General Forrest and Vigilantes

 

… in Hancock County        

Conditions along the Pearl River
            It was during the hard times of the Civil War when the men were either fighting or hiding in the swamps. Women were trying to do the farming and slaughtering the pigs and young boys were hunting possums in trees, all trying to survive and feed the little ones.
            It was a time which brought together desperate people of different circumstances, like the Koch family at Bogue Homa farm, Col. Hall, the Union leader of black troops at Fort Pike, Jayhawkers from Jones County, Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, the storied and feared Confederate cavalryman, and George Holloman, who was the leader of a vigilante group while at the same time serving as president of the Hancock County Police Court.
            These were strange hard times.
            The Confederacy was only the nominal leader of the Pearl River part of Hancock County. There was no military post there. Courts were closed. The usual government bureaus were not functioning. It was, as I have claimed in a little book, a no-man’s land.
             There was the Police Court, but to all analyses it appears to have been an ad hoc committee whose primary purpose was to dole out chits to hungry families of absent volunteer soldiers. They appointed “overseers” of the poor in each beat, and others to be  overseers of the roads throughout the county.
             A third group, called “Captains of the Police Court.” consisted of eleven men. Unlike the other committees, their duties were not defined in the minutes of the meetings of the Police Court.
 
Families of the river communities
         Along the Pearl River in Hancock County people were starving. Early in the war, JFH Claiborne had written to Gov. Pettus, “We are now proving our loyalty by starvation – by the tears of our women and the cries of their children for bread.” In a letter to Confederate General Pemberton, Capt. Cavanaugh wrote, “Those families who go over to the enemy go over for subsistence, and they say they are actual starving. I know of cases where they have eaten nothing but corn bread for weeks.”
         On July 6, 1864, a letter within the Koch family reported how badly things had become in their area.  “The deserters families all still coming to Pearling <sic> all the poorest kind of people and they say there is a great many more to come yet if there is they will have to take the church house to live in…Two poor women here who were sick they are going up the country they have been over in town to see there <sic> sons they came in here to get some corn bread and milk for her sick husband who was on the road and could not walk to the house…they have been striped of everything they had, it is hard to be traveling in such weather.”
         Meanwhile, Annette Koch worked hard to support her small children. Her eldest son Elers had been conscripted and next in line was Emil, who was at his parents’ insistence hiding in Devil’s Swamp. A fox had taken the Chinese Goose; someone had stolen the bee hive. And Gen. Still, she worked the peas, pumpkins, turnips, and rice. She fixed the fence so hogs didn’t get in. There was also black-eyed peas, potatoes, cabbage, corn. She got corn from Weston.
         There was plenty for herself and her small children and maybe some of the neighbors who were not so fortunate as to have their own farm. This changed when cavalry came by, at least once led by Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest. She had to feed all the troops, and their horses as well.
 
Gen. Forrest and his riders
         Forrest was not one to deal with lightly. A wealthy slave dealer and the eventual Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, General Forrest was perhaps the most important cavalry leader of the Confederate army.  Shelby Foote writes that he was “a natural genius,” “born to be a soldier.” He reports that Forrest had “… thirty horses shot from under him…. and he killed thirty-one men in hand-to-hand combat.”
         Forrest’s fierce reputation had come to be known in Hancock County, not only by Mrs. Koch and son Elers but also by Col. Alfred Hall and his black troops.
         Just months before his visit to Bogue Homa, in April of 1864, Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s and his cavalry had slaughtered black troops in a massacre known as the Battle of Fort Pillow. Union forces under Major Lionel Booth consisted of 295 white soldiers and 262 U.S. Colored Troops. This happened only forty miles north of Memphis, close enough for the word to have come down to the coast.
         There were different reports, one stating that only about twenty Negro soldiers survived out of a force of four hundred. As they threw down their arms and begged for their lives they were told to stand up and then were shot or bayoneted or run through by swords. Black civilians fled but were murdered as they ran.
Forrest himself said, “The river was dyed with the blood of the slaughtered for two hundred yards. The approximate loss was upward of five hundred killed, but few of the officers escaping. My loss was about twenty killed. It is hoped that these facts will demonstrate to the Northern people that negro soldiers cannot cope with the southerners.”
Col. Hall and the 74th United States Regiment of Colored Troops
Hall also knew about jayhawkers: He had written to Capt. F. Spears, the Assistant Adjutant General on September 10, advising that 125 such men were fifteen miles away from Fort Pike, at “Pearl River Island,” probably the area west of West Pearl River, now called Honey Island Swamp. They had “killed one man, a Union man, outright.”
         A few days later, he reported to Capt. Speed that between September 9 and 12 he had taken 200 men up West Pearl by means of a steamer, the J.D. Swain, and inquired of local settlers, finding that three horsemen armed with shotguns and pistols had passed through. Unable to gather information about jayhawkers, he was also told by locals that they knew nothing of rebel cavalry. He then split his forces, taking the wrong part of a fork, blaming the problem on “a mistake of the guide.”
         Eventually, he went up the main Pearl, hoping to find cavalry at Gainesville, then the county seat of Hancock. En route, he searched the town of Napoleon, which he found nearly empty and showing no signs of the enemy. At Gainesville he learned that five had been there on the previous day, but explained that there was little chance of catching any because they could hear the steamer’s noise and keep their distance. “It was useless to attempt their capture, our approach being known to them hours before, and unless they choose to fight us they could easily avoid us.
He had apprehended one man at Gainesville, one William Marsen, who claimed to be a paroled prisoner. Hall treated him suspiciously because he was employed to drive cattle for the rebel army.
At the end of his report, Hall observed that the inhabitants expressed a desire that he come often with his troops.
One may speculate about how fervently Hall sought the enemy cavalry. He blamed a guide for taking a wrong turn, this wasting much time. He advanced reasons why the cavalry of Gen. Forrest would run away from the noise of the steamer, assuming that they did not want to fight.
It is not for this writer to conclude that Hall preferred not to engage in combat; after all, at his entire posting at Fort Pike there was no engagement with the enemy. It may also be that because of his apparent addiction to alcohol he was ready to return home after a while. But, perhaps most of all, he feared for his black troops. The memory of Fort Pillow must have been on all of their minds.
At any rate, Brig. Gen. T.W. Sherman was not pleased. He had received his report from Capt. Speed, and noted that Hall “appears to have gone up West Pearl River and landed his force on the main or the west side,” contrary to what he had planned in a telegram before embarking. Sherman minced no words: “No wonder that he was unsuccessful, if the enemy was, as he has stated, on Pearl River Island….Of the management of the expedition, as I understand it, I disapprove.” 
        
Whatever his motives or failings, Hall had been very helpful to the Koch family during his term at Fort Pike, and presumably he helped others as well. I have written extensively about the Koch family and their letters, both in the little book, Mississippi’s No-Man’s Land, and on my web site. Extracting from them are some examples of their friendship.
 
        
In a letter of September 28, 1864 from their farm called Bogue Homa near Pearlington, Annette Koch wrote to her husband of hardships caused by feeding Nathan B. Forrest’s Confederate cavalry. Son Elers Koch had reported cavalry “pretty thick” but he did not anticipate trouble, though the cavalry was eating “all that we have.” The good news was that no more Jay Hawkers had been caught.
An October 3, 1864, letter from Elers stated, “There was 13 of Gen. Forrest’s cavalry here last week the fellow that you sold your Yankee coat to was one of them… I wish they would stay away because it makes The Yankee Hostile to us by being here and we cannot help it, I would set the Yankees on them mighty quick if I have a chance, It would do me good to catch them.”
To add to the problems of those of Hancock County, others came down from Jones County, known as the “Free State of Jones.” [Knight et al] They stole, they rustled cattle, etc. Even worse, some of their own Hancock neighbors also committed atrocities, apparently becoming complicit in the actions of the Jayhawkers from Jones County. 
In these circumstances, some felt that vigilante actions were in order. One was Elers Koch. Another was George Holloman, president of the Police Court.
September 28, 1864 Christian to Annette from Nelson’s Mill, re: cavalry “Tell me all about it and whom they have killed. Mead tells me they have killed Charles Moody, if they would kill him, they would kill Elers also.”
Koch urges son to take to swamp or go to Fort Pike rather than be picked up by the cavalry. Cavalry keeps citizens in constant fear by seeking conscripts, exacting money for release demanding food and lodging, stealing clothing, tobacco, cane, logs, cattle, horses, and behaving disorderly.

Koch Family Papers: Oct. 3, 1864

“You said you did not want me to join the company that has been got up by the citizens to put down these robbers that pretend to be acting under Federal Authority. They are robbing citizens upon there <sic> own hook, I have joined the company…and think it no more than every good citizen should do, you think that Charles Moody was a harmless man, but he had stolen a lot of cattle up the county which he owned when he was sentenced to be shot. George  Holloman is Captain of our company, he got permission from Col. Hall through Col. Claiborne’s hands, You think them a lot of cowardly murderers [illeg] some of them are but if they should have come and robbed you of every thing you had you would want to shoot them to <sic> … one of the robbers confirmed before he was shot that they had made a plan to rob every house between Bobichito and Pearlington in one night.” (Remarkably, switches subject to talk about hay.).
“They killed Jourdan Steward [1850 census shows him at only age 1] and Moody that is all that you know the rest was from Jones County…There was 13 of Gen. Forrest’s cavalry here last week the fellow that you sold your Yankee coat to was one of them… I wish they would stay away because it makes The Yankee Hostile to us by being here and we cannot help it, I would set the Yankees on them mighty quick if I have a chance, It would do me good to catch them.”
Same source: November 10, 1864 from Christian Nelson’s Mill to Annette, Bogue Homa Col. Hall, Ft. Pike, probably reported by Mitchell to U. S. Provost Marshal for allowing people to pass picket line; sends merchandise home; mentions high cost of meat; inquires about Christmas gifts for children.
October 3, 1864 Annette, Bogue Homa, near Pearlington to Christian New Orleans and Fort Pike, Rigolets relates tenseness cause by Citizen’s Committee; states that Old Mike freed at Fort Pike by Colonel; mentions farming matters. “the citizens, in each beat had to choose a Capt., and be ready…and Father Elers has joined them after they had got the Coll. At the Forts approval, They must give the criminal a trial, and must have positive that he is guilty then if the crime is sufficent <sic> for death he is to be shot…I had a scene described to me by an eye witness, of a father and son who was shot close to Mr. Kimballs, how the son told standing by his father that he led in wickedness by his own father and that he had always been bad and he told his poor mother not to grieve for him but now that she would have he whole controle of the other children to try and bring them up right and she was hardly out of hearing when they were both shot dead.”
November 19, 1864 Christian Rigolets and New Orleans to Annette Chris states kindness to Col. Hall, commanding officer at Fort Pike, enables him to have sons on schooners; would prefer sons to be dead than fight for South; advises wife not to feed cavalry since sons were driven away; wants South whipped even if takes 10 more years, wants wife to feed George while hiding in swamp (calendar “while he [George] hiding in the swamp”). Pleased that Lincoln was reelected. .
Minutes of Hancock County’s Police Court:
1-2-65: George Holloman now president. Board ordered that future meetings be at Smith’s school house, seven miles above Gainesville. Commissioner Jacob Seals allowed $500 out of relief funds; another, illegible, given $1,000 out of fund. Roberts allowed $15 for removal of jail irons. Johnston given $90 for making out assessment rolls and stationery.
3-6-65: Meeting held at “Jourdan’s Smiths School House [sic].” Future meetings were to be at court house in Gainesville. Sheriff ordered to hold election for one county surveyor, one member of Board of Police for Beat 5, Justices of Peace, and one constable. [This is first specific indication that members of board are elected.]
4-3-65: John V. Toulme now a member of the board. Wm. Poitevent appointed overseer of the poor for Beat 2. Henry Carre appointed overseer of the River Road from Napoleon to Gainseville; “hands” include J.V. Favre, two Murphys and others. Twenty persons are appointed “Grand
November 26, 1864 Christian in New Orleans to Annette needs sons’ clothing and bedding; fears sons’ taking smallpox; thinks Claiborne prevented his getting pass, resents Claiborne having contradicted wife’s statement concerning payment to Confederate cavalry for release of son. Has no personal fear of cavalry; discusses disposition of logs. Col. Hall sent sons to Chris as soon as they had taken the oath; he intends to keep them with him for present. Sorry that she did not keep Emil, as “Mitchell has arrived from Toomers and tells me that the cavalry has gone, and not taken any body at all.”
December 4, 1864 Annette, Bogue Homa to Christian, schooner “Experiment”, New Orleans and Rigolets discusses farming matters, and log rolling and rafting; discusses disorderly conduct of Confederate cavalry at Negro dance in BSL; plans to send turkey to Colonel Hall at Fort Pike for Christmas.
February 17, 1865 Christian, New Orleans to Annette at Bogue Homa unable to obtain permit even to purchase cotton; Provost marshal of New Orleans arrested for rascality; interviews General Sherman who says no one can grant permit except General Harlbut; regrets Colonel Hall leaving For Pike
March 23, 1865  Christian, New Orleans, to Annette states Emil is forced to enroll for the draft; complains about new taxes being levied constantly; wants wife to buy a wild turkey for Col Hall; states troops being moved rapidly to Mobile making boating difficult in Lake Pontchartrain.
 

Col. Hall

Citizens committee – Holloman

74th Regiment, United States Colored Infantry
Organized April 4, 1864, from 2nd Corps de Afrique Infantry. Attached to Defences of New Orleans, Dept. of the Gulf, to October, 1864. 3rd Brigade, 3rd Division, United States Colored Troops, Dept. of the Gulf, to November, 1864. Defences of New Orleans, Dept. of the Gulf, to October, 1864. Garrison duty at Ship Island, Miss., entire term. Expedition from Fort Pike to Pearl River September 9-12, 1864. Expedition from Fort Pike to Bayou Bonforica January 31-February 1, 1865 (Detachment). Expedition from Fort Pike to Bayou St. Louis March 28-30 (Detachment). Mustered out October 11, 1865.
Predecessor unit:

CORPS DE AFRIQUE.-UNITED STATES COLORED VOLUNTEERS.
2nd REGIMENT INFANTRY.

Organized June 6, 1863, from 2nd Louisiana Native Guard Infantry. Attached to the Defences of New Orleans, Dept. of the Gulf, to September, 1863. 1st Brigade, 1st Division, Corps de Afrique, Dept. of the Gulf, to October, 1863. Defences of New Orleans to April, 1864. On garrison duty at Ship Island, Miss., June, 1863, to April, 1864. Designation of Regiment changed to 74th United States Colored Troops April 4, 1864 (which see).

 
Koch Family Papers:
“You said you did not want me to join the company that has been got up by the citizens to put down these robbers that pretend to be acting under Federal Authority. They are robbing citizens upon there <sic> own hook, I have joined the company…and think it no more than every good citizen should do, you think that Charles Moody was a harmless man, but he had stolen a lot of cattle up the county which he owned when he was sentenced to be shot. George  Holloman is Captain of our company, he got permission from Col. Hall through Col. Claiborne’s hands, You think them a lot of cowardly murderers [illeg] some of them are but if they should have come and robbed you of every thing you had you would want to shoot them to <sic> … one of the robbers confirmed before he was shot that they had made a plan to rob every house between Bobichito and Pearlington in one night.” (Remarkably, switches subject to talk about hay.).
“They killed Jourdan  Steward and Moody that is all that you know the rest was from Jones County…There was 13 of Gen. Forrest’s cavalry here last week the fellow that you sold your Yankee coat to was one of them… I wish they would stay away because it makes The Yankee Hostile to us by being here and we cannot help it, I would set the Yankees on them mighty quick if I have a chance, It would do me good to catch them.”
 
Same source as above:

Salient facts, Subsequent Meetings

The foregoing is intended to give a glimpse of normal business. At this point, names of the important participants include Joseph, Martin, Elihu Carver, Geoge Holloman, Alphonse Williams, David Mayo, James Cuevas, John Hover, wily Toomer, Solomon Seal, William Stewart, Henry Weston, S. J. Farve [sic], Luther Russ, D. W. Johnston, W. A. Whitfield, Henry Carre, John Calhoun, Samuel Murphy, Samuel White, and W. C. Wheat.
As more important actions become apparent, they are detailed, as below:
12-2-63: Commissioners to help destitute came under Sec. 1 of the above Act. Bond for Treasurer Moore was under Sec. 2, and provided that he furnish bond in amount of $10,000.
 
Same source as above:
8-7-65: Henry Weston appointed overseer of road from Pearlington to Napoleon “with all hands in Pearlington and all other hands liable to work said road.” Other new overseers were Russ, Holloman, Randall, Stockstill, Necaise, Seals, McGee, and Byrd.10-9-65: Amos Seal appointed overseer from the fork above the swamp to Hog Pen branch, including nine hands named Seal, plus Nathan Seal, negro. Wheat also named overseer, to cover inside road from the three bridges in Hobolochitto swamp to Black Creek; Wise to be overseer of inside road from Black Creek to Henly old place.
10-16-65: Following members elect appeared and produced credentials: Martin, Toulme, Holloman, Smith and Ladner. (Note: this is only one week after last meeting.) Martin then reelected. John Poitevent was made sheriff. Johnston, Randall, and Johnson were appointed commissioners “to let out and superintend such repairs as may be required to be done on the Court house at Gainesville and report the same to the board.” Ezra Carver and John Long were made commissioners of the Shieldsboro area involving the bay road and the 8th mile post to the west end of Ravine Favre.
 
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