In the wake of the celebration that followed Secession, and the swift commitment of the state to the Confederacy, Rapides Parish men responded enthusiastically to form companies to join the army to fight the North. There were: the Fulton Guards, organized by Colonel Samuel Fulton, the Rapides Minute Men from the planters of the Island, formed by Bayou Rapides and Bayou Jean de Jean; the Cheneyville Rifles, organized by Patrick F. Keary, a planter who happened to have married Helen Davis, a favorite niece of Jefferson Davis. There were, indeed so many volunteers that a battalion was formed with its major and other officers. Some of these volunteers were veterans of the Mexican War in 1846 though only a handful actually had battle experience. The love of military titles and admiration for soldiering are evident in many ways throughout the history of this area.
President Jefferson Davis called for volunteers for the Confederacy, and Rapides, like other parishes, had its quota. Three companies was the number allotted Rapides, and more men than could be armed and equipped rushed to join. An induction center in Tangipahoa Parish was named for Governor Moore, and young soldiers went to Camp Moore, and other induction centers hurriedly set up.
On April 25, 1861, Moore Guards with Planter John Kelso as Captain was the first company to leave Alexandria. Crowds came out and bands played as the steamboat pulled out of the harbor to head downstream for New Orleans. After them left the Rapides Invincibles, the Cheneyville Rifles, and Stafford Guards. These went to North Virginia to fight under Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee.
Others sailed from Alexandria to become part of the Army of Tennessee: the Westbrook Guards, Red River Rebels, Rapides Rangers, Rapides Tigers, Pinewood Sharp Shooters, Annacoco Rangers, and Alexandria Rifles.
Just as a full year of the war was over, Rapides Parish citizens were shocked with the first realization that their homes, the roads leading through the parish, Alexandria and all the crossroads villages of the parish might become part of the battlefield, as indeed they did. This realization came when Captain David Farragut appeared at the mouth of the Mississippi River determined to go upriver and capture New Orleans in May, 1862.
That spring of 1862, a Committee of Public Safety was organized hastily in Alexandria with the shocked realization that the Union troops poised to capture New Orleans could - and likely would - march upstate, or come via Red River into Rapides Parish. The committee was headed by Ralph Smith, and had no legal power. Among the matters the Committee handled: provided for punishment to those who ridiculed Confederate money; agreed to assist with shipment of boatloads of supplies to the "suffering people of New Orleans" after its surrender May 1, 1862; arranged for a system of light signals to warn Alexandria if the enemy should advance up the Red River; arranged for communication with similar committees in other parishes; and other matters, such as destruction of crops in case the enemy invaded the area.
Early in the war Alexandria was an important supply depot, but Governor Moore and the rest of the people of the state, for that matter, were continually alarmed over the lack of protection in the state itself. Young men from Louisiana were serving in Virginia and Tennessee and not enough guns and ammunition were left to Home Guards and local companies organized to protect the home front. Governor Moore's correspondence is a study in persistence as he pleaded for supplies for Louisiana and recounted the plight of the state without arms to defend itself.
In the summer of 1862 Major General Richard (Dick) Taylor was put in charge of Louisiana troops, and he established his headquarters in Alexandria. New Orleans, Baton Rouge, the Teche County, a strip along the Mississippi River, and all of South Louisiana had been captured by the Union by early 1863. The state government had fled from Baton Rouge to Opelousas, and on March 7, 1863, Lieutenant General E. Kirby Smith, commander of the Trans-Mississippi Department issued the following Order No. 1.
1. In conformity with instructions from the War Department at Richmond, Va., dated February 9th, 1863, the undersigned hereby assumes command of the Confederate forces west of the Mississippi.In the spring of 1863, General Nathaniel P. Banks, who had over 40,000 soldiers in his Department of the Gulf, invaded the Red River Valley. Troops left Opelousas and marched up Bayou Boeuf to Alexandria, which was surrendered May 9th. Meanwhile, with an agreement between Admiral Farragut and General Banks to destroy public works and machinery at Alexandria, Admiral Porter went up the Red River with two gunboats and a tugboat. He found Captain John Kelso at Fort De Russy near Marksville, stripping guns from the fort for use on Confederate gunboats. The Confederate boats were fired on, and Kelso left for Alexandria with two disabled boats. Porter went up to Alexandria, and when Banks arrived, he returned back down the Red, dispatching Commander S. E. Woodworth to capture the "Webb" and "Queen of the West" (Woodworth did not capture the boats, but destroyed about $300,000 in farm produce.)
2. Until further orders the Department Headquarters are established at Alexandria, Louisiana.
In the march of Banks' men up the Boeuf and through Rapides, and the movement of Confederate troops under General Mouton and Zachary Taylor, plantations were laid waste, houses were burned, fences were torn down, trees were cut for firewood, and sugar houses and barns burned. Both armies lived off the land, taking away food, livestock, and poultry, tearing down fences and cutting down trees, whenever they found them, for firewood.
At Alexandria, General Banks when sent the message of General Halleck, that he was supposed to be helping General Grant capture Vicksburg, ordered the army to retrace its steps toward the Gulf. Furthermore, the soldiers were ordered to go into all slave quarters, and make sure all able bodied Negroes went south to the Gulf with the army. Some of the Union soldiers were sent to Port Hudson, and the trail of slaves, riding in plantation carts, walking, on mules, or wagons, was described as extending for six to nine miles, depending upon the account of the observer. Many of the slaves were from Rapides Parish. Aside from the human factor, planters had their largest investment in slaves which, though freed by President Lincoln's January, 1863 proclamation, had mostly remained on the plantations.
Not all Rapides men joined the Confederate service, and Jayhawkers, men from the hill country, roamed the low country at night wreaking their own kind of vengeance on the planters in the low country. Stealing, driving away any remaining livestock, burning and destroying - the native enemy to the planter class generated as much hostility as the Union Army. "Jayhawkers Island," an idyllic spot deep in the woods near Forest Hill, and during the last century inaccessible except by water, remains a monument to these men who hid out during the day and wanted not part of the war. A spring on "the island" provided cool drinking water on the hideout veiled with Spanish moss in a forest thick with trees.
In 1863, many Rapides planters took everything they could move - furniture, poultry, livestock, farm equipment, slaves - everything, and moved to Texas. An exodus from the plantations was so nearly complete, that hardly any people were left in the big plantation houses. William Polk, taking his pregnant wife and children, stopped under a tree on the Texas line where his wife gave birth to a girl. Rapides citizens sometimes set themselves up on Texas farms, and one group of Boeuf planters worked at mining saltpeter fro the Confederacy with the government advancing money on the enterprise. Some rented their wagons and slaves for hauling cotton, the medium of exchange of the Confederacy, to Mexico. At least several from central Louisiana, hauled salt from salt mines near New Iberia to Texas, and to Confederate army camps.
Confiscation of the cotton of the rich Red River Valley was an important motive in both invasions. Cotton was used as a medium of exchange in place of Confederate money in buying supplies from foreign powers. It was, of course, valuable to the Union, as well.
Meanwhile, such planting as was carried on was an exception to the ordinary plantation, its fields largely under worked during the war. On the bayous, switch canes once more grew high, and the land seemed to revert back to the state in which it existed before Europeans arrived.
The second invasion of Red River Valley represented the joint effort of the United States Army and Navy. This time, Banks had the approval of Washington, the object being not only to capture the Red River Valley, but to move into Texas.
Admiral Porter had a sizable fleet of twenty gunboats, and a number of transports carrying many soldiers. Thirteen ironclads - the Eastport, Essex, Benton, Lafayette, Choctaw, Chillicothe, Ozark, Louisville, Carondelet, Pittsburg, Mound City, Osage, and Neosha - were in the fleet, and seven light-draft gunboats, the Ouachita, Lexington, Fort Hindman, Cricket, Gazelle, Juliet, and Black Hawk. Part of Sherman's 16th and 17th Army Corps were with the fleet which arrived in Alexandria, March 16, 1864, having come from the Mississippi, through Old River, and up the Red.
It was March 24th - more that a week - before Banks and advance troops got to Alexandria. They took the same route up the Teche and along both sides of the sinuous Boeuf as they had in 1863.
Although the rapids presented considerable difficulty, the fleet with the exception of six gunboats, which were left in Alexandria docks, managed to get above the rapids and on up the river.
The rest of Banks Army marched once more over the same route as had been followed the spring before. The Union Army set up two recruiting stations and training camps, one in Alexandria, and one at Fort De Russy on the river near Marksville. Jayhawkers, who had been avoiding the Confederate draft, showed up to join the United States Army; there were as many as 500 of them. Another 600 black men volunteered for army service and were accepted.
Banks was stopped at the Battle of Mansfield on April 8, 1864, with heavy losses in a bitter engagement. Next day, at Pleasant Hill, the Confederate troops almost suffered a rout. In the two engagements, both lost around 1500 men in casualties. The two armies had been of almost equal strength: The Confederates numbered a few over 12,000, and the United States troops were not more than 13,000.
Banks decided to retreat, returning to Alexandria on the morning of April 25th. The Red River Valley that had been brought from the wilderness to rich, plantations with comfortable houses, rows of slave cabins, barns, and other buildings, was left in ruins. Houses and fences were burned, crops destroyed, livestock confiscated.
General Taylor reported April 24th:
"The destruction of this country by the enemy exceeds anything in history. For many miles every dwelling - homes, every Negro cabin, every cotton-gin, every corn-crib, and even chicken houses have been burned to the ground; every fence torn down, and the fields torn up by the hoofs of horses and wheels of wagons. Many hundreds of persons are utterly without shelter."
More was yet to come.
Meanwhile, Porter made a slow trip back down Red River. By the time the fleet reached the falls, the water level had fallen so low that the boats were stuck above the falls, unable to move further. Banks co-operated with the Navy when their Lt. Colonel Joseph Bailey, an engineer, proposed a plan to dam the stream and raise the water at least seven feet.
More than 3000 men were set to work on Bailey's Dam. On the Pineville side, the hills are denuded as the pine trees were cut and hauled to the river, then carefully floated into place for the building of the dam. Stone was pulled from the riverbed above the rapids to add to the dam. Trees that were cut were laid fifteen or twenty abreast with the trunk toward the opposite bank. Then, they were sunk down with dirt and stone, and another layer of trees was laid crisscross and weighted with sand, bricks, and brush. The dam projected from the Pineville side after a day and night of deepening heat. Working in the river itself, the Navy and Army men worked until near exhaustion.
Men were put to work tearing down warehouses, mills, and barns, on the Alexandria side, to secure heavy timbers. They were brought to the river where 400 black soldiers built cribs to be placed in position at the end of the tree dam to funnel the river water into a narrow channel deep enough to float the heavy ships.
Bricks, heavy machinery, and stones from the quarry were placed in the cribs, once these were placed in position. The channel left was 150 feet wide, with the waters of the river dammed for 758 feet. Large coal barges were sunk in the river to narrow the channel.
After the first boats were able to get safely below the falls, a second dam was built below the original dam; this was a diagonal bracket dam of logs which was constructed with more enthusiasm, now that the first was a demonstrable success.
Porter lightened the load on the boats, and with some maneuvering, all managed to get below the dams. The boats were reloaded once they had passed the rapids and Bailey's dams.
Something of the feelings of Alexandria residents during the occupation of Banks in 1864 can be perceived in the official report "relative to the conduct of federal troops in western Louisiana during the invasions of 1863 and 1864." Banks left by steamboat down Red River to New Orleans that fateful March, 1864.
General Banks invited James Madison Wells and William B. Hyman, both prominent local planters who had identified with the Union cause, to return to New Orleans with him. Editor C. W. Boyce, who had edited "The Constitutional," also went with the United States General. Having deserted the Confederate cause, these men realistically assessed the problems, if not the danger of staying in Rapides, which was so completely committed with its men and its material resources to the Confederacy.
"He left without ordering or intimating . . . without taking any measure whatever to prevent the calamity which he knew was impending. The intended conflagration was insultingly proclaimed wherever Smith's Corps were. Affiant No. 7 says "business brought me in the presence of Gen. A. J. Smith at his headquarters on the steamboat, Clara Belle, then laying at the town of Alexandria. General Smith's division had just arrived from Pleasant Hill. Whilst in his presence, and that of his staff I heard several of his officers express their determination to burn the town before they left - said they would proceed to the business at once, were it not for the sick and wounded in hospitals... (General Banks') march from five miles outside Natchitoches had been illuminated by the glare of burning homesteads..."
The burning of Alexandria took place on May 13, 1864:
"The scenes attending the burning of the city are appalling. Women gathering their helpless babes in their arms, rushing frantically through the streets with screams and cries that would have melted the hardest hearts to tears. Little boys and girls were running hither and thither crying for their Mothers and Fathers, old men leaning on a staff for support to their trembling limbs, were hurrying away from the suffocating heat of their burning dwellings and homes... Owing to the simultaneous burning in every part of the city, the people found no security in the streets where the heat was so intense as almost to create suffocation. Everybody rushed to the river's edge, being protected there from the heat by the high bank of the river. The steamboats lying at the landing were subjected to great annoyance, the heat being so great that the decks had to be flooded with water to prevent the boats from taking fire..."
Judge Elgee was in New Orleans when his home went up in flames with he rest. "His law and literary library occupied three large rooms - being as fine a collection of books as I ever saw. His residence was richly and tastefully furnished; a single painting cost twelve hundred dollars..."
J. Madison Wells, elected Lieutenant Governor of Occupied Louisiana, was also in New Orleans when all his belongings went up in flame... The march of the army from Alexandria to Fort DeRussy was lighted up with the flames of burning buildings..."
For historians the everlasting tragedy of the Red River invasion was the destruction of records and printed materials. Rapides Parish Courthouse with records of the settling of the country and of its inhabitants up to 1864 went up in flames. No matter how conscientious or zealous the research done nothing can ever supply the history contained in that Courthouse fire. The best that can be done is to try to piece the story of land holdings, for instance, together as best we can from the surviving documents sworn to after the war and now present in our Rapides Parish Courthouse.
Next - Reconstruction, 1865-1900
Back to Index