Louisiana's Military Heritage:
Battles, Campaigns, and Maneuvers
It was the dawn of the year 1863. The United States was in the midst of civil war and the State of Louisiana was split asunder, with the rebel Confederacy in similar peril. With many of its troops and supplies sent eastward to Virginia and northward to Tennessee, Louisiana was largely unprepared for the invasion force that moved up the Mississippi River in April of 1862. With the capture of New Orleans and Baton Rouge to the south and Memphis to the north, the Confederacy was capable of moving troops and supplies across the river only through a narrow 300-mile gap between Vicksburg and Port Hudson.
To make matters worse, the Union was beginning to close Louisiana's outlets to the Gulf of Mexico. A blockade had been in effect since the start of hostilities and was slowly growing tighter with each passing month. In the fall of 1862 as a measure to protect New Orleans and supply transports on the lower Mississippi, General Benjamin F. Butler, USA, launched a campaign which effectively closed Bayou Lafourche to Confederate forces. Assaults on the coastline at Sabine Pass on the Texas-Louisiana border in September, a raid up the Calcasieu River in October, and the capture of Galveston, Texas, in October further threatened to seal off the interior from outside support.
Prior to this January correspondence, Weitzel had already laid the foundations for such a campaign in December of 1862. Rumors of a Confederate effort to retake Brashear City (present-day Morgan City) had caused him to move against one of their primary weapons: the gunboat J. A. COTTON. On New Year's Eve and New Year's Day, Federal gunboats under the command of Commander McKean Buchanan moved up Bayou Teche to engage the COTTON, but to no effect. Two weeks later on January 13, 1863, Weitzel loaded up seven regiments of infantry aboard Buchanan's gunboats, along with artillery and cavalry support, and moved across Berwick Bay to Pattersonville before moving up to the confluence of the Atchafalaya and Bayou Teche.
Brigadier General Alfred Mouton, CSA, had succeeded in evacuating the Lafourche district of its military forces and supplies after his defeat by Weitzel at the Battle of Georgia Landing (Labadieville). He had since placed obstructions at the mouth of the Teche to prevent the ascension of the Union gunboats. Farther upstream, he had erected an extensive earthworks known as Fort Bisland. Only a small contingent of Confederate troops, though, guarded the obstructions along with the COTTON.
On January 14, Weitzel's forces attacked up each bank of the Teche in concert with Buchanan's gunboats. Despite brave resistance during which his vessel was shot up and his pilots and many of his crew were killed or wounded, Captain Edward W. Fuller, CSA, withdrew the COTTON out of range. The next morning, as Weitzel's troops began work to remove the obstructions, the COTTON floated downstream lit by flames, stripped of her guns and ammunition. She burned and sank in the channel, making another obstruction for the Federal troops to remove. Weitzel, seeing that the Confederates' primary means of displacing him from Brashear City was now destroyed, returned to base.
Weitzel's urging to move up the Teche and Atchafalaya and bypass Port Hudson by linking with the Red River might have been ignored if not for Confederate action in that narrow 300-mile strip along the Mississippi during this time. In February of 1863, rebel forces captured the gunboat USS QUEEN OF THE WEST on the Red River near Fort DeRussy and then used her to attack the USS INDIANOLA on the Mississippi. Only a mistaken bit of information about a ploy on the part of Admiral David D. Porter, USN, to draw out the locations of batteries at Vicksburg kept the Confederates from completely taking the INDIANOLA as well. Instead, they burned her and made their escape. As a result, Admiral David G. Farragut, USN, attempted to run his fleet past the guns at Port Hudson on March 14 so as to better patrol this area of the river. Only two vessels successfully made it past the river batteries.
Faced with the continued problem of Port Hudson, Banks began preparations to follow Weitzel's suggestion. To safeguard New Orleans, a quick expedition darted into the Florida parishes north of Lake Pontchartrain to burn bridges and clear out Confederate forces in the area of Ponchatoula and the Amite River. At the same time on March 25, Brigadier General Cuvier C. Grover, USA, was ordered to embark for Donaldsonville from Baton Rouge with his brigade. From there, he would march down Bayou Lafourche to Thibodaux. The river transports, meantime, returned to Baton Rouge and embarked Brigadier General William H. Emory's brigade for Algiers opposite of New Orleans. Emory's troops loaded onto a train at Algiers and moved by rail to Berwick Bay.
As the troop movements began, Weitzel sent the gunboat DIANA out on a reconnaissance of Grand Lake above Berwick Bay on March 28. Two companies of infantry accompanied her. The boat's commander violated his orders and moved over to another channel of the Atchafalaya River with the intent of antagonizing the owners of a nearby plantation. Unfortunately, Confederate forces were lying in ambush. The tables were suddenly turned and for three hours the gunboat suffered a murderous fire from artillery and sharpshooters. The sounds of the battle carried to Fort Buchanan across the bay and the CALHOUN was dispatched to come to her aid, but she ran aground and the ESTRELLA had to be sent to assist her. By the time CALHOUN was freed, the DIANA had surrendered and was taken up the Teche to be added to the Confederate river fleet there.
General Banks arrived at Brashear City on April 08, 1863, and found his troops ready for an assault against the Confederates at Fort Bisland. The plan called for Grover's troops to move by transport through Grand Lake to Indian Bend near Franklin and attack the Confederate rear from above while the main Union force would assault the fort from below. Weitzel began sending his troops across Berwick Bay on the next day on April 09 with Emory immediately following. Grover began embarking his troops on the afternoon of April 10.
In spite of these diversionary tactics, Major General Richard Taylor, CSA, commander of Confederate forces in the District of Western Louisiana, became aware of Grover's flanking maneuver. Throughout most of the day on April 12, the Confederates bolstered their earthworks as light skirmishing and cavalry movements took place. Nightfall came with the men sleeping on their arms and a heavy fog once again descending. The morning of April 13 saw clear skies. As the fog began to lift, Taylor turned the Union's own weapon against them in the form of the gunboat DIANA, newly repaired and under Confederate command. The boat moved downstream and began pouring heavy fire into the Union lines. A lucky shot by Union artillery, however, caused serious damage to her engines and she was forced to withdraw.
There were 224 Union troops killed or wounded at the Battle of Bisland (Bethel Place) with no known casualty reports existing for the Confederate side. The pursuit of the Confederates began almost immediately. The obstructions which had long blocked the Union gunboats were finally removed from the mouth of the Teche allowing the CLIFTON to advance abreast of the army.
Taylor now moved rapidly to avoid totally calamity. His best hope was to attack Grover and punch his way out of the trap that Banks had laid for him. At a loop in Bayou Teche called Irish Bend, he formed his line of battle on April 14 just north of Franklin in the concealment of Nearson's Woods. The Union troops under Grover faced a bottleneck with the bayou on their left, a swamp on their right, and the woods before them. After the first clash, Taylor brought the DIANA up the bayou to anchor the line and provide artillery support. Leaving Brigadier General Mouton in charge of the battle, Taylor moved back to Franklin and directed the retreat of the supply wagons down a different road northward to New Iberia. He placed Colonel Thomas Green in command of the rear guard stalling Banks' troops on the approaches to the town.
When word reached Mouton that the supply trains had cleared the city and that Green's rear guard was quitting the town as well, he retired his men under the cover of the DIANA's guns and escaped across Choupique Bayou even as the bridge was being burnt. The crew of the DIANA continued to fire on the Union lines, buying as much time as possible for their comrades to escape before setting fire to their vessel to prevent her from being captured. They were captured as was the hospital steamer CORNIE and all those aboard her as Grover's forces converged with those of Weitzel and Emory. The Battle of Irish Bend (Nearson's Woods) ended with Union forces suffering 353 killed, wounded, or missing. The Confederates never made a casualty report but suffered a minimum of 56 killed, wounded, or captured.
While Taylor's forces were in flight on April 15, the Union forces under Banks were busy laying a pontoon bridge across the stream at Franklin. With this done, the pursuit continued until nightfall and the army went into bivouac near Jeanerette, about twelve miles behind their prey.
The two armies continued to play hopscotch the next day on April 16 with Taylor resuming his march to Vermilionville (modern-day Lafayette). Here, he crossed Vermilion Bayou, burned the bridges, and posted artillery on the heights of the opposite shore and sharpshooters on the upper banks. Union forces pursued the Confederates, skirmishing with the rear guard, and finally encamping above New Iberia at nightfall. At midnight that night, Grover dispatched a force of Union troops to nearby Avery Island to destroy the salt works there and thus remove it from the Confederate supply arsenal.
Morning on April 17 saw the salt works at Avery Island in ruins. General Taylor gave his men a few hours of extra rest before resuming the retreat toward Alexandria at noon. Meanwhile, Union forces under Grover arrived at Vermilion Bayou and began dueling with the Confederate artillery left there. The rear guard finally withdrew to Opelousas to the north after having given their comrades some space to breathe in their flight northward.
As Grover pursued Taylor's forces over the roads northward, Banks spread his forces out in a wide fan to drive any Confederates before him. Weitzel advanced up Bayou Teche to the east while even further to the east, Lieutenant Commander A. P. Cooke ascended the Atchafalaya River with the gunboat flotilla. Grover began building a bridge across the Vermilion and Carencro Bayous on April 18 and was rejoined by the Avery Island task force.
The gunboat flotilla on the Atchafalaya saw action again on April 19. Working with four companies of the 16th New Hampshire, the gunboats attacked and defeated Confederate forces at Fort Burton on Cow Island in the Atchafalaya River at Butte à la Rose, thus bringing the Atchafalaya under Union control. On the same day, the Union army crossed the Vermilion and Carencro bayous and went into bivouac at the villages of Opelousas and Washington. General Banks was now very close to achieving his goal of bypassing Port Hudson.
Taylor did not wholly concede the Teche region to Banks during this time. Rather, he was simply attempting to gain room to maneuver and time to gather reinforcements. Desertions were increasing every day as many of his men hailed from this area and feared for their families' welfare. On April 20, the general sent Mouton with his entire cavalry force to the plains west of Opelousas to attack the Union flanks and harass their rear and supply trains. The last of his bayou fleet, the steamer ELLEN, was captured at Barre's Landing on Courtableu Bayou just east of Opelousas on April 22. The following day, Taylor's men encamped at Lecompte, just south of Alexandria. Mouton retreated westward with the Confederate cavalry past the Mermentau River to the vicinity of the Calcasieu River; close enough to strike, but far enough away to effect a withdrawal into Texas if needed.
With a large field army and a long supply train deep in the heart of hostile territory, Banks took a few days to reorganize before continuing the pursuit from Opelousas, shifting units amongst the newly occupied regions at Berwick Bay, Butte à la Rose, Franklin, New Iberia, Washington, Barre's Landing, and Opelousas. With pressing civil affairs demanding his attention in New Orleans, he departed for the Crescent City on April 25, leaving his men to a well-earned rest.
While the Union forces paused in their pursuit, Taylor continued to move to Alexandria, arriving there on April 24. That same day, his superior, Lieutenant General Edmund Kirby Smith, CSA, transferred his headquarters further north to Shreveport.
Banks returned to Opelousas on May 01 and three days later moved the army into action again with Brigadier General William Dwight, Jr., USA, leading the way from Washington toward Alexandria and Weitzel close behind as he departed Opelousas. Emory was soon to follow on May 05. Word of the Union movements soon reached General Taylor in Alexandria who departed with his forces up the Red River toward Natchitoches on May 06.
As Banks moved northward along the Teche in his efforts to bypass Port Hudson, so too was Major General Ulysses S. Grant, USA, attempting to confound the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg. Having made several diversions to keep the Confederates occupied, Grant moved from his position in northeast Louisiana across the Mississippi River to the eastern shore. With that crossing successfully completed, Admiral David D. Porter, USN, moved downriver on May 03 to confer with Admiral David G. Farragut who was still blockading the Red River after the INDIANOLA fiasco. Following this conference, Farragut departed down the newly opened Atchafalaya River to Brashear City aboard the SACHEM. He then traveled by rail to New Orleans to attend to business with regard to the naval blockade. Porter was left to blockade the Red River.
Porter's gunboats arrived in Alexandria on May 07 just as the Confederate vessels disappeared upriver above the rapids. That evening, Banks' cavalry arrived in town at 6:00 p.m. followed by Weitzel's command two hours later. Emory arrived the following afternoon. Porter disliked Banks and turned over the occupation to him as soon as he arrived in town. Leaving the gunboat LAFAYETTE at Alexandria, he posted the PITTSBURG at the mouth of the Black River where it emptied into the Red River and returned to Vicksburg.
By this time, Taylor's Confederate forces had withdrawn as far as the Cane River to the northwest. He reached Natchitoches on May 11.
Throughout the entire campaign, communications with Grant at Vicksburg were confused due to the delays involved in getting downriver around Port Hudson, to New Orleans, across to Brashear City, and up Bayou Teche to Banks. With the route now open from the Mississippi to the Red to the Atchafalaya and the Gulf, communications could now move faster, as could supplies. But now the problem existed that Grant was on the eastern bank of the Mississippi and fully invested in making a land assault on Vicksburg. General Banks had secured the bypass of Port Hudson that was so desperately desired and cut off supplies and troops from moving down the Red River and through the gap on the Mississippi. But he was now stretched thin through hostile territory with no prospect of reinforcements and with New Orleans very lightly defended. Much had been achieved but with much still left undone.
With this in mind, Banks chose to abandon Alexandria on May 14, 1863, and move against Port Hudson directly. A small force sent by Taylor attacked the rear guard under Weitzel's command on May 20 as they withdrew toward Simmesport but they were repulsed and chased back to Cheneyville. From May 21 to May 23, the army moved across the Mississippi River to Bayou Sara, just north of Port Hudson. The Teche campaign had ended and the siege of Port Hudson had begun.
Like the Lafourche Campaign before it, the Teche Campaign was both a resounding success and yet something of a failure. It failed with regard to destroying the Confederate army in western Louisiana. But it succeeded on several fronts. It drove that army from the region. It destroyed three fortifications (Fort Bisland, Fort Burton, and Fort DeRussy). It destroyed three Confederate gunboats. It saw the capture or destruction of two vessels under construction. And finally, it deprived the Confederacy of valuable resources. Banks reported on May 04 that "20,000 beeves, mules, and horses have been forwarded to Brashear City with 5,000 bales of cotton and many hogsheads of sugar." It would later be estimated that over $10 million worth of legitimate forage was stripped from the Bayou Teche and lower Red River regions during this campaign. While the Teche would largely be abandoned by Union forces over the next year, the effect on the resources available to the Confederacy and on the morale of its troops and its citizenry cannot easily be discounted.
Sources used in the compilation of this article:
The Civil War in Louisiana, by John D. Winters. Louisiana State University Press (1963).
Dark and Bloody Ground: The Battle of Mansfield and the Forgotten Civil War in Louisiana, by Thomas Ayres.
Taylor Publishing Company (2001).
Destruction & Reconstruction: Personal Experiences of the Late War, by Richard Taylor. D. Appleton &
Univeristy of Tennesse Press / Knoxville (2007).
History of the Nineteenth Army Corps, by Richard B. Irwin. Elliot's Book
Shop Press (1985).
The National Park Service—Heritage Preservation Services—American Battlefield Protection Program.
**Copyright 1997-2011 by Louisiana Naval War Memorial Commission**