Natchez, Trinity anchor key Rebel supply line in 1863
By: Stanley Nelson
Finding and destroying the supplies of the enemy, especially ammunition and food, was crucial to both armies during the Civil War.
On July 12, 1863, just days after the Union victory at Vicksburg, Gen. U.S. Grant wrote a superior about a mission he had just authorized: "Finding that the enemy were crossing cattle for the rebel army at Natchez, and were said to have several thousand there, I have sent steamboats and troops to collect them and destroy all boats and means for making more."
One of the key shipping lanes for the Confederate army along the Mississippi in 1863 was between Natchez on the east across the river to Vidalia and 25 miles farther west to the northeastern Louisiana town of Trinity, located where four rivers meet at present day Jonesville.
The Confederate officer most responsible for defending Louisiana and keeping Texas cattle and food supplies moving east across the Mississippi was Gen. Richard Taylor, the 36-year-old son of former President Zachary Taylor and until 1861, a member of the Louisiana Senate.
Headquartered in Alexandria, Taylor commanded Louisiana west of the Mississippi River. He described the war in a book he wrote, "Destruction and Reconstruction." He wrote that northeastern Louisiana prior to the Civil War was a land where estates "of 5,000 acres and more abounded, and, with numerous slaves necessary to their cultivation, were largely under the charge of overseers, while the proprietors resided in distant and more healthy localities.
"Abundant facilities for navigation afforded by countless streams superseded the necessity for railways, and but one line of some eighty miles existed. This extended from Monroe on the Washita (Ouachita) to a point opposite Vicksburg on the Mississippi, but the great flood of 1862 had broken the eastern half of the line."
Those primary northeastern Louisiana streams included the Ouachita, Black, Tensas and Little rivers, which all converge in Catahoula Parish at Trinity. At the southern end of Catahoula, the Black pours into the Red River, which a few miles to the south flowed into the Mighty Mississippi. This ribbon of waterways converging at Trinity was like an
interstate highway connecting the region to the world and providing a natural path for Union gunboats to make war.
As the Confederates prepared defenses at Vicksburg in anticipation of an eventual Union ground attack, Taylor received a dispatch from Rebel headquarters in Richmond, Va., to meet with 49-year-old Gen. John C. Pemberton, who was in command of Vicksburg and the countryside east of the Mississippi. A native of Pennsylvania, Pemberton had two brothers who fought for the Union. His nephew, John Stith Pemberton, would later
The two commanders discussed how to cooperate and control the Mississippi -- particularly from Vicksburg to Natchez, and from there to Port Hudson, just north of Baton Rouge, which like Natchez, had fallen with little resistance to the Union Navy in 1862.
"By doing so," Taylor noted, "connection would be preserved between the two parts of the Confederacy, and troops and supplies crossed at will...As there were many steamers in the Red and Washita, I undertook to supply Vicksburg and Port Hudson with corn, forage, sugar, molasses, cattle, and salt...Quantities of these supplies were lying on the
river's bank when the surrender of the two places occurred."
In the meantime, many of region's most able-bodied white men -- most didn't own slaves -- were on battlefields east of the Mississippi, particularly in Tennessee. To help defend the region, Taylor depended heavily on Gen. John Walker's division of Texas infantry. A 42-year-old native of Missouri, Walker commanded 12 Texas regiments totaling about
As the war moved west of the Mississippi, local governing bodies throughout the region were taking defensive measures. In May 1862, the Catahoula Parish Police Jury made preparations by resolution "to obstruct the rivers to prevent passage of the enemy....that whenever necessary, the people of this parish are authorized, and ought to take steps to obstruct said Rivers, and thereby impede or prevent as much as possible the progress of the enemy."
That same year, another war measure was enacted, when Gov. Thomas O. Moore, following orders from Confederate headquarters in Richmond, Va., "directed the destruction of all cotton within the Rivers of Louisiana, which may be in danger of falling into the hands of the enemy." The Catahoula Parish Police Jury appointed men from the parish's 15 wards "to apply the torch" when warranted.
Additionally, the jury resolved that any attempt to assist "the enemy" in obtaining cotton "shall be considered as inimical (harmful) to the cause of our country, and shall be dealt with accordingly."
At the same time, the Confederates were busy constructing forts along the rivers, including Fort Beauregard at Harrisonburg along the Ouachita in Catahoula Parish. It is believed the fort was named in honor of Gen. P.G.T. Beaurgeard of Louisiana, who ordered the first shots fired during the Civil War at Fort Sumter in Charleston, S.C.
Forts DeRussy (Marksville) on the Red River and Burton (Butte La Rose, St. Martin Parish) on the Atchafalaya were also constructed. Built by slaves, all three forts, said Taylor, "were mere water batteries to prevent the passage of gunboats...It was not supposed that they could be
held against serious land attacks, and but fifty to a hundred riflemen were posted at each to protect the gunners from boat crews."
In April 1863, Union Admiral David Porter's gunboats finally passed the Confederate batteries at Vicksburg, the one place along the Mississippi still controlled by the Rebels. In May, Union gunboats took Alexandria on the Red in advance of Union infantry and also bombarded Fort Beauregard at Harrisonburg but were "driven off by the garrison under Colonel Logan," wrote Walker.
On July 4, Vicksburg fell. About a week later, Gen. Grant put into place plans to cut a major Confederate supply route between Natchez on east side of the Mississippi and Trinity on the west.
The 50-year-old Porter, who had been a midshipman by the age of 10, was headquartered on the flagship Black Hawk off Vicksburg. He reported to the Secretary of Navy on July 18 that an expedition up the rivers of Catahoula Parish had been successful. During a thunderstorm, two Union gunboats moving up Little River captured the Confederate steamer Louisville loaded with supplies for Gen. Walker. Porter said the Louisville was "one of the largest and perhaps the best steamers in the Western waters."
Up the Tensas, two Union gunboats captured the steamer Elmira, which was filled with supplies, sugar and rum for the Rebels. Porter reported that gunboats heading up the Ouachita "suddenly came upon two rebel steamers; but the rebels set them on fire, and they were consumed so rapidly that their names could not be ascertained.
"One steamer, loaded with ammunition, escaped above the fort at Harrisonburg, which is a very strong work, and unassailable with wooden gunboats. It is on an elevation over one hundred feet high, which elevation covers what water batteries of heavy guns there are. "Back at Trinity, Porter's fleet struck gold: "Lieutenant-Commander Selfridge was fortunate enough, however, to hear of a large quantity of ammunition that had lately been hauled from Natchez, and deposited at or near Trinity, nearly due west of Natchez, and from whence stores, provisions, cattle, guns and ammunition are transported.
"He captured fifteen thousand rounds of smooth-bore ammunition, ten thousand rounds of Enfield rifle, and two hundred and twenty-four rounds of fixed ammunition for guns, a rifle thirty-pounder Parrott gun-carriage, fifty-two hogsheads of sugar, ten puncheons of rum, nine barrels of flour, and fifty barrels of salt -- all belonging to the Confederate government.
"At the same time they heard of a large amount of ammunition that had started from Natchez to Trinity, and were lying in wagons on the roads half way across. He dispatched a boat around to inform me of it; but General Ransom, who had landed a few days before at Natchez, hearing of it also, sent a detachment of Calvary and captured the whole. Thus
Walker's army is left almost without ammunition."
Porter communicated the information to Gen. Grant, who was also still in Vicksburg. Grant then reported to Major-General H.W. Halleck, then General-in-Chief of the Union army, more details of Ransom's work, including the capture a huge herd of Texas cattle being sent east:
"General Ramson was sent to Natchez to stop the crossing of the cattle for the Eastern army. On arrival he found that large numbers had been driven (four miles) out of the city to be pastured; also that munitions of war had recently crossed over to wait for Kirby Smith (Confederate commander of the Trans-Mississippi West). He (Ransom) mounted about two hundred of his men and sent them in both directions."
Near Natchez they "captured a number of prisoners and five thousand head of Texas cattle...In Louisiana (Concordia and Catahoula) they captured more prisoners, and a number of teams loaded with ammunition. Over two million rounds of ammunition were brought back to Natchez with the teams captured, and two hundred and sixty-eight thousand rounds, besides artillery ammunition, were destroyed."
By late August, 5,000 federal troops, most arriving from Vicksburg, were encamped at Natchez when the order came from Gen. Grant for a land assault on Fort Beauregard. In less than a week, Union troops led by Gen. Marcellus Crocker crossed three streams by barge or pontoon -- the Mississippi, Cross Bayou and Black River -- before taking Harrisonburg and burning the town.
Gen. Logan and his 40 troops, greatly outnumbered and unable to defend against a ground assault, fled before the army arrived. Reinforcements from Alexandria -- about 1,000 of Walker's men -- were cutoff by the Union army in the hills at Manifest. The fort's cannons that Logan didn't have time to spike were gathered up by the Union army and put into U.S. service.
The Confederates continued to fight, but a Rebel artery of Texas cattle and food moving east and ammunition moving west was clogged by the Union army.