St. John Richardson Liddell

St. John Richardson Liddell 

(20th in a Series) 

In 1866, St. John Richardson Liddell wrote a letter to his sons as he pondered his experiences during the Civil War and worried over the future of his family: 

“I only hope, my dear boys, that like your Grandfather, your life may pass in peace. Whilst he escaped trouble, your Great-Grandfather suffered terrible distress in the Revolutionary War of 1776. Do not, therefore, indulge the delusions of a life of long peace and quiet … Nothing is fixed or certain with humanity.” 

Liddell’s experiences during the Civil War are recorded in a book (Liddell’s Record), edited by Nathaniel C. Hughes, who took Liddell’s manuscripts and reworked them into a readable form. 

A Black River planter long engaged in a feud with another Catahoula Parish planter, Liddell had killed two men before the Civil War began. Both of the victims were friends of Charles Jones, Liddell’s arch enemy downriver on Elmly Plantation. But the war pitting the North against the South provided a break in the Jones-Liddell Feud, also known as the Black River War. 

Charles Jones fought at the Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee where he was thrown from his horse and shot. He had helped raised two companies before being elected commander of a volunteer regiment of 400 men and officers. 

Liddell connected with some of his old comrades from his days at West Point and spent the first year of the war assisting where needed and spending his own money to do so. One of his first contacts was with old friend General Braxton Bragg, who had previously served as State Commissioner of Swamp Lands in Louisiana before being appointed Brigadier General of Louisiana. 

Bragg had served admirably in the Mexican War, but he was a hard man to like. His temper and inflexibility were legendary. Union General U.S. Grant knew Bragg and occasionally joked that Bragg had once served in two positions. As company commander, Bragg fussed and pushed for the supplies he deemed necessary, but as quartermaster he refused the requests. 

Grant said Bragg sent letters arguing the position of the commander and then arguing the position of the quartermaster until Bragg’s superior intervened. Grant joked that finally the superior informed Bragg: 

“My God, Mr. Bragg, you have quarreled with every officer in the Army and now you are quarreling with yourself!” 

 

A VISIT WITH JEFFERSON DAVIS 

 

Liddell and Bragg would soon fight together in Tennessee, but before that, Liddell went to Virginia in 1861 where he saw his eldest son, 16-year-old Judge, a member of the Louisiana Tigers. A short time later, with 14-year-old son Willie at his side, Liddell and Willie watched the first Battle of Manassas, following the movement of the troops “by clouds of dust.” 

In August of 1861, old friend General William J. Hardee, made Liddell his aide-de-camp with the understanding that Liddell would serve at his own expense. Later, General Albert Sydney Johnston in Tennessee sent Liddell to visit Liddell’s childhood friend, Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy. 

Johnston, Liddell wrote, “regretted very much the inadequacy of his own force and desired me to impress the President with the necessity of sending him reinforcements and arms. Johnston thought both might be spared to him …” 

It was snowing when Liddell arrived in Richmond where he immediately went to see Davis and handed him a letter from Johnston. 

“Whilst he {Davis} engaged in reading it, my attention was drawn to his features. They seemed to be disturbed and careworn. A lighted lamp was suspended over the center table between us. As he read the letter, I could not avoid seeing the effect it had. His features seemed to contract as if by pain or perhaps anger.” 

Liddell was surprised when Davis cried out: “My God! Why did General Johnston send you to me for arms and reinforcements when he must know that I have neither? He has plenty of men in Tennessee” and was well-armed, so “we must do the best we can with what we have.” 

After a long discussion, Davis invited Liddell to supper the next night. The two spoke of their “school days” in Woodville, Miss., and “of our teachers, of the old citizens of the country.” Davis “spoke of every local occurrence that had transpired in our earliest days.” 

Davis was seven years older than Liddell. Both had attended Wilkinson Academy. 

On a second visit to Richmond, Liddell saw Edward Sparrow, a Concordia Parish plantation owner and one of the richest men in the South. Sparrow was a senator representing Louisiana in the Confederate government. He chaired the Committee on Military Affairs. 

A few years earlier, Sparrow was one of the three lawyers who represented Liddell in his trial involving the murders of Samuel Glenn and Moses Wiggins, two associates of Charles Jones in Catahoula Parish. Glenn and Wiggins had publicly stated they intended to assassinate him. Liddell pled self-defense at the trial involving the murder of Wiggins and a jury found his not guilty. Because of that, the prosecution opted not to try Liddell in the murder of Glenn. 

 

‘PARCHED WITH TYPHIOD’ 

 

Before leaving Richmond, Liddell felt ill. When he reached Alabama and met up with General Hardee, he was confined to bed with typhoid fever. Hardee stayed by his side some of the time and later placed him under the observation of Mrs. J.B. Barton in Tuscumbia. 

“To this lady I am indebted,” Liddell wrote, “for the preservation of my life. She forced my mouth open, parched with typhoid fever, and poured the necessary acids and food for subsistence down my throat.” 

In the meantime, Hardee had sent a telegram to Liddell’s wife, Mary, advising of her husband’s illness. 

Soon, Mary and son Willie, now age 15, were at his bedside. By then, Liddell was recovering. 

Back in Louisiana, their Llanada Plantation on the outskirts of present-day Jonesville was sinking in debt. Mary had previously written that relative Andrew J. Liddell, who was the overseer, was not up to the job: “I cannot live with Andrew. He has several times been very violent and disrespectful.” 

In Alabama, Willie, who had watched the First Battle of Manassas with his father, now asked permission to join the Confederate Army at Corinth, Miss. 

“It was given with hesitation and reluctance,” Liddell wrote. “It was a risk to one so young going alone into an army unknown to anyone who might care for him if wounded. All we could do was to ask a friend going there to look after him.” 

Soon, Willie was engaged in the Battle of Shiloh, where at another location on the battlefield Liddell’s enemy Charles Jones fought with the 17th Louisiana Regiment. As the battle raged, the sounds of the fight were heard miles away. 

“From my sick room at a distance of some 55 miles,” Liddell wrote, “I could distinctly hear the sound of musketry and cannonading at Shiloh for two days.” 

 

 

SUFFERING AT CORINTH 

 

Traveling to Corinth, Liddell watched as the Confederate survivors of Shiloh returned. He watched as “crowds of wounded and sick men” awaited removable from the train at the railroad depot as wives or female relatives waited to tend them. 

Of the caregivers, Liddell wrote, “They had suffered and found their loved ones in mangled helplessness or on the bare earth in ruined health from exposure. The scene was pitiable to the feeling heart. Yet the constant sight hardened the soldier to eventual heedlessness of all human calamities.” 

They found Willie alive and well, although his “homemade clothes were perforated in many places by bullets … He was making his way bravely through the crowds and picking up his friends by his manly frankness everywhere. It was as if he enjoyed the wild excitement of war, regardless of the affectionate child. 

“It was incredible to us, his parents, this complete and sudden change in his character. It leads to the reflection that the natural instinct of man is violence.” 

Soon Willie and his mother left Liddell for home, while he remained in Corinth, awaiting the federal army moving south from Shiloh. Not long after Mary arrived in Catahoula Parish, a letter arrived. In it, Liddell indicated he had heard there was a high water along the Black River and region. 

“You must stir up the people around you to look after the levees,” he wrote. 

During the height of fighting at Corinth, Liddell led a regiment into action as the Union attacked with cannon and rifle fire. 

“Instantly from a thicket of underbrush about 450 yards distant across an open field between us, six guns opened upon the regiment, not yet in place, with shell, grape and canister, and with heavy and rapid discharges. 

“I saw at once that the men had not gotten over the effects of the Battle of Shiloh. I encouraged them, by riding along their front, to move up. But they hesitated and halted. The bursting shells over and amongst them caused them to drop down in sections and companies, a few brave men excepted.” Most “would neither move forward nor arise from the ground. They were clearly unreliable and, for the first time, had lost all spirit and usefulness.” 

 

DREAMING ABOUT SLAVERY 

 

Early in the war, Liddell seemed to sense that things would not get better. He grew depressed. Nightmares invaded his sleep. 

“I felt so much depressed with the dark prospect that distressing dreams disturbed my rest. My dear Father, buried five years before, appeared to me for the first time. His strangely pleased expression surprised and troubled me. 

“I ungenerously had reproached him for the inheritance of ‘Slavery’ he had left me and had desired me to retain. My own judgment inclined me to get rid of such interest, to avoid the terrible uprooting day of the whole system. Now I was assured the time had come. My reproaches changed his pleasure to distress, which awakened me. 

“It was but a dream. Yet I have never been able to divest myself of the impression, whilst my poor honest old Father was satisfied with the honesty of my motives, he could not but feel for my distress at the sinking fortune that awaited the South. 

“Her cause had been confided to the smartest of her sons. Jefferson Davis was well-known to my father 40 years before. Yet his wisdom could not save it. Certainly, it looked as though the fates had so willed it.” 

(Next Week: The war drags on.) 

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