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Story Archives: 1863 Civil War skirmish in Vidalia -- accounts from both sides of Mississippi
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|1863 Civil War skirmish in Vidalia -- accounts from both sides of Mississippi|
In Spring 2007, we wrote about the successful Yankee expedition in early September 1863 from Natchez to capture and disarm Fort Beauregard at Harrisonburg in Catahoula Parish. A small Confederate outfit under Gen. George Logan was holding the fort, which possessed such a commanding hold on the Ouachita that Yankee gunboats couldn't pass.
As that Union expedition returned to Natchez, its rear was harrassed by a small Confederate force which followed all the way to Vidalia where a small battle was fought. Accounts of that skirmish were penned by two eyewitnesses.
When Union Gen. U.S. Grant arrived in Natchez he made Rosalie at the top of the bluff his headquarters. He stayed a few days and left Gen. M.M. Crocker in command of the District of Natchez, which included much of Louisiana and Mississippi.
On August 28, 1863, a month after the Union victory at Vicksburg, Grant wrote to Crocker at Natchez: "I want that expedition against Harrisonburg to start as soon as possible."
The wife of one of the generals who made the march across Concordia en route to Harrisonburg was Matilda Gresham, who resided quite some time herself at Rosalie.
WATCHING BATTLE FROM ROSALIE
"When I first saw it, Natchez was a beautiful place, and still is," she wrote, "although then showing traces of the ravages of the war. There was 'Natchez on the Bluff' and "Natchez under the Hill" at the landing. At the time of my first visit, 'Natchez under the Hill' was a famous place with its wharf, boats, warehouses, stores and hotels, and haunts of vice. Up an inclined cut, in the side of the chalky bluff which rises 170 feet above the river, is the road or street leading to Natchez proper.
"At the top is a park commanding a view — none finer on the Mississippi — down the river for miles, and up the river a short distance to where it disappears behind a bend to the west twenty miles around (now Old River), only to appear again across a narrow neck, about two and one-half miles to the north.
"Westward across the river for many miles the fertile bottom fields of Louisiana are in view. Facing the park were beautiful residences and farther back was the business part of the city."
Gen. Walter Gresham, Matilda's husband, arrived in Natchez on Aug. 26, 1863. Gresham was put in command of the Third Brigade, Fourth Division, Seventeenth Army Corps. Rosalie was headquarters.
"Included in his command," she said, "was the city of Natchez, so that from the first he was brought into close contact with its people."
"Harrisonburg," she wrote years after the war, "was the county seat of Catahoula Parish, Louisiana, thirty-five miles northwest of Natchez on the Black (actually the Ouachita) River. In it was Fort Beauregard, which mounted some heavy guns. The expedition marched by way of Trinity..." on the Ouachita.
The marching force consisted of two brigades of about 4,000 men. One brigade was commanded by Gen. Gresham.
"There was much marching and skirmishing, and each side greatly overestimated the numbers of the other," said Mrs. Gresham. "On the nights of the 3d and 4th of September, Lieutenant-Colonel George W. Logan, in command of Fort Beauregard, sent off all the movable stores and supplies, spiked the guns, and set fire to and abandoned the fort. He did this because his scouts reported that Colonel Horace Randall could not reinforce him and he alone could not withstand a siege..."
"This expedition was returning on the 6th of September as I arrived at Natchez...Up the incline and through the park to Rosalie I was conducted. Its lawns to the rear...and beyond, were covered with tents. A sumptuous breakfast awaited me."
The next morning "I was called to the upper gallery of Rosalie to witness a skirmish at Vidalia on the opposite side of the river, where Colonel Farrar was in command with only forty men and some Negro troops...
"General Crocker had left his pontoon train to follow his command in from Trinity. A party of Confederate cavalry pursued it and charged into Vidalia as it reached the town, shooting and sabering right and left. Colonel Farrar, with his forty men, met them with a counter charge, and troops rushed across on the ferry, speedily captured some men, and driving off the balance pursued them into the swamps. It was thus that I saw some actual fighting during the war."
BATTLE VIEW FROM TACONY
In Vidalia at this time was 15-year-old John Roy Lynch, a recently emancipated slave who was born on Tacony Plantation in 1847. His father was a white Irishman who worked as an overseer on a plantation. His mother, a slave, was of mixed race. Lynch's father died when John Roy was only 17-months-old, but his dying wishes that his wife and children be freed from slavery were unfulfilled.
Lynch, at the time of the Civil War, was the property of Alfred Davis, who resided at Dunleith in Natchez but also owned Tacony in Vidalia. After his emancipation, Lynch decided to return to the old plantation in Concordia to see his Aunt Julia Ann and her husband Uncle Dump, who were "good and kind to me..." John Roy had previously lived with the couple in their cabin for 15 months.
On the third day of the visit, Lynch said Confederate troops following the Union army from Harrisonburg moved on Tacony in route to the river. During the night, he recalled, "we were aroused by the booming of cannon, the firing of guns, and the noise of horses passing in double-quick time. We soon found that a battle was being fought. The main body of the Confederate army was between Vidalia and Tacony. The Confederates approached under cover of night and made a desperate attack upon the Union forces that were in possession of Vidalia. The battle continued for several hours when the Confederates were forced to retreat."
During the battle, Lynch said the Rebels were "looting the quarters of Tacony," loading the wagons "with everything that could be found." When they came to the cabin where John Roy was staying he told the Confederates that Aunt Julia Ann had small pox.
"It worked like a charm," John Roy said. "They left the quarters as soon as they could..."
The Confederates retreated later in the morning, after the fight viewed by Mrs. Gresham across the river at Rosalie.
The cabins on Tacony were about three miles from the river. After traveling a mile, John Roy "could see marked evidences of the engagement, in the form of dead mules and horses, bullet holes in the fences and bridges and devastation in the cotton and corn fields, but I saw no dead bodies." He crossed a picket line, then the river before finding himself "once more in the two little rooms occupied by my mother in Natchez" on Market Street.
It was at this point that Lynch began an extraordinary rise to power. His brother worked for Gen. Gresham. Lynch worked as a dining-room waiter for a private boarding house, a cook for the Forty-Ninth Illinois volunteers, and as a pantryman on the transport "Altamount."
Eventually he went to work for a photographer and later became a printer and learned the artistic, technical and financial side of the business and excelled. He read what books he could find, attended what classes were available to blacks. He was particularly interested in parliamentary law.
In 1869, Lynch became part of the Reconstruction era government in the South after being appointed as a Justice of the Peace for Adams County.
He served in the Mississippi House of Representatives, and speaker for one term. He was elected to Congress during Reconstruction, and became a large property owner in Adams County, owning all or parts of four plantations: Ingleside (84 acres), Providence (221 acres), Saragossa (90 acres); and Grove (1500 acres). He also bought real estate on Homochitto Street, St. Catherine and along Pine Ridge Road, now Martin Luther King.
Lynch had sold all of his properties locally by the early 1900s. He left Natchez around the turn of the century, first for Washington D.C. and later Chicago.
He went on to serve in national offices.
In 1913, Lynch published a book -- "The Facts of Reconstruction" -- "to bring to public notice those things that were commendable and meritorious" about the era. Years later, in the 1930s, he wrote "Reminisces of an Active Life," which dealt with both his early personal life in Concordia and Natchez and his later life in politics.
Historian Eric Foner of Columbia University in New York City said Lynch "was a very prominent figure in the politics of Reconstruction and later, after moving to Chicago, he wrote some of the first histories of that much misunderstood era..."
Lynch died Nov. 2, 1939, in Chicago. He was 92. He's buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
The story of his life is amazing and his account of his early years in Vidalia and Natchez is fascinating. His autobiography, now out of print, is available at local libraries. You should read it.
Another fine book is Matilda Gresham's two-volume work on her husband -- "Life of Walter Quintin Gresham 1832-1895." It's not available locally and has long been out of print. Yet it provides a revealing glimpse of Natchez country and local people during the Civil War days.
FAREWELL TO PROSTITUTES
On another subject, in May 1816, Anthony Campbell issued a warning under-the-hill at Natchez to all gamblers, vagrants, owners of houses of prostitution and prostitutes to clean up their acts.
A city officer and Pine Ridge farmer who served in many public roles in Natchez, Campbell's warning is believed to be the reason he suffered a savage beating a few years later. A man knocked Campbell off his horse, beat him with a rawhide whip, bit off his left ear, then chewed and swallowed it.
By December 1816, the thought that prostitution might actually end under-the-hill worried Anthony Haslett, a Navy veteran who also liked to write poems. In the Christmas Day editions of the Washington Republican and Natchez Intelligencer, his fears that the whores working below the bluffs might take their business across the river to Vidalia were expressed in this poem, a farewell to the ladies of the evening:
Fair Poll, adieu. With three sweet Jenny goes,
and Moll and Bet, and Nell and Rach, and Rose.
Lost o'er the watery way compell'd to roam..
Concordia's banks receive their wand'ring feet,
Concordia's crops supply them beds of rest,
Concordia's bachelors are supremely bless'd.
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