Jayhawkers terrorized Southern population

By Dr. Terry L. Jones
Special to The Journal

Jayhawkers -Library of Congress
During the Civil War, Louisianians faced many threats. Some lived under Union occupation and were subjected to being arrested, having their property confiscated, or being pressed into labor gangs. Elsewhere, Confederate forces often seized food, livestock, and other supplies under the guise of the Impressment Act, and Yankee soldiers frequently looted and burned homes.

Few threats, however, were as terrifying or widespread as the notorious Jayhawkers. Jayhawkers were a mongrel set of men who opposed the Confederacy for various reasons. Some were Unionists, others were Confederate draft dodgers or deserters, and many were outright criminals. Whatever their motivation, Jayhawkers formed violent gangs across the state and took advantage of the war's chaos to rob, steal, and murder. One citizen wrote, "As often as that lawless band visits this part of the country, outrages of the deepest dye are daily committed in our midst. . . .They do not as much as respect private rooms, but enter in spite of tears and entreaties, and turn up beds, rip them open, search closets, brake open what happens to be locked, [and] in fact they leave no corner untouched."

Virtually no part of Louisiana was safe from the Jayhawkers. The bandits wreaked havoc from the piney woods of Winn Parish to the swamps and prairies of South Louisiana. When their lawlessness peaked in 1864, authorities began to use the military more frequently to try to control them. In February, Confederate cavalrymen were sent against a Jayhawker band hiding in the swamps near Catahoula and Larto lakes in central Louisiana. Their orders were to "hunt the Jayhawkers down with the utmost severity, and shoot any with arms in their hands making resistance." Just as the operation got under way, an officer reported that twenty additional Jayhawkers had crossed the Black River and passed through Larto Lake and Holloway Prairie to plunder civilians in that area.

In letters to two men who lived on Bayou Boeuf, this same officer described the Jayhawkers' crimes and the army's attempt to subdue them. "There are a number of Jayhawkers in the vicinity of Catahoula Lake and Little River, [who are] very troublesome to loyal citizens and defying civil and military authorities. They are difficult to capture only from the fact that when pursued by cavalry they take [to] the swamp." The officer believed tracking dogs would be helpful in rooting out the Jayhawkers and asked the men to loan the cavalry the hounds they used to track runaway slaves.

In March, Gen. Richard Taylor dispatched cavalry to break up the estimated 700 Jayhawkers operating in Calcasieu Parish and along the Sabine River. One Confederate officer later reported that the troopers engaged "the nest of (Mermentau) Jayhawkers, and that force is capturing and killing them off, hanging the scoundrels." A newspaper reported that nineteen Jayhawkers were nabbed. "A drumhead court martial was at once formed, the party tried, found guilty, and sentenced to death. The sentence was executed without the least delay."

Citizens of Washington Parish received no military help from the government, and Jayhawkers ruled much of the parish in early 1864. One man declared that "it is dangerous to travel in that part of Louisiana . . . [T]hey are banded together in large numbers, bid defiance to all authorities, and claim to have a government of their own in opposition to the Confederate government."

In the spring of 1864, Union Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks launched an invasion up Red River, and hundreds of Jayhawkers converged on Alexandria to muster into service as the 1st Louisiana (Union) Battalion of Scouts. When Banks was defeated and retreated to South Louisiana, the Scouts dispersed and one company sought refuge around Catahoula Lake. An Alexandria resident claimed they entered the residences of planters, carrying off whatever they needed. . . .In remote parts of the parish, they burned buildings." At Trinity (modern-day Jonesville), Gen. Camille Polignac was ordered to drive out the outlaws, and any Jayhawker who was captured with a weapon was to be "summarily executed."

The army was fairly effective in fighting the Jayhawkers, but many areas were far from military support. In some communities, vigilantes--often referred to as Regulators--assumed the task of protecting themselves. When the war ended, some of the Regulators began acting much like the very miscreants they fought to suppress, and the lawlessness and violence continued well into the Reconstruction period.

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.