64 Parishes

Civil War Louisiana

Louisiana seceded from the Union, sent thousands of Confederate soldiers out of state, witnessed occupation, and saw the emancipation of more than 300,000 enslaved people.

Civil War Louisiana

Courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection

“Farragut's Fleet Passing the Forts Below New Orleans”. De Haas, Mauritz Frederik (Artist)

The years between 1861 and 1865 were the most tumultuous five-year span in Louisiana history. During this period, Louisiana seceded from the United States, sent thousands of Confederate soldiers out of state, witnessed Union invasion and occupation, and saw the emancipation of more than 300,000 enslaved people. While people’s experience in the war varied depending on the parish they lived in, their race, and their wealth, all would agree that this event changed their lives and the course of the state’s history forever.

Secession and Recruitment

In the wake of Abraham Lincoln’s election in November 1860, Louisiana prepared first for secession and then for war. In December, Gov. Thomas Overton Moore called for the election of delegates to a secession convention. Even before the meeting of that body, Moore ordered the seizure of the federal arsenal and barracks at Baton Rouge along with Forts Jackson and St. Philip, which, situated approximately seventy miles down the Mississippi River from New Orleans, guarded access to that city from the Gulf of Mexico. In January 1861, in an overwhelming 113 to 17 vote, the delegates at the secession convention chose to leave the Union. Two months later, the state joined the Confederacy.

White male Louisianans quickly volunteered for service in the Confederate army. In the first year of the conflict, as many as 25,000 men enlisted, and eventually through a combination of volunteering and conscription, between 50,000 and 60,000 Louisianans would serve in the Confederate army. Most of these men served outside the state borders, especially in the eastern theater. There, some of the state’s units earned the moniker “Louisiana Tigers” for combining ferocious fighting with a notorious lack of discipline that frightened both northern and southern civilians.

The Capture of New Orleans

To protect Louisiana from naval invasion from the Gulf of Mexico, the Confederacy relied on Forts Jackson and St. Philip, augmented by obstructions placed in the river between the two forts. In April 1862, the Union army and navy challenged these defenses. Fourteen of Adm. David Farragut’s ships ran past the forts and arrived unopposed outside New Orleans on April 25. In an effort to save New Orleans from destruction, Confederate Gen. Mansfield Lovell, who had approximately 3,000 inexperienced and poorly armed troops under his command, evacuated the city without a fight. The Union navy quickly moved into the city, and, on April 28, when the Confederate troops stationed at Fort Jackson mutinied and subsequently surrendered their fort, the Union capture of the Confederacy’s largest city and most important seaport was secured.

The Union’s takeover of New Orleans inaugurated the reign of martial law under Gen. Benjamin Butler. While Butler ruled the city for only eight months, his notoriety earned him the epithet “the Beast.” Butler and his men had a reputation for robbing residents (he earned a second sobriquet of “Spoons” for this proclivity). His authorization of the execution of William Mumford, a local gambler who tore down an American flag from the US Mint, added to his infamy. Most infamously, on May 15, 1862, he issued General Order 28, commonly known as the Woman Order, which stipulated that women who insulted Union troops could be held liable as prostitutes. In response to Butler’s conduct, Confederate President Jefferson Davis called for his execution, and Governor Moore urged that the Confederacy execute a Union prisoner of war in retaliation for Mumford’s death. The governor also issued a public statement lambasting Butler’s savagery and calling for Louisianans to enlist in the army in order to avenge their state’s honor.

Nevertheless, General Butler’s tenure has its defenders as well as its detractors. In particular, Butler has been praised for quickly pacifying the city without much violence and for ordering the cleaning of the city, which reduced the annual influx of disease. Some also applaud him for feeding the city’s hungry residents and providing work for the poor. And while much of the population decried his presence, the city’s Unionists welcomed northern troops. More than 5,000 white Louisianans fought in the Union army, and many of them came from New Orleans. In particular, many of the city’s immigrants, who comprised 38 percent of its white population, felt little allegiance to the Confederacy and quickly swore Union loyalty oaths.

The War in 1862–63

In 1862, the Union’s incursions did not stop at the Crescent City. After securing New Orleans, the navy proceeded up the Mississippi River and, without opposition, took control of the state capital at Baton Rouge on May 9. Because of the Union invasion, the Confederates moved their capital to Opelousas and subsequently to Shreveport. In August 1862, the Confederates attempted to regain Baton Rouge. In this battle, the Union naval power coming from ships on the Mississippi River proved decisive. The Confederates had hoped to challenge this river supremacy by sending the Confederate ram Arkansas downriver to aid in the attack, but it lost engine power just north of the city. Ironically, the Union army won this battle but evacuated the city two weeks later to consolidate its forces in New Orleans (though they returned by the end of the year).

In October 1862, Union forces also moved west from New Orleans. Victory at the Battle of Labadieville on October 27 assured them access to the New Orleans, Opelousas, and Great Western Railroad and, more significantly, to the Lafourche region’s sugarcane plantations. After repeated requests from Governor Moore, the Confederate government finally sent a general to Louisiana. In late 1862, Richard Taylor, a Louisiana plantation owner and son of President Zachary Taylor, took command of the District of Louisiana (the area of the state west and south of the Mississippi River). In his memoirs, Taylor depicts his new command as having “no soldiers, no arms or munitions, and no money, within the limits of the district.” Through recruiting and conscription, Taylor gathered a small force of 5,000 to 10,000 soldiers. These men spent much of 1863 sparring with federal troops in the Bayou Teche campaigns.

With an occupying Union army but few Confederate troops stationed within its borders, some Louisianans turned to guerilla warfare tactics. In the summer of 1862, Louisiana stood virtually undefended, and consequently Governor Moore, called for the organization of local partisan ranger organizations to combat Union troops. While these units had official status, many residents fought without such sanction. Although guerrillas helped confine Union troops to the area around New Orleans and Baton Rouge, their actions often enraged their fellow residents, who suffered from Union reprisals. While General Butler offered a $1,000 bounty for each guerrilla captured, more commonly Union troops simply retaliated against the citizens living in areas of guerrilla activity. For instance, in August 1862, Admiral Farragut ordered the shelling and burning of Donaldsonville in response to repeated sniper attacks against naval vessels in the Mississippi River.

Particularly after the Confederacy started strictly enforcing conscription laws, the guerrillas operated with less and less official sanction and less and less allegiance to the Confederacy. Often labeled jayhawkers, some groups combined draft dodgers, deserters, and outlaws, and fought against both Union and Confederate soldiers while preying on the civilian population. With Louisiana’s swamps, bayous, and piney woods offering ideal terrain for irregulars, these jayhawker bands could number as high as 1,000 men. Ozème Carrière led perhaps the most notorious of these groups. Based west of Opelousas, his gang gathered recusant conscripts from St. Landry and neighboring parishes, an area whose reputation for lawlessness predated the Civil War. His men fought against Confederate conscription officers, robbed civilians, and refused an offer to join the Union army.

Port Hudson and African American Troops

Throughout the war, a key component of overall Union strategy—often labeled the Anaconda Plan—called for the capture of the Mississippi River in order to divide the Confederacy in two parts. Simultaneous with its 1862 invasion up the Mississippi River, the Union army had also driven down the river as well. By the beginning of 1863, the Union controlled the entire Mississippi River except for the 150-mile portion between Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Port Hudson, Louisiana (approximately twenty miles north of Baton Rouge). On the northern end, the Union’s advance against Vicksburg led to numerous incursions into the Louisiana parishes on the opposite bank from that Mississippi town. On the southern end, General Nathanial Banks, who had replaced Benjamin Butler in New Orleans in December 1862, ordered ill-fated assaults on Port Hudson in both May and June 1863. Despite being greatly outnumbered, the besieged garrison did not surrender until July 9, five days after Vicksburg’s surrender. And, with its capitulation, the Union Army controlled the full-length of the Mississippi River, thereby severing the Confederacy in two.

The Port Hudson campaign marked one of the first uses of African American troops in the Union army, with the 1st and 3rd Louisiana Native Guard facing combat three months before the more famous Massachusetts 54th challenged the Confederates at Battery Wagner. Ironically, the Louisiana Native Guard was initially a Confederate unit. In 1861, approximately 800 free African American men, hoping to maintain their status as a caste separate from enslaved people, had enlisted in the unit. The Confederacy, however, had no intention of using these men as part of its army. After the Union captured New Orleans, some of these Native Guards offered their services to General Benjamin Butler, and on September 27, 1862, the 1st Louisiana Native Guard became the Union army’s first officially sanctioned African American unit. The regiment continued to include free men, including P. B. S. Pinchback, who would later serve as the South’s only African American governor during Reconstruction. Formerly enslaved men, however, now comprised a majority of the troops. As it did in other states, the Union army primarily employed these men in fatigue duties, but in May 1863 they mounted a hopeless charge at Port Hudson. Although they failed in their military goal, their actions contributed to a changing attitude toward the use of African American troops. Eventually, more than 24,000 African American Louisianans would fight for the US during the Civil War.

Social and Political Changes

These troops symbolized the most dramatic of the changes Louisiana witnessed during the war—the ending of slavery. In 1860, Louisiana was home to 331,726 enslaved men, women, and children, who made up 46.8 percent of the state’s population (and 59 percent of the population outside of New Orleans). Emancipation came unevenly to the state. As soon as General Butler arrived in New Orleans, enslaved people, known as “contrabands,” escaped to his lines. Officially, Butler returned slaves belonging to loyal slaveholders while allowing people owned by Confederates to remain in New Orleans, yet in practice this distinction was difficult to maintain. A similar divergence occurred when President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, which freed the enslaved people in rebel-controlled areas but not those within Union lines. In Louisiana, this meant that enslaved people in New Orleans and many of the sugarcane parishes did not fall under its mandate. Nevertheless, the state’s unionist 1864 Constitution ended this distinction by abolishing slavery in Louisiana a year before the Thirteenth Amendment ended slavery throughout the United States. During this whole process, the Union army helped supervise a transition from slave labor to free, wage labor, a transition that remained incomplete at war’s end.

The 1864 Constitution was emblematic of Louisiana’s role as a test case for President Lincoln’s Reconstruction policies. As early as December 1862, the Union government held congressional elections in New Orleans. Later, Lincoln’s Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction called for a state’s reentry in the Union after a portion of the population equaling 10 percent of the votes cast in the 1860 presidential election swore loyalty to the United States. This plan, dubbed the 10 Percent Plan, went into effect in Louisiana in 1864 and resulted in a new constitution, which ended slavery but did not allow African Americans to vote. In 1864, Unionist voters selected Michael Hahn as governor, and when the legislature selected Hahn to be US senator in March 1865, Lt. Governor James Madison Wells succeeded him as ruler of the reconstructed portion of the state.

The end of slavery was only one of the many striking changes to the home front in Louisiana. The absence of military-age white males, the disruption of the sugar and cotton trade, rampant inflation, lack of credit, and the presence of an occupation army—and some Confederates as well—all contributed to tremendous suffering for the civilian population. For many Louisianans, starvation was a real threat, as armies either seized or destroyed food crops. Some planters, who possessed the means to move, fled to Texas, often taking enslaved people with them. Other Louisianans struggled to feed, clothe, and house themselves. The Confederate state government tried to help by allocating $5 million to soldiers’ families and distributing food to those in need, but this amount did not prove sufficient to alleviate all of the state’s suffering, especially in areas that saw repeated Union incursions. Confederate Governor Henry Watkins Allen, elected in 1863 to succeed Governor Moore, gained lasting fame for his efforts to aid Louisiana’s plain folk in the Confederate portion of Louisiana during the final year of the war.

The Red River Campaign and the End of the War

The last major campaign in Louisiana was the Union army’s drive up the Red River in 1864. General Banks led this expedition, which aimed to capture Shreveport, to open the way for an invasion of Texas, to destroy General Taylor’s Confederate force, and to seize cotton from Red River plantations. Shreveport held significant strategic value as the home of both Louisiana’s Confederate government and the headquarters of Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith’s Trans-Mississippi Department. By March, the combined federal army-navy operation succeeded in capturing Alexandria. In April 1864, however, General Banks moved beyond Alexandria and his naval support and challenged Taylor’s Confederates. The battles of Mansfield and Pleasant Hill (on April 8 and 9, respectively) halted the Union advance. By April 25, Banks was back in Alexandria, and by May 13, the Union army had retreated from there, leaving much devastation in its wake. In particular, Union and Confederate soldiers exchanged bitter recriminations regarding the responsibility for the fire that burned much of Alexandria as Union troops left the town.

The Red River campaign concluded significant operations in Louisiana. By 1865, most Louisianans simply wanted the war to end. After General Robert E. Lee’s army surrendered at Appomattox in April 1865, a few diehards in Louisiana tried to hold out longer. General Edmund Kirby Smith’s army did not surrender until May 26, 1865, making it the last Confederate army to surrender. Additionally, Smith and both Governors Moore and Allen, fearing punishment from the federal government, fled into Mexico. Moore and Smith soon returned, but Allen died in Mexico. In contrast, most Louisiana soldiers simply returned home, to begin the long road to rebuilding their lives.