happening.  

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