Florida Parishes in the Civil War
The strategic location of Louisiana's Florida Parishes made them significant to Union forces during the Civil War.
The Florida Parishes of southeast Louisiana were once part of West Florida and were not included in the Louisiana Purchase, but were incorporated into the state in 1812. This region of the state became an object of primary strategic significance to the Union during the Civil War, as it was home not only to the Baton Rouge, the state capital, but also to Camp Moore, the largest Confederate training base in the Gulf South and the obvious staging ground for any effort to recapture New Orleans.
In April 1862, a Union naval armada forced its way past the forts below New Orleans and captured the city, depriving residents of the Florida Parishes of their most important market outlet. That same month, the Fourth Louisiana Infantry Regiment, which had been heavily recruited from the Florida Parishes, was decimated at the Battle of Shiloh, bringing the bloody cost of the war home for the first time. Even more ominous, the bloodied but unbroken Union Army advanced into northern Mississippi, and the local population now feared invasions on two fronts.
Following their success at New Orleans, the Union troops moved quickly to intimidate the surrounding areas and subjugate the region. A Union naval flotilla ascended the Mississippi River, captured Baton Rouge, and established it as a base for further operations. Almost immediately the Union commanders began dispatching destructive raids into the interior of the Florida Parishes. In an effort to convince the local population to capitulate, Union forces burned homes, destroyed crops, and slaughtered or scattered livestock. With the exception of the 9th Louisiana Partisan Rangers and a few scattered elements of Mississippi cavalry, few Confederate troops remained in the area, for the bulk of manpower had been drained off to support distant operations in Virginia and Tennessee. As the Union raids increased in frequency and ferocity amid escalating shortages and deprivation, the region groaned under the burden of war.
In an effort to regain the initiative, the Confederates dispatched former vice president of the United States and Confederate General John C. Breckinridge in August 1862 at the head of a small army to attempt the recapture of Baton Rouge. Breckinridge arrived at the Confederate training base at Camp Moore, along the line of the New Orleans–Jackson–Great Northern Railroad in modern-day Tangipahoa Parish, in hopes of augmenting his force with fresh troops from the base. Instead Breckinridge found Camp Moore reeling from a measles epidemic, and few troops were healthy enough to join his army.
Undaunted, Breckinridge marched against Baton Rouge and along the way he picked up a number of citizens who, outraged by the theft and destruction occasioned by Union raids, enthusiastically joined his army with their shotguns and hunting rifles. The Confederate attack nearly succeeded in driving the Union army from Baton Rouge, but the firepower of the Union warships in the Mississippi River gave the troopers in blue a decided advantage. The Confederate ironclad ram Arkansas valiantly fought its way down the river to support the attack, but the Confederates were forced to scuttle the ram just north of Baton Rouge, ensuring the Union success. In the aftermath of the battle, the Confederates fortified the bluffs at Port Hudson just north of Baton Rouge and grimly held on to a small, yet vital, stretch of the great river between that point and the Confederate bastion at Vicksburg, Mississippi.
Through the fall of 1862 and spring of 1863, the Union army and navy applied increasing pressure on the region while the Confederates did their best to contain the growing Union presence. Feliciana towns such as Clinton and Jackson endured destructive raids, as did Madisonville and Mandeville in St. Tammany Parish along with the entire length of the New Orleans–Jackson–Great Northern Railroad line. Some notable expeditions, such as the renowned “Grierson’s Raid,” crossed the Florida Parishes, but most of the large-scale fighting remained concentrated near Port Hudson. Starved into submission after enduring the longest siege in American history, the defenders of Port Hudson finally capitulated in July 1863. The victors assumed that the fall of Port Hudson would effectively pacify the region, but the war in the Florida Parishes was far from over.
In early 1864, Colonel John S. Scott arrived to assume command of Confederate forces in the Florida Parishes. As commander of the First Louisiana Cavalry and a local resident, Scott inspired the local population to continue the fight. In the aftermath of Port Hudson the Union commanders issued General Order 33, which authorized Union forces to make war on the civilian population. Scott was aware that he could not match the enemy’s resources and power, so he allowed guerrilla operations against the Union forces to flourish. In the waning months of the conflict, the war descended to a new level of misery as the Union forces sought to devastate the region, and guerrillas responded with bushwhacking and ambushes. When the end finally came in the spring of 1865, the war ended amid a very dark chapter in the Florida Parishes, one that would leave a legacy of bitterness and bloodshed for generations to come.