Rebel deserters

REBEL DESERTERS, avoiding the Confederate armies they had abandoned, turn themselves in to federal troops during the final months of the Civil War. Catahoula and Rapides parishes, as well as the region between the Red and Ouachita rivers, were menaced by jayhawkers, comprised of outlaws, deserters and pro-Unionists. General St. John Richardson Liddell and other Rebel commanders spent much time during early 1864 chasing the jayhawkers -- some of them murderers and many of them plunderers -- out of the Red and Black river swamps from Larto Lake to Catahoula Lake. (Credit: Harper’s Weekly, July 16, 1864)  

(24th in a Series)  

When St. John Richardson Liddell returned to Louisiana from Tennessee during the Civil War in late 1863, Catahoula Parish was a no-man’s land.  

The Union Army controlled the Mississippi, occupied southeastern Louisiana and had sent gunboats and soldiers in and out of the northeastern part of the state. The Confederates controlled much of the land west of Red River from Alexandria to Shreveport.  

In other regions of the state – including portions of ground between the Red River and Ouachita up to Catahoula Lake – jayhawkers terrorized the region. They were outlaws made up of mostly Confederate deserters, draft dodgers and Louisiana Unionists, who opposed the Confederacy.  

Vidalia and eastern Concordia were in the hands of the Union and abandoned plantations along the Mississippi and nearby lakes were rented and farmed under the supervision of U.S. Treasury agents.  

In early February 1864, Confederate General Richard Taylor, the son of the late President Zachary Taylor, commanded the District of West Louisiana comprising all ground on the west side of the Mississippi River.  

Taylor directed Major R. E. Wyche to move his command from Trinity in Catahoula Parish “in the direction of Holloway’s Prairie for the purpose of scouring the parish of Rapides, north of Red River, in quest of jayhawkers and deserters. Two officers were attacked by a party of these men last evening about six miles from this point on the road to David’s Ferry, and one of them was very severely wounded.”  

Wyche’s mounted men had been patrolling Trinity and Black River and scouting eastern Concordia Parish to check on Union activities, but were now assigned the sole job of “clearing the country of these outlaws.”  

Taylor’s aide informed Wyche: “Such outrages must be punished with a strong hand, and you are therefore directed to scour this portion of the country thoroughly, and every man found with arms in his hands, against whom reasonable suspicion exists of a determination to resist the laws, will be shot by you on spot.”  

In performing this task, Wyche was told “you may find a few loyal {Confederate} men, residents of the locality, willing to act as guides. Complaints have been received from various citizens of the neighborhood, who have expressed their willingness to point out the rendezvous and hiding places of these outlaws, but you must use the services of such parties with discretion and secrecy in order that they may not suffer hereafter. It is not intended that you should confine yourself strictly to Rapides Parish, by wherever you can hear of these villains go after them, provided it is within a reasonable distance of the central point of your operations, which perhaps should be Holloway's Prairie.”  

General Taylor  “expects from you the utmost exertion in the prosecution of this duty and directs that every man be cleared out of the country, deserters, jayhawkers, and conscripts who cannot give a perfectly satisfactory account of themselves … Take possession of their horses, keep them in the swamps, and starve them out if there is no other means of reaching them.”  

 Wyche was under the direct command of General Camille Polignac, who was defending the Ouachita River at Harrisonburg and Trinity.  

Taylor informed Polignac: “The country between lower Little River and Red River is infested with recusant conscripts and jayhawkers, who have recently become very daring, and have direct communication with the U. S. forces in Natchez.”  

Consequently, the communication line between the jayhawkers and U.S. forces at Natchez was to be intercepted and severed.  

 

‘DESERTERS FROM THE ARMIES’  

 

After a meeting in Alexandria, Liddell wrote that Taylor told him “to establish myself … in North Louisiana, and told me, somewhat sneeringly, that he would give me a small regiment of calvary, commanded by one Colonel W.H. Harrison. I could add to the same two battalions in process of organization, and raise this command to a small brigade.”  

Liddell’s recollections about the Civil War were written at the end of the war, not years later, meaning his memory of events was fresh and clear. His story was printed in a book (Liddell’s Record) edited by historian Nathaniel C. Hughes.  

“There was a brigade of infantry belonging to H.W. Allen, now governor of the state, which when exchanged would be placed under my authority … I went to Monroe about the 25th of January to take command of whatever I might find.  

“I found certainly demoralization on every side, but went to work patiently and increased my little calvary concern to about seven hundred men. They were chiefly deserters from the armies of Virginia and Tennessee, now dodging conscription by entering the calvary. They regarded lightly the honor of serving in our great armies in the East where danger added to reputation.  

“Now these men were desirous of legal plunder, with the smallest possible amount of service or danger to themselves. A small battery of two light pieces belonged to the command. With all of this, I was required to guard and protect a line extending from the mouth of Red River to the Arkansas line – something like 120 miles, at least.”  

According to historian Hughes, General Taylor had previously “probed everywhere for men and horses. North Louisiana, infested with draft dodgers and deserters, remained only nominally under the control of the Confederate government.”  

 

‘CLEAR THEM OUT’  

 

In mid-February 1864, Major General J.G. Walker was ordered by General Taylor to move his company horsemen “to the swamp in the direction of Catahoula Lake. Major Wyche, with his battalion, and Captain G. G. Smith, commanding a company of mounted men, are operating up in that direction. The company you send out should commence work at the lower end of the swamp, I suppose somewhere in the neighborhood of Lake Larto. The officers in command of the company … shall be instructed to hunt the jayhawkers down with the utmost severity, and shoot any found with arms in their hands making resistance.”  

The main concentration of jayhawkers at least for the time seemed to be in an area presently comprising the Dewey Wills Wildlife Management area.  

Later, Wyche was ordered to move his command from Holloway’s Prairie to Jacob Paul’s “on the opposite side of the swamp to where Captain Smith, with his command, is operating, and act in conjunction with him against the jayhawkers. General Walker will endeavor to drive the jayhawkers from the lower part of the swamps up toward you and Captain Smith … you will soon clear them out of that part of the country” and “hunt them down with the utmost severity and shoot every one of them found with arms in their hands making resistance.”  

A few days later, a report indicated that “Quantrill’s men” were “committing serious depredations on citizens living on the Bayou Bartholomew and other points east of the Ouachita River. It is reported one of these bands hung a few days ago a Dr. Merriwether, who is reported to be a loyal citizen.  

“The agent of the commissary department in that region reports these bands are seriously embarrassing his operations in the collection of hogs, and that he is apprehensive of a more decided interference on their part.”  

Taylor subsequently reported “outrages committed by men of Quantrill’s command in my district have already been brought to my notice and steps taken to stop them. One officer and seven men are now in arrest at Monroe, and Brigadier-General Liddell is ordered as soon as he has secured all who can be captured to send them to department headquarters.”  

Taylor then ordered General Walker to employ infantry if need be to wipe out the jayhawkers and said that the calvary “with trail dogs are operating on the upper end of the swamp in which they are concealed, and cooperation by a force on the Red and Black River fronts would completely shut them off.”  

 

JAYHAWKERS SNEAK THROUGH  

 

A short time later, it became apparent that some of the jayhawkers, believed to be in communication with federal authorities in Natchez, had slipped past Confederate patrols in the vicinity of Trinity on the Black River.  

Taylor reported that a Confederate engineer, Captain Boyd, had disappeared and later it was learned he had been abducted, taken to Natchez and “sold to the Federals. Strange to say he was not robbed, though he had some $5,000 of Government money on his person. He sends me word he is trying to be sent to New Orleans, as he can there under existing arrangements be exchanged.”  

On Feb. 19, Captain Wyche, one of the Rebel officers searching for the jayhawkers, received this notice:  

“It has been ascertained that Captain Boyd was carried across the river.” He was taken by “20 {jayhawkers} who crossed the river on 16th instant; their names are River, {Michael} Paul, Durham, White, and Johnson. These men when they crossed Black River on Tuesday last took the route by the upper end of Lake Larto and Holloway's Prairie … you will string every nerve to get hold of these men. You were instructed some days ago from these headquarters with regard to Michael Paul and to capture him, if possible.”  

 

‘EXPECT TO KILL’  

 

One of  the jayhawkers operating in the vicinity was Robert “Bob” Taliaferro, the pro-Unionist son of Catahoula Parish planter, lawyer and judge James Gowan Taliaferro, a future Louisiana Supreme Court Justice.  

Shortly before the war broke out, a fire in Trinity destroyed Robert Taliaferro’s barn, 70 bales of cotton and 3,000 feet of lumber. The day before the fire, the Trinity Vigilante Association, which included Liddell as chairman, was organized. The group sought to root out insurrectionists and agitators. Since both Robert and his father were strong pro-Unionists and firmly against secession -- thereby considered agitators by the pro-secession vigilante group -- Robert suspected arson.  

Robert also knew that Liddell and Henry Peck of Sicily Island planned, but never followed through, with opening a pro-secession and pro-Confederate newspaper in Harrisonburg in direct competition with the Taliaferro’s pro-Union weekly.  

Fearing the fire would ruin him economically, Robert was angry as the war broke out. He wrote his father, “I expect to kill someone yet.”  

In his book on the Civil War in Louisiana, historian John D. Winters wrote that Robert Taliaferro, “leading a company of desperadoes, was intercepted near Black River, after a running fight and loss of eleven men, Taliaferro’s gang scattered into the swamp.”  

Historian Robert Hughes wrote that Robert Taliaferro “had plundered” Liddell’s Llanada Planation in January.  

The jayhawkers would continue to operate, but their days were numbered as the Confederacy would fall to pieces in the months ahead.  

Robert Taliaferro would go back to his regular life in Catahoula Parish after the war. In 1880, the census taker wrote that Robert, a farmer, was suffering from bilious fever. Four years later he died at the age of 53.  

He’s buried in the Alexander Cemetery at Rhinehart near his father and family members.  

(Next Week: Defending the home front)  

 

 

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