Harrisonburg

 

HARRISONBURG ON the Ouachita River, the seat of government for Catahoula Parish, was the scene of a violent mob attack on the Sargent House in 1870, an event which climaxed a 23-year feud between Black River planters General St. John Richardson Liddell and Col. Charles Jones. That’s the courthouse at left, while to the right along the river bank, trees block the view of the old Sargent House and other homes in the vicinity. That’s Fort Beauregard rising behind the town at right. (Concordia Sentinel photo)  

 (46th in a Series)  

At the Sargent House in Harrisonburg on a cold February night in 1870, 19-year-old Cuthbert Jones found himself cornered in an upstairs room as a mob ascended the stairs in search of him.  

On the ground outside in the front yard rested the body of his father, 58-year-old Col. Charles Jones, while just outside a back window of the house, the lifeless body of Cuthbert’s big brother, 23-year-old William, also called Willie, was motionless and drenched in blood.  

Col. Jones died of a shotgun wound, while Willie had been shot in the body with a shotgun and in the head with either a rifle or pistol.  

Two weeks earlier, Col. Jones, Willie and Cuthbert had shot and killed Gen. St. John Richardson Liddell abroad the steamboat St. Mary on the Black River.  

For 23 years, Jones and Liddell had been mortal enemies. Jones had been the aggressor.  

In addition to Liddell, three men had previously been killed – Samuel Glenn and Moses Wiggins, shot by Liddell in 1852, and New Orleans cotton broker John Nixon, killed by a banker in January 1870. Each killing was directly related to the Jones-Liddell feud.  

Liddell and the banker were each tried in their individual cases and found not guilty, the juries determining that the men had acted in self-defense.  

After killing Liddell, the Jones’s turned themselves in to Catahoula Parish Sheriff Oliver Ballard. Since the jail in Harrisonburg, the parish seat, had been destroyed during the Civil War, the 26-year-old Ballard, in a courageous act, housed the Jones’ men in the Sargent House where he lived. Ballard’s goal was to protect the men until they had their day in court.  

The two-story home, which also served as a hotel, was owned by the widow Jeanette “Jane” Sargent, whose husband, Joseph, had died a few years earlier. Joseph Sargent had operated the town ferry on the Ouachita.  

Sheriff Ballard was married to the Sargent’s daughter, Margaret.  

After Liddell was killed, several planters – described as “men of standing” -- from Catahoula, Concordia and Tensas parishes joined the Liddell family in vowing revenge against the Jones’ men.  

During the early morning hours of Feb. 28, 1870, approximately 25 to 30 men, some holding torches, surrounded the Sargent House, called out the sheriff and ordered him to hand over his prisoners.  

Soon everyone with the exception of the Jones’s and Little River planter Elijah B. Cotton, a longtime friend of Col. Jones, exited the house and the mob rushed in.  

Col. Jones was killed as he tried to blend in with others passing from the front of the house, while Willie was shot as he attempted to escape through a back window.  

The mob temporarily made Cotton their prisoner and forced him to lead them up the stairs to see if Cuthbert was hiding there.  

‘I THOUGHT … I WOULD FALL’  

In New Orleans, a few days after the attack on the Sargent House, Cuthbert miraculously showed up in the city. How he escaped from the mob was a sensational story that riveted readers throughout the state and much of the country.  

A reporter for the New Orleans Picayune found Cuthbert in the home of a city resident and there the 19 year old explained the mob attack and outlined how he escaped. At the moment of the interview, the mob continued to search for Cuthbert although some believed he had drowned in the Ouachita River.  

When Cotton reached the top of the stairs, Cuthbert said he was “under the impression, for the moment, that he {Cotton} had discovered me, for he threw his head around and looked into my face, but I suppose he must have been blinded by the glare of the torches.”  

Cotton might have seen Cuthbert, but simply didn’t acknowledge the fact, perhaps to make the mob think that no one was there. Cotton knew that Cuthbert was a dead man if the mob found him.  

“At this juncture,” Cuthbert said, “I moved to the open window and swung myself out, catching hold of a board on the window ledge, which projected at the side, so that I could hold by it. I was suspended by my left hand alone, clasping my right hand around the wrist of my left. My toes just touched the projecting bricks of the chimney. I thought every moment I would fall.”  

Cuthbert stayed in that position “probably eight or ten minutes, but it seemed a much longer time to me – almost a lifetime.  

“They came to the window with a torch and looked out. I clung as close to the wall as I could. They looked out and said: Well, he could not have jumped out of this window, because he would have killed himself – it is too high.  

“The lower side of the house where I was swinging was very high, much higher than the front, and overlooking a sloping bank. As soon as they went down stairs – they all went together – I climbed back into the window and stood and listened to hear if anyone remained in the house. I stood there about three-quarters of an hour.”  

MILITARY-STYLE ATTACK  

As Cuthbert remained in hiding upstairs, he watched the men outside by the light of their torches. It was apparent to him that this was a well-planned operation – military style. One of the members of the mob, according to his own admission, was Catahoula Parish planter W.G. Mobley, who said years afterward that members of the group included several ex-Confederates, all experienced in battle.  

“The party all finally left in the ferry flat and went across the river,” Cuthbert said. “I heard them hailing the pickets they had stationed along the river, apparently to keep us from escaping, telling them to look out for me, as I had gotten away.”  

The mob knew there were multiple places where Cuthbert could hide.  

There were hills and swamps at Harrisonburg along the west side of the Ouachita.  

On the east side of the river were the hills of Sicily Island, where during that era, panthers menaced humans and livestock. Wolves resided in the ravines of the hills and preyed on young lambs and pigs.  

It was a wild land, according to Samuel H. Lockett in “Louisiana As It Is,” who noted in 1869 that the hills “are steep, rugged, rock strewn and evidently a continuation of a chain on the western side of the river. Through this chain the Ouachita must have forced its way. The area covered by these hills is five miles in length and about two miles in width at their maxium breadth.”  

The forest was “the finest” Lockett ever saw -- huge poplars, beeches, magnolias, gigantic oaks and gum.  

If  Cuthbert crossed the Ouachita and made his way to the Sicily Island hills, he could have traveled east on the Texas Road which led to Rodney, Miss. He could have followed the Doty Road on the opposite side of the Ouachita from Harrisonburg. That road crossed the Tensas River at Edward Doty’s ferry, based at his home on the Concordia side of the river. The road led to present day Ferriday.  

There were ferry crossings, too, at present day Jonesville on the Black River, and on the Tensas at Doty’s Ferry, Daniel’s Ferry near Clayton, Kirk’s Ferry and at Ferry Plantation at Sicily Island at the head of Bayou Louis. There was also a ferry at the foot of the Sicily Island hills on Bayou Louis near its juncture with the Ouachita.  

In the 1870s, a man on foot crossing the ferry on Bayou Louis (a bridge is located there today on La. Hwy. 8) would pay five cents for his passage. It cost the same to transport a cow or horse or mule.  

And, of course, a very obvious, but exceptionally dangerous, escape route for Cuthbert would have been via a steamboat where he might easily be seen by the mob, which would search for him in the vicinity for several more days.  

‘BRING THE SHERIFF TO ME’  

As many in the mob searched outside of town, the citizens, aroused by the shooting and shouting, assembled outside the Sargent House. When someone from the ferry flat on the Ouachita shouted, “It is alright,” meaning that Cuthbert had apparently escaped town, the citizens rushed into Sargent House.  

One of the guests there that had been forced to leave by the mob was the mail rider from Winnsboro in Franklin Parish. He was the first in the group to walk up the stairs.  

When he reached the top, he saw Cuthbert, who immediately placed his finger to his lips and whispered, “Hush! And blow the light out!.”  

The mail rider immediately complied.  

“I then told him to bring the sheriff … The sheriff came to me and was much frightened, and begged me not to let anyone see me.”  

Had the mob known that the mail rider and Ballard had seen Cuthbert but did not report it to them, both would likely have been among the dead that night.  

Shortly after the sheriff warned Cuthbert to be careful, the 19-year-old put on his hat and cloak and “left the house by the back way, passing round and going out by the front gate.”  

He had pulled his long hair over much of his face and lowered his hat on his forehead.  

“There were persons then in the house among the crowd that I had never seen before – at least I did not remember ever having seen them. They did not notice me as I passed out, and as there were so many persons passing to and fro, though some of them, I think, were looking for me.”  

Shortly after Cuthbert departed the house, Elijah B. Cotton returned to the body of Willie Jones in the back yard and took the revolver that Willie had on him, the same gun he had used two weeks earlier when he, his brother and his father on the St. Mary fired seven bullets into Liddell, killing him on the spot.  

According to the Cotton family history, Cotton kept the revolver until his death, at which time the gun was passed into the hands of his son, George Spencer Cotton. At George Spencer Cotton’s death in 1939, the gun came into possession of his son, William Davis Cotton.  

Later, William Davis Cotton restored the pistol and for several years it was on display at Catahoula-LaSalle Bank in Jonesville.  

But in Harrisonburg in February 1870, Cuthbert Jones blended into the crowd and made his way to a hiding place not far out of town.  

Cuthbert would have never made out in one piece were it not for the help of at least four people who risked their lives to save his.  

(To Be Continued)  

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