Old Rodney: part 2 By Morgan Gates
The extinct town of Rodney was still very much alive during the Civil War. While no major fights occurred there the town was not left completely unscathed. After the fall of Vicksburg, its close proximity to so large a concentration of enemy forces meant it could not remain untouched. At one point a Regiment of bluecoats responding to rumors of Confederate troops in the area, ransacked every house in town. On another occasion a Yankee cavalry raiding party disembarked at its port and dashed through town on its way inland. The Yankees were captured by Confederates well inland. But the most interesting event of the war in Rodney, started from the most innocent of beginnings.
In the late summer of 1863 the pastor of the Presbyterian church in the little community of Red Lick not too far from Rodney, found his welcome wearing thin. The idea that the nation was uniformly divided along the Mason-Dixon line is largely a myth. ---Pemberton the commander of the Confederates that defended Vicksburg so gallantly was from Pennsylvania, the Naval Commander that had shelled the city so mercilessly was from Tennessee--- The Reverend Baker was a Union Man, again not an unheard situation, but an unpopular one. Regular transportation north, however, was not easily come by in the early years of the war. When Vicksburg fell in the summer of 1863 commercial steamboat traffic resumed on the Mississippi. Reverend Baker soon made his way to Rodney to arrange transportation upriver. Reverend Baker found no northbound paddle wheelers docked at Rodney, there was however a Union gunboat floating nearby, and Acting Master E.H. Fentress of the USS Rattler invited Reverend Baker to be his guest as he awaited a northbound steamer.
The Rattler was and aptly named vessel, small enough to be quick yet still packing a potent punch, she was what was known as a “Tinclad” in navy parlance. She began her life as the Florence Miller, an ordinary sternwheel built for river commerce, but the navy had stripped away unnecessary weight, reinforced her wooden structure, covered her vitals with an inch of iron and mounted six heavy guns, two heavy 24 pounder smooth bores and two 30 pounder Parrot rifles. Compared to the heavy ironclads like the Cairo, or the Benton she was a bantamweight but she could outrun anything she couldn’t outfight and outfight anything she couldn’t outrun. Once the Confederate river forts had been pounded into submission, the tinclads performed yeoman service patrolling the river.
While the Reverend Baker enjoyed Fentress’ hospitality, Reverend Robert Price, the pastor of the Presbyterian Church at Rodney, invited his fellow man of the cloth to preach one final service in Mississippi, and Baker graciously accepted. Perhaps hoping return the hospitality of Acting Master Fentress, Baker invited him and some of his crew to attend the service. Fentress and 18 crew members accepted. Here we must pause and wonder what Fentress was thinking! The river was back in Union hands but there were no Union garrisons between Vicksburg and Natchez and the war was far from over. Still Rodney was small and the Rattler floated nearby, and so On Sunday Morning September 13 1863, Fentress went to church. They say that there are no secrets in small towns, and sure enough, Lt. Allen of the Confederate Cavalry with about 30 men decided to show up as well. A small skirmish in which 15-20 shots were fired ensued –amazingly nobody was killed or seriously wounded-- and Fentress and most of his party were captured. As soon as word reached the Rattler the gunboat began shelling the town, one of the shells struck the church, but Lt. Allen and his prisoners were safely out of range by that time. The remainder of the Rattler’s crew threated to burn the town, until Lt. Allen promised to hang the prisoners if they did. The Rattler steamed away to Natchez to report the incident and Captain Fentress and his righteous crew got to enjoy a little southern hospitality at Libby Prison in Richmond VA until October 1864. The Rattler continued to patrol the river until the end of December 1864 when she was sunk by a snag during a heavy gale. Of Reverend Baker’s fate, we don’t know, but we can likely assume, that much chagrined, he caught the next steamer headed north to Yankee land, turning his back on the land of cotton, and hoping “his old times there WILL be forgotten” but not if we can help it.
Look away..look away…look away…Dixie Land!