Harrisonburg

HARRISONBURG WAS the home of The Independent weekly newspaper during the mid-19th century. It was owned by Judge James G. Taliaferro, who would later serve as a Louisiana Supreme Court Justice. The Ouachita River was traversed by numerous steamboats during the 1850s as Harrisonburg, the seat of Catahoula Parish government, flourished. Fort Beauregard at the back of town was a Confederate stronghold during the Civil War.  

(38th in a Series)  

In 1869, when planter St. John Richardson Liddell was dealing with financial ruin, his enemy four miles down Black River, Charles Jones, had recently filled his pockets with cash following a lucrative deal with the State of Louisiana.  

Liddell, a brigadier general during the Civil War, and Jones, a lieutenant colonel wounded at Shiloh, both fought for the Confederacy. Other than fighting on the same side, the two agreed on little else.  

The two men’s feud began in the late 1840s. Jones was the aggressor from day one.  

Caught in the middle of this bloody fight was Judge James Govan Taliaferro, a friend to both planters. He had tried unsuccessfully to mend the differences between the two. Jones, a Kentuckian who had arrived in Catahoula Parish in 1840 like a tornado dropping from the clouds, favored preservation of the Union over the formation of the Confederate States of America as did Taliaferro.  

Jones was a domineering man and a bully. He had little regard for those hurt by his actions.  

In 1885, the New York Sun – years after the feud had ended – wrote this: “Jones … was rather of the boisterous type, a patron of the turf, aggressive and swaggering, but … without fear. He had married a wealthy lady of Cincinnati, a Miss {Laura} Stewart, and settled in Louisiana, where he bought a cotton plantation and prospered exceedingly.”  

After Jones suggested a neighboring woman on Black River was a harlot, she shot him in the face and back. His handsome face was forever scarred, but he never blamed the woman. He blamed Liddell, who watched the shooting but did not fire a weapon.  

Liddell on the other hand was born into wealth in Woodville, Miss. His daddy, a judge and wealthy plantation owner, financed Liddell’s land investment in Catahoula Parish, but Liddell operated and grew his plantation based on his own drive and skills.  

Jones for years threatened Liddell and attempted to hire assassins to kill him. Two of them were gunned down by Liddell in 1852. Two years later, a jury believed Liddell’s claim of self-defense and found him not guilty in an immediate verdict.  

Because of his treatment by Jones, Liddell did not trust any man who called Charles Jones a friend and soon he was questioning Taliaferro’s relationship with Jones.  

Taliaferro’s friendship with Jones was mostly a political one. Both were Whigs and each opposed secession and the Civil War.  

After Jones had knifed one of Liddell’s friends, Taliaferro tried to mediate a resolution, but he got nowhere.  

 

TALIAFERRO ‘DRAGGED’ TO PRISON  

 

While Liddell and Jones were away at war, Taliaferro stayed in Catahoula Parish, mostly on his farm at Rhinehart.  

In Louisiana, men like Taliaferro came under the scrutiny of Confederate leaders. Even the state’s governor had warned the public to be on the look out for “traitors” against the South.  

Taliaferro’s opposition to secession and the war was widely covered by newspapers throughout the state as well as in Taliaferro’s own newspaper – The Independent in Harrisonburg -- which he sold at the outbreak of the war.  

According to an obituary on Taliaferro’s death published in the The New Orleans Republican, during the war the judge “was in the dead of winter dragged across the country to the military prison at Alexandria.”  

According to various accounts, Taliaferro’s health deteriorated, but he survived thanks to the care provided by a fellow prisoner, J. Hawkins.  

Little is known about Taliaferro’s imprisonment. He never mentioned it in his surviving correspondence and papers. But a reporter with the New York Heraldwrote that some prisoners died while held there.  

Once back at home, the judge’s family wanted him to leave Catahoula Parish for his personal safety. His sons reached out to Union General William Tecumseh Sherman for help.  

One of Taliaferro’s sons had attended the Louisiana State Seminary of Learning and Military Academy in Pineville, now known as LSU and based in Baton  Rouge. Sherman had served as the first superintendent of the academy and resigned shortly before Louisiana seceded from the Union.  

Sherman, then involved in the Atlanta campaign, wrote a recommendation for the judge, noting that he should be placed in federal service in any area occupied by the federal army.  

But the judge opted to remain at Rhinehart.  

 

CONVICT LEASING  

 

When Reconstruction began after the war, Liddell was mired in debt but Charles Jones was prosperous, thanks mostly to his political connections.  

Jones entered politics in Catahoula Parish due in part to Judge Taliaferro. But after he had been shot by Eliza Nichols and during a time when floodwaters inundated the state and cholera broke out in the river towns, Jones went to Baton Rouge and during the 1850 census, he, his family and his slaves were listed as residents there.  

It was during this period that Jones may have begun to make political connections with state leaders. Eight years later, he raised a company in Catahoula Parish to fight for the Confederates and trained with men across the state at Camp Moore where he was given the rank of lieutenant colonel.  

After the war, Jones quickly swore his allegiance to the U.S. government and began to involve himself in the Reconstruction government that included former slaves and white Northern men, generally known as carpetbaggers, as well as local white Southerners, known as scalawags, who cooperated with northern Republicans during Reconstruction. Both carpetbaggers and scalawags were generally considered as profiteers in the South.  

It was during the period after the war, when Liddell was struggling to keep his Llanada Plantation afloat, that Jones involved himself with a man named John M. Huger. A native of South Carolina, Huger, like Jones, fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War and ended his service as a colonel.  

After the war, the two men became involved in convict leasing, which according to an article by Matthew J. Mancini in 64 Parishes (published by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities), “refers to a method of controlling and distributing convict labor that was characteristic of southern states, including Louisiana, for the half-century after the Civil War. Though the system varied from place to place, states essentially turned over the responsibility for managing prisons to labor-hungry businesses, planters, and corporations, usually for a payment that was established by statute.  

“Some lessees used the convict labor directly in their operations; others were little more than labor brokers who sublet the prisoners. With few exceptions, southern states lacked prison structures in this period, and, in the aftermath of the war, landowners and businesses feared an impending labor shortage. By 1867, convict leasing was the established practice in every southern state except Virginia. Louisiana’s convict leasing system was both similar to and different from those in other states.”  

 

HUGER AND JONES  

 

In a book on convict leasing written by Mark T. Carleton (Politics and Punishes: The History of the Louisiana State Penal System), the author writes that there were 222 convicts in the state pen in 1868, some of whom were very young: “On September 26, 1870, Samuel Wilson of Bienville Parish was admitted into the penitentiary to serve a life sentence for murder. He was nine years old at the time. Wilson’s race was not specified.”  

The prison cost $61,383.88 to operate in 1867 with a budget of $210,000 requested for the year 1868.  

In March 1868, wrote Carleton, “Governor Joshua Baker signed a contract leasing the penitentiary to John M. Huger and Colonel Charles Jones. They would, however, have to be ratified by the legislature.”  

In July 1868, state elections were held and 26-year-old former Union officer Henry Clay Warmouth was elected governor.  

“The lease of the penitentiary to Huger and Jones was ratified by the assembly in January 1869,” according to Carleton, “but was vetoed by Governor Warmouth” who issued a “morally outraged” address as follows:  

“There is too much power given to the lessees over the institution, and the Board of Control is ignored. The health, comfort, food, religious training and discipline of the prisoners should be under the charge of disinterested officers of Government … Where the lessees have absolute power over the prisoners, the tendency is to work them too much and feed them too little and give no attention in their comforts and instruction.”  

The Board of Control consisted of “five gubernatorial appointees who were supposed to ensure that humane standards of convict welfare were maintained by the lessees.”  

Carleton wrote that between 1865 and 1868, the state Board of Control managed the state pen “but now, in 1869, Huger and Jones appeared determined to relegate this agency to limbo in order that the convicts might be worked at the lessees’ pleasure.”  

At the governor’s insistence, and through further legislation, an agreement was made that the board be given the “direction and control of the health and religious regulations of the convicts.” But in the end, wrote Carleton, the lessees (Huger and Jones) had the final authority.  

“Warmoth signed the bill granting a lease to Huger and Jones for five years (from 1868). Annual net profits would be divided evenly between the state and the lessees. Finally, in order to get the penitentiary into operating condition again following wartime damage, $500,000 worth of state bonds were authorized for the purpose of buying new manufacturing machinery.”  

 

A POLITICAL DEAL  

 

Back at Llanada, the world was collapsing around St. John Richardson Liddell.  

He was forced to file for bankruptcy. A major problem he faced, like other planters who had lost their enslaved workforce, was finding field hands. Liddell was actually the victim of a scam when he paid a man to provide his farm a labor force, but instead the man took the money and ran without providing the workers.  

But Jones, on the other hand, along with his partner, was now in charge of the largest workforce in Louisiana – prison labor.  

Then on Feb. 17, 1869, Liddell’s beloved wife Mary died. She was buried in the family cemetery located near the plantation home along Black River.  

Sixteen days later, on March 5, 1869, Act 55 that officially named Huger and Charles Jones the lessees of the state pen was signed by Gov. Warmouth.  

“Hardly before the ink had dried,” wrote Carleton, “Huger and Jones were packing their bags.  

“Were they disappointed?  

“Were they not making money?”  

To the contrary, they used their political connections to make a bundle.  

Carleton reported that Huger and Jones quickly agreed to “a colossal bribe” with $100,000 going “to Huger and Jones to sell their equity in the lease.” Some legislators received kickbacks in the deal.  

To put that in perspective, Jones’ half -- $50,000 – would be worth close to $1 million today.  

The New York Sun wrote that Jones “participated in the schemes which made so many of the numerous politicians of that day rich men.”  

Back home at his Elmly Plantation, Jones caught wind that Liddell’s finances were so dire that his property was being sold by the bank.  

Jones quickly decided he wanted that land – mostly for spite -- and now he had more than enough money to make Liddell suffer even more.  

This was the last straw for the general.  

Liddell was not going to let Jones own the land where his beloved Mary now rested in the family cemetery.  

(To Be Continued)  

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