Over 50,000 Louisiana men served in the various armies of the Confederacy; about 24,000 men of color from the state fought in the Union’s forces. During the course of the four-year war, over five hundred skirmishes occurred in Louisiana; twenty of them are considered major battles. The main targets for the Union were the Mississippi River and the port of New Orleans. The Union’s superior navy immediately blockaded the mouth of the Mississippi River, cutting Louisiana’s main supply line and discouraging planters from exporting their crops. Union Admiral David Farragut took the City of New Orleans in 1862, and Union troops occupied the city until the end of the war. From New Orleans, Union soldiers took advantage of waterways throughout south Louisiana to transport men and supplies. After 1862, two state governments existed in Louisiana: one for the area occupied by the Union and another for the area occupied by the Confederacy.
Delta Rifles and Tirailleurs: Fighting Men of West Baton Rouge Parish
The fourth Regiment of the Louisiana Infantry (4th LA) had ten companies, including the Delta Rifles (Company C, later F) and the Tirailleurs (Company D, later H), both of which consisted of men from West Baton Rouge Parish. At the start of the war, the Delta Rifles were headed by Captain Henry Mortimer Favrot and the Tirailleurs was led by Captain Francis Williams. In 1861, The J.S. Cotton Steamship picked up the Delta Rifles at the Town of West Baton Rouge railroad depot and the Tirailleurs at Brusly Landing. The ship transported the troops to Camp Moore in St. Helena Parish for training. The 4th LA was first sent to Ship Island, Mississippi and then to Tennessee where they suffered their first casualties at Shiloh in 1863. The 4th LA later fought in more battles throughout Mississippi and Georgia; they also fought at the Battle of Baton Rouge and were in the sieges at Port Hudson, Louisiana and Vicksburg, Mississippi.
Formation of the Louisiana Native Guard
The Louisiana Native Guard was a select group of free men of color who organized in New Orleans upon the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War, to offer their support to the Confederacy as “Defenders of the Native Land.”
Just why free men of color volunteered to support the Confederacy is a matter of great speculation and debate: while some were property owners defending what was theirs, perhaps others saw this as an opportunity to prove their worth as citizens, while still others feared for their lives and the safety of their families. The Native Guard participated in two large Confederate reviews in New Orleans in 1861 and 1862. Although their efforts were at first praised, black troops and in particular officers were never fully accepted in the Confederate Army.
The Confiscation Act
After the 1862 fall of New Orleans, the Union Army faced a troop shortage in the occupied South. As word spread that the Union had taken the city, the number of enslaved people self-emancipating by coming to the Union lines increased dramatically.
Passed by the U.S. Congress on July 17, 1862, the Confiscation Act allowed military commanders to confiscate property of southerners giving aid to the Rebels. General Butler saw this as an opportunity to confiscate enslaved people to support the Union troops, as he too considered them property. These former slaves were put to work as laborers for the Union soldiers, as Butler resisted appeals from Northern abolitionists to arm these men. Even President Lincoln was not ready to arm these men of color because he felt that it would push the border states to secede.
Battle of Baton Rouge
Union troops took Baton Rouge on May 7, 1862, as part of their campaign to gain full control of the Mississippi River. Many Baton Rouge citizens had evacuated days earlier, some of them to West Baton Rouge Parish. A few months later, Confederate General John C. Breckinridge planned to retake the city. His plans called for the support of the ironclad ship, the Arkansas, which was scheduled to come down from Vicksburg, Mississippi, and keep the federal gunboats occupied while Breckinridge’s troops entered Baton Rouge.
At dawn on August 5, 1862, the Confederates, including the 4th LA, began their attack. The Confederates fought a hand-to-hand battle through the fog pushing the Union troops to the river. Suddenly the fog lifted and the Union ships began firing. The Arkansas had not arrived. The ship had suffered engine failure four miles north of the city, and the ship’s crew destroyed it so that she would not fall into the hands of the Union. During the battle, Henry Watkins Allen, then Colonel of the 4th LA, had his horse shot from under him and was wounded. Many of his men thought he was dead and began to withdraw, taking cover from Union snipers in the woods. The Confederate forces were unable to hold their position, but the Union troops could not push forward without losing the protection of their gunboats; the battle ended in a stalemate. Nevertheless, Breckinridge’s attack concerned General Butler, who asked for the troops to evacuate Baton Rouge and report to New Orleans.
After the Battle of Baton Rouge, General Butler, afraid that the Confederates would come back to take New Orleans, called unsuccessfully for reinforcements. He then increased recruitment efforts of locals including the free men of color of the Native Guard who had once fought for the Confederacy. Butler figured that these men had been armed before leaving no room for complaint from either the Louisiana Confederates or Washington D.C. politicians that he was suddenly arming black men.
On September 27, 1862, the 1st Regiment of the Native Guard was mustered into Union service. Although General Butler claimed that this regiment was comprised solely of free men of color, most members of the 1st Regiment were considered fugitive or confiscated slaves and only 11% of this regiment had served previously in the Louisiana militia.
Vicksburg and Port Hudson
After the Battle of Baton Rouge, the Delta Rifles and Tirailleurs moved north of Baton Rouge to Port Hudson. The siege at Port Hudson was one of the first chances for black troops, now fighting for the Union, to prove themselves in a major battle. Under Union Major-General Nathaniel P. Banks, the men of the 1st and 3rd Regiments of the Louisiana Native Guard saw battle at Port Hudson on May 27, 1863 where they charged the most difficult terrain and endured heavy losses.
Early on the morning of May 27th, six companies from the 1st Regiment of the Native Guard and nine companies of the 3rd Regiment crossed a pontoon bridge over Big Sandy Creek to form a line of battle in a grove of willow trees that covered an old riverbed south of Telegraph Road. Initially, the black troops were supported by two brass guns from the 6th Massachusetts Artillery and some dismounted troopers from the 1st Louisiana Union Cavalry. The artillerymen cleared the road and engaged the Rebel guns on the bluffs ahead. They fired only one round, however, before the Confederate artillery responded. Quickly the white Union troops from Massachusetts put down their cannon and withdrew, leaving the Native Guards to fend for themselves.
At about 10 o’clock, the brave men of the Native Guards left the relative protection of the willow trees and charged. About 600 yards separated the black soldiers from the main Confederate position. They covered about 200 yards before the Confederates began firing.
The Native Guard went into battle with just over 500 men in each of the 2 regiments. They lost 36 men in addition to the 133 wounded. On the evening of May 27, truce flags went up allowing both sides to retrieve their dead, except, however, for where the Native Guards had launched their attack. The bodies of the black men were allowed to rot for days until the Confederate commander asked General Banks to remove his Union dead. Purportedly, Banks replied that he had no Union dead there.
On the Confederate side, Robert Pruyn of the Delta Rifles tried to get help for the besieged Confederates at Port Hudson by sending a message to General Joseph Johnston. Pruyn escaped Port Hudson by floating down the river using empty canteens as buoys. After landing on the west bank and finding refuge with his family, who were staying at the Devall Plantation in West Baton Rouge, he traveled over-land to Mississippi to find Gen. Johnston. He returned in late June with a message stating that there were no men to spare for Port Hudson. In July, the long siege at Vicksburg ended in the surrender of the Confederate troops. Port Hudson’s surrender came just days after the fall of Vicksburg, finally opening the rest of the Mississippi River to Union navigation.
Although they were treated poorly, the bravery demonstrated by the Native Guard in the end helped spur the Union to accept black enlistment nationally.
After the Battle of Port Hudson, Banks moved to increase the number of black soldiers in the Department of the Gulf, creating a division of black troops called the Corps D’Afrique with the Native Guards as its nucleus. The negative reaction of white soldiers to black officers prompted Banks to formulate a plan to force the resignation of all black officers. To do this, Banks required the black officers, not white officers, to be board certified. This board was made of white junior officers who would receive promotions should they effect dismissals from the black officers. Several officers were dismissed for petty infractions. Some black officers resigned because they could see the writing on the wall and were angry at the situation. Although several black officers remained and were even passed by the Board, only one man in the 1st Regiment, Louis A. Snaer, and one man in the 2nd Regiment, Charles Sauvenet, remained until the end of the war. In April 1864, the Corps d’Afrique was reformed as the United States Colored Troops (USCT), but still these troops were used primarily as laborers.
The bravery of the Louisiana Native Guards did succeed in impacting public opinion. On June 13, 1863, the New York Times wrote,
“We are enabled, this morning, to give the first full account we have had of a battle, about which, thus far, we have known so little -- the late battle at Port Hudson. The narrative is truly thrilling. The heroism of our troops, black and white, never was surpassed. The conduct of the blacks is most noticed, as it is the first real battle of the war in which they have been engaged. No body of troops -- Western, Eastern, or rebel -- have fought better in this war.”
In response to doubts of the efficacy of black troops, on May 30th General Banks wrote:
"They answered every expectation. Their conduct was heroic. No troops could be more determined or more daring. They made, during the day, three charges upon the batteries of the enemy, suffering very heavy losses, and holding their position at nightfall with the other troops on the right of our line. The highest commendation is bestowed upon them by all the officers in command on the right. Whatever doubt may have existed before as to the efficiency of organizations of this character, the history of this day proves conclusively to those who were in a condition to observe the conduct of these regiments, that the Government will find in this class of troops effective supporters and defenders.”
Rosedale Road March
Following the Union failure of the Red River Campaign in May 1864, Union Major-General Nathaniel P. Banks and his 25,000 Union troops retreated from Mansfield in north Louisiana to New Orleans. Banks was the Union commander at the siege of Port Hudson prior to this. The 1864 Red River campaign was among the last victories for the South, but it came too late. Banks retreated through West Baton Rouge Parish on Rosedale Road, spending six hours marching through the parish. On May 19, 1864 Banks was relieved of his command.
Those left at home aided the Confederacy in caring for their soldiers. The Confederate League was organized in West Baton Rouge Parish, with Dr. John T. Nolan as the chair, for the purpose of feeding, clothing, and sustaining the army. In 1861, they received $130,000 pledged in goods alone and another $25,000 pledged in cash for these purposes.
With most of the men gone into battle, the women of West Baton Rouge ran the plantations. Women also organized the Aid Sewing Society to make clothing, lint, and bandages for the fighting soldiers. Governor Henry Watkins Allen of Louisiana thanked the women of his state who “always respond most promptly and cheerfully to the calls of patriotism and duty. You clothed the soldiers, nursed the sick and wounded, cheered up the faint-hearted, and smoothed the dying-pillow of the warrior patriot.”
The Civil War came to the front door of West Baton Rouge Parish. People on the home-front had to face the constant worry that Union troops would invade their communities. The people of West Baton Rouge would have experienced the scene to the right when they looked across the river to Baton Rouge in the spring of 1862.
Henry Watkins Allen
Henry Watkins Allen was born in Virginia in 1820 and eventually became a lawyer in Mississippi. In 1852, Allen settled in West Baton Rouge after purchasing Westover Plantation with a business partner, and spent much of that year traveling and dabbling in politics. He was also known for his involvement in the “West Baton Rouge Porcupine Benevolent Association,” which was particularly famous for their poker games. He used the pseudonym Guy Mannering in this organization and also to write letters to the Baton Rouge Daily Comet with his musings on traveling throughout the South in the spring of 1853. When he returned, Allen was unanimously elected to the state legislature from West Baton Rouge Parish. Westover Plantation was split in 1855; one half retained the name Westover, while Allen’s portion was renamed Allendale. Although he did a great deal of traveling, his plantation remained one of the leading sugar-producers in the parish.
In 1859 during a trip to Europe, Allen was re-elected to the legislature. When the Civil War began he volunteered in the Delta Rifles Company as a high private, but was quickly promoted to the position of Lieutenant-Colonel of the Fourth Louisiana Regiment. Allen was wounded at the Battle of Shiloh and again at the Battle of Baton Rouge. He nearly had a leg amputated due to the wounds he received there and was never again able to walk without suffering great pain. He went on to serve in the army as a Brigadier General.
After being elected Governor of Confederate Louisiana in 1864, he first traveled the state to learn about the needs of the citizens and then set out to improve the state’s finances. Allen sent sugar and cotton to Mexico in exchange for supplies, established a system of state stores and factories, and created a state medical dispensary for urgently needed medicines. Allen helped persuade fellow Confederate commander Kirby Smith to cease fighting when asked to surrender, possibly saving Louisiana from further devastation.
Following the Confederacy’s defeat, Allen fled to Mexico and died there in 1866, but his remains were brought to New Orleans in 1867. Eventually his body and the 1872 granite monument to him were moved to the Capitol Grounds in Baton Rouge (now the “Old State Capitol”) in 1855. Another monument to Allen was erected in Port Allen in 1962.
Governor Henry Watkins Allen (1861)
Image courtesy of the State Library of Louisiana
The Emancipation Proclamation, effective January 1, 1863, was created by President Abraham Lincoln. It established that all enslaved people in states or parts of states still “in rebellion” (including West Baton Rouge Parish) were considered free by the U.S. government and military. The Proclamation also allowed freed slaves to join the armed forces of the Union. Slaves in states that had been loyal to the Union as well as slaves in parishes or counties that were already within Union lines were explicitly not freed. This included slaves in the southern river parishes of Louisiana that had already surrendered. Although the Proclamation did not free all slaves at the time, it did create a favorable sentiment for the Union abroad and solidified the Union cause to abolish slavery.