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Chapter 9:

  • Banks Relieves Butler
  • -- Operates on the Atchafalaya -- First expedition toward Red river -- battle of Camp Bisland.

On September 14, 1862, Halleck, general-in-chief at Washington, wrote to General Butler at New Orleans: ‘The rumor in regard to your removal from the command is a mere newspaper story without foundation.’ A change must have then come over the war department, or, perhaps, Butler's skirts had not been fairly clean since his Order No. 28. On December 17, 1862, Maj.-Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks formally assumed command of the department of the Gulf. December 14th he had delivered to General Butler Halleck's order relieving him from command.

Butler left degraded before the eyes of the entire country. Opposition existed to him in the North, and contempt for him in the South. In some respects, the man was better than his reputation. He had displayed, as the holder of a captured city, administrative faculties of a high order. He had, in the discharge of his important duties as such, with one exception, shown capacity with prudence. In the field he was always faithful to the government which he served with far more zeal than ability. It is probable that a statement in one of General Grant's reports1 has done more to shape popular opinion as to the military capacity of General Butler than all the success which he strove to win, either in the field or as the [87] director of a strong city captured but never subjugated.

Benjamin F. Butler passes forever from the stage of Louisiana. He knew those ‘entrances’ and those ‘exits’ which an ordinary actor might learn with ease; but that he never quite reached the lofty stature of him who plays the king is more than a verdict of the coulisses. Massachusetts, the great State that mothered him, was to place him later in her chair of honor; while learned Harvard, keener sighted than the populace, was to refuse him her degree.

Banks did not permit his army leisure for rest. Washington having expected certain results from his activity, he needed be quick. Reaching New Orleans on December 14, 1862, he announced on the 18th to Halleck that he had on the 16th ordered, without transhipping troops or stores, 10,000 men, with a battery of artillery, to proceed to Baton Rouge under command of Gen. Cuvier Grover. He knew that Baton Rouge was the first Confederate position on the lower Mississippi, and that eighteen miles above Baton Rouge was Port Hudson, ‘strongly fortified and held by a force of 10,000 or 15,000 men.’ Being a civilian soldier, Banks wore rose-colored glasses. He already was hoping, himself, to move against Port Hudson as soon as the troops in the city could be consolidated with the fleet. At this early stage Banks was clearly a convert to the power of floating batteries.

About the time that Banks was sailing from New York to New Orleans there had been considerable Confederate activity in the shifting about of commanders in Louisiana. Maj.-Gen. Franklin Gardner was ordered to make Port Hudson impregnable; General Ruggles was charged with the duty of pushing-forward its new works, these being by all accounts already formidable. Earl Van Dorn was still at Vicksburg although Pemberton, at Jackson, Miss., was soon to be within its walls. Sibley had already come down from Opelousas, with his newest headquarters for the time at New Iberia; Lieut.-Gen. E. Kirby Smith's [88] command had been broadened to embrace the TransMis-sissippi department, and heroic Richard Taylor had flitted to Opelousas where, however, he was not to stay many days. Taylor had been a much-traveled man over the battlefields of the Confederacy.

Banks had left New York with 20,000 men. In New Orleans he found about 10,000, with eight batteries of artillery. These combined gave him 30,000 men—not a small force considering the limited ranks of the Confederates scattered here and there in Louisiana. Banks' troops were promptly consolidated into the Nineteenth army corps. Already his eyes were fixed upon the Red river valley. The conquest and occupation of that country was, in his dreams, to prove the crowning achievement of his military career in the State. But this movement was delayed, partly by the need of settling matters in New Orleans, and partly by expeditions operating along with gunboats in the bayous of the neighborhood of the city.

The first months of 1863 saw marked activity among the Federals in southwest Louisiana. Banks, with feverish anxiety, was sending but expeditions to the old fighting grounds about the Atchafalaya and Berwick bay. It was the first buzz of the Red river bee which was to sting him a year later. Weitzel, commanding the Fourth brigade, reached Brashear City on February 12th. This expedition was intended to be in co-operation with the principal movement under General Emory by Bayou Plaquemine and the Atchafalaya to the Red river country. Banks, thus early, was aiming to perfect his knowledge of the narrow and crooked water system of lower Louisiana, preliminary to his master stroke against Shreveport. As Confederate partisan rangers, all natives, were patrolling the country roads, an invading force in its marauding trips was reasonably sure to meet with some of these bold riders.

Weitzel's orders were to open communication between [89] Indian Village and Lake Chicot. Indian Village was a settlement on Bayou Plaquemine, occupied by troops under command of General Emory. Calling in the aid of the gunboat Diana, making a reconnoissance from Berwick, it was found that all the routes from the village to Chicot were choked with drift for a distance of five miles. Not long did the gunboat Diana breast the waters of the Atchafalaya. On March 28, 1863, Dick Taylor was watching her somewhere from the bank near Berwick bay. He says: ‘I have the honor to report the capture of the Federal gunboat Diana at this point to-day. She mounted five heavy guns. Boat not severely injured, and will be immediately put in service. Emory's loss in killed, wounded and prisoners, 150.’

On January 28th there had been a cavalry skirmish with the Confederates temporarily around Indian Village. These Confederates were driven from their hastily raised fortifications on the west bank of the Grosse Tete. The enemy, having thus occupied Indian Village, attempted, through Weitzel, unsuccessfully to utilize the water route to Lake Chicot. High water was over the land. That flood which in the early spring brings overflow, as it swells robs the low banks of logs and trees, great and small, and so piles up drift. Drift, rising higher and choking deeper, prevented Weitzel's junction with Emory on the Plaquemine. Assuredly the Mississippi, for once true to Louisiana, was busy largessing the bayous in her favor.

Meanwhile Butte-à--la-Rose was made a new objective under Banks' plan of campaign. The Butte was a fortified mound rising high at the junction of the Atchafalaya and Cow bayou. This post was advantageously situated for the Confederates, being near the terminus of the road from St. Martinsville. Its garrison was estimated by the Federals at about 400 men, with four pieces of artillery. Banks, in his effort to make easy his Red river route by the bayou, had hoped from Weitzel's zeal to hear of the [90] prompt capture of Butte-à--la-Rose. The high water, flooding the land and swelling the bayous, rendered this expedition impossible. It was reserved for the fleet, on April 20th, in conjunction with companies of infantry, to take the Butte. Again the fleet had, under a strong leader, shown the army how to take a fortified work. For both fleet and army, the capture of the Butte was an inviting object.

Banks had ordered Grover, commanding at Baton Rouge and already waiting for the order, to proceed by water to Donaldsonville and thence to Thibodeaux. Behind an open Atchafalaya, he could see the Red river country free to his troops. These two expeditions, therefore, were an advance in force of a powerful army. Dick Taylor was on the Teche awaiting him with 4,000 men all told. For the Confederate leader, the larger the enemy's column, the more he enjoyed the shock of battle. Banks had been building up rainbows during March, 1863. Every expedition sent out by him was, directly or indirectly, connected with the expedition up Red river. Weitzel had previously been despatched to move up the Teche, and having heard of the arrival of the Confederate vessels Queen of the West and Webb at Butte-à--la-Rose, he naturally wanted some gunboats for himself. Without a superior force of these at Berwick bay he could not longer hold his position on the Atchafalaya.

On April 8th, Banks left New Orleans on a new expedition. He reached Brashear City, where Weitzel's brigade was stationed, and immediately ordered Weitzel to cross the bay, followed closely by Emory. Grover, from Bayou Boeuf, reached him about 1 p. m. On April 10th, Banks' general plan was to move upon Bayou Teche, with a probable attack upon our force at Pattersonville. After this he purposed proceeding to New Iberia to destroy the salt works near that town. Banks was crossing on the 9th, 10th and 11th. The transportation of his large army was necessarily slow. [91]

It was not until April 11th that the enemy commenced his advance upon Camp Bisland. This was soon seen by us to be a serious movement. His advance guard was larger than the entire Confederate force within the camp. Fort Bisland was a collection of earthworks, hastily constructed and too low for effective defense, on the east bank of Bayou Teche. The Confederate line of defense included also the west bank. On the east bank of the bayou, under Gen. Alfred Mouton, were posted Fournet's ‘Yellow Jacket’ Louisiana battalion; the famous Crescent regiment, Colonel Bosworth; next to it the equally famous Eighteenth Louisiana, Colonel Armant; with the guns of Faries' fighting ‘Pelican battery’ posted along the line, and Bagby's Texas volunteers on the skirmish line. Colonel Vincent's Second Louisiana cavalry, held in reserve during the morning of the 12th, was ordered by General Taylor to proceed to Verdun's landing to prevent a gunboat of the enemy, with several transports containing troops, from making a landing at that point, and next day he was reinforced by Reily's Texas regiment.

On the left bank the remainder of our little army was waiting. On the extreme right were Tom Green's Texas cavalry and Walker's battalion, both dismounted. On the left of Green's command was the Valverde battery; Colonel Gray's Louisiana regiment held the center, with a section of Cornay's St. Mary's Cannoneers and Semmes' battery. A 24-pounder siege gun, worked by Cornay's battery, was in position, commanding the approach by the west bank.

In the upper Teche the Diana was waiting to be made useful in supporting her new masters by steaming down the bayou along the west bank. It was Taylor's idea that, by moving on a line with an attacking column, the vessel could drive the enemy back, throw him into confusion and so force him into withdrawal of the troops he was essaying to land in our rear to the assistance of his [92] army in our front. This was a daring plan to be essayed on the next day.

Mouton's line was long and sparsely defended. Knowing the character of the ground, and believing that the enemy's attack would be mainly directed against his left flank, Mouton ordered Bagby to take position in front of his intrenchments about 500 yards, so as to check the enemy's advance. On April 12th, about 10 a. m., the enemy came in force, covered by his gunboats lying in the Teche. He landed troops at Lynch's Point on the east bank. Bagby fought every inch of the advance. It was a long line to guard from the Teche to the redoubt on the east bank—a line about 900 yards in length and showing a painfully sparse rank of brave defenders. Mouton, in order to make his small force cover these intrenchments, had skillfully distributed the remainder of his troops, numbering about 1,000. He had placed Fournet's battalion on the right the Crescent regiment in the center and the Eighteenth on the left. Faries' Pelican battery was planted here and there, by sections, on the main road. Clearly, not a single man could be held in reserve. Every man stood as needed to cover the main line on the east bank.

On the 13th the enemy threw forward their skirmishers. At 10 a. m. a movement commenced as if intended to assault the whole line. This was a feint, for it was soon evident to Taylor that his left flank was the serious point of assault. A struggle occurred here, showing calm and devoted courage on our part. Against our left flank five regiments were successively hurled. Here was Bagby's opportunity to obey orders. He effectively resisted each assault in the open field in front of our intrenchments, with not more than 500 men. Not until night did the gallant band yield ground. It was a slight yield, compelled under the masses concentrated against us. So fierce were the successive assaults, so overwhelming the mere pressure of men against our weakened line, that [93] Mouton, looking at the unequal fight from the redoubt where he had stationed himself, ordered to Bagby's support Captain Beraud and his company of Fournet's battalion. The remainder of the battalion he directed to the right of the main line, where a severe demonstration, still more formidable in numbers, came up with three regiments. This seemed to be simultaneous with a strong movement on the west bank.

The conflict with Bagby progressing more viciously, Mouton ordered forward the entire left wing of the Eighteenth regiment. The enemy still stubbornly pressed his masses forward. This was met with another reinforcement of 60 men of Waller's battalion, under Major Boone. These advanced steadily into the hottest of the engagement. It was a crucial hour, crowded with valorous minutes and devoted seconds. With two regiments in the center, flanked by three regiments on the right, the enemy pushed forward until the night, when they were checked within 800 yards of the parapet. On both sides of Bayou Teche, batteries were now spitting fire and shells. This fire was made the more harassing by the enemy's skirmishers and sharpshooters, who vexed Faries with a continuous shower of minie balls. Sharpshooters, getting within 400 yards of the Southern line, had detected the hastily thrown up breastworks. These were so low as to protect neither the ‘Pelicans’ nor their horses. One of Faries' guns was lost at this point. The defenders, looking before them, saw in the twilight a movement, and passed the word: ‘They are going to storm our line.’ Then each man fixed his bayonet, testing it to make sure that there was no weakness in the steel, and thus the whole line prepared to defend, in hand-to-hand conflict, the possession of the intrenchments. Superiority of numbers, crowding on the line, would have borne the brave defenders down by mere weight of men, but the attempt to storm was not made! Nothing proved more conclusively the enemy's sense of [94] the valor with which a small force against an army had resisted that army's advance for two days.

At midnight on April 13th Mouton received orders to evacuate his position. This retrograde movement was executed with all the promptness possible, ‘especially when it was considered that Captain Faries had lost a large number of his horses.’ Mouton, after mentioning the gallantry of Colonel Bagby, his regiment and the reinforcements sent him during the action, pays a tribute to Faries' Pelicans: ‘The Pelican battery covered itself with glory. Too much praise cannot be awarded to Captain Faries, Lieutenants F. Winchester, R. B. Winchester, Garrett and Gaudet. This battery may be equaled, but cannot be surpassed in the Confederate service.’

Mouton, in his retreat reaching Franklin 10 miles distant on Tuesday, April 14th, reported to General Taylor; and Taylor, with an eye to brave and loyal service, placed him in command of the troops holding the enemy in check in our rear. A most important duty this, in a small army, which, falling back before overwhelming forces, needs a man to command men! Napoleon, a keen judge of his marshals, chose Ney to steady the retreat from Borodino of that huge army, overwhelmed by Generals Snow and Ice. Mouton, to perish gloriously at Mansfield, has this to say for Richard Taylor: ‘It is due to the truth of history that I shall here record the fact that the salvation of our retiring army was entirely owing to the bold and determined attack of our troops under the immediate command of Major-General Taylor, he leading the van upon the enemy, at early dawn—thoroughly arresting the advance of the whole force of the enemy, 8,000-to 10,000 strong, with not over 1,200 men, until our retreating forces had gotten far on the road leading to the Cypremort and beyond the reach of pursuit.’ In reverse, this is like Napoleon at Elba praising Lannes!

Mouton's retreat was not effected without some checks. Hearing that the enemy were not only already in Frank- [95] lin, but that they were in position to cut off his retreat, Mouton succeeded by means of a by-path well known to him, ‘a Creole of the Attakapas,’ in extricating his command from a perilous position. [96]

1 Referring to his having been forced back into the intrenchments between the forks of the James and the Appomattox rivers, General Grant said: ‘His army, therefore, though in a position of great security, was as completely shut off from further operations directly against Richmond as if it had been in a bottle strongly corked.’

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