64 Parishes

Civil War Louisiana

The years between 1861 and 1865 were the most tumultuous five-year span in Louisiana history.

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Civil War Louisiana

The Historic New Orleans Collection

“Farragut's Fleet Passing the Forts Below New Orleans” painted by Mauritz Frederik De Haas, ca. 1863–1867.

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 three hundred thousand enslaved people. While people’s experience during the war varied depending on the parish they lived in, their race, and their wealth, among other factors, all would agree that these events changed Louisianans’ lives—and the course of the state’s history—profoundly.

When and how did Louisiana secede and join the Confederacy?

In the wake of Abraham Lincoln’s election in November 1860, Louisiana prepared first for secession and then for war. In December Louisiana Governor Thomas Overton Moore called for the election of delegates to a secession convention. Even before holding the convention, Moore ordered the seizure of the federal arsenal and barracks at Baton Rouge along with Forts Jackson and St. Philip, which, located 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 113–17 vote, the Louisiana delegates at the secession convention chose to leave the Union. Two months later the state joined the Confederacy.

How did Louisianans contribute to the Confederate war effort?

Many white male Louisianans quickly volunteered for service in the Confederate army. In the first year of the conflict, as many as twenty-five thousand men enlisted, and eventually, through a combination of volunteering and conscription, between fifty and sixty thousand Louisianans would serve in the Confederate army. Most of these men served outside the state, especially in the eastern theater, where 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.

How did the Union capture New Orleans? How did the city fare under Union occupation?  

To protect Louisiana from a naval invasion from the Gulf of Mexico, the Confederacy relied on Forts Jackson and St. Philip. In April 1862 the Union army and navy challenged these defenses. Fourteen of Union Admiral David Farragut’s ships ran past the forts and arrived unopposed outside New Orleans on April 25. To save New Orleans from destruction, Confederate General Mansfield Lovell, who had approximately three thousand 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 secured the Confederacy’s largest city and most important seaport.

The Union’s takeover of New Orleans meant martial law under General Benjamin Butler. While Butler ruled the city for only eight months, his notoriety earned him the nicknames “the Beast,” for his harsh orders, and “Spoons,” for his rumored theft of residents’ silverware. His authorization of the execution of William Mumford, a local gambler who tore down an American flag from the US Mint, added to his reputation. 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 treated as prostitutes and arrested.

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 condemning Butler’s savagery and calling for Louisianans to enlist in the army to avenge their state’s honor.

General Butler has his defenders as well as his critics. He has been praised for quickly pacifying New Orleans without much violence and for ordering the cleaning of the city, which reduced disease. Some also applaud him for feeding the city’s hungry residents and providing work for the poor. And while much of the population hated him, the city’s Unionists welcomed Northern troops. More than five thousand white Louisianans fought in the Union army, and many of them came from New Orleans. Many of the city’s immigrants, who made up 38 percent of its white population, felt little allegiance to the Confederacy and quickly swore Union loyalty oaths.

How did Confederate and guerrilla forces respond to Union troops in Louisiana?

In 1862 Union advances didn’t stop at the Crescent City. After securing New Orleans the navy proceeded up the Mississippi River and, without opposition, took control of 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. During the battle Union naval power coming from ships on the Mississippi River proved decisive. The Confederates hoped to challenge the Union’s control of the river by sending the Confederate ironclad ship 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 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 former President Zachary Taylor, took command of the Confederate District of Louisiana (the area of the state west and south of the Mississippi River). In his memoirs Richard Taylor described 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 five to ten thousand soldiers. These men spent much of 1863 fighting with Union 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, causing Governor Moore to call for organizing local ranger organizations to combat Union troops. While these units had official status, many residents fought unofficially. Although guerrillas helped keep 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, guerrillas operated with less and less official sanction and 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, these jayhawker bands could number as high as a thousand men.

Why is the Battle of Port Hudson significant?

Throughout the war a key component of the Union’s overall strategy was the Anaconda Plan, which involved capturing the Mississippi River to divide the Confederacy into two parts. By the beginning of 1863 the Union controlled the entire Mississippi River except for the one-hundred-fifty-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 many invasions into the Louisiana parishes from across the Mississippi River. After the Confederate surrender of Vicksburg and Port Hudson in July 1863, the Union army controlled the full length of the Mississippi River, thereby cutting the Confederacy in two.

The Port Hudson campaign marked one of the first deployments of Black troops in the Union army. Ironically the Louisiana Native Guard was initially a Confederate unit. In 1861 approximately eight hundred free Black men, hoping to maintain their status as separate from enslaved people, had enlisted in the unit. However, the Confederacy didn’t intend to use those men as part of its army. After the Union captured New Orleans, many 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 Black unit. The regiment continued to include free men, including P. B. S. Pinchback, who would later serve as the South’s only Black 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 inclusion of Black troops. Eventually more than twenty-four thousand Black Louisianans would fight for the United States during the Civil War.

How did the Civil War affect enslaved people in Louisiana? 

Black troops symbolized the most dramatic change Louisiana witnessed during the war—the end 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, seeking safety and freedom. Officially Butler returned slaves belonging to enslavers who remained Unionists while allowing people owned by Confederates to remain in New Orleans, yet this distinction was difficult to maintain in practice. A similar separation occurred when President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, which freed enslaved people in rebel-controlled areas but not those within Union lines. In Louisiana the proclamation’s distinction meant that enslaved people in New Orleans and many of the sugarcane parishes didn’t fall under its mandate because they were in areas already controlled by the Union army. Nevertheless, the state’s new 1864 Constitution ended the 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 in 1865.

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 into 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 that ended slavery but didn’t allow Black Louisianans to vote.

The end of slavery was only one of the many striking changes in Louisiana. The absence of military-age white men, the disruption of the sugar and cotton trades, 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 wasn’t enough, especially in areas that saw repeated Union attacks.

Why was the Red River Campaign significant, and how did the Civil War end in Louisiana?

The last major campaign in Louisiana was the Union army’s drive up the Red River in 1864. General Nathaniel Banks led this expedition, which had four primary goals: to capture Shreveport, open the way for an invasion of Texas, destroy General Taylor’s Confederate force, and seize cotton from Red River plantations.

By March the combined federal army-navy operation succeeded in capturing Alexandria. In April 1864 however, General Banks moved beyond Alexandria to challenge Taylor’s Confederates. The Battles of Mansfield and Pleasant Hill stopped 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. Union and Confederate soldiers exchanged bitter accusations over who was responsible 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 didn’t surrender until May 26, 1865, making it the last Confederate army to surrender. In addition, Smith and both Governor Moore and his successor Henry Watkins Allen, fearing punishment from the federal government, fled to 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.