A Louisiana youth wages a personal war with the Yankees on his doorstep
Aleck Mouton was 10 years old, barefoot and Confederate to the core when he confronted Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks, who had just invaded the tiny south Louisiana town of Vermilionville.
One of the first properties Banks’ Union soldiers reached on the morning of Friday, October 9, 1863, was Walnut Grove, Aleck’s family home. “I can recall the Union soldiers…pulling themselves up the hill toward our residence,” he wrote years later. “They swarmed all over the place, everything was in their possession. They helped themselves to all our horses, all our conveyances. Then we were out of our home. They had it burned down.”
The troops had also commandeered nearby Île Copal (pronounced eel ko-pal, French for sweet gum island). This was the stately home of former Louisiana Governor Alexandre Mouton, Aleck’s grandfather—which ultimately provoked young Aleck to seek an audience with the Union general.The Mouton (moo-tawn) name extended deep into Louisiana society. In 1754, Governor Mouton’s grandfather, Salvador, led other French-speaking settlers to Louisiana from Acadia (now the maritime provinces of Canada), a year before hundreds more were deported by the British during the French and Indian War. Salvador settled on the Mississippi River above New Orleans. Around 1780 his son, Jean, moved west. He donated land in 1821 for Vermilionville (now known as Lafayette), about 60 miles west of Baton Rouge. Alexandre, Aleck’s grandfather and the son of Jean Mouton, was Louisiana’s first Cajun governor and later led the state out of the Union and into the war, first by walking out of the 1860 Democratic National Convention rather than support presidential contender Stephen Douglas and then as president of the state’s secession convention. Since the war began, Aleck’s father and uncle had been leading Confederate troops.
None of those men happened to be home when the war came to Walnut Grove; only Aleck’s mother, 29-year-old Henriette Odéide Mouton—the governor’s daughter and wife of Jean Sosthène Mouton—and her six children: Aleck, Bordet (called “Bud”), Olivier, Fred, Frank and Alida.
The campaign that brought the Union troops to their doorstep focused on the Pin Hook Bridge on the Vermilion River, less than a mile upstream from Walnut Grove. Artillery shells toppled trees, blasted craters near the river, rattled windows in Vermilion and scared the inhabitants who knew only a tiny Confederate force was on hand to oppose thousands of invaders.The Confederate defense, such as it was, was led by Aleck’s uncle, Brig. Gen. Alfred Mouton, a West Point graduate who commanded the 18th Louisiana Infantry. He had been waging a rear- guard fight against Banks’ superior numbers since mid-September when Federal troops crossed the Mississippi River from New Orleans and began a march across south Louisiana toward Texas. Aleck’s father, Jean Sosthène, was a major on his staff.
The Federal attack on Vermilionville, part of the Texas Overland Expedition designed to wrest Texas from Confederate hands, was the second time Union troops marched through town in 1863. They had passed through in the spring on their way to encircling Port Hudson, the Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi just above Baton Rouge. Governor Mouton’s son-in-law, Maj. Gen. Franklin Gardner, commanded Confederate troops there during the longest siege of the war. Banks’ plan this time was to march across the prairies of southwest Louisiana from a supply depot at Brashear City (Morgan City today), a Gulf of Mexico port that was also the westernmost rail depot in southern Louisiana. His route followed the road known as the Old Spanish Trail, which ran across the Pin Hook Bridge and through Vermilionville.As the Federal infantry approached the bridge, Confederate sharpshooters opened fire until two blue-clad divisions formed a double line that stretched nearly a mile up and down the river from the bridge. The 500 Confederate defenders “withdrew in a brisk fashion,” according to the official report written later by Union officers.
In plain English, they turned and ran.
It took a while for Union commanders to realize they were unopposed, but when they did, soldiers began to swim the 50 yards across the shallow river while wagons and cannons rolled across the bridge.
The home the Mouton family was forced to flee had been a wedding gift to Odéide from her father. Now, she was “a mother, a frail woman, in all this turmoil, driven out of her home with her children around her, six in all, two babies, the others very young,” Aleck would recall. Bud and Aleck located a dilapidated surrey, stripped of its leather and missing spokes in its wheels, and hitched it to an aged horse. When the invaders left, Odéide loaded her children into the surrey and began to make her way to Île Copal. Aleck and Bud walked alongside.
Several of the governor’s other children were already at Île Copal when Odéide and her brood finally arrived, including 27-year-old Marie Cecilia Mouton, who was on her deathbed with tuberculosis, and Marie Célèstine Mathilde Gardner, wife of General Gardner, who was languishing in a Federal prison after being forced by starvation and superior numbers to surrender to Banks only months before.
The old governor was not at home. When the Federal army marched through six months earlier, he and his brother Émile rolled dozens of hogsheads of sugar and molasses into the Vermilion River rather than let the invaders have them. Then the former governor waited defiantly for the Union troops. When the soldiers arrived, they arrested him and held him for four months in New Orleans. Île Copal, the two-story home shaded by huge old oak and pecan trees and the sweet gums for which it was named, was spared, and the governor returned just in time for the next Federal incursion into the Louisiana bayou country.
This time he did not wait to be arrested. He fled 40 miles north to stay with family in the St. Landry Parish town of Opelousas. Nonetheless, a squad of soldiers banged on the mansion door early on Saturday, October 10, suspecting General Mouton might be hiding in his father’s house.
“The Union soldiers, without losing any time, proceeded up the stairs and headed for the room where my Aunt Cecilia was about to breathe her last,” Aleck wrote. “Mother got to the door first, barred it with her person, and said, ‘My dear sister is about to meet her Creator.…I defy…you to enter this room.’ They stood back and did not force their way in [but] expressed themselves that ‘no better place a Rebel would [hide] to keep from being arrested.’?”
The search party left quickly enough, but troubles were just beginning in the governor’s household.
Union Brig. Gen. Cuvier Grover moved his command to the plantation at midmorning, bringing 3,000 officers and men to the camp. They were soon joined by another brigade as well as field commander Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin, who set up headquarters in a big tent near the Mouton mansion’s rear door. Banks and his staff soon established their headquarters next to his.
Federal officers occupied Île Copal’s kitchen, living room and library. Most household possessions were seized. A quartermaster established himself in the kitchen. Pork, flour and clothing were distributed from the drawing room. Mathilde, Odéide and the children were confined upstairs, denied access to their own kitchen.
“There was a lack of food, of milk for the children,” Aleck remembered. “There were two small children, one a very young baby; milk was an absolute necessity. We had…twenty or more of the very best Jersey milk cows…in the pasture, but we were not allowed any claim on them.”
It was then that young Aleck decided to take things into his own hands. “I called on General Banks. I walked to his tent and was stopped by a sentry who asked me what I wanted. I told him I wanted to see General Banks.
“?‘But who are you?’ he asked.
“?‘I am a rebel. We are all rebels,’ I answered.
“I heard him repeat this to the General, who said, ‘You say you are a rebel?’
“Again I answered, ‘We are all rebels.’
“?‘And what can I do for you, young man?’
“Please let us have one of our cows, so we can have milk for the babies. We grown people are getting along best we know how. The very little ones are sick.”
Early that afternoon, soldiers brought two cows to the front yard of Île Copal.
The milk cows may have been the salvation of the Mouton children, but not of Cecilia. She died on Sunday, October 11. For days the Mouton sisters had been guarding a large wooden box to use as a makeshift coffin. The box was downstairs in the part of the house held by Federal officers, who understood what it was to be used for and left it alone. But when Odéide went downstairs to make arrangements for her sister’s burial, she was horrified to see a burly soldier carrying the box out the door.Odéide pleaded with the soldier, and when he ignored her, she jumped on his back, screaming, kicking and biting. He dropped the box. She promptly sat down on it, daring him to touch it again. A Union officer heard the racket and, sympathizing with Odéide, made the soldier carry the box upstairs.
“The night before the funeral,” Aleck recorded, “while Aunt Cecilia was in her coffin, my mother was handed a note coming from Union officers offering their sympathies. They would like to visit the body of my Aunt Cecilia. The note was sent back to where it came from. On the other side of the sheet of paper my mother had written, ‘Your wishes are respectfully refused. The sympathy you proffer for no other reason than to satisfy your morbid curiosity, please keep to yourself.’?”
There was no hearse to carry Cecilia to her grave. Instead, the box that was her coffin was laid on boards stretched between the wheels of the old surrey. Family and friends pushed and pulled it by hand the several miles from Île Copal to St. John Catholic Church. “We followed, walking…and buried my Aunt Cecilia, a young lady, the daughter of a Louisiana Governor who had presided at the Secession Convention,” Aleck wrote.
Shortly thereafter, the invading Federal force departed, moving north from Vermilionville and fighting a bloody but successful fight October 14 near Bayou Bourbeux, midway between Vermilionville and Opelousas. The victorious Federal troops were gathering up their dead and wounded when a lone hospital ambulance approached from the direction of the Confederate lines, a white flag fluttering from the top. Its only passengers were a harmless looking, white-headed old man and his black driver.
The old gentleman was Governor Mouton, who asked to be escorted to General Franklin’s headquarters. He had learned only that morning that his daughter Cecilia was very sick, and was trying to get home to see her. Franklin received the old governor courteously and sent him on his way with a small escort and a safe conduct pass. Mouton apparently did not know Cecilia was dead. Franklin did not have the heart to tell him.
When the governor finally made it to his home, he found his daughter had died, Île Copal had been ransacked and his family was living in the basement of a school.
Several months later he received the news that the Texas Overland Expedition had finally been stopped at the Battle of Mansfield in northern Louisiana on April 8, 1864. And that his son, General Alfred Mouton, had been one of the last men killed in one of the last Confederate victories of the war.
Aleck’s father, Jean Sosthene, survived the war, and he and Odéide established a new plantation, Beau Séjour—directly across the river from Île Copal. Among the parish records at Lafayette is a poem Aleck’s mother wrote for him:
To My Son Aleck
My Son, Be this thy simple plan;
Serve God and love thy brother man;
Forget not in temptation’s hour,
That sin lends sorrow double power;
Count life a stage upon the way;
And follow conscience come what may;
Alike with Heaven, and earth sincere;
With hand, and brow, and bosom clear;
Fear God—and know no other fear.
Aleck Mouton, who recorded his family’s tragic history in an unpublished memoir, died in 1938 at age 85.
Jim Bradshaw, a retired newspaper editor and columnist, has written three books on the history and culture of southern Louisiana.
Article originally appeared in America’s Civil War July 2011