Chapter 14-Biloxi, 3 August 1922
A Little More History
BIloxi-31 December 1861
Waves crashed into the marshy shoreline near the makeshift wall of oak and pine tree trunks. There was no true higher ground on the peninsula but the small bluff east of the lighthouse had to suffice. The defenders had built a semi-circular fortification that was wide enough for the three artillery pieces and the associated appurtenances. A matching redoubt had been constructed further down towards Point Cadet but was less substantial, made of coffee and corn sacks filled with sand and another two solid artillery pieces mounted and pointed towards the south from where the invaders would arrive. If they dared.
Two companies of the 3rd Mississippi Regiment were formed from Biloxi. Henley’s Invincibles captained by John Henley started as a floating fighting force as to a man they were fishermen. John Elmer gallantly captained the Biloxi Rifles made of the rest of the available men of the town. This left 50 old men and young boys for the Home Defense to man the fortifications and keep the Yankee aggressors at bay.
In early December Major General Benjamin Butler was appointed to control the forces on Ship Island. Several of the oldest men recalled his father from the Battle of New Orleans 46 years before who later became a privateer. As a show of force, Butler had a gunboat sail within a mile of shore daily. The old men and boys of the Home Defense put on a big show of loading the cannons and rotating them to track the ship but no shots were fired.
Laurence Desporte had been running the town for ten years but the War Between the States put a severe crimp in his plans. The labor force had enlisted to fight for States rights and left him with no one to man his factories, no one to fish, shrimp, or tong for oysters. The plan to build Biloxi into a seafood force to be reckoned with had been put on hold. Ironically, it was seafood that kept the town alive during the blockade.
With the blockading force in the Mississippi Sound that only left the fertile estuary of Back Bay but no way to export. Nothing was getting in or out of town, especially food. So the population turned to cast nets for mullet. Young and old alike took to the shallow waters and caught the tasty Biloxi Bacon to feed themselves. The damn Yankees may control the water but they did not control the town.
To be fair, they were not damn Yankees yet. The difference between a Yankee and a damn Yankee was that the Yankees went back home. And if Lawrence played his cards right, they would move along directly.
Two days before Lawrence had sailed out near the islands in his catboat. The fort was teeming with soldiers inside and out. More than would be needed for any assault on Biloxi, clearly they had another destination in mind. Before they could dispatch a ship to intercept him he turned back to the north and the welcome shores of home.
While the War of 1812 had been before his time, from the time he was a boy he had been told of how Juan Cuevas living on Ship Island had refused to help the British find New Orleans making them late for the battle hence it was fought after the end of the war. Between that story and the lifeline that the Mississippi River was splitting the Confederacy the Union attach he had just seen being mounted had to be headed for New Orleans. But would there be a test run first? He feared the worst.
Looking through his pocket scope there was more than the lone ship they had come to expect. Three ships were on the way. One was the U.S.S. Massachusetts that had run the light rebel force out of the fort on Ship Island back during the summer and now lent its name to the previously unnamed outpost. But the Massachusetts drafted too much to come in close. Two smaller draft boats came south. While he watched they broke formation, one headed straight for the barricade and one to the east. The attack was on.
“The Yankees are coming!” Lawrence yelled from his perch atop the wall. Looking into the structure he surveyed the defenders. Three sixty year old men a gaggle of boys under 12 including his own son Theodore were on duty. “Abandon posts! Orderly file out then disperse, quickly before they get here.”
There were three doors to the makeshift fort, one to the east, one west, and one north. Two of the sixty year olds had barred the side doors and made their way to the center. The third had opened the middle door and was waving boys out. Lawrence walked out with Theodore hot on his heels with only one small seven year old bringing up the rear. He stood confidently turning only his head to make sure Theodore was behind him.
The younger Desporte stopped at the door, “Hey, what’s your name? You have the most important job.”
The boy stopped and looked up at him, “I’m Woods’s son. He runs your Dad’s wharf at the foot of Oak Street.”
“Alright listen here, Woods. You’re small. They won’t hurt you. When we walk out, you put the bar on the door and then I’ll reach over the wall and pull you out. We don’t want the Yankees to know which way we went.”
Young Woods looked up at the wall. To a seven year old anything was high but he trusted the 2
Desportes. Apparently with his life. “Um, OK. But don’t forget me.”
Theodore rubbed Woods head, “You’re about to buy us all time to get away. I can never forget you.” He pulled the door shut leaving only the small boy in the fort.
The bar was behind the door. As it closed Woods saw it and struggled to get it into place. It took a minute but he got the door blocked good and tight. “OK, lift me out,” he called.
There was no response.
“Hey! I’m done, get me now!” he yelled. No response.
Grabbing what he could on the wall he climbed up and stood on the bar. He could not reach the top of the tree-log wall but he tried valiantly for a seven year old, “Theodore! Help!” Only his voice echoing in the empty fort could be heard.
He turned to look south. The first ship had landed and soldiers dressed in blue jumped into the shallow water and mud that was the shore. They were hunched over fearing shots from either the cannons or the non-existent defenders. Woods was trapped.
Within minutes and without a single shot from a Confederate weapon the fight for Biloxi was over. Woods had an armed soldier to either side of him while the rest surveyed the contents of the fort. One cannon had a cracked and bent barrel. That was the one they had had ammunition for. The second canon was fully functional but was smaller bore so the ammo would not work. The rest were pine trees that had been de-barked and painted black.
Other troops had broken down the door to the lighthouse and walked to the top of the circular stairs. The lens had been removed and buried months before. Half of the structure had been coated in tar. The plan was to coat the rest of the iron lighthouse but the blockade had cut the available supply of tar.
None of the town’s defenders had been found. MG Butler himself never even bothered to disembark from his ship. His successful raid would result in letters of commendation for bravery under fire for three soldiers. Butler had hoped to find some slaves he could take as contraband of war to work on the fort as he had done at Fort Monroe the previous June. Instead all he got was one scared, seven year old prisoner of war who became his personal bus boy.
Naval Reserve Park west of Biloxi-3 Aug 1922
The pre-dawn air was still but not yet warm. Even the birds were still asleep when Captain Woods and Eugene Ladner started the Chevrolet and headed for the newspaper office.
“Butler had me fetch his dinner, get the wrinkles out of his clothes, and deliver his letters. He was a miserable old coot. They kept putting more and more troops on Ship Island until most of them left four months later for Nawlins. Spoons kept me close.” Woods said while they drove through the live oak forest to the front beach.
“After he took Nawlins,” Woods continued, “He went on to become infamous. Most people called him Beast Butler but I always called him Spoons. Well, behind his back. The man pillaged New Orleans. Took what he wanted for his own to include the silverware. He got rich and the townspeople got shafted.”
Ladner took his eyes off the road to look at Woods in profile. Years at sea had toughed his skin and wrinkled his face. His white hair was thick and full. “How long did you work for Spoons?” he asked.
A smile appeared on Woods’s face, “Working for Spoons personally meant I got to be the fly on the wall on a lot of meetings. So I got to meet Farragut, he was a good naval officer. In Louisiana he was able to confiscate some slaves. Part of the reason he had been sent down from Maryland to begin with was the Yankees were mad he wasn’t complying with the Fugitive Slave Act but since he was friends with Lincoln nothing could make him give ‘em up. Abe sent him down South where the locals wouldn’t complain if he had slaves. Miserable shit of a man he was. Earned his nicknames.
“Anyway, because Spoons had others to do his menial labor I was able to ask if I could go with Farragut. I tagged along on the failed assault on Vicksburg and Port Gibson. He was a little crazy but I think the best leaders are. The best memory was helping to lash him to the mast before the Second Battle of Mobile Bay. He fired a couple rounds into a hotel off Point Clear before his infamous ‘Damn the torpedo’ line.”
They had reached the front beach and turned off of the shell road onto the narrow paved lane that paralleled the water. It was too dark to see but they both breathed in deeply of the salt air. “By the end of the war I was still too young to join, but came back to work the docks. When I hit 17 I reached out to Farragut and got him to help me into the Academy.”
“How’s that work,” asked Ladner.
Woods looked at the young man, “What are you 15? No, 16?” “Yes sir,” he answered.
“Like the water, huh? Can’t blame you there. Yeah, I can make a few calls. When we get done with this you’ll have some money in your pocket and in the bank. The world will wide open to you.” Woods stared out at the water as they made their way east.
The winds blowing in off the Gulf were picking up. There were no mirrors in the Chevrolet but behind them the sun cracked the horizon and the sky took on a red hue. Deep red.
A Way Forward
Biloxi-3 Aug 1922
Molly stirred beneath the cool sheets and stretched. Feeling no one next to her, she opened her eyes. She sat upright quickly. At the foot of the bed Ernest Desporte sat in the chair pulling on his boots. Hearing her move he turned his head to look at her.
“Good morning, beautiful. Did you sleep well?”
The red light of the early dawn poured through the windows with the cross breeze of cool, salt laden air. Relaxing some she breathed out, “I slept OK, but woke up kind of abruptly. Come back to bed.” She patted the covers to her side.
Desporte stood and walked to give her a kiss, “If only I could, Love. This morning is the morning. We have to do the transfers. Taylor will be here and we’re setting up the new company.”
She laid back down in the bed and turned her body to face him lifting up the sheets to reveal her naked body. “Are you sure you can’t stay a little longer.”
He smiled and bent over for another kiss. This one more passionately, “Molly, I would love nothing more than to crawl back inside your arms and spend the rest of my life, but I have people depending on me to show up and make us all rich beyond our wildest dreams. That’ll be followed by creating new dreams. Soon, baby, very soon.”
As he turned and walked out of the room she dropped the sheets and her arm and watched him turn in the hall and head to the living room. The door opened and closed as she rolled over to look out the window. She was pretty sure he would head north which meant she would not be able to see him go by the windows.
The engine of the Lincoln started and she heard it shift into gear. The quiet of the morning had been disturbed by the car. As the sound of the car decreased with distance from the house the birds began waking and singing of bird things. When she could no longer hear the car she sat bolt upright in bed and spun to get out. Bending over she picked up her clothes and started dressing. There was no time to waste.
Back Bay-3 Aug 1922
“Where is he?” Henry Diaz looked out across the wharves and the water that was his little kingdom on Back Bay. He wanted to move to the front beach. It was the big leagues. Scanning left and right he considered the size of his current operation. He was in the big leagues, he wanted into the bigger league that was the front beach..
He turned back to the work at hand. Without his brother to help him everything was on his shoulders. Both the thinking and the doing. Luis had not reappeared since the date of the incident but the plan had been for the William Tell to resurface any day now. Meanwhile, the contraband was still on their property.
Diaz had been working throughout the night to transfer the boxes from transfer sheds on the wharf to a Chevrolet one ton truck they had built on their reliable 490 chasis. It was the pride of Diaz’s land fleet and he only trusted three people to drive it. Until last night when he backed it up to the loading dock even he had never been behind the wheel.
After loading the last box containing hams into the truck he walked around and got in the cab. The quiet of the morning was disturbed by the sound of the starter cranking. The engine gurgled and caught, then quit. Gurgled and caught, ran for ten seconds and quit. The third time was the charm. As it purred a bubbly sort of rhythm began shaking the truck and ending the silence of the docks before the day began. He engaged the worm-drive axle and rolled through the gate of the property.
Not bothering to close it, he headed down Bayview Avenue breathing a sigh of relief. The others were supposed to be by to collect the alcohol he now had loaded up. He expected them to arrive by water so he had dodged that one. Timing was critical but the gig would be up soon. They did not know where it had been stored so when they did show up it would gain more time before they figured it out. In fact, it would probably be his absence that would tip them off. With luck he might be able to show back up and delay them.
Diaz began concocting a scheme of how he could act surprised when they all opened the hiding locations and found an empty storeroom. He could postpone them knowing his treachery a little while longer. Smiling he turned down Caillavet Street heading to the Elmer Building. What he never saw was the Lincoln parked silently in the shadows that had watched his departure.
Biloxi-3 Aug 1922
The sun was just rising above the oak trees when Charles Taylor walked out of the Magnolia Hotel. He stopped and looked south toward the front beach and the Elmer Building then north in the direction of Back Bay. He followed the breeze coming from the beach and headed away from the elder Desporte but not quite in the direction of the younger. The seafood factory whistles had already blown for the morning shift so there were not many people out and about on the street.
The bed had been lumpy and he had not slept well, though to be honest a good deal of that was the internal struggle he was going through. Biloxi had long been a destination for snowbirds and people from nearby New Orleans to visit but its status had slipped a little on the way to becoming Seafood Capital of the World. Improving the tourism attractions on the Coast was a way to greatly transform the city and take it to the next logical level, but that would not fix Taylor’s more immediate problem: If TransGulf got out of the illegal contraband business what would they get in to?
He walked aimlessly just taking in the sights of the town. He had never been this far up Caillavet Street but there was no fear of getting lost. At this point the peninsula was just under a mile wide and even if the sun were hidden behind clouds the perpetual breeze from the south would let him know which way to go to get where he was headed. Just north of a road, glancing up he could see it was called Strawberry Lane. The sign was faded, B something’s Home and Lumber store. As he approached, two men came out and got into an empty cart pulled by a pair of oxen. Still wandering, he walked in.
“Smitty, get that backroom swep up! You ain’t gettin’ paid fer sittin around.Oh, I’m sorry, suh. Ah didn’t see ya there. What can we do fer ya this fine day?” A tall lady who commanded the room brushed the dust off her apron and smiled at Taylor.
Looking around the room he said, “Well I was just walking down the street and thought I’d stop in to see what you have going on here.”
As she finished rubbing the dust off her hands and apron she walked around the counter and walked closer, “My name’s Chryle Warden and I kinda run the place when Bossy’s out. He just left headed back ‘cross the Bay to where he logs and mills. We have a wide variety a lumber and wood products and if’n ya don’t see sumpen ya like jus’ ask an’ we can prolly get it fer ya.”
Bossy must have been the name on the sign out front. She had a marked accent and pronounced variety in an uneducated manner that sounded more like va-righty, but the way she carried herself it was obvious she was not a slouch. “Shrill was it?” Taylor asked.
“Yessuh, dat’s it. Mos people take a time or two ta get it right.” She smiled as she spoke. “Itsa shame ya just missed Bossy, he could give ya a right proper entryduction to tha place.”
Smiling, Taylor said, “I suspect you won’t do a bad job yourself.”
An hour later a less worried Charles Taylor walked back out of the building and on to Caillavet Street. He looked up to admire the sunshine and lack of cloud cover in the sky and smiled before turning and heading for Desporte’s office. The decision was made and the die cast.