USS Fort Hindman

FIRED UPON by Confederate artillery mounted on an Indian mound between Bushley Bayou and Harrisonburg, the USS Fort Hindman was disabled. 

 

(26th in a Series) 

In early March 1864 during the Civil War, Confederate General St. John Richard Liddell heard galloping horses heading toward his plantation home Llanada along Black River on the outskirts of present day Jonesville in Catahoula Parish. 

He had only recently returned from months of fighting in Tennessee and was now in charge of defending the east side of the Red River in Louisiana. His regiment of a few hundred men was comprised mostly of outcasts – deserters from the Confederate armies fighting in the east. Many spent most of their time stealing and plundering but during the chaotic times of the final months of the Civil War, the Confederacy had no other choices on the west side of the Mississippi. 

In addition to Liddell, four other generals played prominent roles in defending North Louisiana from the Union: General Edward Kirby Smith in Shreveport, head of Rebel forces west of the Mississippi River; General Richard Taylor in Alexandria, commander of Louisiana forces west of the Mississippi; General Alfred Mouton, whose division was in Monroe; and General Camille Polignac, responsible for keeping Union gunboats from advancing up the Ouachita to Monroe. 

The Rebel soldiers on horseback told Liddell “that six gunboats were coming up the river and would soon be at Trinity.” 

General Taylor had recently approved a plan to move the biggest guns from Harrisonburg to Trinity, located across Little River from Jonesville, which was not yet a town but rather a plantation. Until the war came, Trinity, a peninsula, had been a bustling commercial center where four rivers meet. 

Liddell had vehemently argued against moving the big guns because he felt Trinity impossible to defend. He believed that the Union could easily roll by defensive works at Trinity and race past an untended Fort Beauregard and on to Monroe, the largest city on the Ouachita, and thereby secure control of the Ouachita, Black, Little and Tensas river systems. 

Fort Beauregard had previously fended off gunboat attacks and Liddell was convinced the move to Trinity was a doomed strategy. 

 

‘IN THE BEND BELOW’ 

 

Once the Confederate scouts informed Liddell that the gunboats were nearby, he went “at once to see Polignac,” Liddell said. His words are recorded in a book about his Civil War service (Liddell’s Record, edited by Nathaniel Hughes). “He (Polignac) was not under my control having been specially excepted by Taylor in his instruction to me. Therefore, I could only assist by voluntary council and advice … I met him, luckily coming to see me.” 

A few years earlier, Polignac had joined the Confederate cause. In 1863, the brigadier general was ordered to Louisiana to serve under General Edmund Kirby Smith. At Alexandria, Polignac met up with General Richard Taylor, the son of the late U.S. President Zachary Taylor. 

Polignac was given command of a brigade of 700 Texans. 

Between Trinity and Llanada, Liddell and Polignac met. Liddell informed the Frenchman of the report of the Calvary scouts. 

But Polignac brushed it off. He found the calvary reports to be unreliable. 

As Polignac related his opinion to Liddell, Polignac’s stance suddenly shifted. 

“While talking to me,” Liddell wrote in his Civil War memoirs, the two were “interrupted by the unmistakable sound of heavy artillery from the gunboat fleet in the bend below.” 

Both raced to Trinity. 

 

MUDDY MARCH TO HARRISONBURG 

 

Pushing up the Black were the Union gunboats Conestoga, Cricket, Fort Hindman, Lexington, Osage and Ouachita, part of the Union’s Mosquito Fleet. Spotted off Beard’s Point on the west bank of the Black below Llanada, Rebel Captain W.H. Gillespie and his 50 mounted men opened fire, only to be pushed back by gunboat artillery. 

The vessels reached Trinity at 4:30 p.m. and saw white flags of surrender had been raised but when the gunboats got closer, the Confederate’s open fire from a battery of two 12-pounder rifled guns. Immediately, all six vessels immediately  

Polignac reported: 

Having received intelligence of their approach, I notified Captain Devoe, of the engineer department, left at Trinity by Major Douglas, chief engineer, in time for him to secrete the 32-pounders that had been taken to Trinity by the direction of the latter officer, and which could not be used, as only one was mounted and there was no ammunition for them.” 

The gunboats “stopped in front of Trinity and shelled the place and its neighborhood. I had disposed my infantry force along the north bank of Little River to protect as best I could the pontoon bridge, and also in order to detain the enemy, if possible, long enough for the captain of the Ruby (now engaged in getting lumber on Little River for the engineer corps) to be notified of their approach by a courier previously sent by me. 

“The boats, however, did not come up Little River, and Lieutenant O. Gaudet, in command of the only section of artillery that I had, opened upon them with two 12-pounder howitzers, which, of course, were unable to check their progress.” 

Once the gunboats had “run past Trinity, and thus made apparent their intention of attacking Harrisonburg, I moved my infantry and artillery back to that place that same night, as I had to ferry the Bushley Bayou, a navigable stream, where the enemy could easily head me off. It had rained on the day previous and the road had become almost impassable. Two caissons had to be left behind.” 

 

FIGHT ALONG THE OUACHITA 

 

Between the bayou and Harrisonburg, Confederate artillery set up on an Indian mound along the Ouachita River. 

Liddell arrived at the location just as the Union gunboats “were rounding the bend {Meyers Bend} in sight and full range” at 10 a.m. 

The Osage was in front, followed by the Fort Hindman, the Ouachita, the Cricket, the Lexington and the Conestoga. Polignac held his fire until the lead gunboat was in the scope of the artillery on the Indian mound. 

Polignac reported: “I had placed two infantry regiments on the bank of the Ouachita River, from the mouth of the Bushley Bayou up to the vicinity of the town, and one section of artillery (6-pounder Parrott guns), under Captain Faries, at a place where it could do the most effective firing. The other section of the same battery could not participate in the fight for want of its caissons, and also because the horses were so badly used up by the night's march and the bad roads as to be altogether unfit for service.” 

Wrote Civil War historian Ed Bearss, “The Fort Hindman … took a powerful pounding.” The Rebels “fired forty-seven shells and sixteen solid shots into the Union tinclads and timber-clads which had closed to within 400 feet. The gun spotters shouted excitedly as projectile after projectile was seen to crash into the pilothouses and the vessels’ cabins.” 

The barrage disabled the Fort Hindman, which moved downriver. Another gunboat passed the Confederate artillery and soon bombarded Harrisonburg before moving a short distance up the river to the Catahoula shoals, where the commander decided to turn around. Although he was confident he could reach Monroe and claim control of the Ouachita, he was unsure he could return downriver because the Ouachita was rapidly falling and the gunboats would be needed elsewhere. 

At Harrisonburg, the Yankees set fire to a house along the river bank which caused another house nearby to ignite. Polignac said the town would have burned to the ground were it not for the actions of his troops. 

 

‘NOTHING WAS DONE’ 

 

Liddell told Polignac that he should immediately return to Trinity and “remove the heavy ordinance and material before the fleet could get there by morning.” 

Instead, according to Liddell, Polignac indicated that was the calvary’s responsibility. 

“Nothing was done” by Polignac, Liddell wrote, and “by daylight on March 4 the gunboats returned to Trinity.”  

Polignac lost six dead and 10 wounded, while the Union fleet lost two killed and 14 wounded. 

At Trinity, the feds seized the three 32-pounders Polignac left behind and destroyed the artillery works as well as the pontoon bridge on Little River. The federal commander intended to burn the town, but when he saw women and children on the streets, he changed his mind. 

Polignac, like Liddell, had opposed removing the guns from Fort Beauregard to Trinity, and Polignac reminded the higher ups of that. 

“It is with feelings of deep regret that I have to report the loss of the guns, but as I am conscious to have done as much as I could under the circumstances, I would respectfully remind, through you, the brigadier-general commanding that these guns were withdrawn from my charge by superior order; that they were taken to Trinity without my advice, and that I was so circumstanced as to be without authority to oppose such removal.” 

Liddell, however, said Polignac could have done a lot more: 

“Thus had Polignac utterly failed in the special object he had been sent to do, that is the protection of the works and guns {at Trinity}. To my utter astonishment, Major General Taylor came out in a glowing, laudatory address to the troops under Polignac’s command, for effectively driving this fleet away from Trinity and Harrisonburg. He said nothing, however, about the loss sustained in government war material.” 

In a letter, General Taylor expressed to “Brigadier-General Polignac and the officers and men of his brigade” his “high appreciation of the gallant and soldierly bearing in their engagement of the 1st and 2nd of March 1864, with the enemy's gunboats on the Ouachita River. The dispositions made by General Polignac were excellent and were nobly sustained by his command.” 

Liddell never had a problem expressing his opinion and he blamed Taylor -- many would say unfairly -- for the loss of the 32-pounders. 

Liddell felt Taylor would face no repercussions because Taylor’s brother-in-law was Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy: Taylor “could take responsibilities with impunity to advance his own interests and reputation.” 

(Next Week: The Red River fight) 

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