(6th in a Series)
Shortly before the Civil War broke out, Joseph Francois Charles Delhoste, the founder of Acme, was murdered.
After testifying against cattle rustlers in court in Vidalia, he was apparently killed by the men he had testified against. Death came near his home on high ground at the juncture of the Black and Red rivers. Acme means “summit” or “high point.”
The 50-year-old was a native of France who had arrived in New Orleans in the 1830s. He became a grocer and later a boatman peddler, operating a grocery store on a large barge along the Red River. Oftentimes he passed by the mouth of the Black River. He liked the location and settled in Concordia Parish around 1850 when he, his wife Josephine and their children moved from New Orleans.
With death of Joseph, his widow was left alone to rear their children and to tend to their trade store, cotton gin and cotton warehouse. The family also operated a coal chute to fuel steamboats operating the New Orleans to North Louisiana trade.
Little did the Delhoste family know that Union and Confederate generals saw the strategic river juncture as important to victory.
Through the generations, stories of the family’s ordeals during the Civil War have survived.
‘A MAGNIFICENT SCHEME’
But before the war between the states impacted Acme and the region, the generals studied the maps.
In early 1863, Union Commander U.S. Grant was stuck at Lake Providence and Young’s Point in northeastern Louisiana, his gunboats unable to navigate past the formidable Confederate fort at Vicksburg. Built atop the bluffs, the fort towered over a horseshoe bend of the Mississippi River.
The Yankees controlled all of the Mississippi with the exception of the gap between Vicksburg and Port Hudson, above Baton Rouge.
On January 30, Grant wrote to Rear Admiral David D. Porter that when the water levels were high, Union boats could possibly steam “from Lake Providence through Tensas Bayou, the Ouachita and Black rivers to the Red River.” He also wrote Major General John A. McClernand, Commander Thirteenth Army Corps, about this route, noting that by commanding the juncture of the Black and Red at Acme, “a vast foraging district would be opened, and our gunboats of light draught would be enabled to cut off the enemy’s commerce with the west bank” of the Mississippi River.
The Red flowed into the Mississippi only 30 river miles southeast of the Red-Black juncture.
On February 7, General W.T. Sherman wrote to General Samuel Ryan Curtis at St. Louis that Grant was considering diverting the Mississippi River “into Lake Providence, when its waters would follow the Tensas to the Black River, then Red and Atchafalaya, thus actually reaching the sea without approaching any bluff or ground of easy defense. This is a magnificent scheme, and if successful, will be a grand achievement. A glance at the map will show it at least probable.”
While Grant’s aggressive plan to divert the Mississippi failed, the Confederate Army also considered the importance of defending the Red-Black juncture. Brigadier-General W.R. Boggs wrote Major-General Richard Taylor: “I think the mouth of Black River is the most suitable position for the defense of the Red River, and the work, although heavy, will require but a small garrison.”
General E. Kirby Smith, commander of the Confederate Trans-Mississippi West, wrote Taylor that General Boggs’ examination concluded “that works at the Black River are practicable, and will more effectually defend the district than at any other point that can be selected. A small work, with obstructions under its guns … might quickly be constructed. Such defenses at two or three points could probably delay and prevent advance of a column up the Valley of the Red River through the season of high water.”
Confederate Major Henry T. Douglas, Chief Engineer, was advised to “consult with Major-General Taylor upon the immediate construction of fortifications for the defense of Red River. If practicable, the works should be placed at the mouth of Black River, thereby controlling navigation of both rivers above their junction.”
But before any works were constructed by either army, the Yankee gunboats took charge of the rivers of northeastern Louisiana. Fort DeRussy, a Confederate earthwork four miles north of Marksville on the Red -- upriver from Acme -- had been constructed in 1862 to defend the lower Red River. But the fort was captured in the spring of 1863 by the federal gunboat the USS Benton.
At Harrisonburg, Fort Beauregard was constructed on the lower Ouachita River to block the passage of gunboats. But in early September 1863, a federal force of infantry and calvary marching from Natchez destroyed the fort and part of the town.
As the federal gunboats and armies began work to take control of the Black and the Red, coal barges were sent to the mouth of the Black under the protection of gunboats. They were used to refuel other Union gunboats as well as transport and supply boats.
CANNONBALLS AND FIRE
In 1975, Bea Nathanson wrote a two-part series in theConcordia Sentinel on the founding of Acme. She interviewed Joseph Charles “Man” Delhoste, the grandson of Acme’s founder, and also Richard White, a relative and friend of the family.
“One Union gunboat,” Nathanson wrote, “traveling down the Red River from Shreveport to New Orleans, saw the little settlement of Acme and fired cannonballs on the buildings. The ammunition set the structures on fire and they burned to the ground.
“The warehouse had been filled to the rafters with cotton, the store with groceries, dry goods and farm implements. They were now a pile of ashes,” and the Delhoste family never built them back.
“Many years later, Richard White … said that as a boy he went to the site of the old coal chute when the water was low, fished out the coal and sold it to farmers around the area. They used it to heat and sharpen their plow points.”
UP BLACK RIVER
Up the Black from Acme during the Civil War, teen Mary Reynolds was amazed when federal gunboats appeared on the river and when the Union infantry and calvary arrived at the plantation of Dr. Andrew Robert Kilpatrick. Although now emancipated, Reynolds, born into slavery on the Kilpatrick plantation, would later follow Kilpatrick to Texas where she would live out the rest of her life before dying in Dallas in the mid-20th century.
Kilpatrick’s 320-acre Concordia Parish plantation was located a half mile from the banks of Black River at Lismore, a few miles south of Trinity. The plantation included, according to theSouthern Plantation Advertiser, “a large dwelling house, large brick cisterns, cabins, and other necessary out houses, all in good repair.”
Like most country doctors, his house served as his office. Patients were treated on the second floor.
He was considered a skilled surgeon and obstetrician, and kept a journal, recording his treatment of patients and every day events. He also was a prolific writer, documenting life in both Concordia and Catahoula parishes before and during the 1850s, while also writing about diseases and surgeries for publication in medical journals. He was a census taker, too, and also the master of 56 slaves, including Mary Reynolds.
Kilpatrick, like many white slave owners, forced himself upon his female slaves, who bore him multiple children that were treated as slaves. Many of those he held in bondage suffered beatings at the hands of the plantation overseer, a brutal man named Solomon.
In the 1930s, Mary was interviewed for the Work Projects Administration Slave Narrative series in which 300 former slaves recalled their lives in bondage. According to the Texas Historical Association, Mary talked about her years on the Kilpatrick plantation, including “memories of family, religion, foodways, clothing, weddings, sickness, funerals, violence, intimidation, concubinage, labor, interracial children, the lease and sale of slaves, liberation by Union soldiers, life after freedom, and varied relationships of black and white women under slavery and after emancipation. Because she spoke on many aspects of slavery in her lengthy narrative, her interview has been frequently reprinted and cited by historians.”
PLANTATION OF HORRORS
In June of 1863,a New York Times reporter on a Union gunboat not far from the mouth of the Red reported seeing scores of African Americans fleeing the plantations along Red and Black rivers. Many made use of dugouts, traveling at night and hiding in the willows by day to avoid pursuing Rebels.
The story, which appeared at the top of the front page, related several horrific accounts concerning a handful of Black River farms, including that of the Gillespie family.
Located on the Catahoula side of Black River, the Gillespie place was home to the matriarch and her sons William and James. There, adult slaves were forced to drink “deeply of the bitter cup of human bondage” in what can best be described as a plantation of horrors.
After the death of Mr. Gillespie, his widow and sons delivered various forms of physical and mental abuse but Mrs. Gillespie seemed to be the commanding demon of the three. One son stood up to his mother and complained of her horrific torture of the female slaves, some of whom were as white as their late master.
“They won’t mind me,” Mrs. Gillespie answered, “and I will do with them as I please.”
ONE LEFT BEHIND
Back at Acme in 1863, according to Nathanson’s article in theSentinel, “some Southern soldiers were crossing from Concordia Parish to Avoyelles in a flatboat. After they got across, they chopped a hole in the boat and sank it.
“On the trail of the Southern soldiers came the Yankees, but they didn’t have a boat to cross the river in. They camped on the bank at Acme for a few days.”
Soon, the Yankee soldiers, with the exception of one, departed.
The man left behind was an officer who “died there and was buried under a giant oak tree.” The Delhoste family would not allow “anybody to touch the tree or the grave out of respect for the dead.”
But in the 1950s when the ring levee was constructed, “the oak tree yielded to progress and was destroyed,” and dirt piled high atop the grave.
(Next Week: Floods)