Union Relics from the Red River Campaign

The Red River in Louisiana experienced quite a bit of troubles in 1864.

Alexandria porters fleet 1864 Louisiana History Museum Jose Dellmon collectionThis photo of Porter’s Fleet at Alexandria dates from 1864. Louisiana History Museum, Jose Delman Collection.

Nathan Banks, Union general, commandeered several gunboats to venture up the Red River in the hopes of reaching Shreveport. From there, his troops, the Union army in southwestern Arkansas, and troops in southern Indian Territory were supposed to lead an invasion into Texas in 1864, Union losses culminating in the Battle of Mansfield forced Banks to retreat, but the river had become too shallow. Under the guidance of Lt. Col. Joseph Bailey, the men built a dam at the rapids at Alexandria to accumulate enough water to help float the boats down river and back to Baton Rouge.

In the late 1980s, the Army Corps of Engineers built a lock at the site of Bailey’s dam and led an archeological excavation to catalog the site. Today, because of the consistent depth of the Red River at this point, the structure is no longer visible, even at low water.

Baileys dam

An unidentified young man points to the remains of Bailey’s Dam on the Red River at Alexandria, Rapides Parish, Louisiana. This photo is part of a series relating to the documentation of the site led by the Historic American Engineering Record.

In 1864, the USS Covington sunk to the bottom of the Red River at Dunn’s Bayou, Louisiana, after its commander, George P. Lord, ordered her burned. He preferred destruction rather than have her captured by Confederates who had been continuously firing at the Covington (and two other ships, the Signal and the Warner) throughout the preceding two days.

vessle

The photograph of the USS Covington (unknown date) is from the U.S. Navy History and Heritage Center. I found Lt. Lord’s report on www.irononthered.com, a website that documents the civil war activities on the Red River in Louisiana.

The USS Covington was a tin-clad vessel rather than an iron-clad. Prior to its service in the Civil War, it was a ferry on the Ohio River.

Following is Lt. Lord’s letter to Admiral Porter regarding his decision to destroy the Covington:

U.S. S. CHILLICOTHE,
Above Alexandria Falls, May 8, 1864.

SIR: It is with feelings of regret that I report the loss of the U.S S. Covington, and most respectfully submit the following report:

I left Alexandria convoying the steamer Warner at 8 o’clock on the morning of May 4, 1864. While passing Wilson’s plantation the Warner was fired into by about 100 infantry, losing one man. I fired my stern guns at them for some time and passed on. After proceeding about 1½ miles farther Mr. McCloskey, a pilot belonging to the General Price, struck the stern of the vessel against a bar, thereby breaking the port rudder badly and shivering the tiller. I told him that hereafter Mr. Emerson, my other pilot, would handle her.

I tied up all night about a mile from the Red House and commenced repairing my rudder and tiller. At about 5 o’clock I was joined by the U.S.S. Signal. Both of us kept up through the night an irregular fire on the right-hand shore going down, as they had fired upon us with infantry while we were repairing.At 4.30 o’clock in the morning we all got underway, the Warner in the lead, the Covington next, and the Signal last.

At Dunn’s Bayou (on the right going down) we were fired upon by two pieces of artillery and infantry. The Covington was hit by this battery only three times, and the Warners’ rudders were disabled, but she still continued downstream until she came to a short point in the river, when she went into the bank. She had no sooner struck the bank when a rebel battery on the right shore going down, and from 4,000 to 5,000 infantry, opened upon her and my vessel.

The Covington and Signal immediately commenced firing. Almost every shot either struck the boilers, steam pipe, or machinery of the Warner, as she was only about 100 yards from the battery. After we had engaged the battery about three hours, the Warner hoisted a white flag. We still kept up our fire, and I sent a party from my vessel under a severe fire to burn her, but the colonel in charge sent me word that there were nearly 125 killed and wounded, and requested that I would not burn her, which was granted. A short time after this I was informed that the Signal was disabled. I immediately rounded to and went alongside of her, took her in tow, and started upstream, but my rudder became disabled, and the Signal got adrift. It was impossible to pass the Warner, so Mr. Emerson, my pilot, informed me. Knowing that the Signal would drift down on the Warner and the rebels would immediately board her, I ordered the commanding officer to anchor her, which was done.

Finding it impossible to handle my vessel and fearing I should get on the side where artillery and infantry were, I went over on the other bank and made fast, head upstream. I used my stern guns on the lower battery and my broadside on the infantry abreast of us and my bow guns on the battery that was ahead of us, which had been brought down from Dunn’s Bayou. My escape pipe was cut while alongside of the Signal, causing a great deal of steam to escape and making the impression that the boilers had been struck; the men, however, soon rallied and kept up a brisk fire on the enemy. Most of the soldiers and officers, amongst whom were Colonel Sharpe, of One Hundred and Fifty-Sixth New York Volunteers; Colonel Raynor, One Hundred and Twenty-Ninth Illinois [Fifty-Sixth Ohio] (wounded in both legs); Lieutenant Simpson, aid-de-camp to General Banks; and Acting Assistant Paymaster Chester, went over on the Signal. The Signal getting adrift from’ us, they were not able to return to my vessel. After I had been tied to the bank an hour or so, my steam drum was cut and a shell struck under the boilers, letting out all the water.

My ammunition gave out, my howitzers were all disabled by the bracket bolts drawing out, and every shot coming through us. With one officer and a good many of my men already killed, I determined to burn my vessel. I spiked the guns, had coals of fire strewn on the deck, and myself and executive officer set fire to the cotton, which was on the guards alongside of the engine. I saw it burning finely before I left, and feel sure she was destroyed.While leaving the vessel to get up on the bank, a terrible fire of infantry was opened on us and some were killed in going up.

I collected my officers and men all together and found I had with me 9 officers and 23 men. My crew was composed of 14 officers and 62 men, and started through the woods for Alexandria. At 20 minutes of 11 o’clock, when within 10 miles of Alexandria, we were fired upon by rebel cavalry, thereby scattering us. I am glad to say that they have nearly all arrived here safely, with the exception of Acting Third Assistant Engineer Lyon, who was wounded in the head while fighting a few guerrillas who had fired into a party of my men while close to Alexandria. He has since arrived safe.

The whole action lasted about five hours, and the Covington was badly riddled from stem to stern, there being no less than five shots in the hull, some forty or fifty in her upper works. The officers and men behaved with great gallantry, and, with exception of a few, this was their first action. Acting Master’s Mate C. W. Gross was killed by a shot that came through the shell room. The officers and men lost all of their personal effects, the only things that were saved being the signal book and

the dispatches in-trusted to my care, which were returned to you. The arms that were brought with us I turned over to Acting Master H. H. Gorringe, of the Cricket, taking a receipt for the same.

In conclusion, I most respectfully beg that a court of enquiry may be called to determine whether the honor of our flag suffered in my hands. Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

GEORGE P. LORD, Acting Volunteer Lieutenant, U. S. Navy.

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Published in: on March 25, 2018 at 6:49 pm  Leave a Comment  
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End of War

This photograph is possibly the last image of Comanche women in a traditional camp on the open prairie.

Comanche women and child at Mow-Wi camp at Palo Duro Canyon, possibly 1874. University of Texas at Arlington, Special Collections.

Palo Duro

Comanche women and child at Mow-Wi camp at Palo Duro Canyon, possibly 1874. University of Texas at Arlington, Special Collections.

It is noted by archivists that it was most likely taken in 1874 after the Battle of Palo Duro Canyon (Randall County vicinity, Texas). This battle was the final act of the Red River Wars. It pitted U.S. troops, led by Ranald S. McKenzie, against the Southern Plains Indian tribes led by Red Warbonnet (Comanche) and Lone Wolf (Kiowa), among others. The purpose of the Red River Wars was to force the tribes to remain on the reservation at Fort Sill, Indian Territory.

The camp was called Mow-Wi and was located within Palo Duro Canyon. Note the drying hides and the bison fur and deer hide spilling out of the tepee. I believe the women fashioned their tepee out of hides, a traditional practice that had become exceedingly rare at this point as the Indians adopted more modern means of manufacture, such as using canvas to construct their lodges.

A reader for Red River Historian stated that no photographers joined the army on its mission at Palo Duro Canyon. I can’t argue this, but I do argue that it took months for the native bands to break camp and trek to Fort Sill. After their horses were killed by McKenzie, they had to contemplate their place in this new world, and then walk to the fort – like refugees who had been forced out of their homelands.

migration-1876

Handwritten draft of Texas law from 1875, passed in 1876, that barred “Kiowas, Comanches, Apaches, Kickapoos, Cheyennes, Arapahoes, Wichitas, and bands affiliated with them from crossing the Red River from Fort Sill reservation into Texas.” (Texas State Library)

Throughout most of its history, today’s Texas was the domain of the Comanche. Their empire, the Comanceria, proved a formidable enemy of the Spanish, Mexican, and American governments.

The Comanches were defeated in the Red River Wars of 1874-1875. The Red River Wars were fought by the U.S. army against the southern Plains Indian tribes, which included the Wichitas, Kiowas, Apaches, Cheyennes, and Arapahos.

The defeat meant that the Comanches had to remain on their reservation lands surrounding Fort Sill, Indian Territory, and accept “Americanization.” The reservation had been established via the Medicine Lodge Creek Treaty of 1867.

In 1876, the state of Texas passed a law that prohibited any of the Red River peoples from moving to Texas. I’m not sure if this law expired, but when Indians gained citizenship – through a federal act in 1924 – the law may have been nullified/voided.

 

Published in: on February 19, 2018 at 11:58 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Antebellum Ghost Towns and the Railroads that did them in

I’ve been making several trips around the Red River Valley to discover forgotten towns for my book project this summer. However, I don’t just look for cemeteries, even though they’re the best way to find old settlements. I want to find actual ruins! I think that remains speak much louder than anything can, so I look for towns with remains.

The other day, I took a trip around Louisiana and found the antebellum town of Allen’s Settlement, which was built around intersecting roads. Because nothing remains of Allen’s Settlement,  I don’t consider it necessarily a “ghost town” that needs to be visited.

Allens Settlement

Allen’s Settlement in Claiborne Parish, Louisiana, 1863.

But it makes me wonder – why did some towns thrive and others falter? I guess it’s because most antebellum towns west of the Mississippi River did not survive the railroad boom. It’s not necessarily just because the existing towns didn’t provide enough incentive for the companies to lay tracks, though. These corporations – the original “corporate personhoods”- often had settlement, or rather town building, subsidiaries that speculated on selling land plots. They didn’t want to (or need to) compete with established towns as the state granted them charters, like the land grant companies of old, to entice settlers. They simply built new towns, and the profits of both freight hauling and land sales could be gained by the railroads exclusively.

Examples of the railroad land schemes can be found all over the Red River Valley: Hope (Hempstead County, Arkansas) and Texarkana (Miller County, Arkansas and Bowie County, Texas) were founded by the railroads, as was Denison (Grayson County, Texas).

Hope UP train

Trains made Hope, Arkansas what it is today – including the Hempstead County seat.

Luckily, some antebellum cities along the Red River still exist – Dallas, Sherman, Alexandria, Shreveport, Natchitoches, and Marksville, for example. Being a county seat helped them to survive, of course – however, Hope wrestled the county seat status away from Washington, as did Ashdown from Richmond (Little River County, Arkansas) – so political status was no guarantee. The take-away is that in the American capitalist system, money talks. Cities that were able to incentivize railroads enough for them to lay tracks were able to “weather” the corporate land take-overs.

Railroads might be romantic and all, but above all, they were corporations that changed the very nature of human settlement patterns, at least in the US. They are the true Goliaths.

Published in: on May 16, 2015 at 2:13 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Louisiana Respect

Texas is a big state. It’s also my birthplace and the birthplace of my dad, so of course I feel affinity for it… sometimes. It’s also a place with a LOT OF hot air circulating around – or rather, hot airbags. But you know I love you, Texas.

With that being said (and bracing for the pounding I might receive in written form later on), I am going to go on a limb to claim that if you want to visit a whole ‘nother country, it really isn’t Texas – it’s Louisiana.

Ouch! Don’t hit.

Texas may have been the birthplace of Bonnie and Clyde, but they died in Louisiana - near Gibsland, to be exact, where I met this really cool guy and his eclectic collection of antiques that he's not willing to sell.

Texas may have been the birthplace of Bonnie and Clyde, but they died in Louisiana – near Gibsland, to be exact, where I met this really cool guy and his eclectic collection of antiques that he’s not willing to sell.

I mean, just look at Louisianan diversity. They don’t have counties, they have parishes. Their Mardi-Gras is a unique blend of Catholicism, Carnival, Fasching, and Santeria. The mighty Mississippi forms its delta here, for gosh’s sakes.

And check out those who’ve made their homes in LA. The original inhabitants were the Caddos, Natchez, Coushattas, Chickasaws and Choctaws, all of whom built large tiered cities and a sophisticated farming and trading system. Later, the creoles emerged, people of mixed Spanish, French, Native, Caribbean, and African descent who, to this day, populate the Red River. Then there are beautiful places like Natchitoches and the French Quarter, whose buildings mirror Spanish architectural styles in a New World colonial layout (it’s mostly not French construction – after the French Quarter burned down, the Spanish, who controlled New France from 1763 until 1798, rebuilt it using brick and stone). The Cajuns stem from displaced French Canadians (Acadians), who were kicked out of said colony by the British and found their way to southwestern Louisianne, with their unique brand of French and their willingness to adapt their cuisine to native flora and fauna. People of African descent, mostly former slaves, built thriving towns, churches, schools, and businesses under strained circumstances, as it was Plessy v. Ferguson – which established the “separate but equal” doctrine – that began in Louisiana courts. The Germans brought their industry and Christmas customs with them, as did the English with their protestant and free-market ways. The Italians introduced some wonderful foods to Louisiana’s palate – Shreveport once had Italian delis and bakeries all over downtown. Today, large immigrant groups from Mexico, Laos, Burma, Vietnam, and India have made this state into a true melting pot of world cultures.

Louisiana does not just have haunted plantation, but haunted towers, too.

Louisiana does not just have haunted plantations, but haunted towers, too.

And where else can you take a picture of a bridge in downtown Shreveport, right next to gaudy casinos, and realize that it was not an old bicycle seat sticking out from the bayou muck, but an alligator’s head?

I know that Texas compares just as much. After all, SIX flags flew over Texas (although I still don’t buy the French claim to Texas, as La Salle’s colony was pretty much a failed usurpation and New Spain never recognized French claims south of the Red River west of the Great Bend). But Texas doesn’t have Natchitoches meat pies. Or beignets. Or Civil War battle sites.

Vive la Louisianne! Okay, okay, and viva Tejas.

And where else but Louisiana can you find a triangular truss bridge?

And where else but Louisiana can you find a triangular truss bridge?

It’s Here! The Red River Valley in Arkansas: Gateway to the Southwest

The book will appear at stores and online in February 2014! You know you want it.

Now available all over the place!

I am not one for bragging, but when I opened the box that contained my author’s copies of my newest book, The Red River Valley in Arkansas: Gateway to the Southwest, I had to admit that the cover NAILED it. It is so, so pretty!

From the back cover:

“The Red River’s dramatic bend in southwestern Arkansas is the most distinctive characteristic along its 1,300 miles of eastern flow through plains, prairies and swamplands. This stretch of river valley has defined the culture, commerce and history of the region since the prehistoric days of Caddo inhabitants. Centuries later, as the plantation South gave way to westward expansion, people found refuge and adventure along the area’s trading paths, military roads, riverbanks, rail lines and highways. This rich heritage is why the Red River in Arkansas remains a true gateway to the Southwest. Author Robin Cole-Jett deftly navigates the history and legacy of one of the Natural State’s most precious resources.” I blush.

Check out my other books, too: Traveling History with Bonnie & Clyde, Traveling History up the Cattle Trails, and Images of America: Lewisville.

Oh, and while you’re clicking away, don’t forget to visit the origination of all of my explorations: www.redriverhistorian.com

I started my website WAY back in 2002 as a way to share my love of regional history with like-minded people. It’s become a really fun conduit to share information, photos, and discoveries. I now keep up with many readers through my Facebook page, too.

Happy Trails!

An Arkansas Traveler

The old story of the “Arkansas Traveler” tells of a person coming through the backwoods of Arkansas and happening upon a house. The traveler is lost or maybe just curious, and the house’s inhabitants answer his questions  – such as “Where is the nearest town?” or “What do you do here for fun?” – in a roundabout manner… “It’s closest to the nearest signpost” or “Spit upwind and see on who it lands.” The conversation then devolves from there. Depending on the person telling the tale, it either makes fun of the foreign nube or the Arkansas dude.

"Arkansas Traveler" sheet music cover, 1937, Library of Congress."

“Arkansas Traveler” by Herb Block, 1937, Library of Congress.

 

I’ve been traveling through Arkansas on and off for the last six months to complete my newest book, The Red River in Arkansas: Gateway to the Southwest (The History Press, forthcoming February 2014), and all I can say is that I’ve never met nicer folks or a more interesting section of the Red River Valley.

The Red River makes a big bend right alongside the old steamboat port of Fulton. All rivers have their bends, some more than others (the Red River exhibits several, actually). What makes the Great Bend so important to the Red is that it changes the nature of the river, as it falls from a west -to-east stream  to a north-to-south stream. This also means that it changes from a sandy, broad, and not-very-navigable river to a narrower, deeper, and navigable channel. And not just that; the culture of the river changes, too. The American West, with its nomadic native tribes and its reliance on range animals, gives way to the Old South, with its reliance on cotton economy, race, and the plantation system. Yeah, I’m painting with broad strokes here, but history bears me out.

The railroad bridge above the Red River at Fulton.

The railroad bridge above the Red River at Fulton.

Maybe that’s why I’ve developed a real affection for Fulton. During the mid-19th century, this city was THE place for cotton shipments. I was also able to find several accounts of a booming slave trade based on the region’s many plantations, both big and small. It was also a genuine frontier town, situated directly across Old Mexican Texas (until 1836) and then the Republic of Texas before the border lines shifted in favor of the Lone Star State. Sam Williams, who grew up in Fulton during the 1830s where his father ran a tavern, reminisced about the town’s propensity as an emigrant gateway, with several inns, bars, restaurants and gambling halls to cater to their needs. He also said – and I can picture a twinkle in his eye – that there weren’t many churches around as Fulton’s inhabitants weren’t exactly “religiously inclined.”

Fulton, like the rest of the Old Southwest before the Civil War, succumbed to the modern age of the railroads and automobiles. There’s not much left to indicate what the area used to look like, or how busy it once was. Floods and new cities, such as Texarkana and Hope, replaced the older settlements in economics and location, just like the older Anglo settlements replaced the Caddoan villages that dotted the Red River before the Louisiana Purchase. Progress, whether good or bad, has made its mark on this small but incredibly diverse portion of the Red River. It fascinates me to no end, and provides me with ample opportunity to try to discover remnants of what used-to-be.

A great place to begin this historical exploration is Washington State Historic Park, located along the Southwest Trail (the Old Chihuahua Trail, now State Road 195) a few miles northeast of Fulton. There, the traveler can discover the importance of Hempstead County’s first seat and the temporary capital of Arkansas during the Civil War, with two courthouses, plenty of vintage houses, a recreation of the blacksmith shop where James Bowie supposedly had his famous knife designed, and the largest magnolia tree in the state. The Southwest Arkansas Regional Archives are there as well, with tons of information – including maps and photographs – about the area.

A scene from Old Washington

A scene from Old Washington

Washington and Fulton are both on this Southwest Trail, the main road that led people like Stephen F. Austin and his original 300 settlers into Texas. What I found interesting is that the trail is well-marked between Washington and Fulton, but north of Washington, the road becomes indistinguishable amid a plethora of dirt roads. I tried to follow the old trail, but got lost.

I reckon the tale of the Arkansas Traveler is still pretty pertinent.

The book will appear at stores and online in February 2014! You know you want it.

The book will appear at stores and online in February 2014! You know you want it.

Published in: on January 2, 2014 at 3:36 pm  Leave a Comment  
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