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Chapter 10:

Judging by the signs of retreat, the battle at Camp Bisland was a Confederate defeat. But the inditia of combat, the rush of assaulting forces against intrenchments and the valor of the men behind those intrenchments, contesting and making perilous every step, the result was a drawn battle. Our retreat, though rendered necessary by overwhelming odds, was a Federal repulse. Taken at our own time in the night, our little army escaped close pursuit. Above all, our line of hastily built intrenchments was not once mounted by a foe. Behind that line another fact stands out triumphantly. The successful saving of our material and stores showed no haste in the slow retreat from Bisland, and stamped General Taylor as a commander in whom a good quartermaster was saved. The retreat, with all its saving of quartermaster, commissary, medical and ordnance stores, was a striking proof that Taylor was not only a power before an enemy, but a cautious guardian of an army's ‘essentials.’

General Taylor's first plan had been to conduct his retreat by way of New Iberia. But on Monday night he learned that the enemy had landed a heavy force at Higgins' Point; this left the foe in possession of the only road by which a retreat toward New Iberia could be effected. No time was allowed for hesitation. At least [97] 14,000 men were already crowding into our new front. This movement of the enemy, in heavy masses, multiplied the peril for a force of less than 4,000 men. He saw that the only way of extrication was by evacuating his earthworks, no longer useful, and by cutting his way through the impeding force on the New Iberia road above Franklin. This plan, to be successful, must be immediately attempted. Orders were accordingly issued to march on Franklin as soon as possible.

Immediately after daylight, the enemy's skirmishers appearing first were followed by a force consisting of five regiments of infantry, a battalion of cavalry and a battery of artillery in line of battle. The Confederates opened upon them with artillery and musketry and checked their advance. Evidently they were trying to keep Taylor's forces at that point until the whole army could come up and hem them in. Gray's Twenty-eighth Louisiana, having just reached Franklin, was at once posted on the left of the new line. A charge was made, driving the enemy back in confusion. Behind his visible line was masked a still larger force, which also was held in check. In this charge Colonel Vincent, of the Second Louisiana cavalry, with two other officers of the command, were wounded.

This was the battle of Franklin; not a great fight, but favorable to the Confederates, and insuring them a successful retreat with all their stores. Having thus repulsed the enemy, Taylor ordered the gunboat Diana to move above Franklin and take position so that her guns would sweep the fields and roads which the enemy had held. Placing General Mouton in command of the troops assembled in line at McKerall's field, Taylor repaired to Franklin, where he urged forward the train and troops, just then coming on the cut-off road from Franklin to New Iberia. The employment of the Diana in shelling the roads and sweeping the fields was to be merely temporary. Taylor had given, as a military ‘aside,’ orders to Captain [98] Semmes, who was in command of the Diana, to abandon her after setting her on fire; this sacrifice to be made after General Mouton had fallen back. Thus again was it done to another Confederate vessel. It mattered nothing that the Diana had but lately joined the Confederate sisterhood. Another vessel, the Confederate gunboat Stevens, was to be sunk by its commander—‘unfinished condition — the enemy near—unfit for action—absence of guns’—so ran the Stevens' report. This law of destruction was inexorable on the Mississippi and all its outlying bayous, between 1861 and 1865.

The retreat continued undisturbed. The rear guard, under Colonel Green, varied occasional skirmishes with the enemy with frequent dashes upon the pursuers, and thus arrived at Vermilion bayou. As soon as his whole train and forces had safely crossed the bayou, Taylor had the bridge burned. Then, having planted artillery on the heights and sharpshooters on the right of his line, along the upper banks, he allowed the troops and teams to rest from Thursday afternoon to midday on Friday. Nothing further occurred but skirmishes at the bridge, repelling the enemy from treading on our rear guard. Still retreating slowly, Taylor burned the bridges across bayous Boeuf and Cocodrie. When near the town of Opelousas he moved, through Green's efficient cover of his rear, across the Boeuf and beyond all danger of capture an extensive train.

Thus without strain, in no hurry, and ever keeping the enemy in awe of the mystery lying in their peppery rear guard, taking easy stages, often allowed to rest—once, after burning Vermilion bridge, for a whole day—and saving all their stores, did the Louisianians, who had fought so gallantly at Bisland, led by Mouton and guarded by Green, retreat before their enemy. Never before had a retreat of an inferior force from a large army been so free from haste or confusion. Taylor fell back toward Natchitoches. Mouton was ordered to the westward of [99] Opelousas. A double purpose in this was to harass the enemy on his flank and rear, which, if not successful in preventing his further advance into the interior, would render it both slow and cautious.

On May 4, 1863, Banks and his army moved from Opelousas toward Alexandria. Banks, on the road to Alexandria, was anxious to make sure of Farragut's fleet. He inquired, ‘Can the admiral meet me at Alexandria on Red river in the last week in April?’ Reaching that city he was joined by four ironclads under Admiral Porter, but the fleet lost its immediate importance with relation to the army's advance. Banks, in regard to his Red river campaign, had himself veered around. ‘My advance is sixty miles above Alexandria,’ he said. ‘We shall fight the enemy if we can find him, but cannot pursue him farther unless we have a chance to overtake him or meet him.’

While Banks was in possession of Alexandria he was, for a time of doubt, mightily disturbed about what he could do in aid of Grant. On May 12th, he showed anxiety about his inability to join Grant against Vicksburg, lamenting that he was ‘left to move against Port Hudson alone.’ On the 13th, having reconsidered matters, he was sure that he could ‘add 2,000 men to Grant's column.’ In consequence of this change of mind, Banks resolved to forego his cherished expedition against Shreveport, in favor of aiding in the reduction of Port Hudson. His Red river scheme being a ‘flash in the pan,’ the government's plan to force an ‘open Mississippi’ had quickly become his own. The safe enjoyment of the Red river valley, according to him, might be postponed until 1864. Well it was for General Banks that the future does not lift up its mystic curtain—as impenetrable to the eyes of man as that veil, rimmed with light, of the temple of Isis seen by Alciphron.

He at once moved his entire army, via Opelousas and New Iberia, back to Brashear City. For the moment, [100] southwestern Louisiana lay at his feet. Subject to the vicissitudes of the war, this much harassed Belgium of the State will again, within three months, see the battleflag of the Confederacy guiding the charge, with General Taylor and his men marching valorously under its folds. In the meantime, Banks had come down to the lower Mississippi, with a view of keeping his agreement with General Grant.

On June 23d, Taylor, with his usual activity, succeeded in capturing Brashear City with a small and picked command. Light marching was his word of order. With this capture was joined a large quantity of ordnance, ordnance stores, quartermaster and commissary supplies, and about 1,500 prisoners. The stores made a capture peculiarly valuable to our little ill-fed army of Louisianians. With this small success, Taylor, having spoiled the enemy, looked around for other gaps in his hedges. Brashear City was one gap; Berwick was to be another.

Taylor had needed a slight breeze of success. Before coming down to the Atchafalaya, under orders to operate in the relief of Vicksburg, he had planned attacks on Milliken's Bend and Young's Point. Without his usual caution, he had left to others the details of the movements. Taylor's fiery activity was not always shared in by his subordinates. On the wing from west Louisiana to the Teche, Taylor had ascribed the ‘meager results’ of the expedition to the lack of vigorous activity on the part of the leaders, and that ‘the officers and men were possessed of a dread of gunboats, such as foolishly pervaded our people at the commencement of the war.’

All this was in June, 1863—the year of Vicksburg's capture. Taylor had been hoping to make some diversion in north Louisiana to help Pemberton. Vicksburg falling, Taylor had then thought of Port Hudson, and of that Southern section which, needing him, had raised her mailed hand for help. Like himself, he had left unproductive valor in north Louisiana to tempt new and [101] certain success in the well-threshed fields of the Atchafalaya and the Lafourche. Apropos of the charge of unproductiveness he had mentioned by name throughout this time of languor Harrison's Louisiana cavalry as having rendered ‘invaluable service.’

Just from balking Banks in 1863, Taylor was for strengthening the Red river country against him for 1864. When New Orleans fell, ten guns (32-pounders and 24-pounders) were thrown into Barataria and Berwick bay. These had been fished out of the water at odd times. Taylor, returning from that section, thought constantly about its defense. Seeing the guns, he ordered some on Red river below Alexandria; others (two) were to be mounted at Harrisonburg, on a high hill on the west bank of the Ouachita; two 24-pounders were to go to Butte-àla-Rose.

Having done this much, and Banks temporarily out of the way in front of Port Hudson, Taylor was much cheered at receiving Walker's Texas division from Arkansas (4,000 men). With Walker's men, he had begun to hope that Berwick bay could be captured, the Lafourche country overrun, and Banks' communication with New Orleans cut off. At Berwick was a number of sick men convalescing. With the invalids was an effective force of about 400.

Berwick's works were formidable; but for them Taylor cared little. Meanwhile, a concerted movement against Banks might make real the brilliant dream of seizing New Orleans by a coup de main; setting free that Confederate feeling held captive in devoted hearts; and finding recruits to fill gaps in fighting regiments, now turning to ‘skeletons.’ Reports had crept through, too, that the force at the city did not exceed , 1000 men. Never was this hope, during 1862-64, other than an illusion.

Covering the main attack on Berwick, Taylor had organized an expedition via Plaquemine and Bayou Lafourche to Bayou Boeuf, under Col. James P. Major, commanding [102] a Texas cavalry brigade. On the west Mouton, under orders, had collected 53 small craft near the mouth of the Teche, capable of transporting 300 troops across the Atchafalaya. Detachments for these boats were drawn from Vincent's Louisianians, under Major Blair, and from Green's Texans, all under Maj. Sherod Hunter. With such resources the attack on Berwick was made a success. Major was ordered to reach the Boeuf punctually on the morning of June 23d, as Taylor himself would be attacking Berwick at dawn. A gunboat lay in the bay protecting Berwick. During the night Green had, in absolute silence, stationed a battery opposite the gunboat and the railroad station.

At dawn, the battery awoke the gunboat, speedily driving her off. The sound of the firing was a veritable surprise to the men behind the earthworks, whence they attempted in nervous haste to serve the heavy guns against the Confederates. Just then, a shot rang out in the rear. Hunter was on time, coming with his 300. Smoke was rising at the station. Taylor saw at once that a train of three engines with many cars was escaping in the dim dawn to carry news to Boeuf. A nod, and Green was on the road, galloping after the runaway. He soon came up with the train, finding it stopped by Major—also on time—in possession of both train and bridge. An excellent type of success, built on punctuality, had been the attack, main and rear. Green and Major, starting from points more than 100 miles apart, had converged to meet at Boeuf. Taylor, trying both, had been aided by both. The ride of the one and the march of the other had been through a region largely in possession of the enemy, who had heard nothing of either. Berwick bay fell into Taylor's hands, with a large amount of stores of vast importance—twelve guns, 32 “S and 24” S, among which were our old friends from Bisland; 1,300 prisoners; over 5,000 new rifles and accouterments; and great quantities of quartermaster and [103] commissary wealth, with ordnance and medical stores.

Gallant Green, once out for adventures, was for multiplying them. In the vicinity of Donaldsonville, at the junction of the Lafourche and the Mississippi, was an earthwork called Fort Butler. Green, after some correspondence with Mouton, decided to assault the place. In the night of June 27th, Green attacked, with the support of Colonel Major's brigade, in all 800 men. Neither Green nor Major knew the ground—a fatal mistake in a night movement. An error in thinking the levee above the fort to be its parapet cost Colonel Phillips' life, as he was killed on reaching the ditch. By that time the expedition had become a failure. Major Ridley, of Phillips' regiment, calling to his men, gallantly leaped upon the parapet. Seeing Ridley there, the enemy fled, but finding Ridley alone, they returned and made him prisoner. Green dropped a laurel or two at Fort Butler.

Taylor was kept busy for some days hurrying and forwarding artillery, and arranging for moving these new and most valuable stores into the interior. He succeeded in placing twelve guns on the river below Donaldsonville. The new battery did good work. Green's men,, dismounted, were ready to affright all inquisitive strangers. One transport was destroyed; several turned back; gunboats driven off; the river closed for three days to transports; and mounted scouts rode with free rein to a point opposite Kenner's. A few hours more and New Orleans might have been Confederate for one delicious space. But in the first week of July, 1863, events were clubbing counter to Taylor's plans for the city. Vicksburg had fallen. On the night of July 10th news came that the blue-coats were in Port Hudson.

At times, history chooses agents of unequal power for its triumphs. On July 13th, Generals Weitzel, Grover and Dwight, with 6,000 of the victors of Port Hudson, came down the river, disembarked at Donaldsonville [104] and advanced down the Lafourche. Taylor had been waiting for them. Joining Green, he found him with an excellent plan of battle. Green, gallant soul, much disturbed with qualms about Fort Butler, was in line with a force of 1,400 dismounted men, including a battery. The enemy appeared and Green, remembering his dropped laurel, charged with irresistible fury, driving them into Donaldsonville, capturing 200 prisoners, many small arms and two guns—one of which was the field gun lost by Faries at Bisland.

Taylor took care of all stores from Berwick—not only these, but a large drove of cattle on the hoof. Quartermaster and commissary thus satisfied, prudence called for racing the engines and carriages into the bay and throwing the heavy guns after them. On July 20th Taylor moved up the Teche, leaving pickets opposite Berwick. Twenty-four hours afterward the enemy's scouts appeared. The Teche had again become Belgium!

Early in September, 1863, General Banks sent an expedition against Sabine Pass, Tex., which proved to be a fiasco, the entire armada withdrawing, with a heavy loss in mules, from a Texas battery. Determined to do something, Banks transferred the troops of the expedition mainly to Berwick bay. Observing the concentration of forces there, Alfred Mouton, commanding in southwest Louisiana, surmised a march for Niblett's Bluff. ‘Should they do this,’ he said, ‘I hope it will produce a disaster; at any rate, I can make them very unhappy.’

During this period General Taylor kept a force of artillery and mounted men in the neighborhood of Morganza, seriously interfering with the Federal use of the Mississippi river. To put a stop to this, Dana's division of the Thirteenth army corps, two brigades, was sent to Morganza. Two regiments were sent out ‘to feel the enemy,’ and were felt vigorously on the 29th at the Fordoche [105] bridge by Gen. Tom Green with his Texans. Nearly all the Federals were captured, and there was a heavy loss in killed and wounded.

The Federal forces at Berwick advanced to Vermilion bayou on October 8th, and were at Carrion Crow bayou three days later. The expedition was composed of eleven brigades of infantry, two of cavalry, and five battalions of artillery, all under Maj.-Gen. W. B. Franklin. On October 21st General Taylor was compelled to withdraw from Opelousas to Washington. A raiding party sent to the enemy's rear, under Col. W. G. Vincent, returned with prisoners and signal books containing important information. This information assured Taylor that Franklin's object was not Niblett's Bluff, but his army. An elaborate plan had been made, it appeared, to encompass him from Sabine Pass and Morganza, while attacked in front from Berwick. But knowing that the first two movements had been foiled, Taylor felt confident of defeating the third. On the 24th, when the enemy advanced five miles above Washington, Taylor drew up his forces in line of battle to meet him, but the Federals declined battle and fell back to Washington. A few days later it was discovered that Franklin was in full retreat, and Taylor's cavalry went in pursuit. General Washburn reported November 2d, ‘We had a pretty lively time to-day.’ In a later report he stated that on the 3d he heard a rapid cannonading, and riding back, found ‘that we were assailed by an overwhelming force in front and on both flanks. Many of the troops had been broken and were scattered over the field, and the utter destruction or capture of the whole force seemed imminent. ... Our losses are 26 killed, 124 wounded and 566 missing.’ This engagement, known as Bayou Bourbeau, was fought by Green's cavalry division, and victory gained with a loss of 22 killed and 103 wounded. On the 4th General Mouton reported the enemy at New Iberia. ‘Colonel Vincent ambuscaded them at Nelson's [106] bridge, and their advance was driven in, leaving the road full of dead and wounded.’ Thus ended in disaster the second Federal campaign toward Red river. [107]

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