By Dr. Terry L.
In the autumn of 1863, Lincoln's administration was eager to establish a Union presence in Texas. In violation of the Monroe Doctrine, France was attempting to turn Mexico into a puppet state under the Austrian nobleman Ferdinand Maximilian. Maximilian was sympathetic to the Confederacy, and Lincoln wanted to stop him from sending aid to the Rebels. Thus, Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks, the Union commander in Louisiana, was ordered to invade Texas. Banks' first attempt was turned back at the Battle of Sabine Pass on September 8, but he decided to try again by marching up Bayou Teche to Vermilionville (modern-day Lafayette) and then west to Texas. Banks picked Gen. William B. Franklin to lead the operation, even though he had commanded the ill-fated invasion at Sabine Pass. With nearly 20,000 men, Franklin outnumbered the Confederates under Gen. Richard Taylor by about two-to-one.
Leaving Bisland, La., on October 3, Franklin's army marched up Bayou Teche and reached Washington with little difficulty. But that's as far as the Yankees got. Low water in the bayou and muddy roads made it difficult to supply the army, and Franklin decided to retreat. Taylor followed and on November 3 attacked the Union rear guard at Bayou Bourbeau near Grand Coteau.
The Confederates hit the Union front and flanks and drove the confused enemy back three miles. In the engagement, the Yankees lost one cannon, 716 men (mostly taken prisoners), and a considerable amount of equipment. The Rebels suffered approximately 200 casualties.
Franklin continued his withdrawal and reached New Iberia on November 17. There he stayed until the following spring. The planned Texas invasion was a complete failure and today is little more than a footnote in history books.
The Great Texas Overland Expedition marked the second time in six months that the Bayou Teche region had been invaded. Six months earlier, Banks swept through the area to root out the enemy before he started his Port Hudson Campaign. Now the beautiful countryside was ruined. In his book, The Texas Overland Expedition of 1863, noted historian Richard Lowe recounts the damage.
At Centerville, New York soldiers broke into a merchant's warehouse looking for hiding Confederates. They found none but then looted the place, taking what goods they wanted and throwing the rest into the bayou. The same day Union soldiers burst into the dining room of one planter while his wife was eating supper and snatched food from the table of the terrified woman. Outraged, the planter recalled how the Yankees had vandalized his property back in the spring. "They used the lumber of my remaining buildings for fuel and . . . small lumber of my remaining buildings for fuel and . . . small shelters. The Federal troops burned, through mischievous wantonness, several of the venerable live-oak trees which adorned my front lawn, measuring 9 feet in diameter."
This planter was fortunate because other residents were completely burned out. Admitting to the arson, one member of the 67th Indiana declared, "It seemed that our presence sometimes created spontaneous combustion."
Union foraging party (Harper's Weekly)
Many areas of Louisiana were destroyed during the Civil War, but few rivaled the wasteland of Bayou Teche. One New York reporter wrote, "Nowhere in the South, before the war, was there such a country for natural beauty and richness of soil, as this 'paradise of the South', while the palatial residences . . . gave the whole scenery an air of unparalleled grandeur. . . .Those mansions are now silent and deserted, the plantations are desolate and overgrown with weeds and briers, while the cottages of the negroes are tenantless and fast falling to ruin."
One resident summed it up by declaring that the Yankees "took everything. They left only the land."
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.