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Chapter 8:

The outlying country from Algiers on the Mississippi to Franklin on the Teche is peculiarly fitted for military operations. Like all lower Louisiana it presents a vast network of rivers, or bayous as large as many rivers, suitable for the movements of large vessels. Irrigating generously the fields lying level upon their banks, they reward them with rich harvests of sugarcane and cotton.

It was for the wealth in these fields that General Butler kept his forces a constant menace upon the territory. For this purpose, and as an aid to success, he developed a system of light-draft steamers, previously prepared for the service by mounting them with light guns and protecting their boilers and engines with iron armor. In this manner did he strive to utilize the water courses, threading the land here and there under the sun like glistening ribbons. In addition to his ceaseless desire to hold the country for its rich possibilities of profit—to hold it as fast as it could be occupied—Butler was anxious to give the ‘loyal planters’ an opportunity to forward their sugar and cotton to New Orleans. ‘I can,’ he wrote, ‘easily hold this portion of Louisiana, by far the richest.’

For the rest, he was in his usual vein of over-confidence. His plan was to push forward a column from Algiers, dispatching it along the Opelousas railroad to Thibodeaux and Brashear City. He rejoiced to hear that the Teche [75] country was being rapidly drained of her able-bodied whites by conscription. He was not quite so pleased to hear that the Confederates could keep troops in the country, apart from its home people. However, he was far advanced in organizing a strong expedition to move through western Louisiana for the purpose of dispersing the force assembled there under Gen. Richard Taylor. He had already resolved upon placing the command under Weitzel.

On May 26, 1862, Department No. 2 had been extended to embrace east Louisiana, and the Trans-Mississippi department had been constituted, including west Louisiana Gen. Paul O. Hebert, two days later, was assigned to the command of the district of West Louisiana and Texas, and on June 25th East Louisiana came under the department command of Gen. Braxton Bragg. On August 20th Maj.-Gen. Richard Taylor, already distinguished in the Virginia campaigns, was ordered to the command of the district of West Louisiana. Taylor was an unknown quantity for Butler. Banks was to learn him thoroughly, and to his painful cost before another year. Another Arminius, Taylor loved to fight on his State's soil against his State's foes.

This territory of western Louisiana was destined to become a Belgium for both forces. Each, in turn, was to occupy, to lose, to regain it. None of the early battles was to be distinguished for large armies, or for heavy lists of killed or wounded. There were many skirmishes, some large; the most, however, both small and unimportant. Throughout them all the controlling design of General Butler was, in bringing the people back into the Union, to retain possession of the profits from the cultivation of its fertile, alluvial fields. Weitzel with a compact army was then operating about the Lafourche. With him on the lookout, his superior felt reasonably easy in mind.

If General Butler employed most of his time in addressing [76] orders to the people under his authority, or finding subjects therefor, he spent the rest largely planning small campaigns, worth only a bragging report from himself or his agent. At ease in his office in New Orleans, he sent forth regiments to support his plans, howsoever insignificant they might be. He was careful, where he could be so, to see that with the troops there should always be a gunboat or two to keep them company. He had begun by pinning his fate to the fleet; but it was to the fleet commanded by Farragut, which he had seen from a gunboat victoriously passing the fire of the forts. In Farragut's fleet he continued to believe until Banks superseded him on the 8th of November, 1862. It is useless to follow his troops in their marauding expeditions which penetrated into the interior of the State within easy distance of New Orleans. The history of the war in Louisiana is full of skirmishes, the occasional result of such expeditions. Some have already been mentioned.

Arrayed against him, Weitzel heard that in the Lafourche district Brig.Gen. Alfred Mouton, an able soldier, would be pitted. On October 24th the Federal general left Carrollton with his command. With him moved the inevitable parade of gunboats. Going up the river he entered Donaldsonville without opposition on the 25th. A reconnoissance drove in our pickets, and reported the Confederates in force on both sides of the Lafourche. He purposed to start the next day with his train and caissons, with Thibodeaux as his objective point. Leaving Donaldsonville, he marched on the left bank until he was near Napoleonville, where he bivouacked in line of battle. Weitzel was fox-like. With a view to preventing the Confederates from making use of their flatboat ferries, he summarily took in tow a flatboat bridge, meanwhile destroying every boat he passed. He continued deliberately his march down the Lafourche to within ten miles above Labadieville. There he heard that the Confederates were in force about one [77] mile ahead. The Lafourche is not over-broad here. Both of its steep banks were made use of in Weitzel's coming fight.

General Taylor had had his hands full with his new command of western Louisiana. With New Orleans near, and Brashear City a still nearer Federal headquarters, the department seemed likely to impose a tax upon vigilance. Gunboats could move up the Atchafalaya and through it into the adjacent network of waters. Taylor knew himself to be weak both in guns and men, but worse than weak in gunboats. With Mouton, who was a host in himself, were the Eighteenth Louisiana—his own regiment, and the Crescent regiment of New Orleans. Both of these organizations were veterans of Shiloh. The army of Tennessee had sent them to help their native State on the Lafourche.

As constituted, the Federal strength on the Lafourche was nearly double that of the Confederates. They had 2,500 infantry, 250 cavalry, and two batteries of field artillery. The Confederate cavalry, about the same number, was under the command of that gallant soldier, Col. W. G. Vincent. Vincent had with him only 600 infantry, with Semmes' field battery, to oppose the superior numbers of the enemy. Vincent, who on the arrival of Weitzel was in Donaldsonville, had fallen back to the Raccourci (cut-off) in Assumption parish. There Mouton had met him and learned the war news. Hearing of the disparity of force, Mouton had receded still more while waiting for reinforcements, previously ordered up from Berwick bay and Bayou Boeuf, where they had been stationed. Reaching, in falling back, the Winn plantation, two miles above Labadieville, he found the Eighteenth and Crescent regiments, with Ralston's battery, just come in from the bay. With them came the Terrebonne militia.

On October 25th the enemy were marching both sides of the bayou. To oppose the double advance, Mouton [78] made a careful distribution of his small force. On the right bank he placed the Eighteenth regiment, 240 men; Crescent regiment, 135; Ralston's battery, 64; detachment of cavalry, 100; total, 539 men; and on the left bank, Thirty-third regiment (Clack's and Fournet's battalions), 594 men; Terrebonne regiment, 34; Semmes' battery, 75; Second Louisiana cavalry, 150 men; total, 853 men.

It was a peculiar fight which was made at Labadieville, October 27th. Fought on both sides of the Lafourche, the enemy numbered equally strong on the two banks, massing 1,500 to 1,800 on each side. The column on the right bank, pressing forward with greater eagerness, had outstripped that on the left. About 9 a. m. it approached our line of battle. Mouton, fighting resolutely, here succeeded in checking their forward movement. All this time a duel was going on between the batteries. Unfortunately, at the outset Ralston's battery was severely injured by the enemy's shells. To make it worse, ammunition giving out, it was compelled to fall back. Owing to the loss of its commander this was done in some confusion. Confusion in a small force cuts with a wider swath than in an army.

The trouble with Ralston's battery led to a retrograde movement on our part, to a position about a mile and a half below at Labadieville, about 4 p. m., and here the Confederates made a new stand. Mouton had the commander's eye—the eye which in the battle sees every angle of the field. He had noticed that the enemy, having crossed troops on his pontoon bridge to the right bank, was massing his forces there. This was a challenge to which Mouton at once responded by throwing across to the same bank part of his infantry stationed on the left. Mouton says in his report: ‘At the close of the day the force of the enemy numbered about 2,000 infantry, 100 cavalry and a battery, while my own barely reached 1,000, including the infantry, cavalry and artillery.’ [79]

No fighting was done by the forces thus unexpectedly facing each other in battle line. Labadieville, although gallantly contested, proved to be a Confederate reverse. The odds, through heavy reinforcements coming in toward the end, proved too much for our thin line. Our loss at Labadieville was in killed, 5; wounded, 8; missing, 186. Mouton refers to the regretted death of Col. G. P. McPheeters, commanding the Crescent regiment. McPheeters, a distinguished lawyer in peace, had in war

won his stars
     On that field of Mars,
Where the glorious Johnston fell.

At mid-day on the 27th, Mouton had given orders to Major Sanders, assistant-quartermaster, to send over the train to get Col. T. E. Vick's command, consisting of the Lafourche militia, about 500 strong, and a detachment from the Thirty-third, with instructions to save everything he could and to destroy everything he could not save. This was a matter of precaution. Simultaneous movements, he had learned, would be made by the enemy via Donaldsonville, Des Allemands and Berwick bay. With a force sufficient to oppose the enemy at all points, he foresaw the necessity of abandoning Des Allemands, in order better to concentrate his forces at Berwick bay.

Vick, after destroying the Des Allemands station and burning the bridge, marched to join the main army. A roadbed is wearisome walking. Vick's militia found it so hard that they did not rejoin Mouton until 3 p. m. on the 28th. Vick's men, it must be added, were principally conscripts. Speaking of them, General Mouton says: ‘On the retreat, I am sorry to say, many of the conscripts attached to Colonel Vick's command lagged behind.’ ‘My object,’ Mouton continued, ‘could I have united my force, was to make a desperate resistance and to drive the enemy back, if possible; but when [80] my reinforcements failed to come on, no alternative was left me but to maneuver with the enemy and save my force. In consequence I issued orders for the removal of the sick to Berwick bay and made all needful preparations for the removal of the stores.’

Mouton, still retiring slowly, faced the enemy like a lion at bay, until he was ready to withdraw. At 4 p. m. on the 28th, he sent forward all the troops which could be collected. Then, as proof that he was still able to damage the enemy, he ordered the destruction by fire of the Thibodeaux bridge, the Lafourche crossing bridge, and the Terrebonne station. After which, riding with his cavalry, he reached Berwick bay on the 29th. By the 30th, everything worth preserving had been crossed over the Atchafalaya. Mouton did not long hold Berwick. Barely resting in that post, he was informed of the presence of four of the enemy's gunboats. He learned, moreover, that those boats were lying outside of obstructions which had been placed in the passes. Evidently the enemy was preparing for a war-raid up the bayou. Knowing that he could not offer resistance to gunboats, if once in the bay, Mouton, selecting a defensible position on the Teche, hastened to intrench and fortify about half a mile up the bayou. To provide for every contingency he placed obstructions in the bayou at Cornay's bridge. What was to be done needed swiftness. Not many miles separated the passes and the Teche. It would not be long before the gunboats would be pushing their black prows up to Cornay's. His only hope was that a low tide might prevent them from removing his obstructions, or from finding the channel, always somewhat uncertain. This hope was destined to speedy disappointment. Captain E. W. Fuller, commanding the Confederate gunboat, J. A. Cotton, which with two small steamers and a launch composed the flotilla in Berwick bay, was sharply watching the Federal squadron under Lieut. T. McK. Buchanan. [81]

On November 1st he notified General Mouton that one was within his obstructions, with the others steaming past—a serious blow, which Mouton met by falling back two miles above the obstructions, at Mrs. Meade's. New intrenchments were begun, with a view to establishing heavy guns. The same day four gunboats were seen cautiously moving up the bayou. He had already ordered Captain Fuller with the Cotton to delay them as long as possible. Intrenchments were to be strengthened; and the Cotton was to keep the gunboats busy while Mouton was using mattock and spade. The Cotton showed no fear of the enemy. Several shots were exchanged between steamer and gunboats, without injury to either. On the night of November 2d it became a small game of hide and seek. The gunboats had dropped back to the bay. With them out of the way the Cotton, capable of being of great service to Mouton, was lost for a time, being backed up the Teche a little above the intrenchments. Service was soon demanded, however, of the Cotton, even in the Teche. It was to be ready to engage the gunboats should they come up again.

On November 3d the enemy moved up, as expected. At 2 p. m. his whole force engaged the Cotton. Behind the Cotton was an uncovered land battery of rifled pieces, stationed there for co-operation and support. The fight of artillery lasted from 2 p. m. to 3:30 p. m. The gunboats were made strong by their numbers. Coming up to close range, the enemy's fire grew so heavy that both the Cotton and the battery were compelled to retire. Thus freed from all danger of reprisal, the gunboats moved boldly up to the very obstructions. Their shells, skillfully guided, compelled the Confederates to get out of range. The squadron continued the shelling at intervals for three days, until Wednesday, November 5th, on which day victory clearly remained with the Cotton. The enemy, wearied with the long contest and conscious [82] of having inflicted but little injury upon their plucky foe, turned and steamed back to Berwick bay. On his side, Mouton completed at his ease the mounting of such guns as he had. At 4 a. m. on the 4th, he had resumed his position on the Teche.

The casualties of the engagement, on the Cotton, were 1 private killed and 2 wounded; and though slightly damaged the gunboat was soon in trim for another exchange of shells and spherical cases. The conduct of Capt. E. W. Fuller, commanding, in successfully repulsing, with an artillery company on a small gunboat, with 4 guns, a squadron of four gunboats carrying 27 guns, was highly complimented by General Taylor. This series of affairs was, in every respect, creditable alike to our young State navy and to its able and skillful commander. The gunboat Cotton continued for three months to steam up and down Bayou Teche, faithfully guarding its shining waters and fertile banks from hostile vessels. With each day that it appeared upon the Teche, or in the Atchafalaya, its formidable reputation and resolute aspect sent fear before it. The repulsed squadron, on its return, had scattered far and wide reports of the deadly skill with which her guns had been served. The rumor, canvassed here and there along the bayou, soon came to Weitzel's ears.

Weitzel claimed to be in undisputed possession of the entire country between Boutte Station and Brashear City. The news of the Cotton's intentions, after increasing its armament both in caliber and in number, to join in an attack upon his forces at Berwick bay, naturally decided him, always in co-operation with the fleet, to organize an expedition for the capture or destruction of the dauntless rover of the bayous. The expedition, a large one for so simple a duty, comprised seven regiments of infantry, four full batteries of artillery, and six extra pieces, and two [83] companies of cavalry. Nothing could have more clearly showed Weitzel's awe of the victorious Cotton than this disproportionate force to be hurled against her.

At 3 a. m. of January 14, 1863, the gunboats began crossing the troops from Brashear City to Berwick. At 10:30 a. m. infantry, cavalry and artillery were on board. The whole force was disembarked and formed in line of battle at Pattersonville, subsequently advancing to Lynch's Point. There Weitzel bivouacked for the night. A report ran that the Cotton was very near the army's bivouac. It might have been only a Confederate fancy. That night, however, the army slept under guard of the squadron.

The Cotton, indeed, was just in sight. She was only a short distance up the Teche, which Captain Fuller had been commissioned to defend with his guns. So great was the terror inspired by her name that Weitzel's first order, at day-break, was to call for 60 volunteers from each of two regiments, one detachment to move up the east bank of the Teche, the other the west bank. Both were to run right up to the Cotton and shoot down her gunners. Evidently there was no hope for the defender of the Teche, for the vessel was so cordially detested that volunteers responded with the alacrity of hatred. The first movement was made by the gunboats, going ahead to engage their old foe. After the squadron, the army advanced steadily up the bank. The hour of vengeance was drawing near, and all on the bayou and on the shore were waiting to hear the stroke! What danger soever might come from the heroic vessel at bay would fall solely upon the squadron. The army might aid in its destruction—the army itself could not be harmed.

The two regiments out of whose ranks the volunteers had stepped, had marched up on either bank within supporting distance of the doomed boat. That on the west bank threw out its skirmishers in force. With these [84] the volunteers, every man of them a sharpshooter, attacked the Cotton, shooting down every one in sight, and so, one by one, silencing her guns. The east bank was equally busy wreaking vengeance. From the main road on that side, back of the high bank, burst an enfilading fire; from plantation roads, farther back and running parallel to the main road, batteries en echelon were pouring shell into her broadside. All this time the air was filled with shrieking canister. As fast as possible the gunners in the gunboats were doing their share of punishing, at a safe distance, the plucky little vessel which, in more equal days, had faced four of them alone and unsupported. In history often runs a thread of cynicism.

With these varied odds against her, the Cotton had become almost incapable of retreat. Fortunately a champion appeared on the bank. The left section (two 12-pounder bronze field howitzers) of Capt. T. A. Faries' artillery had got into battery just in time to protect the Cotton, whose gunners and pilots had already left, owing to the hot fire of the sharpshooters. The Cotton had in fact become unmanageable, and was able to retreat only through the efforts of the battery in dispersing the Federals. She retreated slowly, proudly, avoiding haste. After getting out of range the boat staggered back, as though blinded, but resolved again to defy shell and spherical case. The next morning Nemesis had prepared a dramatic end for the Cotton—such as she had prepared for each of the Confederate guards of the interior waters of our State. Before daybreak; even before the eager forces could begin to remove obstructions in the bayou, a cry was heard forward. It passed clearly from man to man. ‘The Cotton is on fire!’ The report was well founded. The gunboat had; in some blind way, swung across the bayou. There, as though faithful beyond her life, the Teche's heroic defender had placed herself as a still more difficult obstruction to the enemy's entrance into those lovely waters, so rich in natural beauties and so idolized [85] by the genius of our sweetest American poet. The expedition having accomplished its object, Weitzel ordered an immediate return to Brashear City.

In his exultation on the result of the expedition, Weitzel poetically telegraphed on January 14th, ‘The Confederate States gunboat Cotton is one of the things that were.’

Thirty-five years have passed since the J. A. Cotton perished gloriously between the banks which she had so gallantly guarded. The deeds of this champion of our imperiled bayous will not soon be forgotten in the war traditions of our Louisiana waterways. [86]

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