January 1864: Randall Lee Gibson

By Dr. Terry L. Jones
Special to The Journal

During the Civil War, Louisiana soldiers served in every major theater of operation. Randall Lee Gibson, who was promoted to brigadier general in January 1864, was one officer who compiled a stellar record on many battlefields.

Born in Kentucky in 1832, Gibson grew up on a Terrebonne Parish plantation and graduated from both Yale College and the University of Louisiana's law school. After serving as an attaché in the U.S. embassy in Spain, he returned to Louisiana and became a sugar planter.

Early in the Civil War, Gibson was appointed colonel of the 13th Louisiana. He appears to have led it well at the Battle of Shiloh and even took command of the entire brigade when Daniel W. Adams was severely wounded. Corps commander Braxton Bragg, however, criticized Gibson and claimed that he handled his men poorly and demonstrated little fighting spirit. In a letter to his wife, Bragg even accused Gibson of being "an arrant coward."

Gibson and Bragg had been neighbors before the war, and some historians speculate they may have developed a feud at that time. Bragg's low opinion of Gibson does seem to have been personal in nature because Gibson's immediate superiors universally praised his conduct in numerous battles.

Furious over Bragg's insult, Gibson demanded a court of inquiry to clear his name. Every officer he solicited in the endeavor agreed to support him, but the War Department did not feel such action was warranted, and he never got his day in court.

In recognition of his outstanding service in such battles as Perryville, Stones River, and Chickamauga, Gibson was given permanent command of the Louisiana brigade in the Army of Tennessee and was promoted to brigadier general effective January 1864. He experienced some of the war's bloodiest fighting that spring and summer as he helped defend Atlanta, Ga., against William T. Sherman's advancing Yankee armies. At the Battle of Jonesborough, Gibson personally grabbed one of his regiment's flags and "dashed to the front and up to the very works of the enemy." His valor was for naught, however, for the Louisianians were repulsed and lost 224 men in just fifteen minutes of combat.

Near war's end, the Louisiana brigade was sent to Spanish Fort to help defend Mobile, Ala. Greatly outnumbered by the besieging Union army, Gibson ordered his men to construct elaborate fortifications. "You must dig, dig, dig," he declared. "Nothing can save us here but the spade."

Beginning on March 27, 1865, the enemy pounded Gibson''s brigade daily with artillery and sniper fire. The Louisianians unleashed so many bullets in return that Gibson feared they would run short of ammunition. When the brigade fired 54,000 rounds in just two days, he instructed the men to start collecting spent bullets and cannonballs for recycling.

On the night of April 7 the Yankees unleashed a massive artillery bombardment on Spanish Fort in preparation for an attack. One soldier wrote, "It was though the mouth of the pit had yawned and the uproar of the damned was about us. And it was not taking away from this infernal picture to see men, as I did, hopping about, 'raving, distracted mad,' the blood bursting from eyes and ears and mouth, driven stark crazy by concussion or some other cause."

The enemy's assault was overwhelming, and Gibson was forced to abandon his position. During the two-week battle, his 2,000-man garrison suffered 93 dead, 395 wounded, and 256 missing or captured. Gen. Richard Taylor wrote, "Gibson's stubborn defense and skillful retreat make this one of the best achievements of the war." Another general agreed and declared, "It is not too much to say that no position was ever held by Confederate troops with greater hardihood and tenacity, nor evacuated more skillfully after hope of further defense was gone." Gibson, however, deflected such praise. "If any credit shall attach to the defense of Spanish Fort," he wrote, "it belongs to the heroes whose sleep shall no more be disturbed by the cannon's roar."

Spanish Fort was Gibson's last battle. After surrendering with the rest of Taylor's army, he settled in New Orleans to practice law and went on to serve twenty years in the Congress and Senate. During that time, Gibson helped persuade President Rutherford B. Hayes to end Reconstruction in Louisiana, was instrumental in establishing LSU in Baton Rouge, and played a prominent role in creating Tulane University. He died in his sleep on Dec. 15, 1892, while visiting Hot Springs, Ark.

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.