Civil War battle

THIS MAP from the Library of Congress shows the position of Brigadier General St. John Richardson Liddell and his division during the Battle of Fort Blakely at Mobile, Alabama. This fight was the last major battle of the Civil War, occurring hours after Confederate Commander Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union Commander U.S. Grant at Appomattox, Virginia. President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated less than a week later.  

  (34th in a Series)  

On April 9, 1865, Brigadier General St. John Richardson Liddell, a Black River planter in Catahoula Parish, spent his last day on the battlefield for the Confederacy.  

As the commander of the infantry at Spanish Fort and Fort Blakely at Mobile, Alabama, Liddell led approximately 4,000 men against superior federal forces (16,000), including African American soldiers.  

Spanish Fort is on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay opposite the city and Fort Blakely five miles north of Spanish Fort.  

According to American Battlefield Trust, “Spanish Fort was occupied by about 3,000 men and mounted 47 guns behind earthen redoubts. Many of those guns were trained westward across the bay, and nearby swamps and frequent high water prevented construction of substantial defenses outside the main fort.  

“Nearby Fort Blakely … was manned by 2,500 men and around 40 guns. The three-mile-long earthen fortifications were defended by veteran soldiers. A series of nine earthen redoubts fronted by abatis and felled trees were supported by primitive land mines and telegraph wire strung between tree stumps. Confederate Brig. Gen. St. John R. Liddell commanded the garrison there and was the senior commander of both forts.”  

“Toward evening of April 9th,” Liddell wrote in his memoirs of the Civil War, published in a book (Liddell’s Record), edited by Nathaniel Hughes, “Negro troops under {General Frederick} Steele assaulted our left, but were driven back with heavy loss. Later the enemy fire heavily increased from all the batteries, and the discharges were incessant.  

“Just at sunset they suddenly ceased, and the plain around our front swarmed with assaulting lines. The enemy scrambled over brush, abatis, stretched wires, through subterra explosions, added to our fire of grape, cannister, and musketry. It was well and quickly done.  

“The works were entered. Some of my men shot from the rear, while at their guns firing to the front. Thus Blakely fell at the point of bayonet. No flag was ever lowered. Some men escaped by swimming to gunboats, some on rafts hastily improvised, some through the marshes; many were drowned, and many killed or wounded.”  

Liddell was among the captured. The next morning, he visited with federal commander General Edward R.S. Canby.  

“I suppose slavery is gone, and with it goes the cotton interest in our country,” Liddell told the Union general.  

“No,” answered Canby, “not so, for more cotton under free labor will be made in three years than ever before,” a prediction that did not come true for Liddell.  

“I told the general that I might now consider myself as ruined,” Liddell said, “but if he would make a bet with me on three years it might be the means of reinstating my fortune. He declined, likely from principle.”  

Liddell had traveled through Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama fighting for the Confederacy. He commanded a division at the battles of Perryville, Murfreesboro and Chickamauga in Tennessee from 1862 to 1863.  

In order to get back to his family in Louisiana at a time when Jayhawkers were menacing much of the northeastern part of the state, Liddell repeatedly turned down a promotion after Chickamauga. But after the Union’s failed Red River Campaign in Louisiana in 1864, Liddell was sent to Alabama.  

‘HOPE STILL LINGERS’  

After his capture, Liddell’s captors sent him “to the village on the eastern shore, about six miles below Spanish Fort. I remained there until the next morning and then was sent to Dauphin Island to remain a prisoner until further instructions,” but had been told that he and his staff would soon be paroled.  

“We were there but a few days when news came by New Orleans, I think, of the surrender of General Lee and his army {at Appomattox, Virginia) on the 9th of April. The same day Blakely was carried by assault at dark.”  

A short time later, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.  

Liddell wrote that he “remained a prisoner six weeks on Dauphin Island, under General T. Kilby Smith, who treated me with much respect and kindness. General Smith gave me the limits of the entire island without hesitation, for which courtesy I acknowledge my indebtedness to this day. I was paroled on the 16th of May 1865, and sent to New Orleans.”  

Historian Nathaniel Hughes wrote that while a prisoner on Dauphin Island, Liddell’s niece, Carolina Gillis, carried food and clothing to him from New Orleans and went to see Major General Edward Canby on his behalf.  

On his journey home an overflow added to the gloom. Floodwaters, Liddell wrote, covered “the face of the earth.”  

Hughes wrote that the “mud and water of the Mississippi and its tributaries ruined crops, fields, roads, and homes. The cotton that miraculously had been saved through the war was damaged.”  

Making it back to Llanada Plantation on the outskirts of present day Jonesville, Liddell said he was then “a sadder if not a wiser man than I started out four years since.  

“I found everyone, men, women, and children, sadly disappointed at the adverse termination of the war. Even those who had basely deserted their cause were now bitterly complaining and bewailing their misfortunes and suicidal conduct.  

“Hope still lingers, such that it is.”  

But for Liddell, in a few years, all hope would vanish.  

‘DEFRAUDED OF WAGES’  

Upon his return home, Liddell first had to deal with a labor problem that had been the burden of his wife Mary, who had run Llanada Plantation throughout the war.  

According to Mississippi History Now (“Cotton and the Civil War,” Eugene R. Dattel): “The future of former slaves remained sealed in the cotton fields. Blacks were denied economic and physical mobility by federal government policy, by the racial animosity of Northern whites, and by the enduring need for cotton labor in the South. The federal government was forced to confront the question of what to do with slave refugees and those who had escaped behind Union lines.  

“In 1863 Union Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas in the Mississippi Valley devised a solution, a form of containment policy, whereby freed slaves would remain in the South. They would be used in the military service, or ‘placed on the abandoned [cotton] plantations to till the ground.’ Former slaves were to be contracted to work on the abandoned plantations – many around Vicksburg.  

“Labor guidelines, such as $10 a month pay and a 10-hour day, were posted. If a laborer missed two hours of work a day, he lost one-half of his day’s pay. The former slaves were not allowed to leave the plantation without a pass. The white Northern lessees of the plantations were generally driven by money. As many as two-thirds of the labor force was thought to have been ‘defrauded of their wages in 1864.’”  

‘GATHERING OF COTTON’  

In 1863, Thomas had given his superiors an update on the operating plantations along the Mississippi River:  

“I recently passed a few days at Goodrich's Landing, La., 50 miles above Vicksburg, one of my purposes being to ascertain the condition of the leased plantations, to what extent the cultivation of cotton has been carried, and especially to know whether the cultivation of plantations could not be carried on as well by hired freedmen as by slaves. The gathering of cotton is now in full operation, and it may be too soon to report fully the result, but the facts in my possession are sufficient for a judgment on the experiment.  

“As previously reported, the season had advanced fully two months from the time cotton should have been planted, which was unavoidable, though the system was put into operation as soon after my coming to this country as was possible. The lessees, therefore, labored under great disadvantages in this respect, for most of them had just to run the furrow to plant the seed, then plant their corn, relying on subsequent time to break up the ground between the furrows of cotton and exterminate the weeds.  

“The necessity of withdrawing the troops from Louisiana to augment the forces operating against Vicksburg, left the line of plantations, some sixty in all, without adequate protection when the rebels made the attack on Milliken's Bend (where they were signally defeated), and made raids on the plantations, scattering and driving off the negroes and stock. This occurred at the time when it was important to cultivate the crops.  

“Some time elapsed before the hands could be collected and then induced to recommence work. The consequence was fully one-half of the crops were not worked at all, and in other cases, when some work was done, the weeds and plants had to grow up together, the ill weeds overtopping the cotton one-fourth to a third of the crop. Still, under all these disadvantages, not one of the lessees will lose money, but all derive a profit.  

“I know that they are satisfied with the experiment; all desire to re-lease for another year. The negro lessees, of whom there are some fifteen, will make from four and five bales up to, in one case one hundred and fifty, and it is a fact that the cotton they have raised for themselves, owing to better cultivation, is of a higher grade than that of the white lessees. Some of the negroes have cultivated by themselves and families, whilst others have employed their fellow freedmen.  

“The freedmen have all worked for wages according to a scale fixed upon by the board of commissioners … They have been well and more abundantly fed than they were when held in slavery. Schools have been established upon the plantations … As a general rule they greatly prefer working with Northern men, whom they regard as their friends, to working with Southerners, even their former owners, and I hazard nothing in saying that the net proceeds on a crop by a Northerner who has paid his hands wages will exceed that of a Southerner who has cultivated by slaves, the number of acres being the same in both cases.”  

‘THE PARISH OF CONCORDIA’  

Thomas estimated that at least 8,000 bales would be produced, providing the federal government $150,000 in revenue. Lessees also paid “the quartermaster's department for mules, utensils … furnished or found on the places, some $100,000. The charge in lieu of rent is $2 a bale, making $16,000.”  

Thomas proposed continuing the program through 1865 “but of necessity on a much more enlarged scale, as our forces now cover and protect a much larger extent of country on the Mississippi River.  

“The parish of Concordia, La., alone,” Thomas wrote, “will throw on our hands a larger number of plantations on which the crops for the present year will have to be gathered, and then planted for the next year. Northern Union men will be invited to come here and engage in the work, until we make, if possible, the whole negro population self-supporting.”  

But, according to historian Eugene R. Dattel, “After the war ended in 1865, the future of cotton land remained under white southern control. Northern Republican businessmen were firmly opposed to confiscation of lands from southern plantation owners and actively supported the resumption of cotton production by means of large plantations under the management of landowners.  

“Therefore, the stage for Reconstruction was set. The economic importance of cotton had not diminished after the war. In fact, the federal government and northern capitalists were well aware that restoration of cotton production was critical to the financial recovery of the nation. Cotton exports were needed to help reduce the huge federal debt and to stabilize monetary affairs in order to fund economic development, particularly railroads.”  

(To Be Continued)  

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