During the Red River Campaign, a Louisiana major kept notes on a newspaper and eventually slipped them to a Rebel general
On the afternoon of February 3, 1864, while taking a leisurely horseback ride about five miles outside Alexandria, La., Confederate Major David French Boyd was stopped and forced into custody by a small band of so-called “Jayhawkers.” These brigands, better known to history perhaps as “Louisiana Scouts,” were draft dodgers, deserters, and Unionists who, after robbing people and places for their own benefit, would hide out in the swamps to evade both military and civilian authorities.
Boyd was chief engineer on the staff of Maj. Gen. Richard Taylor, commander of the District of West Louisiana, and Taylor wasn’t about to disregard this transgression. He instructed his cavalry to hunt down the criminals and ordered that any armed man of draft age who could not account for himself was to be shot on the spot. To a subordinate stationed at Fort DeRussy, Taylor directed: “No officer should be permitted to travel north of the [Red] river from here [Alexandria] to Marksville until we root out this band. At present they number 15, but the whole population sympathize[s] with them.”
Public opinion be damned, however—Taylor planned to do all he could to stop these hoodlums from assaulting and kidnapping his men.
Nearly a week after Boyd’s abduction, his captors decided to sell him to Federal forces occupying Natchez, Miss. But en route to Natchez, as the group crossed the Black River, the small skiff they were using overturned, plunging Boyd and the outlaws into the icy river. A veteran swimmer, Boyd saved the lives of two of his captors who would have otherwise drowned. During his struggles in the water, Boyd also managed to rid himself of $5,000 he had stashed in his boot, money intended as payroll for the Confederates’ garrison at Fort DeRussy. Better that the money be lost than end up in the hands of the Jayhawkers or Federal guards.
Despite his heroism, Boyd was sold for $100 to the Yankee authorities in Natchez on February 7. To his good fortune, he soon learned that an old friend in high places happened to be just up the road at Vicksburg: Union Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman. When “Cump” received Boyd’s letter, he was visiting the city he had helped conquer under Ulysses S. Grant’s command in July 1863.
Boyd had been one of Sherman’s professors during the latter’s tenure as president of the Louisiana State Seminary of Learning and Military Academy in Pineville—today’s Louisiana State University. He informed Sherman of his incarceration at Natchez, saying he wished to be transferred to Federal custody in New Orleans, where a formal system of exchange was already in place for prisoners of war in the Trans-Mississippi Theater. Sherman acquiesced and Boyd was soon on his way to the Big Easy. Sherman even allowed Boyd to ride aboard his ship on the journey south, later writing in a letter to his wife that until they parted, “He [Boyd] clung to me till I came away.”
Prison life did not suit Boyd. A request for a mattress, blankets, and a pillow from his captors was immediately granted, but his pleas to be allowed to roam the city on parole were denied. Boyd also complained about the noise and his lack of privacy within the facility to no avail. By late March, the prison became even more crowded with officers taken prisoner after engagements at Fort DeRussy (March 14) and Henderson Hill (March 21). Among the latter number was yet another member of Taylor’s staff, Captain Charles LeDoux Elgee. Though young, Elgee was sickly in nature and Taylor wished to secure his release before the onset of yellow fever season (mosquito season, as Louisianans are well aware, can sometimes run for 9–10 months).
Surprisingly, even during the Red River Campaign, commanders from both sides agreed to a formal prisoner exchange to take place at Grand Ecore on the Red River, north of Natchitoches. Early the morning of April 5, Boyd and 56 other Confederate officers, along with 60 noncommissioned officers and more than 300 enlisted men from another prison, were lined up on the docks to board the transport vessel Polar Star. (Confederate Lieutenant John C. Sibley of the 2nd Louisiana Cavalry, one of Boyd’s fellow prisoners, was undoubtedly one of the best-dressed of the lot, as the night before he had thrown a rope out of his window and pulled in a new linen shirt and $32 in greenbacks courtesy of two local ladies. As the Confederates lined up to ascend the gangplanks, Sibley recalled, “Hundreds of ladies crowded the levee to see us leave. There were several gentlemen but they dare not make any sign of Pleasure or they are arrested.”)
In addition to the large ironclad gunboat fleet the Union had amassed to complement Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks’ forces marching overland toward Shreveport, the Navy enlisted the assistance of dozens of independently owned transports. They were all under Federal contract with the Department of the Gulf’s quartermaster corps to move men and material.
One of those ships was Polar Star, which had first operated as a service vessel for people traversing the Missouri River. Constructed in 1858, Polar Star had a crew of 35, which included cooks and waiters, as well as a chambermaid and a pantry man to feed the crew and passengers. Once all were aboard, Polar Star’s captain—Horace Holton, a Missourian—steered the boat up the Mississippi River “with 450 Secesh prisoners to exchange.”
On April 6, Polar Star passed Baton Rouge and Port Hudson. A day after entering the Red River, the boat reached recently captured Alexandria, where its prisoners got a chance to converse with Yankee soldiers stationed on shore. “The Polar Star came up with 500 prisoners on the way to the front to be exchanged,” recalled a member of the 128th New York Infantry. “They were delighted at the prospect of a chance to fight us again.”
A few of the soldiers in the 38th Massachusetts Infantry vented to the prisoners aboard the ship concerning a recent guerrilla attack. “The rebels shouted back the taunts defiantly and pointed up the river,” recalled one Yankee.
On the same day, reports of the disposition of the Union’s Mississippi River Squadron, and other pertinent information about waterborne troop movements reached Taylor’s hands. Cryptically, the general wrote, “The progress of these vessels up the river was closely watched by an officer of my staff, who was also in communication with [Brig.] General [St. John R.] Liddel[l] on the north side [of the Red River].” The reports came from spies keeping a tally of Union ships and soldier strengths—an officer in addition to Major Boyd.
“[On April 7] we came above Grantecore [Grand Ecore], noted Private John C. Porter of Texas, one of Boyd’s fellow prisoners aboard Polar Star. “This was just prior to the Mansfield and Pleasant Hill battles.” Wrote Captain Edward T. King, a Confederate artillerist injured and captured at Fort DeRussy, “Owing to the retreat of General Taylor and the Confederate Army, no exchange was made and they took us on with them until their defeat and retreat.” Holton, meanwhile, bitterly complained: “Went up 400 miles [and] through some strange mismanagement, got 80 miles beyond our lines. Had our retreat cut off & but for the [fact] of bearing a flag of truce, would inevitably been captured, were stopped twice by Rebels who boarded us[,] examined papers & passed us on our way.”
During the trip, Boyd had secretly made detailed notes in the margins of a newspaper he carried. He jotted down the locations and numbers of the Federal gunboats, troops, and guns he had heard about or seen while aboard Polar Star. According to Private Porter, during the first Confederate detainment of the vessel on April 7, “[O]ur boat was halted by Confederate Cavalry, and the officer in command went ashore and had an interview. We could have easily taken boat, crew and guard, but we were upon parole [i.e., had given their word of honor not to attempt an escape], and did not suspect them [the ship’s crew] of acting treacherously.”
A Confederate surgeon was allowed to board the vessel during the stop to examine sick prisoners. Boyd secreted the newspaper into the doctor’s possession under the promise he would get it into General Taylor’s hands as soon as possible. Apparently, Holton and his sailors were already becoming more cautious after that first stop by the Confederates. On April 9, Sibley remembered, “[J]ust before dark, there came an order to…blow no whistles, and look out for sharpshooters. Something is wrong above [their position].”
As it turned out, the surgeon Boyd contacted did not understand the need for urgency and delayed in delivering the message to Taylor until April 19. Even at that late date, the information still proved valuable to the Confederate commander.
On April 10, Sibley noted, “We passed several Confeds today who hailed our boat to know what our flag of truce was for, among others was Lieut. Fontleroy [T.K. Fauntleroy] of [Captain Oliver] Semmes’ Battery [dispatched by Taylor to harass enemy ships]. We left him on shore ready to pitch into the fleet as it comes down.” Captain King similarly lamented, “We had not gone very far…when we were ordered to stop and land under [the] guns of a Confederate battery. Of course, we were greatly rejoiced, but to our surprise, Lieutenant Fontleroy [Fauntleroy] under whose guns we had been brought to land, after coming aboard and having a conference with the officers in charge and with Colonel Bosworth, Colonel Bird [Byrd] and some other Confederate officers [allowed the vessel to proceed]. We were greatly discouraged to see them allow the Federal officers to continue with their boat and prisoners.”
King later speculated, “There was never a greater mistake made, for we were fairly recaptured and if given our liberty could have not only saved the large quantities of provisions she had in her [Polar Star’s] hull, [some of] which I saw her discharge [previously] at Natchitoches but we could also have sunk her on some shallow places in the river and prevented the escape of the immense fleet above. The Federal army was badly discouraged by their defeat and could have been captured if properly pressed.”
Two days later, Polar Star’s captives witnessed the April 12-13, 1864, Battle of Blair’s Landing. Ironically, one of the observers was Lt. Col. James D. Blair of the 2nd Louisiana Cavalry, who owned the landing being fought over. Confederate Brig. Gen. Tom Green of Texas led a bold attack with his cavalry against the Yankee gunboats in the river. Headway was being made as the horsemen waded into the river and almost disabled the lead boat, but a cannon shot killed Green and the attack quickly dissipated. Of the affair, Holton wrote, “You may expect to hear of an awful fight and I tremble for the result. Our Gun Boats are anchored there and I hope a good deal from them.”
Due to the pandemonium of the Red River Campaign, the order exchanging the troops was temporarily rescinded. Late on April 14, Sibley noticed they were “[d]ownward bound, [the] exchange played out. We are again on our way to prison.” Porter recalled, “When they [the boat officers] had decoyed us to Alexandria, within their lines, they became bold, and told us they were taking us back to New Orleans. This was about dark, and some of the men began to make preparations to jump off, which four succeeded in doing; the last of whom leaped from the top of the banister, which made a tremendous splash when he struck the water, and the guard upon the hurricane deck, shot at him, with what effect none of us ever knew. But he had given away the plan, and the officers doubled the guard. Before the light of another day, we were again upon the bosom of the Father of Waters [Mississippi River], where it required but little restraint to keep us aboard.”
On the 15th, Polar Star passed Baton Rouge, where the captain and crew learned more details about the battles at Mansfield and Pleasant Hill, both Confederate victories. The ship anchored off New Orleans the following day, waiting until another exchange could be arranged. Holton did not want to be “able to be made a target of [again],” reporting in frustration: “Both of my Boats are now seized by Gov. to go up Red River. I have abandoned [Polar Star] to [the] Government and they can put their own men in Charge & I will go back home in a day or two.” Holton acknowledged, “I have just returned from a very dangerous trip up Red river.”
True to his word, Holton quit the shipping business and opened his own military clothing depot.
In late July, Boyd and the rest of his fellow captives finally were exchanged for Federals captured during the Red River Campaign. Elgee died four months later, but Blair, Boyd, Sibley, King, and Porter returned to active duty. Years later, when Richard Taylor was writing his postwar reminiscences, he reached out to Boyd about his voyage on Polar Star. Boyd responded, elated that Taylor had been able to use his intelligence and harass Banks’ forces until they escaped to safety across the Atchafalaya River in late May 1864. Amazingly, Taylor still had the newspaper Boyd had given him.
Boyd, meanwhile, continued to regale his friends with the story of rescuing the two “long-bearded sinners” from drowning on the way to Natchez. As for Polar Star, the vessel returned to passenger transport work after the war, until 1883, when its boilers suddenly exploded on a routine trip up the Missouri River, sending it to an inglorious end at the bottom of the muddy water.
The outlaw bands running rampant through central Louisiana in 1864 called themselves Jayhawkers, a label we typically associate with antislavery guerrillas in Kansas. At first, these Jayhawkers were organized into smaller bands, but when Union Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks arrived to begin the Red River Campaign, he offered them a place in his army. The Yankees dubbed them “Louisiana Scouts.” Described as “more like ragamuffins than men,” they nevertheless inflicted heavy damage in the region. But when the defeated Yankees retreated, Rebel cavalry hunted down and killed or dispersed the Jayhawkers. The most infamous of the lot was probably Ozeme Carriere (shown). As a local once groused: “Carriere, with his band of jay-hawkers…has been very actively engaged in robbing the citizens of all the fine horses, guns…thus showing a disposition to carry on their thieving business publicly.” –R.H.H.
Richard H. Holloway is a Louisiana Park Ranger, based at Forts Randolph and Buhlow in Pineville. He has worked with the Louisiana National Guard; Louisiana State University (Baton Rouge and Alexandria); and George Washington University. His biographies of Richard Taylor, Hamilton Bee, and William Boggs can be found in Confederate Generals of the Trans-Mississippi, Vol. 3.
This story appeared in the May 2020 issue of America’s Civil War.