Stanley Nelson

THE TENSAS River was visited by the Union tinclad U.S. Rattler during the Civil War where at Bowman’s Ferry crewman observed cotton bales on fire. The retreating Confederate Calvary had ignited them. (Concordia Sentinel photo)

The Civil War signaled the end of prosperity for the thriving river town of Rodney, Miss.
Its most famous relic, the Presbyterian Church, dates back to the 1830s. Above the center balcony window is a replica of a Union cannonball that fills the hole created by the original shell fired 15 decades ago.
In addition to heralding misfortune for the town, the events leading up the bombardment of Rodney resulted in the downfall of a Union captain.
A year before the Civil War ended, the Mighty Mississippi began to shift course, the former channel morphing into a swamp as the years passed.
In 1869, a devastating fire wrapped Rodney “in a mantle of flames,” according to an officer aboard the steamer Richmond. The crew and passengers had first noticed “bright lights on the southern horizon” shortly after the boat departed Vicksburg. At 2 a.m., the officers and passengers were horrified to watch as “the beautiful Town of Rodney … lit up as it was by the lurid lights from burning buildings, mingled with the moon’s pale beams.”
But the church survived.
Then the railroad came to Fayette, which, because of its central location, had become Jefferson County’s seat of government years before the Civil War. That move had resulted in the demise of the old county seat town of Greenville, five miles to the west on the Natchez Trace.
As years rolled by, Rodney became more and more isolated, her once busy landing abandoned by the river, her economic vitality derailed by the railroad running through Fayette.
It was in early September 1863 when the Union tinclad, the U.S.S. Rattler, anchored off the Rodney landing. She was one of more than 60 tinclads operated by the Union Navy. A wooden side-wheel steamer, the Rattler had been christened the Florence Miller in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1862 before the Navy purchased it for $24,000.
A flag officer, describing the type of tinclad fleet needed at the outset of the war, wrote the U.S. Secretary of Navy that “in order to acquire the control of the tributaries of the Mississippi, and to maintain that control during the dry season, it will be necessary to fit up immediately some boats of small draft for this special service. These boats will be sufficiently protected about the machinery and pilothouses against musketry (not cannon, like the ironclads). They will be selected for their light draft, their capacity to receive a suitable armament of howitzers, fieldpieces, or other light guns, and to accommodate the requisite number of men."
The Rattler was assigned to the Mississippi Squadron and took part in the Siege of Vicksburg and afterward in raids along the Red, Black, Tensas and Ouachita rivers in Catahoula Parish in July of 1863.
At dawn on July 13, the Rattler arrived in Trinity (across Little River from Jonesville) along with seven other vessels in a fleet led by Commander Thomas O. Selfridge. At Trinity, four rivers meet – the Black, Tensas, Ouachita and Little.
The Rattler and Manitou were sent up Little River as a thunderstorm raged and returned hours later with a big prize – the Confederate steamer Louisville – that the Rebels had attempted to hide at French Fork. Union Rear Admiral David Porter called the Louisville "one of the largest and perhaps the best steamers in the Western waters."
Meanwhile, two other Union tinclads had chugged up the Tensas where they captured the Confederate steamer Elmira and her cargo of sugar, rum and Rebel supplies. Her crew had abandoned the vessel.
After ordering the destruction by fire of a small sawmill on the Concordia shore opposite Trinity, Selfridge boarded the Rattler and led her to Tilman Gilbert’s plantation landing located farther up the Tensas. Leaving the tinclad Petrel at Gilbert’s, the Rattler and Forest Rose continued upstream where at Bowman’s Ferry they saw cotton bales in flames, ignited by Rebel cavalry.
In early September, 4,000 Union troops marched from Natchez to Harrisonburg, located up the Ouachita 12 miles from Trinity. On the 4th, the Yanks seized Fort Beauregard that hours earlier had been vacated by a small group of Confederate artillerists.
Seven days later, the Rattler was on the Mississippi and anchored off the Rodney landing. For most of 1863, she had been under the command of the acting master, Captain Walter E.H. Fentress. Fentress’ primary mission was to keep the Confederates from crossing men and supplies across the Mississippi and inspect vessels traversing the river.
On the 12th, Rev. Baker, the pastor at the Red Lick Presbyterian Church, located 15 miles east of Rodney, came to town to catch a northern bound steamer. The minister of the Rodney Presbyterian Church asked Baker to preach the Sunday morning service the next day, the 13th.
A northern sympathizer, Baker, a guest on board the Rattler, invited Captain Fentress to church. Despite being in hostile territory, the captain accepted the offer and brought 16 men with him for the 11 a.m. preaching.
Confederate Calvary caught word that the Yankees were at the church. An officer and his men surrounded the building, reportedly under the cover of organ and choir music.
When the church grew quiet, the voice of Confederate Lt. Allen, standing at the door of the church, advised the enemy to surrender. At 11:20 a.m., those on board the Rattler heard gunfire as the Southern women, children and elderly men in the congregation helped the Rebels subdue the startled Yankees.
Informed of the trouble at the church, the Rattler quickly shelled the hills and woods over and around the church, driving the Rebels out of town and thereby providing the opportunity for two officers and four of the men to escape. The tinclad fired nine shrapnel and five Parrott shells. One cannon ball lodged above the middle balcony window of the church.
The Rebels claimed the shelling stopped when Lt. Allen threatened to hang his remaining prisoners.
At 1:30 p.m. an armed boat’s crew of eight was sent on shore to burn the house of a citizen who had denied one of the federal escapees refuge, although for some reason the house was not torched. To cover the mission, the Rattler shelled the roads leading to the hills where the Rebels were last seen.
Aboard the U.S.S. Benton at Natchez, Lt.-Commander James A. Greer penned a message to Admiral Porter on Sept. 14:
“I have received information this morning of the capture yesterday at Rodney, by some of Logan’s cavalry, of Acting Master Fentress, Acting Ensign Shrunk, and 15 men, all belonging to the Rattler.
“Captain Fentress, 3 officers, and 20 men, unarmed, with the exception of one officer, were on shore at church when the rebels dashed into the town and surrounded the house, capturing the whole party, with the exception of 2 officers and 5 men, who made their escape. One of the officers fired his revolver four times at the rebels, and thinks he wounded two.
“I had cautioned Captain Fentress about being very careful in his visits on shore at Rodney, and the disaster was the result of carelessness.”
On Oct. 15, Greer updated Porter:
“Acting Master Fentress, on the day that he was captured at Rodney, took no precaution whatever against capture. There were no boats waiting for his party, but were to be sent for them when they came down. No one was armed but one of the engineers, who took a revolver with him. Mr. Fentress told the executive officer, Mr. Ferguson, that he could let those men go to church that wished to. Mr. Fentress wore a citizen’s coat.”
Porter was fit to be tied. He reminded all commanders in his fleet of their orders and barked to Greer: “I only regret that Mr. Fentress did not get severely punished for his disobedience of General Order No. 4, and I will omit nothing to have him dismissed from the service.
“You will arrest any officer whom you hear of leaving his vessel to go on shore under any circumstances whatever, except at places held by our troops, or to send a boat where there is the slightest chance to be fired on, or landing at any plantation, or leaving the ship except to pick up a drowning man, without the boat being armed.
“The commanders will never allow their vessels to touch the bank even, but remain on board and patrol the river. You will instruct the executive officers if any commander leaves his vessel, to get underway at once and report the fact to you.”
Porter apparently never got his chance to punish Fentress. In November 1863, Fentress, now in the Confederate’s Libby Prison at Richmond, Virginia, wrote the admiral begging forgiveness for the Rodney embarrassment:
“I went on shore to attend divine service, which was performed in a church not two hundred yards distant from the steamer, and in open view. I had been at Rodney since the Tensas expedition, and had never seen or heard of an enemy near that point. I had taken many negroes who were from the neighborhood, and all reported no rebels in that vicinity. I do not, sir, wish to excuse myself, for I am aware that excuses are of little value with you, when an officer is at fault; but, sir, I do crave your forbearance in the most unfortunate mistake of mine.
“We had just entered and were seated in the church when a squadron of fifty Calvary dashed upon us and opened fire from the windows and doors. I endeavored to stop this brutal fire upon unarmed men, but was fired upon by the fiends, and slightly wounded in the back.
“My hands were tied, and I was made fast to a horse, and compelled to keep pace with him for five miles. My treatment since my capture has been brutal; but, inhuman as it is, sir, I would be happy if I knew that your displeasure was removed, and that I might again retrieve my character in the Mississippi squadron under your command.
“May I beg, sir, that you will drop me a line in my present miserable condition?”
A year later in 1864, during a storm upriver at Grand Gulf, the Rattler was driven ashore by high winds where she snagged and sunk. Confederates burned the vessel once the Union Navy abandoned it.
That same year, Fentress was exchanged in a prisoner swap. Allowed to return to service and apparently forgiven, he was given command of another tinclad. Fentress worked as a secretary at a northeastern shipyard for years after the war before moving to Detroit upon his retirement.

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