The growing possibility of success at Vicksburg after the landings at Bruinsburg led Stanton to order Halleck to send the Mississippi Marine Brigade back to that area. During the move down the river the E. H. Fairchild, the brigade’s quartermaster vessel, came under fire from two shore batteries in the vicinity of Austin, Mississippi. Another boat, the Bostonia, was also reported being robbed by guerillas, burned, and the crew captured at Austin on the same day. Ellet was determined to take action against such activity and issued middle of the night orders for the Autocrat, Diana, and B J Adams to return to Austin.
At dawn on 24 May the boats landed at Austin and disgorged the cavalry into the streets of the sleepy village followed by a column of infantry. A quick search of the academy buildings suspected of being the center of the guerilla operations found nothing. However, Ellet reported that at the wreckage site of a “small trading boat” information was obtained from a local black man that the responsible guerillas had fled inland. In a rash move Ellet ordered Major James Hubbard, the cavalry commander, into the countryside in pursuit without coordinating support from the infantry.
The local Confederate commander, Colonel W. F. Slemons with about 800 members of the 2nd Arkansas Cavalry and 2nd Mississippi Partisans, used scouts to track the movement of the Union troopers and developed a plan to capture them. He allowed Hubbard’s column to outdistance the infantry and set a trap at Beaver Dam Lake. When Hubbard arrived there he found no indication of enemy presence and decided to countermarch back to town. As the column was reversing itself the well hidden Confederates opened fire from an unexpected direction. The suddenness of the attack threw the Union column into a confused retreat to the closest available cover, a ravine near the bayou. Outnumbered nearly four to one and trapped against the water Hubbard found himself in a very poor tactical position. Slemons understood the advantage he had gained and sent a request to Hubbard to that he surrender. Hubbard refused the request and the two sides fought it out for two hours without a significant change in the situation.
Ellet, with the infantry, was drawn to the site of the fight by the sound of the Confederate artillery (Quitman Light) and double-quicked to the assistance of the trapped troopers. As the infantry closed in on the battle General Ellet and his staff, with three or four orderlies galloped forward to overtake the advance. The command party ran into a small rear guard detachment of Slemons’ troopers that set an ambush for them from a “clump of bushes”. At about one hundred yards they initiated the ambush with a “heavy volley”. The fire knocked down several of the horses but did not injure any of the group. The Confederates “galloped away at once” but the brief exchange of fire alerted Slemons’ to the presence of the relief column and he decided to break off the fight rather than get trapped between two enemy forces. Just as Hubbard’s men were exhausting their ammunition the Union infantry pushed the Confederates away saving the day for Hubbard’s command. The fight at the lake cost the brigade two killed and nineteen wounded. The departed Confederates reported three killed, twelve wounded and three missing.
The Combined Union column opted not to pursue the fleeing Confederates and returned to Austin. Here, Captain Isaac Newell, whose company had been left to guard the boats while the remainder of the command went off in pursuit of the Confederates, drew the task of searching the village. After the first search party returned drunk after being supplied “old rye” from a pail doled out by a local, Newell personally led a second group into town to continue the search. The search found “nothing of importance and no considerable capture contraband was made.” but Ellet ordered the village fired. Despite pleas from his senior commanders that it was unnecessary Ellet insisted the village be burned at 1600. “With a sad heart” Newell torched the town. As the fire consumed the buildings a loud explosion was heard and Ellet reported that a store of Confederate ammunition had been destroyed.Mississippi Marine Brigade (Campaign Series)
- Mississippi Marine Brigade-Intro
- Mississippi Marine Brigade – Part 2
- Mississippi Marine Brigade – Part 3
- Mississippi Marine Brigade – Part 4
- Mississippi Marine Brigade – Part 5
- Mississippi Marine Brigade – Part 6
- Mississippi Marine Brigade – Part 7
- Mississippi Marine Brigade – Part 8
- Mississippi Marine Brigade – Part 9
- Mississippi Marine Brigade – Conclusion