(43rd in a Series)
In the hours after Col. Charles Jones and his two sons gunned down St. John Richardson Liddell on the St. Mary steamboat on Black River in 1870, word of the killing spread quickly up and down the rivers. Newspapers across the country covered the tragedy.
Liddell, who had risen to the rank of general in the Confederacy during the Civil War, was a popular man among the planters of Catahoula, Concordia and Tensas parishes.
Jones, on the other hand, was not. He was considered a bully, a schemer and ultimately a traitor. While most Southern planters initially refused to sign an oath of loyalty to the U.S. after the war, Jones was among the first do so. Although he had opposed secession, he fought for the South and suffered wounds during the Battle of Shiloh.
In April 1866, Jones took this oath: “I, Charles Jones, do solemnly swear in presence of Almighty God, that I will henceforth faithfully support, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Union of the States thereunder, and that I will in like manner abide by and faithfully support all laws and proclamations which have been made during the existing rebellion with reference to the emancipation of slaves. So help me God.”
Liddell, on the other hand, refused to sign the oath for a lengthy period until his friends persuaded him to do so.
Planters, many broke and some in poverty after the war, considered those who signed the loyalty oath as enemies to the South.
White Southerners considered Jones a “scalawag.” It was a term given white men from the South who supported the Republican Party and the Reconstruction government and policies. White northern men – derisively labeled as “carpetbaggers” – were also hated by Southerners who claimed their only purpose was to profit in the aftermath of the war.
While the Republican Party was the party of the assassinated U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, the Southern Democratic Party was the party of white Southerners.
What also enraged Southern Democrats, was that these white carpetbaggers and scalawags (all Republicans) worked hand and hand with Black men – formerly enslaved -- who were also elected to office during Reconstruction.
FEAR OF MOB ACTION
But as far as being considered a scalawag, Charles Jones didn’t care what the other planters thought. He quickly saw financial opportunity during the Reconstruction era and entered politics in a big way, eventually earning today’s equivalent of a million dollars after gaining and then selling a lucrative state contract to operate the state penitentiary and lease convict labor.
Now Jones and two of his sons – William and Cuthbert – who had gunned down Liddell on Feb. 14, 1870, on the St. Mary, headed to the parish seat of Catahoula.
“Jones and his sons then went to Harrisonburg and surrendered to the Republican sheriff, Oliver Ballard,” according to William Guice Mobley, a Catahoula Parish planter who adored Liddell and loathed Jones. “The sheriff did not incarcerate them, they being wealthy and distinguished Republicans, but made them his special guests and gave them the best that this establishment afforded.”
He called Ballard “a scalawag.”
Mobley, a Southern Democrat Party leader during most of his life, wrote those words in an article in 1921 that appeared in the Tensas Gazette.
Ballard housed Jones and his sons in the home where he and his wife lived -- that of his mother-in-law, the widow Jeanette Sargent.
This was actually a courageous act on the part of Ballard in attempting to protect the prisoners as much as possible because their lives were obviously in peril.
Plus, Mobley failed to mention that Ballard couldn’t put the men in jail because there was no jail. It had been destroyed along with the courthouse during the Civil War.
Jones, however, knew he and his boys were in trouble.
According to historian Michael Lanza in his study of the Jones-Liddell Feud, “The Colonel feared mob action and had asked Governor Henry Clay Warmouth to provide protection.”
VOW OF REVENGE
Twenty-three years earlier, Jones had declared war on Liddell, falsely accusing the general of shooting him in the back. The claim had at the time been disputed by a woman, Eliza Nichols, who acknowledged she had shot Jones once in the face and once in the back after he publicly called her an adulteress and harlot. Liddell was present at the shooting. Although Eliza had asked him to accompany her that day, Liddell was unaware she was armed, much less that she would shoot Jones.
Afterward, Jones vowed revenge against Liddell and harassed him on and off for the next two decades.
In 1852, Liddell shot and killed two of Jones’ supporters – Samuel Glenn and Moses Wiggins. They had attempted to hire assassins to kill Liddell and told others that they would commit the murder themselves if necessary. A jury in 1854 found Liddell had acted in self-defense.
After the Civil War, Liddell’s economic fortunes tanked while Jones made a lot of money. When Liddell’s Llanada Plantation went into bankruptcy, Jones and a partner planned to buy it. After Liddell learned about it, he warned Jones against it.
This led to a shooting in New Orleans in which a banker who held the property decided against selling two-thirds of the plantation to Jones and his partner. During a confrontation at The Boston Club in New Orleans, the banker shot and killed the broker.
With the shooting of Liddell aboard the St. Mary, the death toll from this long feud now totaled four as the conflict turned into what became known as the Black River War because both planters lived along the stream and because Liddell was killed while dining aboard the St. Mary on the Black River as it pulled away from Jones’ Landing at his Elmly Plantation.
During the next two weeks, armed men organized to avenge Liddell’s death, while Jones’ family and friends voted to protect him and his boys.
SHERIFF OLIVER BALLARD
This whole mess fell into the lap of Sheriff Ballard, who at 26 years of age was in his second and final year as sheriff.
Born in Avoyelles Parish in June 1844, the Ballard family soon afterward moved up the Red River to Concordia Parish.
Ballard’s father died in 1851 when Ballard was seven-years-old. His mother, Ira, remarried. Her new husband, Elihu Knight, moved the family to Wallace Ridge in Catahoula Parish.
Ballard was only four-years-old when Eliza Nichols shot Jones, and only eight years of age when Liddell killed Glenn and Wiggins. He was only a year or so older than Cuthbert and William Jones.
A month before Jones and his sons killed Liddell, Ballard had married Margaret M. Sargent in Harrisonburg. Margaret’s father, Joseph, operated the ferry along the Ouachita and also farmed until his death in 1866.
Sargent’s widow and Ballard’s mother-in-law – Jeanette – sometimes took in guests at the two-story Sargent house located in view of the Ouachita and at the foot of Fort Beauregard, the Civil War Confederate stronghold.
MEMBER OF THE MOB?
With the killing of Liddell, Jones had now fulfilled the vow of revenge he had made against Liddell after being shot by Eliza Nichols.
Warren Guice Mobley, the Catahoula Parish planter, was standing at the landing on the Mississippi River in New Orleans when the St. Mary arrived with news of the tragedy. He stated that when he arrived home in Catahoula that planters along the Black and Tensas rivers in Catahoula, Concordia and the Tensas rivers “made no secret of the fact, nor evidenced any disposition to conceal it, that an expedition was being organized to go to Harrisonburg and avenge his assassination, for such was it considered throughout the country.”
Sheriff Ballard was well aware that a mob might soon arrive at the Sargent house.
In his article in the Tensas Gazette, Mobley appeared to place himself in the mob.
“I am but one of the few left, possibly the only one,” Mobley wrote in 1921. He said the others involved in “the bloody drama” were all dead.
“I can recall almost all of the names of the men – most of them were ex-Confederates – who avenged the assassination of General Liddell on that occasion. It is only necessary to state that they were all fearless men, who believed, and correctly so, that their action was approved by God and men, and would have resisted to the death any attempt, judicial or otherwise, to hold any of them legally responsible.”
What Mobley described was vigilante justice – rule by the mob.
There would be no U.S. Marshall nor state police to help Sheriff Ballard defend Jones and his sons and provide them a trial. Liddell was granted that right when he killed Glenn and Wiggins.
Vigilantism was about to grow bigger and more vicious in the South. The Ku Klux Klan had been organized just months earlier and would soon organize in Louisiana.
“To show the popularity of General Liddell,” wrote Mobley, “and the feeling of abhorrence for his cowardly assassination, it is only necessary to state that the Grand Jury of Catahoula parish, even under the pressure and attempted coercion of a Republican Judge … would not investigate the case.
“It was considered only just retribution, and everyone engaged in it was deemed legally justifiable.”
That, of course, was the opinion of Mr. Mobley, who served as sheriff in Catahoula in the years after the feud died. In fact, the legal process had begun.
Before the mob arrived in Harrisonburg, Charles Jones and sons William and Cuthbert spent the days in constant anxiety and fear at the Sargent house, hoping that protection would soon arrive but uncertain that it would. Yet they never attempted to escape.
According to the New York Sun, “Liddell's friends and relatives swore openly that his death should be avenged, and so loud were their threats that the friends of the Joneses armed themselves and encamped in the neighboring woods to come to his assistance in case of need.”
The New Orleans Times said of Cuthbert and William Jones: “It is lamentable indeed that these young men, who have not been parties to the original quarrel between these two gentlemen, who were not born, or were only infants when the feud commenced, should be thus involved in this deadly quarrel.”
Charles Jones knew that both Cuthbert and William were now in jeopardy because of him.
As for himself, Jones knew he was a dead man walking.
(To Be Continued)