Brigadier-General Alfred W. Ellet had taken command of the Army's amphibious force known as the Marine Brigade after his brother Charles Ellet, Jr. was killed in action in June 1862. Operating along the Mississippi, landing troops where needed, the Marine Brigade harassed Confederate forces up and down the river. His report on his burning of the riverside town of Austin in Tunica County, Mississippi outlines the close and complicated military situation the Union faced with a resistant civilian population along with the draconian measures the Union often took to achieve their mission. (By John Osborne)
United States, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series 1, Volume 25 Naval Forces on Western Waters (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1912), 128-129.
The following text is presented here in complete form, as it originally appeared in print. Spelling and typographical errors have been preserved as in the original.
Headquarters M. M. Brigade, Flagship Autocrat,
Opposite Memphis, June 5, 1863.
General: I have the honor to inform you that as my quartermaster and commissary boat was descending the river on the evening of the 22d of May. she was fired into from a point 6 miles above Austin, Miss. On the following morning I landed my forces at Austin and found the enemy about 8 miles back, some 1,000 strong, with two pieces of artillery. My cavalry engaged them, and after several hours of fighting routed and drove tliem away, with a loss of 5 dead upon the field, 22 stand of arms. 1 wagon and team, 3 prisoners, and a number of horses and mules captured. Our loss was 2 killed and several wounded, but none mortally. I burned the town of Austin, the inhabitants refusing to a man, women the same, to give me any information of the enemy, and concealing the fact that the evening before they had burned a small trading boat, carried the crew off captives, and appropriated the cargo. I had the houses all searched, and found ample evidence that a large smuggling trade has been successfully carried on at this point. Unbroken barrels of molasses and sugar, salt, whisky, fish, pieces of dry goods, and large quantities of medicines in the original packages, all bore unmistakable evidence of the occupation the people engaged in. I ordered the town to be burned, giving the inhabitants the opportunity of saving their private effects, and preserving three houses for shelter for the women and children. As the fire progressed, the discharge of firearms was rapid and frequent in the burning buildings, showing that fire is more penetrating in its search than my men had been: two heavy explosions of powder also occurred during the conflagration.
During my stay at Austin, two trading boats arrived from Memphis, one named Sweden. They showed passes and permits to bring out quite a large amount of cotton, signed by officers from the Treasury Department. They had no goods save some bagging and rope on board, yet there were many suspicious circumstances that induced the impression upon my mind that the arrival of these boats and this command of the enemy so near the same time was occasioned by preconcerted arrangement, and that their contraband cargoes had been discharged at some point farther up during the night and the boats had dropped down to Austin to receive their return freight. I would be glad to receive from you specific instructions how to deal with these cases when they come before me.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Alfred W. Ellet, Brigadier-General, Commanding M. M. Brigade.