St. John Richardson Liddell

CONFEDERATE GENERAL St. John Richardson Liddell was involved in some of the heaviest fighting during the Battle of Chickamauga, Tennessee, Sept. 18-20, 1863. Here, Confederates (right) charge the Union line. With more than 34,000 casualties, Chickamauga was the second bloodiest battle during the Civil War, Gettysburg the deadliest. Liddell’s division suffered heavy losses at Chickamauga. (Credit: Battle of Chickamauga, Library of Congress) 

(22nd in a Series)  

During the summer of 1863, Black River planter St. John Richardson Liddell was homesick.  

He had spent almost three years fighting on the Confederate side of the Civil War and in July 1863 found himself in Chattanooga, Tennessee, 500 miles from his Louisiana plantation, Llanada, in Catahoula Parish.  

Liddell’s son, 17-year-old Moses (nicknamed Judge) and named after Liddell’s father, was a war veteran, too, having fought at the First Battle of Bull Run.  

So was Liddell’s 15-year-old son, Willie. He had fought in Tennessee at Shiloh and later at the Battle of Murfreesboro, where he was shot in the thigh. He headed home during the spring of 1863 to recover his health but several months later, Willie was dead, the cause of his death unclear.  

At Llanada, Liddell’s wife Mary was at her wit’s end. By July 1863, the Union army had captured Vicksburg and the Mississippi River, and everyone in Catahoula and Concordia parishes knew that Union gunboats would soon be heading up the Black River.  

Liddell worried about that, too. On July 9, 1863, he received word “of the fall of Vicksburg and the consequent complete occupation of the Mississippi River by the Federals.”  

Liddell’s reaction to the fall is recorded in his own words in a book (Liddell’s Record), edited by historian Nathaniel C. Hughes and published in 1985.  

“It was clearly apparent now that we had receded until all chances of success had passed by. The turning points of the war had been fatally overlooked or were given up without sufficient effort and strategic concurrence. Henceforth, the war would slowly, but surely, wear out the Confederate States, which could only struggle on and abide their time.”  

Liddell was so sure of this that he went to see General Braxton Bragg, commander of the Confederate Army of Tennessee, and “proposed to him in my conversation to resign or otherwise be transferred to the Trans-Mississippi Department {west of the Mississippi River}. This transfer would enable me to look after my family and secure something for their support from the wreck of my property.  

“Bragg seemed very much depressed and said that we had backed to the last jumping-off place and could go back no further with any hope of success. He positively refused, however, to accept my withdrawal or transfer and urged me to hold on for another campaign. He would take my transfer to Louisiana under his favorable consideration at that time.”  

 

CHICKAMAUGA CREEK  

 

Bound to the war in Tennessee, Liddell would soon find himself in the middle of a major battle along Chickamauga Creek, six miles from Chattanooga.  

During the autumn of 1863, the federal army under General William Rosecrans had advanced to Chattanooga, above the Georgia line. Confederate commander Bragg pulled back into Georgia, waiting for reinforcements, which soon arrived from Virginia.  

A Union victory in Chattanooga, an important railroad center crucial to the Confederate cause, would open the door to Georgia.  

Prior to the fighting there, Bragg had made Liddell a commander of a division consisting of five Mississippi regiments, an Arkansas brigade of seven regiments consolidated into three and the First Louisiana Infantry. His division included two artillery batteries.  

Liddell and General William H. Mackall, an old friend of Liddell’s, made “a reconnaissance south and west of Chattanooga, over the grounds that afterwards became the scene of the desperate conflict of Chickamauga. We extended our observations from Lafayette across Lookout Mountain.  

“We entered Wills Valley, which lies between Lookout Mountain and Raccoon Mountain. We crossed Running Water Creek, which comes out from between the two latter mountains into the valley of Wills Creek.  

“Mackall and I followed its course northeast for seven or eight miles. Crossing the stream near the mouth, we moved around the base of Lookout Point, close to the Tennessee River. Soon we emerged into the beautiful plain of Chattanooga.”  

On the morning of Sept. 18, Liddell was ordered “to meet the enemy on the Lafayette Road across Chickamauga Creek, a little stream with a course slightly east of north,” which emptied into the Tennessee River above Chattanooga.  

That evening, Liddell was told “to attack and drive the enemy away from Alexander’s Bridge, which was done after a severe engagement in which many men (105) were killed and wounded, but the bridge was broken up. To avoid, delay, we sought Bryam’s Ford, one and a half miles below where we waded the stream and, marching half a mile or more beyond, stopped to bivouac.”  

Meanwhile, Confederate troops from Virginia had arrived on trains and “reached the Chickamauga at a bridge some half a mile still below us and forced a crossing there at the same time we did.”  

The next morning, as federal troops drove back Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s calvary, Liddell moved out to help.  

“I was now required to engage the enemy and check his advance until we could get up reinforcements. {General John Bell} Hood had gone to the left, and no other division of the right wing, other than {General William. H. T.} Walker’s and mine, now came up to meet this avalanche. No time was to be lost; we were quickly ready. All this occurred in the woods. The enemy now came on slowly and cautiously, but we could not see him from the underbrush.  

“Forward we went, and in a few minutes came into immediate close contact. My line pressed forward, giving and receiving heavy volleys. Loud shouts soon followed. We captured about 900 regulars and several batteries of artillery. Without stopping, on we went, driving back the second line and hotly engaging the third.”  

 

IN THE THICK OF BATTLE  

 

Leading the Union resistance was General George Thomas, who was defending the left side of the Union line while protecting a third of the federal army as it retreated to Chattanooga.  

Thomas, wrote Liddell, “was prepared with far larger force than my little division of only two brigades in one line without support on flanks or in rear. He struck my flank with another division at an obtuse angle, which forced me back in turn, filing off as it were from left to right.”  

The fighting raged all day as the Union army pushed Liddell’s division back.  

“All of our fighting had been done in thick oak and brush woodlands. We could not see each other until close at hand … It was now getting late, almost sunset. We had been, I may say, constantly fighting since morning. {General Patrick} Cleburne’s Division arrived fresh, having up to this time been out of the fight. He now moved forward just in my rear, and seeing our condition, I rode hastily back to show him the enemy. They were halted in the woods, not far before us, probably to secure the ground gained and to rest for the night.  

“I pressed Cleburne to move to the attack at once with his fresh troops and drive the enemy back, as they must be greatly exhausted from our constant fighting.” Otherwise, Liddell feared that by morning the Union troops would be entrenched and rested. But Liddell said Cleburne hesitated and said he would await further orders.  

“Our opportunities were fast slipping away,” Liddell wrote.  

In the end, Chickamauga was a southern victory, ultimately forcing the Union army to Chattanooga, where it prevailed in a later battle. General Bragg’s leadership during this campaign was widely criticized and caused a rebellion among his own generals.  

Liddell wrote of Chickamauga: “My loss in my two brigades in the battle was 1,404 killed, wounded, and missing, out of an effective total of 3,175 in action, nearly half of the whole, which shows the severity of the struggle and how dearly this victory was purchased. Bragg’s total loss, killed and wounded, was 15,017. This was out of a force of 40,000 each day of the fight, over one-third of the whole.  

“Reinforcements arrived on trains making up closely for each day’s loss. This was the largest army Bragg ever had together under his command.”  

Confederate losses were 18,454 and Union 16,170. Federal soldiers from the state of Indiana were annihilated, experiencing casualties amounting 3,926 killed and wounded.  

 

‘HE DECLINED AGAIN’  

 

While Liddell was fighting in Tennessee, the federal army and navy had arrived on Black River. On Concordia Parish plantation of Dr. Andrew Robert Kilpatrick, teen Mary Reynolds, who had been born into slavery there, was working in the fields when she heard a conch shell blow.  

The slaves gathered at the back gate of Kilpatrick’s house, where he led them to the bank of the river. There, Mary saw a federal gunboat.  

As the boat steamed downriver out of sight, the Union calvary arrived. Many of the now freed slaves left with the federal army.  

Mary recalled in an interview that was published in the “Slave Narratives,” that the next day more Yankees swarmed the place. A group of slaves led the soldiers into the woods where livestock, mules, money, chinaware and silver had been hidden.  

Soon, Mary decided to follow Kilpatrick to Texas, where she lived the rest of her life.  

On the other side of Concordia Parish along the Mississippi River at Vidalia, enslaved teen John Roy Lynch arose from his sick bed on Tacony Plantation and realized that the Yankees were moving about. They had begun the federal occupation of Natchez in July 1863, just days after Vicksburg fell.  

From Natchez, the Union army fanned out into northeastern Louisiana, took control of Vidalia and by late summer – at the same time Liddell was in Tennessee -- launched an expedition across Concordia Parish in route to Catahoula Parish, first to Trinity and then to Harrisonburg, where they disabled the big guns at Fort Beauregard on the Ouachita and chased the Rebels back to their base at Alexandria.  

Now free, John Roy, who wrote about his Civil War experiences in his autobiography, walked to Vidalia and secured ferry passage across the Mississippi to Natchez with the 10 cents he’d earned selling a chicken to a Union soldier, the first Yankee he’d ever seen. He went to visit with his mother and soon embarked on a remarkable career, gaining election to Congress in Mississippi during Reconstruction and holding other high offices.  

In Tennessee, Bragg reorganized his command and stripped Liddell of his division without explanation, according to Liddell, who again pressed upon Bragg to let him go home to Louisiana.  

“To my great surprise and astonishment, he declined again! He said that he could not spare me and would give me promotion with another and larger division. I told him I was not seeking such honors and only wished to go where I could be more useful in some respect.  

“At the same time, I wished to be near enough to aid my family, now exposed to the plundering operations of Jayhawkers and deserters.”  

Bragg stood firm and suggested Liddell voice his desires to the Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who was in route to Tennessee. Davis soon arrived. Liddell was told he would not be going home anytime soon.  

(Next Week: Heading west.)  

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