The Republic of Jones

by Col. J. B. Dodge

In the month of September, 1864, the rebel commander at Atlanta sent a very large force of cavalry, under General N. B. Forrest, into Northern Alabama and middle Tennessee with orders to break up the line of communication of our army under Gen. Sherman, so as to cut off our means of transportation, or, as the soldiers tersely expressed it, "cut our cracker line," and destroy all the stores possible. We had a line of 250 or 300 miles to guard. At each trestle, or bridge, or town, we were compelled to put up some kind of defensive work to shelter the troops posted there. These works were frequently small block-houses, made of timber, something like a common log-house, with loop-holes for the men to fire out of, and sometimes were small earthworks, or redoubts, that, from the circumstances of the case, had been located close to the point they were designed to protect, without any regard to their availability, against more commanding positions that were in the immediate neighborhood.

Captain Poe, formerly of this place, but now of Plymouth, was in command of a block-house on the Nashville & Decatur railroad near Athens, Tennessee, at a bridge or trestle, in command of a company of colored troops. On the twenty-third he was ordered by Forrest to surrender. Poe replied that he was not receiving orders from him, and that if he wanted his post he had better come and get it. In order to understand the position these troops were in, it must be remembered that the slaughter at Fort Pillow, under Forrest's commands, had occurred not long before; and the rebels were threatening to kill every negro found in arms, and every white man in command of them. Fighting commenced immediately, and only ceased after the block-house had become as an officer who saw it the next day told me "a perfect slaughter-pen;" and even then, he managed to secure first rate terms of surrender for himself and the surviving men.

Major Lilly, of the Sixth Indiana Cavalry, who had previously made a splendid reputation for himself as commander of the 18th Indiana battery, was in command of a redoubt that had been hastily thrown up at Sulphur Branch trestle, a few miles north of Athens. This was an important point to hold and was garrisoned by a portion of the Tennessee cavalry, four companies of Lilly's regiment, and a part of the __?__ , a colored regiment, making altogether about 1,000 effective men. On the twenty-fifth Forrest made his appearance in the vicinity of the redoubt, with a force of 6,000 or 8,000 men and two batteries. There were two pieces of light artillery in the little fort. Fighting commenced at once. The redoubt was situated in a hollow, and was commanded on three hills covered with trees and brush, so that the rebels were protected from our fire to a certain extent, and, in addition, could send a plunging fire of musketry and artillery right on the heads of the defenders of the redoubt. The rebels were confident of success, and for some time were inclined to be reckless. Our men were cool, and determined to sell their lives as dear as possible. Finally, our cavalry found they were getting short on ammunition. The colored troops had plenty of it, but it was too large for the guns of the cavalry. Whenever there was a lull in the fight, every man went to work with his knife trimming the bullets so that they would go into the guns of the cavalry. At last rebel bugles sounded "cease firing," and a flag of truce was seen approaching. Our men ceased firing as a matter of course. (I find I have made an error. At the commencement of the fight the Colonel of the Tennessee regiment was in command. He was wounded at the first fire. The Colonel of the colored regiment then took command, and he was also wounded, and then Lilly was in command.)

It is not the practice of commanding officers to go with truce parties to meet flags of truce, until arrangements have been made through inferior officers. Lilly looked around and he could find no one that he wanted to send, and so went himself and met Forrest's Adjutant General. Just after he had started, he discovered a movement being made on the part of the rebel troops, and he promptly gave the command to fire on them, which was done with good effect. (While a truce is in existence, no movement of troops to a more favorable position is ever allowed.) As soon as the movement ceased, firing was stopped, and the Major introduced himself and received a written communication couched in the following language:

To the Commander U.S. forces at Sulphur Branch Trestle, Tenn.:
SIR: You are hereby summoned to surrender the forces under your command. The surrender to be immediate and unconditional. If any further resistance is made by you, I shall not hold myself responsible for the conduct of my soldiers. N. B. FORREST. Maj. Gen. Commanding &c.

Lilly at once informed the officer that it was useless to say another word; that he considered the implied threat an insult to him and his troops; and that Gen. Forrest had the reputation of being too good a soldier to be unable to control his troops under any circumstances, if he wanted to. After notifying him that fighting would be resumed at once, he started back. Before he reached his lines, he was recalled by the officer he had been talking with, and informed that Gen. Forrest had come out in person. The Major returned immediately, and after fifteen minutes' conversation surrendered himself and command, on condition that only the property of the government should be turned over to him; the officers and men to retain all their personal property, horses and side arms included, and to be taken to some point in Mississippi and be released on parole as soon as the necessary arrangements could be made with General Washburne, who was in command at Memphis. No discrimination was made between the white and colored troops. The Major got his command together, and after burying his dead, about seventy-five, started for "Dixie" in company with a large number of other troops that had been similarly captured. They were taken first to Meridian, and a day or two after, the officers, about ninety in number, went to Enterprise, a town ten or twelve miles from Meridian, the enlisted men staying where they were. At Enterprise they found a Major Ward, formerly of Kingstown, I think, in this state, in command of six men, who was engaged in conscripting men for the rebel army, a position similar to that of Provost Marshal at the same time in the North.

The officers were at once paroled, not to escape from the town, and as they had no trouble in selling their watches, revolvers, saddles or horses for almost fabulous amounts of confederate money, and were at perfect liberty as far as the town was concerned, they had a first rate time. They boarded around the town among the citizens, and slept in a large warehouse that they had fixed up in good shape. After they had been there four or five days they heard for the first time, of the "Republic of Jones." How many, I wonder, that take the trouble to read this article knew that the Confederacy had a republic within itself, having a president, vice-president, congress, an army, and all the other departments of a regular government? It was all in minature, to be sure; but the will was good. The army of this curiosity in the list of governments that have existed amounted to 1,000 men.

Take a map and look at the State of Mississippi. Down in the south-eastern portion of the State you will find Jones county. It is low, flat land, about one-half the very thinnest, poorest "oak barrens" imaginable; the other half is low ground with no timber on it, nothing but tall, reedy grass that grew very dense, so that a man can be securely hiden within five feet of where a large force were passing, and they would know nothing of his proximity. The county is also traversed by three or four brances of Leaf river, all of which are slow, crooked streams, with marshy banks and bottoms. The inhabitants were generally refugees from justice, desperadoes that were keeping out of the way of parties they had injured, and deserters from the rebel army, and all banded together for common defense. They were able to and did defy any force, either Union or rebel, that might be sent against them. Owning to the peculiarities of the country, they could annihilate at their pleasure any small force, and could scatter and secrete themselves at a moment's notice from a force too large for them to cope with.

One night the Major was waked up by some one pulling on one of his feet, when he was in bed and asleep. He raised up and ascertained that it was a negro that lived in town, and who had appeared friendly. The Major immediately got up at the request of the negro, and went outside of the building with him where he talked a little while in order to quiet his fears, for he was very much excited. The negro told him that some of the people in town, that do not like the "Yanks," had sent word down to the "Republic of Jones" to send up their troops, attack the town, plunder all the Federal officers, and hang all the officers of colored troops.

The Major, after promising the negro that he would see to it that he came to no harm from the rebels, called up five officers, and they stood guard over the town until morning, when Lilly saw Major Ward and told him what the negro had said. Ward had heard rumors of the same thing, and at once telegraphed the situation to Mobile and asked for enough men to guard the town. He was informed that it would be impossible to get the men to Enterprise in less than three days, in the meantime he must do the best he could. In the meanwhile he had sent a scouting party, consisting of what soldiers he had, that returned and reported the "Jones army" as only five miles distant, and that it was advancing carefully. Lilly at once proposed to him to take twenty-five stand of arms, that he (Ward) had, organize the Union officers as a company and guard the town until the troops could arrive from Mobile. Ward accepted the offer promptly, and thus for three days and nights the singular spectacle was presented of a body of prisoners actually guarding their own prison and the citizens of the town in the heart of the enemy's country- a thing that may be easily said to be without parallel in the annals of war.

The "Jones army" advanced to within two miles of the town, made a reconnoisance and found a different state of things existing than they had counted on, halted and remained there until after the troops from Mobile had arrived, and five days after the necessary arrangements for exchange having been made, Major Lilly, with the other officers and men captured up to that time by Forrest, were sent to Memphis and from thence to their commands. Taking everything into consideration, their fighting, capture, defense of a rebel town and speedy exchange, it is, I believe, without parallel during the rebellion, if not in any war.

Northern Indianian April 28, 1875

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