Life was hard but not so hard as it might have been for Mississippi Coast Residents during the Civil War. The Union naval blockade certainly caused food and material shortages, but the blood and destruction that spread through Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee, Missouri and South Carolina mercifully was not to happen along the Coast. Suffering was worse in upper and middle Mississippi where battles were brutal around Corinth, Tuka and of course, Vicksburg. But in April of 1862, there was a sharp action that culminated in the "Battle of Pass Christian." In fact, it was more a skirmish than a battle when compared with the savage conflagration two days later and 380 miles to the north at Shiloh, Tenn. Some 17,500 men died or were seriously wounded there.
The rescue of a 4-year-old New Orleans girl set off the fighting at Pass Christian. Her name was Alma Peniston, and she had been rescued from a foundering packet on the stormtossed Gulf by one of the U.S. Navy’s roving blockade ships, which brought her to Ship island for disposition. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler had arrived on Ship Island on march 20, so the Navy turned over young Alma to the Army. Butler was informed that her parents more than likely had perished in the storm that sank the packet, and the general decided that the girl must be sent to whatever relatives she had in New Orleans. He dispatched his chief of staff, Maj. George Strong to the little town of Biloxi where Strong was to have authorities get in touch with the child's next of kin and send her to them. April 1, 1862, and the stage was set for the sharpest military action on the Gulf Coast during the Civil War. Strong arrived off Biloxi in a small schooner and ran up a white flag of truce. The local citizens thanked the young officer and asked him to convey their gratitude to the federal authority at Ship Island. The trouble started when Strong warped out of anchorage and ran aground on a sand bar off Deer Island. Before the sailors could move the small schooner off the bar, shots were fired at the stranded vessel.
It is no secret that loyalties among Coast residents were divided during the Civil War. There were many Union as well as Confederate sympathizers. In each group was a surly minority too afraid to join the army but not above hurting the helpless. Some local toughs took it upon themselves to fire on the hated and stranded "Yankees". It is certain they were not Confederate soldiers. Soldiers had a more honorable notion of murder; allow your enemy to defend himself and never fire on a white flag. After firing on Strong's schooner, the toughs commandeered a small boat and sailed out to demand the Yankees' surrender. They had assumed correctly that the schooner was unarmed; however, they had been incorrect in assuming that Strong was stupid. As the boat neared, Strong began to yell "Detail, attention! Prepare to repel boarders". The toughs withdrew.
General Butler, being a passionate, volatile and emotional man, flew into a rage when Strong reported the dishonorable attempt on his small ship. (Butler's temper would cause him and the city of New Orleans much trouble over the next year.) The general sent two gun boats and a screw-sloop to escort to Biloxi a transport that carried the 9th Connecticut Infantry. The Connecticut regiment was charged with chastising Biloxi and getting an apology in writing for what Butler deemed cowardly conduct. On the evening of April 2, the Federal troops arrived in Biloxi. When the mayor refused an interview, his daughter was taken hostage. Mayor Fewell complied with Butler's demands. Federal troops looted the store of a man whom local Union sympathizers pointed out as one of the toughs who had fired on Strong. Major Caghill, who commanded the 9th Connecticut, ordered the telegraph line cut. He invited local slaves to escape to Ship Island and freedom, and he informed Fewell that another such incident would bring about Biloxi's destruction.
Still mistakenly assuming that the 3rd Mississippi Infantry, then stationed at Pass Christian, had fired on the Federal forces, the transport sailed down to Mississippi City to procure their apology. During the night, Confederate naval and army units galvanized for defense. Seven companies of the 3rd Mississippi began a forced march eastward to "save" Biloxi. The other three companies followed somewhat later. The small Confederate naval force on the Gulf, three small gunboats, quietly sailed in among the anchored Union vessels, and an hour before dawn, they opened fire. For two hours, the ships blazed away at one another. After dawn, the Confederates disengaged and steamed to the west and the Rigolets. Their small draft allowed the to escape into shallow water that the deep-draft Union vessels could not negotiate. The Confederate guard detachment at Pass Christian sighted the Union ships in the Mississippi Sound on the morning of April 4. Surprised, the guards immediately set fire to bales of hay on the wharves in the hope of preventing Union capture. Union gunboats, thinking the smoke was cannon fired, moved in and began to shell the small city of Pass Christian. Fleeing under the hail of shot and shell , the citizenry left the town and the Confederate camp empty. The three companies of the 3rd Mississippi, which were down the road near present-day Long Beach, correctly determined that it was Pass Christian and not Biloxi that was under attack. Doing an about-face, they headed back toward their camp.
Meanwhile, an intrepid soul at Pass Christian hung a bedsheet out a second story window, and the Union gunboats ceased fire. The transport heaved to and began to unload the 9th Connecticut onto a wharf that extended out into the water. Marching out to the Confederate camp, they found it deserted. The prize, however, was the 3rd Mississippi Battle Flag, which had been lovingly made and presented by the ladies of Pass Christian. The Federal troops seized the flag, some supplies and burned everything else. As they were leaving for the boat to return to Ship Island, the 3rd Mississippi came blazing out of the pine woods. The 9th Connecticut was driven down to the waterfront and, in an orderly manner, withdrew to their transport as the gunboats gave covering fire.
Pass Christian stands as an example of green troops going into their first battle. After all the shooting was done, one Confederate soldier had been wounded, two were captured and a Federal soldier nursed an arm wound. The Yankees had set up headquarters in the Saucier house, where they received the news that they had not been fired on but the smoke had been merely burning hay bales. After profuse apologies the Union officers withdrew. On the night of April 6, Lt. Col. T.A . Mellon of the 3rd Mississippi, went out to Ship island and hailed the unfinished fort with a request for an audience with the 9th Connecticut's commander. Caghill mounted the parapet and demanded an explanation. Mellon demanded his colors be returned. Caghill refused. Mellon insisted the colors had been stolen and not seized bravely in battle. Caghill laughed and bid the crestfallen Mellon a good evening. And so it was that the battle flag of the 3rd Mississippi Infantry became the first Confederate battle flag taken by Union forces during the Civil War. Years later, in 1885 to be exact, an older, wiser and retired Major Caghill presented "Mr." T.A.Mellon wit his battle flag at "Connecticut Day" ceremonies in New Orleans. Ex-colonel Mellon was surrounded by survivors of the old 3rd Mississippi, and Caghill said that he wished all old wounds could be healed. Mellon expressed a similar wish. Perhaps someday they will be.
(Written by Marty Brazil, SH 4/5/1987 p. F6)