Union General chases and kills Winn outlaw

by Wesley Harris
Journal Correspondent

Most Louisiana historians would agree that north central Louisiana's West-Kimbrell gang were the state's most notorious outlaws during the Reconstruction era. Much has been written about the clan based in Winn Parish but often the stories were based on unsubstantiated legend.

The official record is slim for a number of reasons the Winn Parish courthouse burned in 1868 and 1885; few newspapers from that region of Louisiana exist today; those newspapers that did report on the atrocities were reluctant to name names; travelers crossing the remote region headed west were easily waylaid and disposed of with no one the wiser; and the gang was adept at keeping much of its activity secret.

After the demise of the "Nightriders" in 1870, the Ouachita Telegraph noted the outlaws, who were "headed by a man named West, have been operating as highwaymen with unvarying success ever since the close of the war, and perhaps before its close, and have sent unheralded and unprepared into eternity the soul of many an innocent victim, stimulated thereto solely by an ungodly greed for gain."

Despite many inaccuracies in the tales of the killers and thieves led by Lawson Kimbrell and John West, the evidence is clear they were among the worst of the worst. The gang murdered U.S. Army Lieutenant Simeon Butts who was assigned to the Freemans' Bureau in 1866.

Numerous murders of freed slaves and white men alike were attributed to them. A number of arrest warrants for murder were issued against various gang members but local authorities seemed to have difficulty apprehending them, either through indifference, fear, or the outlaws' cunning.

Federal troops occupied the region at the time, ostensibly to enforce Reconstruction, protect freedmen, and support U.S. marshals and local officials in enforcing the law. Encumbered by a mandate to accompany lawmen rather than take the initiative, and without the cooperation of citizens and many of the local officials, the army was largely ineffective in dealing with crime.

One of the army officers assigned to the area was Napoleon Bonaparte McLaughlin. The Vermonter joined the army in 1850 as a private and entered the Civil War as a second lieutenant.

He fought in some of the war's bloodiest and significant engagements Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Spotsylvania. A series of promotions for gallantry on the battlefield saw him reach the rank of brevet (temporary) brigadier general when the war ended.

In December 1868, his unit was headquartered near Natchitoches as part of the government's Reconstruction occupation of Louisiana.

McLaughlin was astounded by the lawlessness in north Louisiana, not only from the West-Kimbrell gang, but outlaws the army had forced out of east Texas. He wrote to his commander that "I would respectfully state for the information of the Major General Commanding, that never in all my experience in this section of the country have so many outrages been committed as within the past two months, and the solution to my mind is that the activities of our troops in the vicinities of Jefferson and Sulphur Bottom, [Texas], have driven most of those Texan desperadoes into these northern parishes, where they can perpetrate all kinds of outrage with the most perfect impunity. Not a day passes without complaints and petitions for aid from the citizens, whilst the civil authorities are paralyzed with fear, and I powerless to interfere. I am well satisfied of the existence of a band of robbers, horse thieves, and murderers, extending from probably Rapides Parish to the more northern parishes, and thence into Texas."

But interfere McLaughlin did by personally going after some of the offenders, aggravating his superiors when he took steps to actually apprehend one.

On December 12, 1868, McLaughlin crossed from his camp west of the Red River into Winn Parish to investigate two newly reported murders. On the way, he learned William and Lawson Kimbrell, both wanted for murder in Natchitoches and Winn Parishes were at their father's house. Since troops had been sent to capture them several times without success, McLaughlin was determined to attempt it again. Traveling with just a sergeant as an orderly, they could get to the house undetected, unlike the large contingent of soldiers sent in the past.

McLaughlin described what happened in a report to his superiors. Some minor corrections have been made for readability: "Therefore upon reaching the house, I stopped and enquiring for them was informed by the mother that they had that morning left for Texas. I looked through the house and not finding them, resumed my way to Winnfield and had ridden about one mile when I discovered one of them (William Kimbrell), about 300 yards ahead, mounted with revolver in hand. Immediately upon seeing me he started at utmost speed taking to the thick woods. I gave chase gradually gaining upon him, until at the end of about a mile we were not more than sixty yards apart. Here he reached a mud hole, about ten yards wide, in attempting to cross which his horse bogged, breaking girth and precipitating saddle and rider to the ground.

"Upon my coming up, found the horse upon the opposite bank and Kimbrell standing behind it with his army revolver levelled at my head, and demanding my surrender. Demanding his surrender to me I reached down to raise my double barreled shotgun when he fired, the ball taking effect in my horse's neck, passing through from front to rear; I now fired with No. 5 bird shot, at his forehead and top of head, being the only parts visible above his horse's shoulders.

This shot took effect, the blood flowing profusely from his forehead. He again fired and I returned with my other barrel of small shot. After this he fired two shots. I returned fire with myrevolver, making in all four shots each, he on the ground covered by his horse and I mounted, the distance between us being as stated above about 10 yards.

"After my fourth shot he said that he surrendered. Supposing he had two shots left ordered him to throw down his weapon, which he did. I now called for my orderly whom not being able to find, dismounted myself, which Kimbrell seeing, he snatched his revolver, mounted his horse bare backed and started. To mount and after him was the work of a moment, my horse although wounded, carrying me through the mud hole beautifully, and after perhaps a fourth of a mile run, I had again got within some ten yards, when Kimbrell turned and fired his sixth shot. I returned it, now pressed my horse until being about ten paces ahead and to the left of him he snapped the sixth barrel of his revolver, and I firing at almost the same instant killed him instantly.

"Tying his horse to a tree, in order to mark the spot it being in a dense woods, and picking up his pistol, I retraced my way to the point from which we had started, where I found my orderly, as also a younger brother of Kimbrell and several citizens, whom I took to show the body, upon reaching which I found guarded by the father and two others with double barreled shotguns.

Knowing the desperate character of the family, and not liking the appearance of affairs, I felt to remain would be death, so I rode off about nine miles to the coroner, informed him of the circumstances, telling him that I did not propose being arrested in Winn Parish but would return to my camp where I could be found at any time."

Realizing he was outnumbered, McLaughlin and his sergeant crossed the Red River to his headquarters in Natchitoches Parish to regroup and nurse his injuries cuts and bruises from rough encounters with trees during the chase.

Once McLaughlin learned the Winn Parish sheriff held a warrant for his arrest for killing Billy Kimbrell, he went to Natchitoches and surrendered. He appeared before a district judge, gained his release on bail to appear in court the following week. His report was sent up the chain of command with a note from his immediate superior grumbling that McLaughlin detoured from his investigative assignment to capture a wanted murderer.

On December 29, the court held McLaughlin's preliminary hearing. After hearing from several witnesses, the district judge dismissed the charge and freed McLaughlin.

One of the inaccurate legends of the Nightriders misidentified McLaughlin as a U.S. marshal who is killed by the gang. After Reconstruction, McLaughlin went on to other assignments, including commanding the famed Buffalo Soldiers of the 10th Cavalry at Fort Davis, Texas.

The West-Kimbrell gang continued its bloody reign of robbery and murder until May 1870 when local citizens mustered the courage to band together to eliminate the gang, shooting or lynching nine or so of them in Atlanta. Lawson Kimbrell escaped to Texas where he was arrested for horse stealing. He broke out of jail and made his way to the Indian Territory where he murdered a law officer. His subsequent execution completed the elimination of the dreaded Nightriders.

Harris is a native of Ruston and graduate of Louisiana Tech. Among his books are GREETINGS FROM RUSTON: A Post Card History of Ruston, Louisiana and Neither Fear nor Favor: Deputy United States Marshal John Sisemore. Both are available through amazon.com. Harris can be reached at campruston@gmail.com