Published quarterly by the
Louisiana Historical Association
In cooperation with
The Center for Louisiana Studies
The University of Southwestern Louisiana
(The following article is reprinted by the Young-Sanders Center with permission granted by the Louisiana Historical Association and
The Center for Louisiana Studies)
Volume XXXII, No. 4
Texans on the Teche:
The Texas Brigade at the
Battles of Bisland
And Irish Bend,
April 12-14, 1863
By: Donald S. Frazier Doctoral Candidate
Texas Christian University
By the end of March 1863, Confederates in southwestern Louisiana found themselves in a precarious position. Only a small army of 3,000 men defended the region against a Union force of 20,000. A few small battles had been fought in the area, and Major General Richard Taylor, commander of the district, anticipated an upcoming Union offensive on a scale he could not stop. He had little heavy artillery to defend the interconnecting lines of bayous and rivers from probing enemy gunboats; a shortage of Rebel steamboats prevented the creation of an effective defensive flotilla. As a result, the Federals firmly held the strategic initiative, and Southern leaders could only sit and await developing events.1
Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks, aware of his numerical superiority, searched for options as he planned the military conquest of Louisiana. Unsuccessful in his attempts to invest the Mississippi
1 Richard Taylor, Destruction and Reconstruction: Personal Experiences of the Late War (New York, 1879), pp. 113-115; “Consolidated Report of Ordnance and Ordnance Stores in the Department of Southwestern Louisiana, March 26, 1863,” J. L. Brent Papers, Group 55-B, Volume 41, Louisiana Historical Association Collection, Howard-Tilton Memorial Library, Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana (hereafter cited as LHA Collection, Tulane University).
defenses at Port Hudson from the south, Banks listened to Union strategists who suggested an approach through the heart of Taylor’s command. Banks convinced the plan would work, left a strong garrison in New Orleans before ordering his remaining divisions to concentrate at Brashear City on Berwick Bay. From there the army would advance up Bayou Teche as far as Alexandria, destroy Taylor’s army, and remove any threat to Union lines of communication during the anticipated siege of Port Hudson.2
General Taylor, mindful of his lack of resources, nevertheless planned to hold the Teche region as long as possible. On the south bank, five miles upstream from Pattersonville, engineers had constructed a redoubt named Fort Bisland, mounting two 24-pounders and commanding the bayou.3 The timely capture of the Union gunboat Diana strengthened the position, her long-range 30-pounder Parrot-rifle adding greater reach to the Bisland defenses. Soldiers and slaves built a line of earthworks that extended 1,000 yards away from the Teche with the ends anchored in the surrounding swamps. The deep furrows and unharvested sugarcane in front of the works provided further obstacles to advancing enemy infantry.4
Brig. Gen. Godfrey Weitzel, a Union officer familiar with the region, proposed a plan to destroy Taylor’s army by exploiting a toehold gained during the campaign of the previous autumn. A half-dozen Federal regiments, in the region since October, had skirmished with the meager Rebel forces in the Lafourche country and had successfully captured the rail line between
2 Richard B. Irwin, “The Capture of Port Hudson,” in Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence Clough Buel, eds., Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, 4 vols. (Secaucus, N. J., n.d.), III, 586; Taylor, Destruction and Reconstruction, pp. 120-121.
3 The Teche winds generally north to south; in the region of Pattersonville, the bayou flows east and west. For purposes of this article, the left bank is the north bank; the right bank is the south bank.
4 Felix Robert Collard, “Reminiscences of a Private, Company G, 7th Texas Cavalry, Sibley Brigade, C. S. A” (typescript in possession of Don Alberts, Albuquerque, New Mexico), p. 13; Alfred Mouton to Edward Surget, May 2, 1863, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 128 vols. (Gettysburg, Pa., 1972), Series I, XV, 396-397; hereafter cited as OR all references are to Series I; C. M. Horton Diary, April 11, 1863, Civil War Papers, Box 20, Folder 2, LHA Collection, Tulane University.
Brashear City and New Orleans. Sympathetic Louisiana steamboat men had taught gunboat captains the area and its intricate web of waterways. These sources of intelligence suggested a Federal march up the Teche to pin the Southerners at Bisland. Meanwhile another Union force, embarked on transports, would by-pass the Confederate position by traveling up the Atchafalaya and Grand Lake. This amphibious expedition, landing in the vicinity of Irish Bend, would then block the Rebel line of retreat. General Banks, after receiving preliminary scouting reports, recognized his opportunity and prepared to move.5
The Federals defeated Taylor in the subsequent campaign up Bayou Teche, but the Union victory fell far short of expectations. Union troops maneuvered Taylor out of his fortifications at Bisland by flanking the position and making it untenable, but the Confederate army escaped without significant loss. What could have been a decisive coup for Northern war aims in the region instead resulted in only a temporary loss of Rebel territory. Taylor and his small Confederate army, enriched by lessons learned in combat, would be a constant source of irritation for Northern strategists until the end of war.
Although defeated, the Confederate army in southwestern Louisiana gained some benefit from the battles of Bisland and Irish Bend. The Teche campaign provided a culling process that promoted a capable commander and cashiered an inept one. The Teche country fell to the Unionists, yet this campaign represented a triumph of Confederate command cooperation—the expedient union of two amazingly different Southern commands.
At the campaign’s outset, Taylor concentrated two small Rebel armies into one cohesive fighting force capable of making a stand at Bisland. Brig. Gen. Jean Jacques Alfred Alexandre Mouton, although subordinate to Taylor, had led an autonomous army of nearly 2,000 battle-tested veterans in the hard-fought Lafourche campaign during the fall of 1862. Taylor’s other army at Bisland was the mounted command of Brig. Gen. Henry H. Sibley, the first large-scale commitment of Texas troops to that region. Sibley, who commanded the Fourth, Fifth,
5 Irwin, “Capture of Port Hudson,” 590; Morris Raphael, The Battle in the Bayou Country (Detroit, 1984), pp. 73-76.
and Seventh Texas Cavalry Regiments, also had led an independent force the previous year during the Confederate invasion of New Mexico. Elements of the brigade also fought as marines during the successful recapture of Galveston. Experts in independent action but with little experience in cooperative enterprises, these two Confederate brigades supported each other in the Teche campaign.6
Sibley and Mouton differed greatly. Sibley, a Mexican War veteran and professional soldier with a reputation for heavy, debilitating drinking, had only recently returned from a six-month-long investigation into his conduct in New Mexico. Even so, one Texan described this luckless leader as a “high-minded, noble, valorous, and gifted officer.” Mouton, the wealthy son of a former Louisiana governor, had earned his stars in combat as colonel of the Eighteenth Louisiana Infantry. “Modest, unselfish, and patriotic, he showed best in action,” wrote Taylor, “always leading his men” and “ever proved faithful to duty.” Seriously wounded at Shiloh, this Acadian officer recovered and advanced to brigadier, transferring to his home district in southwestern Louisiana.7
The outnumbered Confederates at Bisland were veterans led by Capable officers. Two of Mouton’s Louisiana units, the Eighteenth “Creole” Infantry and the Twenty-fourth “Crescent” infantry, after loosing scores of men at Shiloh, had returned west of the Mississippi to rebuild. Supporting these steady infantrymen, the shotgun-wielding horsemen of Colonel William G. Vincent’s Second Louisiana Cavalry were experienced in scouting and skirmishing. Two artillery batteries, Oliver J. Semme’s First Regulars and Florian
6 For a discussion of the various Louisiana units in the Teche campaign, see Arthur Bergeron, Guide to Louisiana Confederate Military Units, 1861-1865 (Baton Rouge, 1989); for a review of the Texas units service in New Mexico, see Martin Hall, Sibley’s New Mexico Campaign (Austin, 1960.)
7 Taylor, Destruction and Reconstruction, pp. 105, 165; Ezra Warner, Generals in Gray: Lives of the Confederate Commanders (Baton Rouge, 1959), pp. 222-223; Theophilus Noel, A Campaign from Santa Fe to the Mississippi: Being a History of the Old Sibley Brigade from its First Organization to the Present Time; Its Campaigns in New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas in the Years, 1861-2-3-4, ed. By Martin Hardwick Hall and Edwin Adams Davis (Houston, 1961), p. 78. For a biography of Sibley, see Jerry Thompson, Henry Hopkins Sibley: Confederate General of the West (Natchitoches, La., 1987.)
Cornay’s St. Mary’s Cannoneers, had also seen combat.8 Four additional units, Edmund Waller’s Thirteenth Texas Cavalry Battalion, the Tenth Louisiana “Yellow Jacket” Battalion, Colonel Henry Gray’s Twenty-eight Louisiana Infantry, and Thomas Farie’s Pelican Artillery augmented the Southern forces at Bisland.9
Sibley’s three regiments, in the course of their far different military career, had displayed a number of peculiar contradictions. They had fared badly in New Mexico—the brigade had almost disintegrated—but the exhausted, prideful men brought by hand five captured cannons through the arid mountains back to Texas. These reorganized units were well mounted and classified as cavalry, yet they carried rifles and fought mainly as infantry; some became artilleryman, serving their trophy cannons—captured at the Battle of Val Verde—as a battery at Bisland. Taylor both admired and disparaged these Texans. “The men, hardy frontiersmen, excellent riders, and skilled riflemen, were fearless and self-reliant,” he wrote,
But discharged their duty as they liked and when they liked. On a march they wandered about at will, as they did about camp, and could be kept together only when a fight was impending. When their arms were injured by service or neglect, they threw them away, expecting to be supplied with others. Yet with these faults, they were admirable fighters…10
Although Sibley had failed in past campaigns, the other Texas officers were described as “bold and enterprising.” As the
8 Men in the “Crescent Regiment” hailed almost entirely from New Orleans, where they served in prewar militia regiment. Oliver J. Semmes was the brother of Raphael Semmes of Alabama fame. Men in the St. Mary’s Cannoneers came from St. Mary Parish and were organized at Franklin. The Val Verde guns fell by frontal assault, an unusual feat for troops in their first battle; “Consolidated Report of Ordnance.”
9 For a history of Waller’s Battalion, see Charles Spurlin, West of the Mississippi with Waller’s 13th Texas Cavalry Battalion, C. S. A. (Hillsboro, Tex., 1971). Joseph C. Terrell to “Ma” (Susan Kenerly Terrell), March 29, 1863, letter in possession of Geraldine Hudson, Fort Worth, Texas: Morris Raphael, Battle in the Bayou Country, pp. 80-82; Taylor, Destruction and Reconstruction, pp. 108-109, 114. The Diana was a converted river steamer and had been captured on March 17, 1863, after blundering into an ambush.
10 Taylor, Destruction and Reconstruction, pp. 178-179.
Teche campaign progressed, Taylor relied heavily on one talented Texan subaltern-Colonel Tom Green of the fifth Texas Cavalry. “Upright, modest, and with the simplicity of a child, danger seemed to be his element, and he rejoiced in combat,” wrote the commanding general. “His men adored him, and would follow wherever he led…The great Commonwealth…will never send forth a bolder warrior, a better citizen, nor a more upright man than Thomas Green.”11
Sibley’s Texans had been hesitant about going to Louisiana. “We are going into a very sickly country and to one where there will be a great deal of hard fighting.” Wrote a soldier to his sweetheart on the eve of his departure from the Lone Star State. “It is very certain many of us will never again see Texas if we remain among those Louisiana swamps for any length of time…We can only hope that the move is for the good of our glorious Confederacy.” Despite their reluctance, these veterans formed their road columns in mid-March and headed through the piney woods toward New Iberia.12
The citizens of Louisiana showed great enthusiasm for the reluctant Texan reinforcements. “The people met us with open arms,” wrote one soldier. “In every town we passed through, they lined the streets and greeted us with waving flags and handkerchiefs. Many of them carried lunches and baskets of flowers which they lavishly bestowed upon all who wished for them.” The road-weary Texans, unhappy they were even in the state, spurned much of the hospitality. “A great many of our men, who had gone through an arduous campaign the year before and others who had been drawn from their homes with great reluctance paid but little attention to the flowery offerings,” noted the soldier. “But when lemonade and cakes appeared on the program, they were ready enough to take an active intrest.”13
11 Ibid, p. 178.
12 William Randolph Howell to Sallie Patricks, January 19, 1863, William Randolph Howell papers, Eugene C. Barker Texas History Center, University of Texas, Austin; hereafter cited as BTHC; Thomas Green to John M. Bronough, February 2, 1863, “Letter Book,” John M. Bronough Papers, Texas collection, Baylor University, Waco, Texas.
13 Henry C. Wright, “Reminiscences of H. C. Wright of Austin,” Wright Memoir, pp. 56-57, BTHC.
Sibley’s men found in Louisiana an environment unlike any they had experienced in the war so far. Much of the population spoke French. Sugarcane fields, with two-foot-deep furrows, covered the countryside. Ancient oaks, with Spanish moss flowing in long beards from their branches, lined the roads. And, unlike New Mexico and most of Texas, water was in abundance, with great knotty cypress trees towering above numerous black swamps. Even cemeteries appeared different, with large tombs resting above ground because of the high-water table. Louisiana seemed to many of the Texans a foreign country.
Confederate leaders first had to rebuild the Texas brigade into an efficient military organization. Recruits and conscripts replaced the losses from New Mexico, and discipline was correspondingly lax. The troops owned fine horses, but had arrived with few other military assets. Half of the Texans reached New Iberia unarmed while the balance carried inadequate weapons; ordnance officers labored to eliminate the deficiency. Sibley’s men quickly emptied the stocks of small arms at the New Iberia arsenal.14 Taylor, fretting over the lack of discipline within the Texans ranks, re-established brigade routines with frequent drill and dress parades.15
The government provided their weapons, but the individual Texans helped themselves to local lagniappe—“little something extra”—from the surrounding country. Blackberries abounded. “The vines…ran up in the bushes and trees so that one could sit on a horse and gather all you wished.” Wrote one private. “So many of the men became sick with diarrhea that the doctors objected.” Nearby plantations also provided delicacies to supplement the government fare of beef and corn bread. “Sugar was so plentiful that hundreds of hogsheads were left exposed to the weather,” noted one Rebel. “When a man wanted
14 Sibley requested 2,000 weapons and accoutrements for his command. “Consolidated Report of Ordnance.” Howell to Patricks, may 4, 1863; William Randolph Howell Diary, April 8, 1863, William Randolph Howell Papers, BTHC; Alfred B. Peticolas Diary, April 27, 1863, in possession of Judge A. B. Peticolas of El Paso, Texas; Robert Thompson William Diary, March 30, 1863, 4th Texas Cavalry File, Harold B. Simpson Confederate Research Center, Hill College, Hillsboro, Texas.
15 Williams Diary, April 4, 6, 7, 1863.
any, he would break in the head of one, shovel out a sack full and go on his way leaving the rest to be wasted.” Local rum also made its way into the brigade mess, soldiers quaffing cups of the potent elixir as they gambled on horse races.16
Before the Federal advance began, men from each of the two Confederate brigades had little interaction with their counterparts. The brigades bivouacked nearly ten miles apart, with the Texans camping near Centerville and Mouton’s men at Bisland. As the Texans drilled, paraded, and dined on rum, blackberries, and sugar, the officers from the Louisiana regiments danced as guests of Madame Porter at her impressive plantation home in Irish Bend.17
When Banks launched his offensive on April 9, Taylor sent the Texans forward, deploying them separately from his infantry, and ordered the Bisland defenses reinforced and expanded.18 Soldiers and slaves began erecting chest-high works that extended 1,000 yards from each bank of the Teche and anchored in the surrounding swamps, incorporating an unfinished railroad embankment on the far right. Other troops cleared and enlarged drainage ditches running through the sugarcane fields, using split cypress fencing rails to shore up the sides into natural trenches. With their flanks secured by impassable terrain, the Rebels also built additional redoubts on their line.19 The Fort Bisland defenses included two 24-pounders, and the Diana, positioned nearby in the Teche,
16 Wright Memoir, p. 57; Williams Diary, April 2, 3, 1863.
17 Williams Diary, April 2, 9, 1863; “Leila Robertson’s Story” in Lucile Barbour Holmes, Oaklawn Manor: Ante-Bellum Plantation Home, 4th ed. (Franklin, LA, 1980), non-paginated; Horton Diary, April 6, 1863; Howell Diary, April 9, 1863.
18 Frank M. Flinn, Campaigning with Banks in Louisiana, ’63 and ’64, and with Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley in ’64 and ’65 (Lynn, Mass. 1887), p. 33; Captain Samuel Gault Diary, April 9, 1983, manuscripts number 177, The Historic New Orleans Collection, New Orleans, Louisiana; Noel, Santa Fe to the Mississippi, p. 69.
19 On the far left, troops built an earthwork backed by a stockade and equipped with three gun platforms; on the extreme right, gunners from the Val Verde battery used large cypress, ash, and elm logs to construct an elevated emplacement that enabled the guns to direct fire over the heads of the infantry in front.
Carried a powerful, 30-pounder Parrott rifle. On the left of the Rebel line, soldiers felled trees to form an abatis against a flank attack.20
The deeply furrowed sugarcane fields in front of the Confederate works also favored the defense. Much of the previous year’s crop had remained unharvested, leaving the shriveled, frost-nipped stalks to become wind-blown into such a “tangled mass,” as one Texan remembered, “a dog could hardly get through it.” Officers sent details from their units to trample and cut the cane in front of the works for several hundred yards to afford better fields of fire.21
On April 11, 1863, Banks, with his right flank covered by the U. S. S. Clifton, continued his advance and skirmished with Rebel Cavalry. The Texan horseman, although repeatedly compelled to retreat under pressure from the enemy gunboat, took positions throughout the day to impede the Federals. After a rugged day, the Texans withdrew as Yankee troops entered Pattersonville, five miles from the Rebel works.22
In the course of the day’s fighting, the lack of discipline that Taylor noticed among the Texans had serious results for some of Sibley’s men. Colonel Green had ordered Capt. Jerome B. McCown to lead a party through the swamp on the right to determine the enemy troops’ strength. The expedition ended in disaster. A German officer in the brigade recorded that the captain, “having imbibed too freely, fell from his horse during a retreat.” Federals quickly captured McCown and several of his men.23
Fighting resumed the following day. Banks deployed his 8,000 men across the can fields fronting Pattersonville and
20 Collard, “Reminiscences,” p. 13; Mouton to Surget, May 2, 1863, OR, XV 396-397.
21 Collard, “Reminiscences,” p. 13; Horton Diary, April 11, 1863.
22 Howell Diary, April 11, 1862; Oscar Haas, Trans. “The Diary of Julius Gieseke, 1863-1864,” Military History of Texas and the Southwest, XVII (1988), 65; Noel, Santa Fe to the Mississippi, p. 69; Flinn, Campaigning with Banks, p. 33; Gault Diary, April 11, 1863; Noel, Santa Fe to the Mississippi, p. 69.
23 William Diary, April 11, 1863; Noel, Santa Fe to the Mississippi, p. 69; Haas, trans., “The Diary of Julius Gieseke, 1863-1864,” p. 65.
Began his approach toward Bisland.24 Despite resistance, the Yankees pushed back the Southerners steadily and by afternoon forced them to take cover behind their works as a terrific artillery duel opened. The Rebel return fire soon revealed the locations and caliber of their guns, allowing the Unionists to plan more efficiently for the next day’s assault. That evening, the Federals withdrew out of range, word having reached Banks that Brig. Gen. Cuvier Grover had finally left Brashear City and was steaming up the Atchafalya to close the trap.25
The Confederates spent a damp, restless night. Several buildings between the opposing lines caught fire during the engagement and, as one Texan observed continued to flame up “fierce and hot toward the sky.” As fog settled over the battlefield, men from the Twenty-fourth Louisiana added to the arson, igniting a cluster of slave huts to deny cover to an advancing enemy. Those Rebel soldiers fortunate enough to avoid some type of extra duty lay in the mud and water of the trenches with bayonets fixed, fearful of a night attack. Mosquitoes from the neighboring swamps added to their sleepless misery.26
That night, scouts brought information on the Federal Flotilla ascending Grand Lake, and Taylor prepared pre-emptive action. He first dispatched the Second Louisiana Cavalry, and two of Cornay’s 6-pounders to observe the fleet’s movements and oppose any attempted landings. He then ordered Sibley to lead his Texans in a dawn surprise attack against the Union forces at Bisland. Perhaps a successful assault there would compel the enemy’s amphibious force to withdraw. At daybreak, however, Sibley’s men remained behind the works, their commanding officer having made no effort to attack, thus forfeiting the vital tactical initiative.27
24 Noel, Santa Fe to the Mississippi, p. 69; Flinn, Campaigning with Banks, p.37.
25 John William De Forest, A Volunteer’s Adventures: A Union Captain’s Record of the Civil War (New Haven, 1946), p. 88, Peticolas Diary, April 27, 1863; Howell Diary, April 12, 1863.
26 Peticolas Diary, April 27, 1863; Gault Diary, April 12-13, 1853; Horton Diary, April 12, 1863; Howell Diary, April 12, 1863; De Forest, A Volunteer’s Adventures p. 91.
27 Thompson, Sibley, p. 325; Raphael, Battle in the Bayou Country, pp. 94-95.
Taylor, furious over Sibley’s failure, had to reconsider his strategy, taking into account the relative strengths of his various units and positioning them accordingly. Mouton’s infantry, supported by artillery, stiffened the center of the line. Taylor broke up the Texas brigade, sending its regiments to threatened points along the line. He relegated Sibley to command the supply train. The Fifth Texas, under the aggressive Colonel Green, anchored the right flank and defended the wooded coastal swamp. Col. Arthur Bagby’s Seventh Texas and Waller’s Battalion held the left flank, defending from behind the abatis in the marshy ground bordering Grand Lake. Taylor held Col. James Reily’s Fourth Texas Cavalry in reserve. He also strengthened the Rebel Line by distributing his artillery according to caliber, carefully placing his four 3-inch rifles where they could do the most execution.28
Despite Sibley’s bunglings, Rebel detachments began probing the enemy by seven o’clock in the morning of April 13. North of the Teche, skirmishers from the Eighteenth and Twenty-fourth Louisiana and Seventh Texas moved about 500 yards through the fog. Meanwhile, several companies of the Twenty-eight grove of trees near the bank of the bayou. Here, the fourth Wisconsin had taken position and, after sporadic firing, drove the Rebels back to their trenches.29
28 Raphael, Battle in the Bayou Country, p. 94. On the extreme right, the Val Verde Battery’s three 6-pounders and two 12-pounder howitzers occupied an elevated emplacement, allowing direct fire over the troops in the trenches and controlling an unfinished railroad embankment emerging from the woods. Semmes’s battery composed of two 3-inch rifles, a 6-pounder, and a 1-pounder howitzer, strengthened the Rebel right-center. Cornay’s St. Mary’s Cannoneers, positioned with the Twenty-eighth Infantry near the redoubt on the west bank of the Teche, held their four remaining 6-pounders in reserve. The two 24-pounder howitzers in the redoubt and the 30-pounder Parrott rifle aboard the Diana dominated the center of the Confederate line. Two 12-pounder howitzers from the Pelican Artillery, supported by the “Yellow Jackets” and the “Crescent Regiment” commanded the east bank of the Bayou. The longer range of two 3-inch rifles, along with the Enfields of the 18th Louisiana protected the Rebel left center while two 6-pounders defended a timber and earth redoubt on the extreme left. Collard, “Reminiscences,” p. 13; Mouton to Surget, May 2, 1863, OR, XV, 396-397.
29 Horton Diary, April 13, 1863; Collard, “Reminiscences,” p. 1.
As the fog lifted, Federal snipers began their work. “In the early morning, some of the enemy climbed moss-covered cypress, away down the bayou, armed with high powered rifles,” recalled one Texan skirmisher. “[They] were so far away that we could not hear the reports… The balls would strike the timber just in our rear like hailstones. Directly one struck Lt. [James] Cunningham, of my company, piercing the right lung,”30
Visibility improved by ten o’clock, allowing the Federals to renew the attack. Artillerymen placed their guns as infantry columns struggled through the cane. Opposing cannons soon began a long-range duel. Five Union regiments and a battery crossed a pontoon bridge to sweep the north bank of the Teche and pin down its defenders. Four batteries, including six 20-pounder Parrott rifles, along with twelve regiments of infantry, deployed on the south bank. The Twenty-first Indiana Heavy Artillery, armed with six 30-pounder Parrott rifles, took positions to concentrate on the Diana, which they soon disabled and forced out of action. As the artillery fire intensified, one Texan observed, “the firing was so brisk that one could scarcely discern any pause whatever.”31
By early afternoon, Federal Infantry began to advance toward the Confederate works. Columns struggled across the sugarcane rows until within rifle range, then deployed into lines, driving Confederate soldiers scurrying before them.32 “Here they come!’ was shouted down our line as skirmishers came running in and jumping over the works so their position behind them,” recalled one Texan. Soon, small arms fire added to the noise of battle.33
Union infantry advanced against the Texans holding each flank of the Confederate lines. A heated fight developed on the right where the Fifth Texas successfully forced two New York
30 Collard, “Reminiscences,” p. 1.
31 Haas, trans., “Diary of Julius Gieseke, 1863-1864;” Noel, Santa Fe to the Mississippi, p. 71; Howell Diary, April 13, 1863.
32 The Federal regiments formed into columns of divisions, two companies across, for their approach to the Rebel works. Horton Diary, April 13, 1863.
33 Noel, Santa Fe to the Mississippi, p. 70; Howell Diary, April 13, 1863.
Regiments back into the swamp. Colonel Green, having ordered the badly damaged Val Verde battery withdrawn, sent a message to Taylor describing his position as “hot.” “Green was assured,” wrote the general in his memoirs, “that there were no places on our line particularly cool.” On the far left, the Seventh Texas stubbornly defended its ground, Colonel Bagby receiving a painful wound in the arm. During the fight, the Texans fell back a short distance, abandoning the flank company of the supporting Eighteenth Louisiana and causing its capture. Despite limited successes, the Union assault failed to break the Rebel line. The battle then reverted back to a test of artillery which tapered off toward nightfall.34 That afternoon, General Grover landed on the shores of Grand Lake, springing the Union trap and forcing a quick response from the Confederates. In the midst of the fighting at Bisland, couriers informed Taylor that Grover’s 8,000 Federals had landed in the rear, brushed aside Vincent’s 400-man Rebel force, and were marching for the town of Franklin, threatening the Confederate line of retreat. Colonel Reily and his Fourth Texas Cavalry galloped away from Bisland to check the Union advance, covering nineteen miles in an hour and a half. Two of the remaining 6-pounders from the St. Mary’s Cannoneers limbered up and also headed up the bayou road. Taylor, realizing the danger of the situation, began making plans to evacuate Bisland.35
Vincent’s and Reily’s Confederate cavalry regiments had to buy time. The Second Louisiana, soon aided by companies from the Fourth Texas, made a second stand, skirmishing with the Federals while details attempted to burn or dismantle the numerous plantation bridges across the Teche. The Rebels, reinforced by the timely arrival of the Val Verde guns, made a third stand at Madam Porter’s plantation on Irish Bend. Soon the Unionists began massing in strength, forcing the Confederates to withdraw. Several Southern detachments, alarmed by the approach of the enemy, failed to destroy some bridges allowing the
34 Collard, “Reminiscences,” p. 1; Howell to Patricks, May 4, 1863; Howell Diary, April 13, 1863; Horton Diary, April 2-7, 1863.
35 Haas, trans., “Diary of Julius Gieseke, 1863-1863,” p. 66; Peticolas Diary, April 27, 1863; Noel, From Santa Fe to the Mississippi, pp. 70-71; Howell Diary, April 13, 1863; Taylor, Destruction and Reconstruction, p. 132.
Union army a bridgehead on the Teche. By dusk, Federal troops camped amid the stately oaks of Porter’s plantation, while Reily and Vincent retreated past Franklin.36
While Unionists slept at Irish Bend and Bisland, Taylor executed a skillful withdrawal. Sibley led the supply wagons away in the early hours of darkness. The Twenty-eighth Louisiana and the remainder of the St. Mary’s Cannoneers then withdrew, marching silently up the road toward Franklin. Mouton followed with the rest of the command from the north bank of the Teche. Green, joining up with Waller’s command and the 3-inch rifles from the First Regular Battery, brought up the rear. Behind in the works stood the two 24-poinders at Fort Bisland and a 12-pounder howitzer with a broken axle.37
At this critical point in the campaign, Union General Grover failed terribly. Once across the Teche, he directed his troops to follow the course of the bayou to the left in a direct approach to Franklin. Had he turned right instead, Federal troops could have blocked an alternate, more direct road leading across the width of Irish Bend. Instead of seizing the true Rebel line of retreat, Grover moved along a parallel road hoping to secure the town and its road junction.
Taylor hurried forward to Franklin and, realizing Grover’s mistake, ordered Reily to make plans for holding action at Irish Bend northeast of Franklin. The arrival of the Twelfth Louisiana Battalion from Avery Island brought the Confederate forces in the vicinity to around 800 men.38 Reily positioned his troops in an uneven line of woods fronting sugarcane fields just northeast of town. On the right flank, the Texan placed two 6-pounders supported by the Twelfth Battalion on the bayou road,
36 Haas, trans., “Diary of Julius Gieseke,” p. 66; Holmes, Oaklawn Manor, non-paginated; Williams Diary, Arpil 13, 1863; Peticolas Diary, April 13, 1863; Noel, Santa Fe to the Mississippi, pp. 71-74.
37 Horton Diary, April 14, 1863: Noel, Santa Fe to the Mississippi, p. 75; Howell Diary, April 14, 1863; Thompson, Sibley, p. 326.
38 This was the Confederate Guard’s Response Battalion under Lieutenant Colonel Franklin Clack.
followed by the Fourth Texas and two more 6-pounders in the center and the Second Louisiana on the left. At sunup, Colonel Gray’s Twenty-eight Louisiana arrived with 40 men, extending the Confederate left flank which was protected by the thick, wooded swamp of Bayou Yokely. The Diana, fresh from repairs, strengthened the right, taking her position in the Teche.39
Union troops soon tested Reily’s skill as a tactical commander. Wheeling four regiments across the field, the Federals stumbled through the uneven cane stubble and came under fire. Rebel smoothbores and shotguns on the left decimated the enemy with buck-and-ball, forcing three of the Union regiments to halt and go to ground. On the Confederate right, the Thirteenth Connecticut, pushing through a dense canebrake, had passed unseen into a large grove that jutted from the Rebel line. The outnumbered Twelfth Louisiana Battalion and the crews of the two 6-pounders, realizing their danger, withdrew, abandoning their cannons and exposing the right flank to the Fourth Texas. The New Englanders exploited this advantage, capturing scores of startled men and throwing the Texans into confusion. The death of Colonel Reily and the wounding of Colonel Vincent compounded the disaster as the Confederate line began to give way.40
Colonel Gray soon saved the situation. Without orders, he led his Twenty-eighth Louisiana forward out of the trees and against the shaken Federals in his front, an act copied all along the Rebel line. The demoralized Yankees in the cane field broke and fled. The Unionists in the woods, to avoid being surrounded, also withdrew, taking with them the silk banner of the St. Mary’s Cannoneers. The Confederates, their aggressive tactic momentarily successful, fell back as yet another Union brigade deployed into line; these Northerners, however, did not advance.41
39 Taylor, Destruction and Reconstruction, p. 133; Florian O. Cornay to James L. Brent, April 23, 1863, OR, LIII, 465-468; Noel, Santa Fe to the Mississippi, p. 71.
40 Noel, Santa Fe to the Mississippi, p. 71, 74-75; Haas, trans., “Diary of Julius Gieseke,” p. 66.
41 Noel, Santa Fe to the Mississippi, p. 75; Williams Diary, April 14, 1863.
As the fighting at Irish Bend continued, Taylor worked to save the army. Since enemy forces now controlled the Teche above and below the town, he commanded all steamboats tied up at Franklin destroyed. The crew of the Diana, with no way to save their vessel, scuttled it. Taylor then ordered General Mouton to ride toward the sound of the guns and take command of the forces there while the remounted Fourth Texas covered the Confederate Infantry’s retreat. Colonel Green stood securely in charge of the rear guard; gunfire from the south confirmed his activity. Sibley faced less vigorous concerns: evacuating hospitals and hurrying wagons up the road.42
Sibley botched his three assigned tasks. Provided with wagon transportation for removing the sick and wounded, he instead ordered them placed aboard a steamer and dispatched under a hospital flag through Federal lines. The boat and its passengers were quickly captured. As the last wagons left Franklin, Sibley called for Green to withdraw and, once the Texans crossed Bayou Yokely, ordered the only bridge over the stream burned. No one had informed Mouton; fortunately the alert Louisianians realized the error and safely brought his men across the flaming span. The mistake trapped the officers and crew of the Diana, however, causing their capture. Taylor had also ordered Sibley to assume command of the retreating column and to prevent straggling. Sibley failed to travel with the wagons, following a different, less-congested road, allowing the unsupervised Rebel army to unravel. Sibley’s failures confirmed the suspicions regarding the alcoholic officer, and many now firmly believed that he was not only inept, but also dangerous. For his blunderings during this campaign, he would face a court-martial and never command combat troops again.43
Sibley’s lack of leadership in controlling the retreating column contributed to the disintegration of some of Taylor’s army. Vehicles and refugees clogged the road, and panic spread through the ranks. “Ten thousand rumors were afloat throughout the army,” wrote a Texan sergeant. “The panic became the greater the further then men got from the enemy.”
42 Taylor to William R. Boggs, April 23, 1863, OR, XV, 388-396; Horton Diary, April 14, 1863, Noel, Santa Fe to the Mississippi, p. 75.
43 Thompson, Sibley, pp. 326-332; Peticolas Diary, April 27, 1863; Noel Santa Fe to the Mississippi, p. 75.
While the mounted troops outpaced their pursuers, Mouton’s Infantry began to wear out, and dozens of exhausted foot soldiers surrendered. “Although we could not catch the Texan horsemen,” wrote a Union officer, “we were marching the Louisiana Infantry to tatters.” Some Rebels confiscated farm horses to aid their flight, others simply went home.44
Covering the retreat, Colonel Green displayed his unique talent for rearguard fighting that would soon make him famous, intuitively employing his mounted infantrymen to their optimum effect. When pursuing Federals neared the rear of the Confederate column, Green deployed a regiment with artillery to check the opposing cavalry while sending another regiment around their flank. The Texan’s longer-ranged rifles and cannons would outmatch the carbine-armed enemy, forcing them to withdraw to the protection of their supporting infantry. As the stronger formations of Federal foot soldiers deployed, Green’s men simply mounted and galloped away.45
Green fought several such delaying skirmishes. A two-hour stand near Centerville on April 14, proved a serious impediment for Bank’s pursuing column. The Texas Brigade, reunited at Franklin, fought again at Jeanerette on April 15. At New Iberia the following day, elements of the Union cavalry charged Green’s retreating Texans, who faced about and, fighting this time as cavalry, counter charged. The ensuing melee scattered the Federal horsemen, widening the gap between the opposing armies.46
Green used the natural obstacles of Vermilion Bayou to delay his enemy again on April 17. The Val Verde Battery, sent in advance, covered the principal crossing, placing its guns on a wooden bluff. The Texans the crossed, burning the only remaining bridge. At 2 o’clock that afternoon, the head of the Federal column arrived and attempted to force a crossing but they retreated under canister fire from the Rebel artillery. Unable to cross the stream safely, the Federals shelled the
44 De Forest, A Volunteer’s Adventures, p. 92; Peticolas Diary, April 27, 1863; Horton Diary, April 14, 16, 1863.
45 Collard, “Reminiscences,” p. 3; Noel, Santa Fe to the Mississippi, p. 76.
46 Peticolas Diary, April 27, 1863; Noel, Santa Fe to the Mississippi, pp. 75-76; Howell Diary, April 14-17, 1863.
Texan’s position with little effect while awaiting the arrival of their pontoon train. By midnight, the Unionists had constructed a bridge across the Vermillion, and Green withdrew, having cost the enemy almost an entire day. These delaying skirmishes allowed Taylor time to evacuate the region, save his trains, and disperse his remaining forces in safety. Green, for his ability as a battle commander, was promoted to brigadier general in command of the Texas brigade, replacing the disgraced Sibley.47
The Texans had suffered during the hard-fought retreat. The day after the fight at Vermillion Bayou, the brigade remained in camp and received rations, their first in forty hours. Everyone was exhausted. “For five long days and nights our saddles were not removed from our horses,” wrote one trooper. “What sleeping that was done was in the saddle; what cooking that was done was done for us by the noble and patriotic citizens, and what eating the boys did was done on the go.” For one homesick German teenager, all of the charm had gone out of soldiering. “This life is quite tiresome and the only pleasure I have is thinking of home,” he scrawled in a letter to a friend. “You wrote that I might be home when the peaches ripen, but I believe the peaches will ripen a number of times before we get home.”48
Taylor, unable to hold the line against Bank’s superior army, still maintained a high degree of unity among the vastly different troops under his control. Although poor coordination had caused some units to be outflanked during combat, the integration of independent and Louisiana units had proved a workable expedient—Rebel soldiers from both states claimed tactical successes in the battles. Only the strategic threat to his line of communications prevented Taylor from holding his position. With the campaign over and his army out of danger, however, Taylor did divide his command into its component elements, sending Green’s Brigade west toward pastures near the Sabine as Mouton’s remaining foot soldiers retreated north toward Alexandria as escort to the valuable supply train. Banks, although unsuccessful in bagging Taylor, eventually
47 Williams Diary, April 17, 1863; Peticolas Diary, April 27, 1863; Howell Diary, April 17, 1863; Collard, “Reminiscences,” pp. 3-4.
48 Joseph Faust to Herman Seele, May 13, 1863, Joseph Faust Papers, BTHC; Howell Diary, April 17, 1863; Noel Santa Fe to the Mississippi, p. 76.
turned his army east and captured Port Hudson. The Confederate forces operating in Louisiana, however, would be a constant concern of his for months to come. In an effort to subdue the state, the Federals launched two more major campaigns and several minor expeditions into Louisiana, each meeting with bitter results.49
The Teche campaign had also proven the merit of what Taylor styled as “horse,” or dragoons, operating among the swamps and bayous of the unconventional region. The firepower of infantry, coupled with the speed and maneuverability of Texas horsemen, proved a powerful combination and now four additional mounted Texas regiments gathered at Niblett’s Bluff near the Sabine.50 Green, after resting his men for a few days, returned to the bayou country with these additional Texas troops and fought well throughout the rest of the year, at one time even blockading the Mississippi and threatening New Orleans. By 1864, Green, who commanded all of the cavalry in Louisiana, had been recommended for promotion to major general. His military prominence in that theater started with his successes leading Texans on the Teche.51
49 Howell Diary, April 20, 1863. For a discussion of campaigns in Louisiana, see John D. Winters, The Civil War in Louisiana (Baton Rouge, 1963).
50 The Second Texas Cavalry, First Texas Partisan Rangers, Fifth Texas Partisan Rangers, and Third Arizona.
51 Taylor, Destruction and Reconstruction, pp. 178-179.