Union Troops

UNION TROOPS under the command of General Nathaniel Banks gather along the Atchafalaya River at Simmesport in Avoyelles Parish in May 1863 during a march to and from Alexandria prior to the siege of Port Hudson on the Mississippi River. At the same time, Union General David Porter’s gunboats went up the Red River to Fort DeRussy at Marksville and on to Alexandria. On the journey back to the Atchafalaya and the Mississippi, Union forces destroyed Confederate farm produce, burned houses and barns, and lived off the land – taking poultry, livestock and other food sources. They also confiscated cotton, the main source of currency for the Confederacy. Thousands of slaves followed the Union Army on the march in a trail that extended six to nine miles. Several months later, General St. John Richardson Liddell, returning to Louisiana from Tennessee and dodging federal forces, saw the devastation along the road from Simmesport to Fort DeRussy. A day later, he arrived home at his Llanada Plantation on the Black River at Jonesville. (Credit: J.R. Hamilton, “Harper’s Weekly,” 1863)  


(23rd in a Series)  

During the Civil War in late 1863, following a Confederate victory at Chickamauga Creek, Tennessee, and a loss to the Union at nearby Chattanooga, Brigadier General St. John Richardson Liddell was past ready to go home to Black River and Catahoula Parish.  

He had spent three years fighting for the Confederacy and over the past weeks had pleaded with his commanders, General Braxton Bragg, and others, to let him return to his wife and family on his Llanada Plantation on the outskirts of present day Jonesville.  

On Dec. 2, Bragg finally agreed, releasing Liddell from duty with the Army of Tennessee and ordering him to report to the Trans-Mississippi, the region of the Confederacy west of the Mississippi.  

Liddell told his staff goodbye and presented a friend with the gift of a buffalo robe.  

He had led a brigade in several battles and skirmishes in Mississippi and Tennessee, and a division at the Battle of Chickamauga, where he was commended for his hard fighting in the worst of the battle. Liddell had seen hundreds of his men fall dead or wounded by the enemy, while using his weapon to kill and wound enemy soldiers.  

The war had also taken its toll on the Liddell family, including two of his teenage sons. Willie was wounded at the Battle of Murfreesboro and died in Louisiana in 1863 after returning home to recover. Another son, Moses, had seen heavy fighting, too.  

In early December, Liddell headed home by horse and train, from Dalton, Georgia, to the Alabama towns of Jacksonville, Talladega and Selma.  

From there, he went to Jackson, Miss., where he saw the ravages of war following Union General U.S. Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign, which ultimately resulted in control of the Mississippi River and splitting the east and west sides of the Confederacy.  

Liddell’s trip home as well as his Civil War experiences are recorded in a book (“Liddell’s Record”), edited by historian Nathaniel C. Hughes, who had access to Liddell’s original manuscripts.  




“When I reached Jackson, Mississippi, I was astonished at the change,” Liddell wrote. “It was at least half burnt up by Grant’s forces. In many places, chimneys alone indicated the locality of habitations, both in town and country. The following winter, {Union General William T.} Sherman’s raid nearly finished what remained, leaving behind him the mark of his traces that a century will hardly efface. Sherman’s assuredly determined to fix his name in the memory of the people.”  

Liddell did not like Sherman. Prior to the Civil War, Sherman had served as superintendent of the Louisiana State Seminary in Pineville, which eventually became known as LSU after its relocation to Baton Rouge. Liddell’s son, Moses (nicknamed Judge), was a cadet there in 1860.  

According to historian Hughes, Liddell’s dislike of Sherman began when he kicked Moses out of school. A similar thing had happened to Liddell when he was at West Point: He was booted out for his conflict with another cadet which resulted in either a duel or discussion of a duel.  

According to Sherman, Moses had been the leader of a group of pranksters known as the Midnight Marauders. The group had caused trouble at the school. Rather than testify against a fellow member of the group, Moses left the campus without permission.  

Sherman wrote him up for deserting.  

Liddell was furious, accusing Sherman of making “a mountain out of a molehill about an absurd secret society.”  

Sherman wrote Liddell about Moses: “He has gone off without cause, without reason, and in the face of my earnest request and remonstrations, and this being a state institution, the record will look bad, for it must be published to the legislature and the world that he deserted … His course has been neither consistent, dignified, nor free from prejudice – three essential qualifications for the control of young men.”  

Liddell wanted to save Moses from “the odium of being placed upon the record as a deserter.”  

He appealed Sherman’s decision to the LSU Board of Supervisors. The supervisors backed Sherman.  




Liddell left Jackson for Port Gibson, but he found the Union army and navy guarding the Mississippi River there. To get from the east side of the Mississippi to the west side, he had no choice but to amend his plans: “This obstacle turned my steps to Woodville, further south, and then to Tunica,” located in West Feliciana Parish near the grounds of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.  

“There at midnight I succeeded in swimming my horse and mule by the side of a small ferryboat. The water was so cold that my horse was chilled. I attempted to relieve him by keeping him on the move the remainder of the night. It took him nearly six months to get over this cold bath and exertion of swimming.  

“Near the Atchafalaya crossing {at Simmesport in Avoyelles Parish} I met with a division of {Confederate} General John G. Walker’s infantry. A pontoon had been thrown across that outlet of the Mississippi River, which enabled the troops to operate against the Federal forces near Morganza {in Point Coupee Parish}.  

“My road now lay in the river track of {Union General Nathaniel} Bank’s Army on its return from Alexandria on the Red River. The marks and ravages of war were plainly visible on every side.” He saw “standing chimneys and wasted plantations” along the way. “Who could have imagined then that the desolation of war would ever reach this secluded corner?”  

On the following day “after passing {through} Avoyelles Parish, I reached Fort De Russy {three miles north of Marksville}, where I saw the colonel of that name superintending the works.  

“Colonel Lewis G. DeRussy {born in 1795} had been elected colonel of the 2nd Louisiana Regiment, had served a short time in Virginia, but finding his brother directly opposed to him there on the Federal side, resigned and returned to Louisiana, taking charge of the works named for him.”  

According to the National Park Service, DeRussy “was the oldest West Point graduate to serve in the Confederate Army and a veteran of the War of 1812 and the Mexican War. DeRussy was a prominent engineer in civilian life and thus became the engineering officer in charge of construction of the first fortifications. Construction of the fort at the determined site began in November of 1862.”  

The National Park Service notes: “Earthwork fortifications, such as Fort DeRussy, were widely used during the Civil War … these earthworks included entrenchments, rifle pits, earthen fort walls, and batteries.  

“The art of constructing earthen forts really began in 1863 and these earthen fortifications became more prevalent in 1864 as an essential military operation. In order to construct such a defense, the shovels, picks, and axes that were normally used in such an endeavor were unavailable and makeshift tools, such as bayonets, were used instead. These fortifications could usually be up and running within two to three hours and were normally about four feet deep/high which would provide essential protection for the soldiers.”  




The evening after his arrival at Fort DeRussy, Liddell “succeeded in getting to my home on the Black River. It is a tributary of the Red River from Arkansas, changing its name to Ouachita, by flowing almost directly southward and navigable for many hundred miles above its mouth.  

“I had not seen my family for two years and had not heard from them for over a year. I was, therefore, agreeably surprised to find them at home and doing well in health. The place was badly dilapidated from visits of Yankees and plunderers, and most of the Negroes had been sent to Texas for security.”  

In late 1863, according to historian Hughes, Liddell’s slaves were sent to Texas: “Major General John B. Magruder issued a special order protecting Liddell’s slaves, wagons and teams. While in Texas, Liddell’s slaves would be used by the Confederate government feeding cattle at depots in Houston County.”  

Liddell wrote that he “remained with my family” on Black River “but a few days, in which time I learned that one Lieutenant Thomas O. Selridge, U.S. Navy, had visited the place the preceding spring with his gunboat fleet, but had refrained from doing injury to it. He, however, had burnt up the mill of a poor citizen (Captain Skinner) at Trinity.  

“On the first day of January 1864, I got to Shreveport and reported to Lieutenant General E. Kirby Smith. He received me very cordially … Demoralization pervaded everybody, and confusion generally prevailed in the administration, both civil and military.  

“General Smith ordered me to report to General Richard Taylor at Alexandria, Louisiana, for assignment to duty in the subdistrict of North Louisiana, and I went there a few days afterwards to receive his instructions.”  

(Next Week: The war at home.)  

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