On September 12, 1863, the parishioners of Rodney Presbyterian Church in Jefferson County, Mississippi, filed into their house of worship for a
typical Sabbath service. This Sunday, however, the service was anything but typical, as anchored just offshore was the United States tinclad gunboat U.S.S. Rattler, and some of the Federal tars were about to join the congregation for their worship.
The commanding officer of the Rattler was Acting Master Walter E.H. Fentress, and even though he had very clear orders against going ashore, the officer felt that there would be no harm in attending the service as there were thought to be no Confederates in the immediate area. Fentress, along with some of his men, took a rowboat to shore and quietly walked into the church – what transpired next made this particular worship service one of the most memorable of the entire war in Mississippi.
I found the following account of what happened that Sunday at the Rodney Presbyterian Church in The Port Gibson Reveille, March 10, 1910. This article was written for the paper by Elijah Conklin, who as a teenager had attended the church that fateful Sunday. While I have seen several other reminiscences of the incident at Rodney, I don’t think Mr. Conklin’s has been in print since it was originally published in 1910:
The following letter, written by Mr. Conklin, of Omaha, referring to an incident of the late war had been furnished us by Major Broughton. At the time referred to Mr. Conklin was a youth, living in Rodney; later he enlisted and served two years in the Confederate army:
Omaha, Neb., Jan. 8, 1910:
Maj. Jno. W. Broughton, Lorman, Miss.
Dear Friend and Comrade: As you mentioned in your last letter that the Fayette Chronicle would soon publish an account of the capture of a federal naval captain and sailors in the Presbyterian church in Rodney, during the war between the states, I thought as I was in the church that day, and had the experience of having both a Federal and Confederate officer level their pistols on me within two or three minutes time, that perhaps my experience might also be interesting to the readers of the Chronicle.
As a preface, I will say the captain of the Federal gunboat was a very sociable man and frequently came ashore and talked in a friendly way with the citizens, and had attended church a few times previous to the day of his capture. The citizens of Rodney did not know of there being any armed Confederate soldiers in that vicinity at that time; there were though several paroled Confederate soldiers in the town, it being their home, they having been captured and paroled, some at Vicksburg, others at Port Hudson, when those places surrendered to the Federals.
Well do I remember that exciting day. It was a beautiful, sun-shiny Sabbath morning. The church was crowded so much that a bench had to be brought from the negro gallery and was occupied by sailors who could not find seats in pews. The Federal captain was seated immediately in front of me. The pew he was sitting in was entirely taken up by himself and sailors. A Federal officer who had accompanied a lady of the town to church was seated on the opposite side of the church from the captain. He was the only one of the party that was armed, he having a navy revolver. Soon after the services commenced, we were startled by noises on the outside of the church, such as running of horses in the street and a rattling noise which we afterwards found out was caused by the Confederate cavalrymen’s spurs rattling on the brick walk in front of the church.
We could not imagine the cause of the noises, but everybody seemed to have a premonition of something dreadful going to happen. Before we had time to take in the situation, a Confederate officer ran in the church from the left entrance. He had a revolver in each hand, and with them pointed toward the Federals, said, in a loud tone, with an oath, ‘Surrender, you are my prisoners.’ The Federal captain quickly arose to a standing position with uplifted hands, facing the Confederate, said, ‘We surrender, for God’s sake don’t fire among the women and children.’
At that instant the Federal officer from the opposite side of the church fired at the Confederate, who immediately fired at the Federal and then such excitement and confusion never witnessed before or since. Women and children were screaming, men, women and children were rushing in every direction endeavoring to get out of the church, some jumping out of windows, others rushing out of the doors. Back in the choir looked to me to be the safest place, and in my excitement I climbed over the top of the pews to get there. I found a few of the citizens of the town in the choir, the only ones I can remember now were James Wilson.
We could hear the Confederates on the outside of the church shooting and calling on the sailors to surrender, and occasionally heard a shot fired from the inside of the church by the Federal officer. Presently he came running down the side of the church and into the corridor and stopped in the door-way leading into the choir and covered me with his pistol. I had met this officer on the street a few days before and had a heated argument with him, and when he pointed his cocked pistol at me I thought his intention was to kill me. I threw up both my hands as quickly as possible and said, ‘For God’s sake don’t shoot me.’ He replied, ‘Then take those men away from here.’ I answered, ‘That is not in my power; I have no control over them.’ He then left me and I went farther in the church. One of the Confederates ran in the left entrance and leveled his revolver in the direction of the choir, but instead of covering the Federal with it as he expected, it covered me. I thought in his excitement he would surely shoot me, Instantly up went both of my hands and again I cried out, ‘For God’s sake don’t shoot me.’ He said, ‘Where did that Yankee go?’ I answered, ‘I don’t know.’
In my excitement I did not think to tell him that the Federal had gone further in the church. The Confederate went outside without searching the church for the Federal. We learned afterwards that when the Federal left me he hid under a pew and remained there until the Confederates left and then made his way to the river bank and gave a signal to the gunboat which was anchored in front of the town, and a yawl was sent ashore and he and a sailor who had escaped capture were taken aboard of the gunboat.
After my experience with the Confederate officer I realized that instead of getting, as I supposed, in the safest place in the church, I had got into the most dangerous, and I followed the Confederate officer out of the church and found most of the people who had been in the church congregated in front of it. Just at that time the squad of Confederates, mounted on their horses, passed in front of the church with the Federal captain and eighteen sailors with them as their prisoners. One of the Confederates, a mere boy as he appeared to me to be, waved his hat and said, ‘Three cheers for the Southern Confederacy,’ and addressing the crowd of citizens, said, ‘You must excuse us for disturbing your church services, but it was too good an opportunity to pick these men up.’
The Confederates left town and we Rodneyites hastened to our homes and hurriedly tied in sheets some provisions and clothing, ready to throw the bundles over shoulders and run from the town in case the Federals burnt it, which they usually did when they were fired on from towns. When the Federal officer and sailor who had escaped capture reached the gunboat and informed those on the boat what had occurred, the gunboat raised her anchor and steamed up and down in front of the town, firing broadside after broadside of shells into the town. Several houses were struck by the cannon balls, one entering the church; finally the cannonading ceased.
After the Confederates left town, they sent a written communication to the gunboat, stating that the citizens should not be held responsible for what had occurred, for the citizens did not know of their being in that vicinity or their intentions, and if the Federals burnt the town they would hang the prisoners they had captured. The communication was given to one of the old men of the town who immediately consulted other citizens and they decided it would be poor policy to send the communication to the Federals for they might capture nineteen citizens, burn the town and say to the Confederates, ‘Now hang our men and we will hang these citizens.’ So the communication was destroyed instead of being sent to the commanding officer of the gunboat.
In an hour or two after the cannonading stopped it commenced again. We soon discovered they were shelling the roads leading into the town and were landing a force of sailors who marched up town and set fire to the hotel. Rev. Mr. Price, came running down the street; he was bareheaded and in his shirt sleeves, and asked on of the sailors for their commanding officer; when he was pointed out to him he told him of the communication the Confederates had sent in and why it had not been delivered, and as they had commenced burning the town he thought it best to inform him of it. The Federal officer said he had orders to only burn the hotel; that the Confederates threats would not influence him to put the fire out, but he would call his men off and if the citizens could put the fire out they might do so. As the fire had hardly got started the citizens did not find it difficult to stop it. The Federals returned to the boat and we were told they would not disturb the town any more until the matter had been reported to the general in command at Natchez. He, I suppose, decided not to take any action, for we were not molested again. The reason they intended burning the hotel was on account of the sailor who escaped capture having run into the hotel and asked for protection which was refused him.
We afterwards heard that when the captured captain was exchanged he was courtmartialed and dismissed from service for endangering himself and men to capture. As to the truthfulness of his courtmartial, etc., I cannot vouch. Sometime in the future I will write for publication in the Chronicle an account of my capture during the war, as you have often requested me to do.
Remember me kindly to my Jefferson County friends, and with many good wishes for yourself, I remain, Your friend and comrade,
Elijah Conklin was born in Grand Gulf, Mississippi, in 1847, and shortly after the incident at Rodney which he so wonderfully described in his
letter, the teenager joined Wirt Adams’ Regiment of Mississippi Cavalry. His service record is woefully incomplete, but fortunately in later life Conklin filled out a veteran’s questionnaire for the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. In it he stated that he enlisted in the army at Jefferson County, Mississippi, on September 1, 1864. Conklin wrote in his account:
I Elijah Conklin, when 16 years old, served during the siege of Vicksburg campaign as an independent volunteer in Co. K, Wirt Adams Cavl. Regiment, and participated at that time in Cavalry skirmishes, and in Battle of Jackson, Miss., and was a picket on the left wing of the Confederate army at the battle of Raymond, Miss. When 17 years old I enlisted for the war in Co. A, Wood’s Regt., Adams Brigade Cavalry, and served until the end of the war, and surrendered under Genl. Forrest, at Gainesville, Ala., in May 1865. I was captured by Elliott’s Marine Brigade, U.S. Cavalry, and held as a prisoner of war for a few days on boats on Mississippi River. During the winter of 1864 & 1865, I was detailed from my regiment to do service as a headquarters courier for General Frank Gardner, with headquarters at Jackson, Miss.
– Veteran’s Questionnaire of Elijah Conklin, Series 390, Box 16598, Mississippi Department of Archives & History
In 1873 Elijah Conklin moved to Omaha, Nebraska, to join his older brother William, who had found employment there as a bookkeeper. Elijah worked for over a decade as a Pullman Conductor on the Union Pacific Railroad, and later became a successful traveling salesman. Although he lived far from the state of his birth, Conklin never forgot his home, or the war he had fought in as a teenager. He was a member of the J.J. Whitney Camp, United Confederate Veterans, in Fayette, Mississippi. When he died in 1911 it was written that “He was borne to his last resting place in a casket of Confederate gray upon which were entwined Confederate and American flags. He wore the highly prized cross of honor, and his pallbearers were old veterans of both the Confederate and Union armies.” – Confederate Veteran Magazine, Volume XIX, Page 492.