The Civil War in southern Louisiana involved much more than merely the capture of New Orleans.
By Kevin M. Hymel
The Union occupation of New Orleans in April 1862, while very damaging to the Southern cause, did not bring an end to the Civil War in southern Louisiana. Instead, the conflict continued to seesaw across the bayous and sugarcane fields of Lafourche District, south and west of the Crescent City. The clashes ranged from simple sniping at Union stragglers to large-scale maneuvers and sieges. Northern ships were bombarded and towns were burned. It was only after Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Port Hudson, Louisiana, fell to Union forces in early July 1863 that Lafourche District settled down to an uneasy peace for the rest of the war.
Christopher Peña, an assistant professor at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, La., has chronicled Louisiana’s war in Touched By War: Battles Fought in the Lafourche District (C.G.P. Press, Thibodaux, La., 1998, $28.75). From Louisiana’s vote to secede from the Union to the closing shots at the Battle of Kock’s Plantation, Peña paints a vivid picture of ragged local militia and Confederate soldiers from Louisiana and Texas fighting ever-marching Union troops who bore the additional burdens of a hostile population and Louisiana’s oppressively steamy climate.
When flag officer David Farragut captured New Orleans and Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler became commander of the Department of the Gulf, most of the area’s young men had already left the state to de-fend the Confederacy’s borders. All Loui-siana Governor Thomas O. Moore could raise were scattered militia units, which were more concerned with raising crops than harassing Union troops.
The battles of Lafourche started slowly. The first hostile action occurred when local citizens fired a shotgun blast at Union soldiers. Slowly, the militia began to organize, and cavalry regiments arrived from Texas to challenge the occupying troops. The District of Louisiana was formed as a Confederate military theater, headed by Maj. Gen. Richard Taylor, a native of Lafourche and the son of former President Zachary Taylor.
Some of the most persistent fighting involved small bands of Confederates firing on Union gunboats and transports traveling the Mississippi River. The Confederate action was unpopular among local citizens, for good reason. Union captains, intolerant of guerrilla attacks, simply shelled or sent landing parties ashore to exact retribution. Plantations and towns suspected of aiding bushwhackers were unceremoniously put to the torch. The river town of Donaldsonville was heavily shelled on August 9, 1862, and left in smoking ruins.
On land, the Louisiana militia enjoyed limited success against the invaders. Confederate Brig. Gen. John Platt blazed a path through Lafourche, capturing isolated Union outposts at Boutte and Des Allemands in a six-day campaign. The Confederates were not as lucky at St. Emma Plantation, where they repulsed the roving 21st Indiana Infantry Regiment near Donaldsonville at the cost of 30 or 40 militiamen killed, whereas the Union lost only two soldiers.
In November, Union Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks replaced Butler as Department of the Gulf commander. With Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant laying siege to Vicksburg, Banks took the bulk of his army north to besiege Port Hudson, the last Southern strongpoint along the Mississippi River. With Banks committed to Port Hudson, Taylor decided to dislodge Banks or at least seriously distract him. First, Taylor sent Brig. Gen. James Patrick Major campaigning through Lafourche, capturing prisoners and reclaiming land.
Two days later, Confederates under Maj. Gen. Sherod Hunter sailed around Tiger Island through Grand Lake and approached an unsuspecting Union force in Fort Bu-chanan from the landward side of the fort. Splitting his forces, Hunter attacked both the fort and Brashear City, a mile to the south. So sudden was the attack that the Union commander surrendered the fort, the city and his navy. The next day a Union force of 275 men guarding Bayou Boeuf Crossing, on the eastern portion of the island, surrendered to besieging Confederates without firing a shot.
The Confederates kept up the pressure by attacking Fort Butler along the Mississippi River four days later. This time, the Union troops were ready. Although outnumbered 4-to-1, Major Joseph Bullen and the men of the 28th Maine defended Fort Butler from the hard-charging cavalry regiments of Brig. Gen. Tom Green.
Green again attacked a Union force at Kock’s Plantation on July 13, 1863. Unknown to Green, Port Hudson had already fallen after Vicksburg’s 4th of July capitulation. Green, seeing that Bayou Lafourche divided the Union force opposing him, threw seven regiments of Texas cavalry at an unsuspecting Union force of seven infantry regiments. The Confederate forces flanked the Union groups and sent the bluecoats reeling.
Despite the victory, Taylor knew that with Port Hudson in Union hands his days in Lafourche District were numbered. After Kock’s Plantation, opposing troops continued to skirmish, but no more pitched battles erupted. Taylor ordered his army out of the area while the victorious besiegers of Port Hudson poured into Lafourche for occupation duty. The Civil War in southern Louisiana was finally over.
Touched By War encompasses a wide range of events and locations, and the author does an excellent job of explaining everything while examining matters both military and civilian. Peña also goes to great lengths to include material from local family diaries to flesh out events. Maps are plentiful, helping the reader to trace the action and to understand the strategic importance of certain towns and forts.
The book’s weakness is its reliance on quotes from the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion. When discussing some of the battles, Peña lifts entire reports from the Official Records instead of building his own narrative. Researchers might benefit from the author’s include-every-detail policy, but the casual reader will find the information a bit redundant.
Touched By War nevertheless is a fascinating exploration of one of the more interesting backwater theaters of the Civil War. While none of the battles changed the face of the war, they did spotlight the resilience of the South and the horror of war on both sides.