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Jefferson County, Mississippi, in the American Civil War
USS Rattler at Rodney, Sunday, September 13th, 1863

By Bruce D. Liddell


After six generations few military traces of the American Civil War 1861-1865 survive in Jefferson County, Miss. One scar remains today for all to see, a Union cannonball imbedded in the brick front wall of Old Rodney Presbyterian Church.

The Civil War passed lightly over Jefferson compared with other parts of the South. No great battles or orgies of destruction occurred within the county, but nonetheless “cruel War” left its evil mark. Ravenous armies stripped the land of livestock and food, taxation and inflation stripped the people of their money, and slaves themselves stripped off their bondage at every opportunity. War and Reconstruction also stripped away the South’s cloak of prosperity leaving bare poverty, but that’s another issue.

Before the Civil War Rodney ranked as the largest town in Jefferson, erstwhile contender for the state capital, at one time reckoned the busiest river port between New Orleans and St. Louis. After the War the Mississippi River shifted a few miles west, leaving the town high and dry. Today Rodney has all but withered away, leading some to call it a ghost town, though the last remaining resident reportedly disputes that.



In the summer of 1863 Union forces seized control of the Mississippi River and cut the Confederacy in two. Vicksburg surrendered on the Fourth of July (and never again celebrated the holiday until 1944) and Port Hudson, La., four days later, severing the Trans-Mississippi states from the Richmond government. For the next two years Federal warships patrolled the Father of Waters to shut down all Confederate river traffic. During most of this period the “tinclad” gunboat USS Rattler enforced Washington’s will at Rodney and vicinity. (1)

USS Rattler was one of sixty-odd mixed-bag riverboats purchased and armed by the U.S. Navy, called “tinclads” to distinguish their bullet-proof qualities from the heavier cannon-proof ironclads. Drawing on average only 4 feet of water, the tinclad fleet flaunted the Stars and Stripes with near-impunity along the Western Rivers. Named for the poisonous snake, Rattler began her career as the smallish 165-ton stern-wheel flat-bottom steamboat Florence Miller. (One wonders what humorous combinations the sailors made from the gunboat’s names.) Designated Tinclad Gunboat No. 1, she cost the government only $24,000, one-tenth the price of a purpose-built warship. (2)

USS Rattler at anchor between July 1863 and December 1864. The vertical mark on the front and side of the pilot house is her numeric designation, Tinclad No. 1.  One authority has identified
the background as Natchez-Under-the-Hill. (3)

USS Rattler grossly resembles a two-story flat-roof boarding house for thirty or forty resident crewmen. About 100 feet long and 30 feet wide, her exact dimensions and internal layout are unknown but can be surmised. The topmost (texas) deck was removed and replaced with a rectangular enclosed pilot house. Officers and enlisted men ate and slept in the former passenger spaces upstairs (hurricane deck) above the engines on the newly enclosed main (cargo) deck. Hull spaces remained empty, as riverboats’ flat bottoms sagged under load. Three guns protruded from an angled casemate at the front (bow) of Rattler’s cargo deck, one long range Parrott rifle firing 30-pound shot flanked by two 24-pounder Napoleon smoothbores. Presumably an identical battery pointed sternward over the paddlewheel. Shielded all around by heavy timbers, she also carried one or two thicknesses of half-inch iron plate armor over the forward battery casemate and around the pilot house. By her mobility and protection virtually invulnerable from attack by land, Rattler could out-fight every boat on the river except the heaviest ironclads. (4)

After three summers of war and slaughter autumn 1863 loomed blessedly peaceful along the Mississippi River. As the sun rose on a quiet fair-weather Sunday, September 13th, 1863, USS Rattler lay at anchor near the Rodney town wharf. Stationed at Rodney since mid-August, she had returned the previous day from a short visit to squadron headquarters at Natchez. That Sunday morning Rattler’s captain Acting Master (modern Lieutenant Junior Grade) Walter Fentress welcomed a guest on board. Reverend Baker, a Union man, had recently resigned as pastor of the Red Lick Presbyterian Church and presently awaited a passenger boat headed “North,” meaning any district under Federal control. Reverend Robert Price, long-time pastor of Rodney Presbyterian Church, generously offered his pulpit and collection plate to Rev. Baker that Sunday. Baker in turn invited Rattler’s officers and crewmen to attend morning services at the church. (5)

In violation of Admiral David Porter’s standing orders, at 11 a.m. Captain Fentress led most of his crew ashore. None were armed except Second Assistant Engineer A. M. Smith, who carried a hidden revolver. All sported their Sunday best; Fentress wore a plain civilian coat, perhaps to avoid arousing the nominally hostile citizens. An officer in civilian dress in enemy territory during wartime runs a terrible risk, and one wonders if Fentress clearly understood his position. (6)

About 10 minutes after the worshippers found their pews, Lieutenant Allen of the Confederate Army walked into the church, interrupted the services with a polite apology to Rev. Baker, and ordered the U.S. Navy men to surrender. A noisy fracas ensued. (7)

Perhaps Rattler’s men made a habit of attending Rodney Presbyterian Church, or possibly a Southerner named Billy Parsons carried Baker’s invitation to the nearest Confederate outfit. By one romantic account Lt. Allen donned civilian dress, silently entered the church and counted the sailors from the back pew, then slipped outside to change clothes and alert his men. While music and voices covered any sound Allen directed his fifteen Confederate scouts to surround the building, then strode boldly through the church front door. (8)

At the call to surrender, Engr. Smith drew his pistol and fired one shot through Lt. Allen’s hat (though this may be an editor’s fanciful phrase for any near-miss.) At the sound of gunfire inside, the Confederates outside fired through the windows, all the balls striking the ceiling or opposite wall. Smith shot three more times, and as fast as they could reload the cavalrymen pumped more rounds harmlessly through the shattered windows. Allen discharged his revolver once into the ceiling, shouting for all to cease fire. (9)

No doubt confusion and fright reigned among the unwilling participants. The Jackson Mississippian applauded one strong minded matron who stood her ground, shouting “Glory to God!” as the Rebels overpowered the Yankees. One sailor tried to hide under the voluminous skirts of elderly and immobile “Mrs. I. D. G.,” and other Navy men entertained similar thoughts. Although several modern writers describe a happy marriage that resulted from the unwonted intimacy, no confirmation has been found. The tale may have arisen from the Depression-era “urban legend” of an ancient Union veteran who went searching for the long-deceased lady who saved his life in a fight inside a church. (10)

Lt. Allen finally made himself heard above the noise. The Rebels stopped shooting and rounded up their Yankee prisoners. By a seeming miracle, only one seaman received a minor wound. Allen commandeered civilian carriages for the Union officers and started the Union sailors marching single file out of town on the northeast road toward nearby Oakland College, closed and empty since the outbreak of war. The civilians quickly scattered to their homes. (11)

Alerted by the gunfire and informed of the cause by “a negro on shore,” at 11:20 a.m. USS Rattler’s first lieutenant (modern executive officer or “number one”) Acting Ensign William Ferguson sent the remnant crew to battle stations, got the gunboat moving, dropped a boatload of armed sailors to secure the wharf, and ordered the gunners to open fire. Rattler’s cannons threw fourteen explosive shells into the town, setting several small fires and damaging the church and four houses. One shell damaged a barn on nearby Pecan Grove plantation. Amid the smoke and concussion six Navy men including combative Engr. Smith escaped to Rattler’s waiting boat. Ens. Ferguson ceased fire when Lt. Allen’s party and prisoners were out of sight. By 1:30 p.m. the initial excitement had passed and Rattler again lay at anchor, but now in deep water. (12)

To his eternal embarrassment Fentress holds a unique distinction, the only United States Navy ship’s captain captured by Confederate States Army horse cavalry. (13)

Later that afternoon Ens. Ferguson decided to burn down a Rebel’s house in town, after Seaman John Henderson, one of those who escaped, reported he “was driven from thence by the owner.” Ferguson detailed an officer, probably Acting Pilot George G. Waggoner, and a boatload of armed sailors, probably including Henderson, for the job. Rattler fired eleven more shells to cover their operations. Word of the incendiarists reached Lt. Allen, who threatened to capture the outnumbered landing party and hang them as arsonists. (See discussion of Lt. Allen's threat below.) The sailors meekly returned to the gunboat, their task left undone. (14)

After dark Rattler received a petition from ”the principal citizens of Rodney” begging the U.S. Navy to hold the town blameless, as the townsfolk had no prior knowledge of the noontime affray. At 10 p.m. that night a civilian emissary, Dr. Goldsmith, brought a message from Capt. Fentress requesting clothing for the captives, to be delivered to Crystal Springs 60 miles away; presumably this was done. Three days after the ambush Rev. Price and thirty-seven townsmen (unnamed) signed another petition, Adm. Porter relented, and thus Rodney avoided the vengeful destruction normally practiced by Union forces. (15)

Except for one Union cannonball still imbedded in the brick front wall of the Old Presbyterian Church in Rodney, Miss. (16)

Epilogue. Some months later Fentress and his men were exchanged for a like number of Southerners, and resumed their Navy service at other posts. At the end of 1864 USS Rattler sank near Grand Gulf, Miss., in a storm, her crew saved but the gunboat a total loss. In 1930 Gov. Bilbo extinguished the Town of Rodney. In 1966 the United Daughters of the Confederacy took over the Church, and in 1990 dedicated the building as their Official State Shrine.

Bruce D. Liddell, BDLiddell@yahoo.com
Birmingham AL, 15-Nov-2007



Individuals present in the church.

What were their names, tell me, what were their names?
    Woody Guthrie, lamenting the loss of a different U.S. Navy ship and crew.

Most accounts disagree in number and description of Rattler’s men, but her logbook lists their names and ranks.
• 23 men left the gunboat (captain, 3 officers, 19 enlisted)
• 17 became prisoners of war (captain, 1 officer, 15 enlisted)
• 6 escaped back to the gunboat (2 officers, 4 enlisted)

Prisoners of war, Officers:
• Walter E. H. Fentress, Acting Master [gunboat’s captain, modern Lt(jg)]
• Simon H. Strunk, Acting Ensign [second lieutenant in the gunboat]
Navy “acting” ranks equated to Army “brevet” ranks, wartime promotion above the peacetime limits set by Congress.

Prisoners of war, Enlisted men:
• Arthur Rodgerson, Gunner's Mate [senior gunner]
• John A. Roycroft, Ship's Corporal [gunboat’s policeman]
• Columbus C. Devinney, Paymaster's Steward [bookkeeper]
• Noah Parks, Quartermaster [helmsman]
• Oloff Nelson, Quarter Gunner [probably #2 gunner]
• James Robertson, First Class Fireman [senior engineman]
• Edwin Corbett, Thomas Brown, Frederick Plump, John Stark, Thomas Burns, John D. Masten, Walter Keef, Daniel Ryan and Maurice Ivory, Seamen.

Captured and escaped, Officers:
• George G. Waggoner, Acting Pilot [navigator]
• A. M. Smith, Second Assistant Engineer [gunboat’s engineer, armed with pistol]

Captured and escaped, Enlisted men:
• Charles McCarthy, Ranvers D. Knapp, Daniel Shay and John Henderson, Seamen.

Either Second Lieutenant S. R. Allen or Third Lieutenant Robert A. Allen commanded the Confederates. (See Note 7 below.)

The civilians present in the church are unknown, except Rev. Baker, Rev. Robert Price, and “Mrs. I. D. G.”

Annette Bowen, in an email to the author 22-Oct-2007, reported that her ancestor “John A. Limerick served as a deacon. I would guess . . . that John and Irene Limerick would have been present on that Sunday. They lived in Rodney near the church.”



Lieutenant Allen’s threat.

Normally Union forces destroyed any civilian buildings or structures used against them militarily. All three Southern sources reported the town of Rodney avoided that fate because of a threat from Lt. Allen to the gunboat, that he would kill his captives if the town was harmed. (A)

Executing hostages was contrary to the laws of war, and perhaps more importantly, contrary to custom in 1863 America. Similar threats, not uncommon in the Civil War, usually invoked a life for a life, not a life for a building. If, however, Allen directed his remarks against Rattler’s incendiary party, threatening to capture and hang them for the felony crime of arson, law and custom would back him up.

Rattler’s logbook recorded no such threat. If the gunboat had received such a letter, “intelligent” young Ens. Ferguson would have surely reported it to his superiors. The Mississippian described the threat as a “note,” Harper’s eyewitness as a “message,” and Limerick as simply a “word.” This communication must have been verbal, to escape notice in the gunboat’s log. It’s also implausible that a civilian would know the contents of a letter that one military officer wrote to another. (B)

The Mississippian and Harper’s eyewitness both reported that the threat came in response to Union shellfire, and caused Rattler to cease firing. After the noontime raid Rattler’s log declared the “shelling had the effect of driving the rebels in hasty confusion out of town” as the implied reason to stop shooting. Limerick related that “the Federals came ashore and made an attempt to burn the town,” after which Allen delivered his threat and the landing party departed. These were Rattler’s incendiarists, logged as having “failed to burn the house from some cause not very satisfactory.”

One plausible scenario fits all the evidence. In mid-afternoon an officer (Pilot Waggoner?) and a few men from Rattler landed with combustibles, covered by the gunboat's shellfire. A citizen carried the news to the (nearby?) Confederates and relayed Lt. Allen’s threat to hang the house-burners. The Union officer in charge, perhaps a peace-loving river pilot disguised as a naval warrior, accepted the threat as personal and genuine and took his men back to the gunboat, earning a verdict of “not very satisfactory” for what might have been, under other circumstances, cowardice in the face of the enemy. The civilian onlookers misunderstood exactly which Yankees were to dangle and, when the landing party withdrew and Rattler’s attacks ceased, attributed the town’s deliverance to Lt. Allen’s threat. They may well have been right, since one thoroughly-burned house could easily engulf the whole town. (C)

(Return to main text)



Notes.

All Internet addresses current autumn 2003.

(1) During most of this period (DANFS)
Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships (U.S. Naval Historical Center, 1959 to 1991.)
Available on the Internet at
http://www.hazegray.org/danfs/steamers/rattler.htm

Otherwise correct, DANFS erroneously calls Rattler a side-wheel riverboat.

(2) USS Rattler et seq.
Paul H. Silverstone, Warships of the Civil War Navies (Annapolis MD: Naval Institute Press, 1989.)

on average only 4 feet (1.2m) of water
The gunboats of the tinclad fleet drafted from 6 feet (2m) to 2 feet (80cm.)

(3) Photograph
U.S. Naval Historical Center, photo # NH 54825.
Available on the Internet at
http://www.history.navy.mil/photos/sh-usn/usnsh-r/rattler.htm

(4) About 100 feet (30m) long and 30 feet (10m) wide
Rough estimate from photograph.

Presumably an identical battery
One long slender Parrott and two thick Napoleons are visible in the photograph.
Rattler’s main armament:
• two 30-pdr (14kg) muzzle-loading Parrott rifles, bore diameter 4.2in (107mm)
• four 24-pdr (11kg) muzzle-loading Napoleon smoothbores, 5.82in (148mm)
December 1863 two more Napoleons added, likely for broadside firepower.

one or two thicknesses of half-inch (13mm) iron plate
Rattler’s armor is unknown. She often served as squadron flagship, and she led the fleet in the attack on Arkansas Post 10-Jan-1863, so she must have carried protective armor.

(5) fair-weather
No source mentions inclement weather. It was so dry that Rattler’s shells started fires in the town.

Sunday, September 13th, 1863
E. B. Long with Barbara Long, The Civil War Day by Day (Garden City NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1971.)
Capt. Fentress gave the date as 12-Sep-1863, and subsequent writers have reproduced his error.

lay at anchor near (ORN p.406 - see Primary sources below)
To avert surprise attack Adm. Porter’s General Order No. 4 (18-Oct-1862) required that gunboats “must not lie tied up to a bank at any time.”

returned the previous day (ORN p.404)

a guest on board (HARPER - see Primary sources below)

Reverend Baker (HARPER)
Probably 40-year-old Daniel S. Baker, born in Washington, D.C. In summer 1860 he lived in Fayette with wife Anna nee Stirling and year-old daughter Ida, his occupation O.S.P. clergy (Old School Presbyterian, the Southern branch that believed the Bible sanctioned slavery.) The Jefferson County community of Red Lick lies a few minutes’ buggy ride south of Fayette, the county seat. Daniel Baker’s title in 1863 is uncertain; sources call him “Mister” (lay minister), “Reverend” (formally ordained), and “Reverend Doctor” (college divinity degree) at various times.

long-time pastor (HARPER)
Since 1852. Rev. Price left Rodney Presbyterian Church sometime before 1866, the next surviving record.

(6) In violation of (ORN p.406)
Adm. Porter’s General Order No. 4 (18-Oct-1862) directed that “Boats [rowboats from a warship] are not allowed to go on shore to get provisions, except at places occupied by United States troops.” A legalist might argue Fentress sought Providence, not provisions, but Porter’s intent is clear.

at 11:00 a.m. (ORN p.410)

most of his crew
Twenty-two men. Probably fewer than a dozen remained on board. After six men rejoined the gunboat, Ens. Ferguson could spare only eight men for a landing party.

None were armed except (ORN p.409)

plain civilian coat (ORN p.409)

(7) About 10 minutes after (ORN p.410)
By Rattler’s log, between 11:00 a.m. and 11:20 a.m. Some modern writers have timed the interruption to the middle of the second hymn, but no contemporary source confirms this. A typical one-hour Protestant service opens with organ music, a hymn by the choir, then a hymn by the congregation.

Lieutenant Allen (HARPER, ORN p.411)
Allen, described as a member of “Logan’s scouts” in ORN, was probably either Second Lieutenant S. R. Allen or Third Lieutenant Robert A. Allen, both of Captain James M. Norman’s company of Major Thomas A. Stockdale’s Mississippi Cavalry Battalion. This was one of several semi-independent cavalry and partisan ranger companies operating throughout the state after the fall of Port Hudson, all under the direction of Colonel John L. Logan at Crystal Springs in Copiah Co.

Capt. Norman’s company, organized 19-Jan-1862 in Harrison Co. as the Pass Christian “Coast Guards” and briefly known as Capt. Graves’s company, gained new recruits from Copiah and every other county they operated in. On 17-Sep-1863 the unit formally became Company A of the 4th Mississippi Cavalry Regiment under Colonel Christopher C. Wilbourn. To confuse matters, two other companies, “Terrell’s Dragoons” and the “Copiah Horse Guards,” were also called Company A at different times.

Although the unit’s name varied, the company officers were constant for most of the War:
• Capt. James M. Norman (postwar mayor of Hazelhurst, Miss.)
• 1st Lt. Duncan McCollum
• 2nd Lt. S. R. Allen
• 3rd Lt. Robert A. Allen
On Norman’s promotion to Major in 1864 the other three each moved up one rank.
(Information gleaned from numerous Internet sources.)

(8) made a habit (ORN p.411)
Unlikely. Adm. Porter’s indictment of Fentress did not mention multiple offenses.

Billy Parsons (ORN p.408)
From Natchez Lt. Cdr. Greer ordered the arrest of “a man at Rodney named Billy Parsons who had something to do with the capture of Captain Fentress.”

one romantic account (ORN p.411)

music and voices (HARPER)

fifteen Confederate scouts (HARPER, LIMERICK)
Capt. Fentress reported “a squadron of 50 cavalry” (ORN p.409) but Limerick and Harper’s eyewitness seem more reasonable. At that time and place fifty men would normally be commanded by a major or colonel, not a lowly lieutenant. The Confederacy never lacked for high-ranking officers.

the church front door (HARPER)

(9) through Allen’s hat (ORN p.411)

Gunfire:
• Engr. Smith fired the first shot at Lt. Allen (ORN p.411) followed by three more shots (ORN p.405.) Harper’s eyewitness misidentified the shooter as Ens. Strunk.
• Lt. Allen fired one shot into the ceiling (HARPER.)
• The 15 Confederates outside fired two volleys (ORN p.405) or 30 shots (HARPER) over the heads of the people inside. No bullets passed through the church's thick brick walls.
• Total of “fifteen or twenty” shots after “the Federals opened fire” (LIMERICK.)

These events can be arranged into several likely sequences, all beginning with Smith’s first shot and ending with everyone inside cowering, stunned by the noise and smoke.

(10) strong minded matron (ORN p.411)

elderly and immobile Mrs. I. D. G. (HARPER)

other sailors entertained similar thoughts
Lt. Cdr. Greer reported a few sailors “escaped capture . . . by the ladies hiding them under their dresses” (ORN p.419.)

an ancient Union veteran (HARPER)

(11) By a seeming miracle
Casualties:
• Engr. Smith “thinks he wounded two” Confederates with his pistol (ORN p.405.)
• One seaman “slightly wounded” (HARPER, LIMERICK.)
• Capt. Fentress reported a slight wound in his own back, cause not stated (ORN p.409.)
• The Mississippian (ORN p.411) reported Engr. Smith and another sailor shot dead [false] a third Navy man wounded and no Confederates hurt.

Limerick and Harper's eyewitness may have actually seen the wounded sailor, and perhaps so did the Mississippian's reporter. In all the shooting only Engr. Smith leveled his weapon. Apparently he hit one of his own men. The “slight wound” was probably a clean shot through the fleshy part of the arm or a graze to the head or torso, bandaged and left to heal by itself.

commandeered civilian carriages (HARPER)

northeast road toward Oakland College
Dr. Goldsmith (see Note 15 below) lived “4 miles [6km] out of town” near Oakland in Claiborne Co., and reported the prisoners “had been at his house that day” (ORN p.411.) Oakland Presbyterian College is now Alcorn State University.

(12) Alerted by the gunfire et seq. (ORN pp.410-411)

several small fires (LIMERICK)

barn on nearby Pecan Grove plantation (Sam Linaeus, descendent of Pecan Grove’s owners, email to the author 13-Oct-2007.)

First cannonade:
Between 11:20 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Rattler fired fourteen explosive shells “9 [24-pdr] shrapnel, 5 [30-pdr] Parrott shells” at “the hills and woods over and around the church.” Despite the bucolic target, Lt. Cdr. Greer boasted “four of the houses and church were struck” and Limerick recalled several fires ignited by the explosions. Probably this barrage was brief and intense (at least 2 minutes, at most 10 minutes) ending when the raiders scooted out of sight. (Modern artillery can shoot by map coordinates, a technique devised by the grandsons of Civil War gunners.)

(13) a unique distinction
This is commonly asserted, but not verified by the author. U.S. Navy shore parties fell into Confederate hands fairly often. At least one tinclad captain (McElroy, Petrel) was captured after his vessel was disabled by artillery.

Lt. Allen received no special notice or acclaim for his unique accomplishment. Allen violated the House of God and placed Southern women and children in mortal danger, perhaps offsetting his heroism and initiative in his superiors’ eyes.

(14) Later that afternoon et seq. (ORN p.411)

probably Acting Pilot George G. Waggoner
Probably Ens. Ferguson, Engr. Smith, and Pilot Waggoner were the only officers left on board. Ferguson commanded, Smith ran the engines, leaving Waggoner to lead the shore party.

boatload of armed sailors
Ens. Ferguson reported that only “8 men [and an officer] could be spared from the vessel,” but did not record the number in the “boat’s crew” sent on shore.

outnumbered landing party
About nine Federals, about sixteen Confederates less two or three guards.

Second cannonade:
During the hour ending at 4:00 p.m. Rattler fired “11 [,] 5-second [24-pdr] shrapnel” delayed-action explosive shells at “the road leading into the hills” to cover the landing party. Three main roads left Rodney, all transiting irregular riverside bluffs, the northeast post road to Oakland and Jackson taken by the raiders, the post road south to Church Hill and Natchez, and a lesser road running southeast to Fayette.

(15) After dark et seq. (ORN pp. 410-411)

Dr. Goldsmith
R. H. Goldsmith, physician from nearby Oakland in Claiborne Co., 30 years old in 1863.

Crystal Springs 60 miles (100km) away
Lt. Cdr. Greer mistakenly placed Crystal Springs near Rodney. The town hosted Col. Logan’s headquarters that month, probably the reason for sending the prisoners there.

(16) Union cannonball
The author believes, but has not confirmed, this is actually a fragment of the casing from a 24-pdr shrapnel shell. One authority noted that a 24-pdr solid shot would knock a big hole through the wall and keep on going.

Present-day photographs of Old Rodney Presbyterian Church available on the Internet at
http://www.civilwaralbum.com/vicksburg/rodney.htm
http://www.mississippiudc.homestead.com/rodney.html
and other sites.

(A) he would kill his captives
Limerick: “if any house or property was destroyed he would hang every prisoner in his charge.” Harper's eyewitness: “if shelling did not cease and order prevail, he would hang every prisoner in his charge.” Mississippian: “if a solitary shell were thrown into the town he would proceed to hang his prisoners.”

(B) “intelligent”
Lt. Cdr. Greer’s assessment.

(C) engulf the whole town
Most of Rodney burned down in 1852, and again in 1869.



Primary sources.

1. ORN

The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series 1, Volume 25, pages 404-412 and 419.
Available on the Internet at
http://cdl.library.cornell.edu/moa/browse.monographs/ofre.html

ORN contains three primary accounts of the incident.

The account in Rattler’s logbook (pp.410-411) is assumed to be true and correct, but not necessarily complete in every detail. A ship’s logbook is a sworn document, legal evidence in court, and double-checked by shore-based examiners. Rattler’s log records every cannon shot fired and every communication received outside Navy channels. Typically Navy ships kept a running log penciled on a slate. Every 4 to 8 hours when the watch changed, the officer in charge penned a summary before going off duty. After the captain read and approved, a clerk copied the summary into a bound logbook. All times apply only to the gunboat, since no two civilian clocks in America agreed until the 1880s.

Capt. Fentress’s brief report (p.409), written two months later from Libby Prison, Richmond VA, is too self-serving to be reliable. He gave the wrong date for the incident and tripled the size of the Confederate force. He stated the church was “not 200 yards [meters] distant from the steamer [gunboat], and in open view.” To the contrary, Rattler’s lookouts could not see a dozen Confederates shooting into the church from all sides. Ens. Ferguson “heard some shots fired” but learned the cause “from a negro on shore” before taking action.

The undated clipping (pp. 411-412, probably the week beginning Monday 14-Sep-1863) from the Jackson Mississippian is editorial fiction, literally campfire tales. By way of validation the writer stated “I saw them [captors and captives] late that night on their way to Logan's [Confederate] camp.” He spoke with a few Rebs and maybe some Yanks, but not to Lt. Allen nor Capt. Fentress. Only the broad facts seem correct, the capture inside the church. Most of the rest is either wrong or improbable. Unfortunately, most modern accounts seem based on this clipping.

(Cf. David H. Hackworth and Julie Sherman, About Face (NY: Simon and Schuster, 1989) regarding one modern combat soldier’s analysis of “war stories” told and heard. Hackworth concludes that immediate post-battle accounts are mostly false and dream-like, and always biased and narrowly focused, a sort of mental catharsis for the unbearable horror of war.)

ORN also contains Rattler’s orders to and fro, the petitions from Rodney citizens, a useful secondary account from 4th District squadron boss Lieutenant Commander James Greer at Natchez, and a diatribe against Capt. Fentress by western rivers commander Rear Admiral David D. Porter (Gen. Grant’s Navy counterpart.)

2. HARPER

Helen C. Harper, “History of Old Rodney Church” written ca. 1935 for the WPA, reproduced in Anabel Power’s column, “Pages from an Old Scrapbook,” Jackson, Miss., Clarion-Ledger, 18-Sep-1955.
Available on the Internet at
http://jeffersoncountyms.org/scrapbookRodney.htm

Within a history of Old Rodney Presbyterian Church, Harper quotes or cites a “letter” written by an unnamed “eyewitness” to the Rattler affair. The date and other details are wrong, as one would expect from a witness’s remembrance. Separate events are run together, as one would expect from memory’s compression. The narrative is tight, polished and edited to 20th century newspaper standards.

The eyewitness provides a plausible reason, Baker’s oral invitation, for the Confederates’ precise foreknowledge of the sailors’ visit. The reported skirmish is almost bloodless, in common with Rattler’s log and Fentress’s report. The departure scene is also plausible, officers placed in “carriages still standing at the church gate” and seamen marched single file out of town.

3. LIMERICK

Letter from Rodney resident John A. Limerick to Prof. J. A. White of the Agricultural College of Mississippi (at Starkville, now Mississippi State University) dated 16-Aug-1901, now in the Mississippi State Archives in Jackson. Transcription by Annette Bowen available on the Internet at
http://jeffersoncountyms.org/Limerick.htm

Within a history of the town of Rodney and its churches, Limerick repeats Harper on the invitation and near-bloodless outcome. He gives the same erroneous date and uses identical or variant phrases (Rev. Baker was “a Union man at heart/at heart a Union man” et al.) In other paragraphs of his disjoint history Limerick listed numerous names and dates and one lengthy quotation, suggesting he consulted newspaper clippings.

Of the three Southern accounts, only Limerick reported Rattler’s incendiary party prior to Lt. Allen’s threat, providing a plausible reason for Allen’s otherwise illegal and unreasonable message.

The author believes Harper's eyewitness and Limerick took their accounts from the same source, probably a wartime Rodney or Fayette newspaper. It's possible Limerick wrote the original account that both he and Harper's eyewitness copied from. It's also possible they were the same person, and Limerick wrote two or more accounts of the incident. However, the two narratives mention different events of the day and thus are treated as separate sources.



Loose ends.

The author has not seen the papers of Rattler sailor William N. Bock, including late-in-life accounts by other Rattler crewmen, in the Illinois State Historical Library archives. Bock joined the gunboat months after the incident, so these may or may not shed any light.

Mrs. I. D. G. has not been identified. Not found on the 1860 Jefferson census.

Billy Parsons of Rodney has not been identified. Not found on the 1860 Jefferson census.

The author has not learned what type of cannonball (or shell fragment) is imbedded in the front wall of Old Rodney Presbyterian Church.

Copyright © 2003 Bruce D. Liddell

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