June 1864: Desolation

By Dr. Terry L. Jones
Special to The Journal

Few of those Louisianians who so eagerly marched off to war in 1861 could have imagined what lay ahead for their state. By June 1864, two years of military operations had left countless towns and homes burned, and much of Louisiana a wasteland.

A Northern journalist who accompanied David Porter's gunboats in the Red River Campaign admitted the Union army's destructive tendencies.

"I should not be a faithful historian if I omitted to mention that the conduct of the troops . . . is becoming very prejudicial to our good name and to their efficiency. A spirit of destruction and wanton ferocity seems to have seized upon many of them, which is quite incredible. At Red River landing they robbed a house of several thousand dollars in specie, and then fired the house to conceal their crime. At Simmsport [sic], a party of them stole out, and robbed and insulted a family two miles distant. In fact, unless checked by summary example, there is danger of our whole noble army degenerating into a band of cut-throats and robbers."

When the Red River Campaign ended, Gov. Henry Watkins Allen commissioned The Conduct of Federal Troops in Louisiana During the Invasions of 1863 and 1864 to document the enemy's harsh treatment of civilians. In it, Allen bitterly denounced the Yankees' actions:
"They sacked private dwellings . . . they grossly and indecently . . . insulted the unprotected females. . . .They shattered crockery, glass-ware, and mirrors, strewing the floor with their fragments. . . .[T]hey dashed to pieces and burned for fuel costly articles of furniture. . . They stripped the dead. . . .and even robbed negroes of watches, food, money, etc. . . .From Mansfield to the Mississippi River the track of the spoiler was one scene of desolation. . . .You can travel for miles . . . and not see a man, nor a woman, nor a child, nor a four-footed beast. The farm-houses have been burned. The plantations deserted. . . .A painful melancholy, a death-like silence, broods over the land, and desolation reigns supreme."

Allen's study was confined to Bayou Teche and Red River, but other areas of Louisiana suffered similar destruction. Baton Rouge and Alexandria had been burned, and the previously rich Lafourche District lay in ruins. The latter area, in particular, was a frequent target of the Yankees' wrath.

When Confederate partisan rangers began harassing Union shipping on the Mississippi River near Donaldsonville in the summer of 1862, David Farragut sent Union gunboats to the town. Naval officers warned the people that if the sniping continued Farragut would bombard the river bank for fifteen miles and burn every building on each plantation.

Knowing that Farragut had already shelled Baton Rouge after guerrillas fired on his ships there, the people of Donaldsonville asked the rangers to stop their attacks, but their pleas fell on deaf ears. When Farragut's ships were fired on the next time, he evicted the people of Donaldsonville and opened fire with his cannons. After an hour's bombardment, troops went ashore to burn the town's hotels, warehouses, homes, and other buildings. True to his word, Farragut also destroyed the plantations along the river above and below town.

Farragut left approximately two-thirds of Donaldsonville in ruins, but the Yankees were not finished with the town. When Union troops returned the following month to gather supplies, one company reportedly broke into a home and stole "wines, liquors, silver plate, and clothing belonging to ladies." In October, they came back a third time and broke windows and smashed furniture in the few buildings left standing, and stole chickens and other livestock from the area's residents.

Eight hundred Texas troops tried to drive the Yankees out of Donaldsonville on June 28, 1863, but gunboats and the Union garrison at Fort Butler drove them off. The Texans lost 261 men in the failed attack, while the Federals reported 23 casualties. Sniping, raids, and guerrilla activity continued to plague the Lafourche District until the end of the war.

June 1864 found much of Louisiana teetering on economic and social collapse. Three years of war had left wide swaths of the Mississippi delta, Bayous Lafource and Teche, and the Red River Valley in ruins. Only a few places, like the Piney Hills of North Louisiana and the prairies in the southwest were left untouched, but there was still one more year of war to go.

Dr. Terry L. Jones is a professor of history at the University of Louisiana at Monroe and has published six books on the American Civil War. He was awarded the 2014 Arthur Bergeron Jr. Award by Civil War Roundtable of Central Louisiana.

Baton Rouge was one of many towns destroyed in Civil War (LSU Library)