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Story Archives: Misery in Mississippi 1863: A general's death, a city's fall
|Misery in Mississippi 1863: A general's death, a city's fall|
(16th in a series)
The arrival of more than 100,000 Union troops in Louisiana and Mississippi in 1863 caused panic, fear and suffering. News of devastating Rebel losses in Civil War battles elsewhere in the South was slowly melting away local resolve.
By mid-July -- after the fall of Vicksburg and Port Hudson on the Mississippi -- Natchez was occupied by a federal force of 1,200 men. The citizens were disarmed. Fort Beauregard on the Ouachita in Catahoula Parish, which repelled a gunboat attack in May, would by late August fall to a federal force of 4,000 which marched overland from Natchez.
In May, news had arrived in Louisiana that the Confederacy's beloved general Stonewall Jackson, 39, had been wounded and later died. It was an omen of things to come. For a while, the general's demise was the main topic of conversation.
Months earlier in Virginia, Gen. Richard Taylor, who was named Rebel commander of Louisiana west of the Mississippi River in 1863, saw Jackson for the first time "perched on the topmost rail of a fence overlooking the road and field" wearing a pair of "calvary boots covering feet of gigantic size, a mangy cap with visor drawn low, a heavy, dark beard, and weary eyes -- eyes I afterward saw filled with intense but never brilliant light."
Taylor wrote about Jackson and Louisiana in a book about his Civil War experiences, "Destruction and Reconstruction,"
Later, over a campfire, Taylor visited with the eccentric Jackson, who was considered a tactical genius on the battlefield. For several hours Jackson "sucked lemons, ate hard-tack and drank water..." Taylor found that Jackson required no luxuries: "Without physical wants himself, he forgot that others were differently constituted."
When learning that the wagons carrying food for the army was far behind, delayed by a bad road, Jackson was unconcerned, confident that his men could live off the land. But, said Taylor, "woe to the man who failed to bring up ammunition. In advance, his trains were left far behind. In retreat, he would fight for a wheel-barrow."
At the Battle of Chancellorsville in Virginia on May 2, Jackson and members of his staff as well as their horses were shot by their own men when mistaken for Union calvary. Jackson was hit twice in the left arm and once in the right hand. He was later accidentally dropped from a stretcher. His left arm was amputated. He complained of a sore chest as pneumonia set in.
Eight days later, on May 10, when four Union gunboats attacked Fort Beauregard a world away in Harrisonburg, La., on the Ouachita River, Jackson died. Word that he had been wounded at Chancellorsville arrived up river in Monroe that day, according an Englishman named Arthur Lyon Fremantle, who mentioned it in his diary. News of Jackson's injury distressed everyone in town as well as thousands of Texas Rebels just arriving from Arkansas. Word of Jackson's death days later added to the gloom of a dying Confederacy in Louisiana and Mississippi. Moments before his last breath, Jackson uttered his last words: "Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees." But there was no rest in this region -- the Union army had arrived and chaos reigned.
On Saturday, May 16, Fremantle awoke at Longwood mansion in Natchez where he was an overnight guest of planter Haller Nutt. Fremantle was an officer in the Coldstream Guards, an elite regiment of the British Army. He kept a diary about his tour of the South during the Civil War and later put it in a book called, "Three Months in the Southern States,"
Fremantle had arrived in town on May 15 and expected to relax a day or so before continuing his journey, but the war forced him to keep moving. A Union calvary raid throughout much of Mississippi had unsettled the whole state, part of Gen. U.S. Grant's plan to take Vicksburg and assist Gen. Nathaniel Banks in conquering Port Hudson, the two locations on the Mississippi still in the hands of the Confederates.
During April and May, the Civil War had come full force to Louisiana and Mississippi. As part of the attacks on Vicksburg and Port Hudson, the Union had sent soldiers up the rivers of both states to clear out any Rebel strongholds. Union troops foraged the countryside for cattle and horses, raided hen houses and corn fields, freed slaves and destroyed railroads, confiscated and destroyed Confederate arms and ammunition and cut off supply lines.
The result was a shortage of food and supplies for every household and inflated prices for what goods were smuggled in. It cost Fremantle and his traveling companions $100 for a carriage ride to Brookhaven 65 miles away. From there he hoped to travel to Jackson by rail and eventually to Vicksburg. As a military man determined to observe the battles, he was prepared to risk his life and face hardships to realize his goal.
"My companions were a fat Government contractor from Texas, the wounded Missourian, Mr. Douglas, and an ugly woman, wife to a soldier in Vicksburg," Fremantle wrote in his diary.
They departed Natchez at noon. Their driver was a slave named Nelson: "The carriage and the three horses belong to him, and he drives it for his own profit; but he is, nevertheless a slave, and pays his owner $4 1/2 ($4.50) a week to be allowed to work on his own account."
All along the busy road Fremantle and the others heading east asked those traveling west: "Are the Yanks in Brookhaven? Is the railroad open?" A Rebel officer racing to Natchez on his horse provided "alarming intelligence that Jackson was going to be evacuated. Now as Jackson is the capital city of this State, a great railroad junction, and on the high road to every civilized place from this, our feelings may be imagined, but we did not believe it possible."
They slept in a farm house that night where all the males were at war, the women left behind. Fremantle described conditions as bleak, noting that the women "have scarcely any clothes, and nothing but the coarsest bacon to eat, and are in miserable uncertainty as to the fate of their relations, whom they can hardly ever communicate with. Their slaves, however, generally remain true to them."
On Saturday, May 16, Fremantle "breakfasted at another little farm house on some unusually tough bacon, and coffee made of sweet potatoes. The natives, under all their misery, were red hot in favor of fighting for their independence to the last, and I constantly hear the words, 'This is the most unjust war ever waged upon a people by mortal man.'"
" At 11 A. M. we met a great crowd of negroes, who had been run into the swamps to be out of the way of the Yankees, and they were now returning to Louisiana.
"At 2 P. M. a wounded soldier gave us the deplorable information that the enemy really was on the railroad between Jackson and Brookhaven, and that Jackson itself was in his hands. This news staggered us all,...but we all determined to go on at all hazards, and see what turned up. We halted for dinner at a farm house, in which were seven virgins, seated all of a row. They were all good looking, but shy and bashful to a degree I never before witnessed. All the young women in this country seem to be either uncommonly free-spoken, or else extremely shy. The further we went, the more certain became the news of the fall of Jackson.
"We passed the night in the veranda of an old farmer. He told us that Grierson's Yankee raid had captured him about three weeks ago...they took all good horses, leaving their worn out ones behind. They destroyed railroad, government property, and arms, and paroled all men, both old and young, but they committed no barbarities. In this manner they traversed all the State of Mississippi without meeting any resistance. They were fine looking men from the Northwestern States."
The next day, Sunday, May 17, Fremantle arrived in Brookhaven where he found refugees and travelers as well as Confederate troops attempting to rejoin their regiments. He also saw a Rebel brigade marching toward Jackson. The Methodist chapel had become a shelter for soldiers and a number of women. Soon he learned that it was a fact -- the Yanks had taken Jackson, destroyed all government property and some private, and then moved on.
On Monday, May 18, Fremantle was introduced "to the conductor of a locomotive, who offered to take me to within a few miles of Jackson, if he was not cut off by the enemy, which seemed extremely probable. At 9 A. M. I seated myself, in company with about twenty soldiers, on the engine, and we started towards Jackson.
"On reaching Crystal Springs, half-way to Jackson, we found Gen. Loring's division crossing the railroad and marching east. It had been defeated, with the loss of most of its artillery, three days before, and was now cut off from General Pemberton.
"At 5 P. M. the conductor stopped the engine, and put us out at a spot distant nine miles from Jackson; and as I could procure no shelter, food, or conveyance there, I found myself in a terrible fix.
"At this juncture a French boy rode up on horseback, and volunteered to carry my saddle-bags as far as Jackson, if I could walk and carry the remainder.
"Gladly accepting this unexpected offer, I started with him to walk up the railroad, as he assured me the Yankees really had gone; and during the journey, he gave me a description of their conduct during the short time they had occupied the city.
"On arriving within three miles of Jackson, I found the railroad destroyed by the enemy, who after pulling up the track, had made piles of the sleepers, and then put the rails in layers on the top of these heaps; they had then set fire to the sleepers, which had caused the rails to bend when red hot; the wooden bridges had also been set on fire, and were still smoking.
"When within a mile and a half of Jackson, I met four men, who stopped and questioned me very suspiciously, but they at length allowed me to proceed, saying that these 'were curious times.'
"After another mile I reached a mild trench, which was dignified by the name of the fortifications of Jackson. A small fight had taken place there four days previous, when General Johnston had evacuated the city.
"When I got inside this trench I came to the spot on which a large body of Yankees had recently been encamped; they had set fire to a great quantity of stores and arms, which they had been unable to carry away with them, and which were still burning, and were partially destroyed. I observed also great numbers of pikes and pikeheads amongst the debris.
"At the entrance to the town the French boy took me to the house of his relatives, and handed me my saddlebags. These French people told me they had been much ill-treated, notwithstanding their French nationality. They showed me their broken furniture, and they assured me that they had been robbed of every thing of any value. I then shouldered my saddlebags, and walked through the smoking and desolate streets toward the Bowman House hotel.
"I had not proceeded far before a man with long gray hair and an enormous revolver rode up to me, and offered to carry my saddlebags. He then asked me who I was; and after I told him, he thought a few moments, and then said, 'Well, sir, you must excuse me, but if you are a British officer, I can't make out what on earth you are doing at Jackson just now.' I could not but confess...that my presence in this burning town must have seemed rather odd, more especially as I was obliged to acknowledge that I was there entirely of my own free will, and for my own amusement."
Fremantle, who became a general before his military career ended in England, would see great devastation in the capitol city. Fresh in his mind were scenes of chaos back in Louisiana, from Shreveport to Monroe, and along the Ouachita southward to Harrisonburg and Trinity. He had watched refugees race for Texas, their possessions loaded on wagons. The war was home -- in Brookhaven, Grand Gulf, Hazelhurst, Port Hudson, Jackson and Vicksburg. Blood was spilling near town halls and churches and along country roads. Civilians were hungry, penniless and afraid.
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