‘They’re a-fightin’ at Harrisonburg’

Articles in this post written by: Stanley Nelson

From April to June 1863, an Englishman named Arthur James Lyon Fremantle traveled from Brownsville, Tex., to New York by foot, horse, carriage, stage, railroad and steamer during the American Civil War.

In May, his journey took him from Shreveport to Monroe by stage, and down the Ouachita River on a sternwheeler to Fort Beauregard at Harrisonburg after Rebel cannon fire repelled an attack by four Union gunboats. In another four months, a federal land assault staged from Natchez would capture the fort.

Fremantle was a 28-year-old British colonel who like many in the world was curious about the Civil War. He traveled to the South as a tourist and to witness the battles and military tactics first hand. He would relate his journey to friends back in England who were amazed by his stories. He witnessed the Battle of Gettysburg, met many of the leading generals of the Confederacy and observed the great hardships faced by Southern civilians during the devastating year of 1863 when both Louisiana and Mississippi were invaded.

His diary of his travels was later published in a book: Three Months in the Southern States. There may be no better snapshot of the state of chaos in both Louisiana and Mississippi as the Union army and navy swarmed the region during the Vicksburg and Port Hudson campaigns.

GUNBOATS DOWNRIVER

Fremantle left England on March 2 and 20 days later arrived at Havana, Cuba. Because the North had blockaded Southern ports and held possession of New Orleans and the Mississippi River from her mouth northward to Port Hudson, his best route to get to America was through Mexico. His ship landed just south of Texas and the Rio Grande.

He departed Brownsville, Tex., on April 12. Arriving at the outskirts of Monroe, La., on Sunday, May 10, Fremantle passed the camp of General John G. Walker, who with part of his Texas division of 4,000 had just returned from a day’s journey by boat to Harrisonburg down the Ouachita. Originally in route to Alexandria to fight Union General Nathaniel Banks’ army, Walker had learned at Harrisonburg that Alexandria had fallen.

According to Joseph Palmer Blessington, a member of Walker’s brigade who later wrote a book about his war experiences, four federal gunboats were in route to Fort Beauregard. While Walker’s three batteries marched overland to Alexandria, his infantry had boarded 12 transports and headed down the Ouachita in route to the city by way of Little River at Trinity (across the river from Jonesville) and Catahoula Lake before learning that they were headed directly into the path of the gunboats.

Colonel George Logan, Rebel commander at Harrisonburg, told Walker he could hold the fort, a fact some doubted in Monroe, according to Fremantle, where he observed that confusion reigned in Walker’s camp. Louisiana was under attack on several fronts, including threats east of Monroe opposite Vicksburg. Fremantle said Walker’s men “were well armed with rifles and bayonets, but they were dressed in ragged civilian clothes…”

The Confederate commander at Monroe, General Hebert, advised Fremantle against crossing the Mississippi River at Vicksburg. Fremantle wrote: “The Yankee gunboats, which had forced their way past Vicksburg and Port Hudson, were roaming about the Mississippi and Red River, and some of them were reported at the entrance of the Washita (Ouachita) itself, a small fort at Harrisonburg being the only impediment to their appearance in front of Monroe … On another side, the enemy’s forces were close to Delhi, only forty miles distant.”

General Hebert gave Fremantle and his companions a pass on a sternwheeler loaded with provisions for Fort Beauregard. Fremantle planned to make his way to Vidalia where he would cross the river into Natchez and travel on to the northeast. He knew time was running out and despite the impending dangers at Harrisonburg, his last hope of getting across the Mississippi rested at Natchez. The Ouachita was his best path there.

“But at the same time,” Fremantle wrote, “Gen. Hebert informed me that she (steamer) might very probably be captured by a Yankee gunboat … Our captain at starting expressed in very plain terms his extreme disgust at the expedition, and said he fully expected to run against a gunboat at any turn of the river.”

READY TO SKEDADDLE

Not long after debarking at 1 p.m. on Monday, May 11, a Confederate courier shouted from the riverbank: “They’re a-fighting at Harrisonburg.”

The captain wanted to turn around but his passengers, including a number of Confederate soldiers, objected.

With Rebel pickets stationed along the Ouachita every 16 miles, the steamer received constant updates as it passed one plantation after another. The citizens were in a state of great agitation: “The plantations as we went further down the river, looked very prosperous; but signs of preparation for skedaddling were visible in most of them, and I fear they are all destined to be soon desolate and destroyed.”

The next courier shouted from the bank: “Gunboats drove back.”

Everyone rejoiced until the next courier 16 miles down river yelled: “Still a-fighting’.”

At 8 p.m., the captain anchored the steamer to a tree on the bank of the Ouachita at Columbia, located halfway between Monroe and Harrisonburg.

At daybreak, Tuesday, May 12, three slaves arrived from Harrisonburg. They said the fighting continued. Some of the officers and soldiers left the boat to rush to Harrisonburg by land.

By mid-morning 12 more slaves arrived. They explained a large number of slaves had been at work strengthening the fortification at Fort Beauregard but all had fled when the gunboats appeared south of Harrisonburg and began to fire on the fort and the town.

In the afternoon, word came that the federal Calvary had cut off the Confederate line of couriers. At 9 a.m. the next day, the captain decided despite the risks to travel on to Harrisonburg.

“The further we went,” Fremantle observed the next day, “the more beautiful was the scenery.”

At 4 p.m. on Wednesday, May 13, “we were assured by a citizen on the bank that the gunboats really had retreated; and at 5:30 our doubts were set at rest, to our great satisfaction, by descrying the Confederate flag flying from Fort Beauregard, high above the little town of Harrisonburg.”

HARRISONBURG

At 5:30 p.m, Fremantle’s steamer docked at Harrisonburg. He described what he saw and what he was told in his diary:

“After we had landed, I presented my letter of introduction … to Colonel Logan, who commands the fort. He introduced me to a German officer, the engineer.

“They gave me an account of the attack and repulse of the four Federal gunboats … Fort Beauregard is a much more formidable looking work than I expected to see, and its strength had evidently been much underrated at Monroe.

“A hill 190 feet high, which rises just in the rear of Harrisonburg, has been scarped and fortified. It is situated at an angle of the river, and faces a long ‘reach’ of two miles.

“The gunboats after demanding an unconditional surrender, which was treated with great contempt by Colonel Logan, opened fire at 2 P. M. on Sunday, and kept it up till 6:30, throwing about one hundred and fifty 9 and 11 inch shell. The gunboats reopened again for about an hour on Monday afternoon, when they finally withdrew, the Arizona being crippled.

“The fort fired altogether about forty-five 32-pound shot, smooth bore. The range was about a mile.

“The garrison thought that they had loosened several of the Pittsburgh’s iron-plates. They felt confident that they could have sunk the wooden vessels if they had attempted to force the passage; and they were naturally much elated with their success, which certainly had not been anticipated on board my steamer or at Monroe.

“I had not time to visit the interior of the fort, but I saw the effect of the shell upon the outside. Those which fell in the sand did not burst … They told me the deck of the Pittsburg was furnished with a parapet of cotton bales for riflemen.

“The river at Harrisonburg is about 160 yards broad, and very deep, with a moderate current. The town being between the vessels and the fort, had, of course, suffered considerably during the bombardment.”

Preventing passage of the gunboats was one of the few Rebel victories in the region. But it was short-lived. Four months later a land assault from Natchez by Yankee troops destroyed the fort and heavily damaged the town.

Fremantle spent less than two hours at Fort Beauregard before heading onward:

“To our great joy Colonel Logan decided that our vessel should proceed at once to Trinity, which is fifteen miles nearer Natchez, on the Mississippi, than Harrisonburg. We arrived there at 8 P. M., and found that the gunboats had only just left, after having destroyed all the molasses and rum they could find, and carried away a few negroes.

“Six of us pigged in one very small room, paying a dollar each for this luxury to an old woman, who was most inhospitable, and told us ‘she didn’t want to see no soldiers, as the Yanks would come back and burn her house for harboring rebels.'”

The next morning, Fremantle and his companions crossed Concordia Parish to Vidalia and successfully crossed the Mississippi the following day.

FORT BEAUREGARD

REENACTMENT

Civil War battle reenactors from the 5th Volunteer Infantry will be in Harrisonburg Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 21-22, to reenact the Battle of Fort Beauregard.

The festival will include authentic Civil War camps of both the Union and Confederate armies.

A beauty pageant is set for 5 p.m. Friday, Feb. 20, at Harrisonburg Auditorium.

Soldier camps will open to the public at 9 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 21, followed by a parade downtown at 10 a.m. and a skirmish afterward. The Battle of Fort Beauregard is set for 2 p.m.

Camps will reopen to the public at 9 a.m. Sunday, Feb. 22, followed by a 10 a.m. worship service and another reenactment of the Battle of Fort Beauregard at 2 p.m.

Parking will be downtown. Spectators will be shuttled to the battle sites.

Find more articles at the Concordia Sentinal https://www.hannapub.com/concordiasentinel/