Louisiana, the Rebel Thorn:

New Orleans Falls, But the State Remains a Southern Lifeline

Union Forces Never Completely Control the State, and War Materials Keep Flowing into the South from Mexico and Texas. But in the End Louisiana Pays a Terrible Price.

Sunday, August 31 2008 09:55   Louisiana
The next time you visit New Orleans' beautiful French Quarter, take a moment to drink a toast to Mayor John T. Monroe; if he hadn't given up the city to Union forces in 1862 without a shot being fired, much of the historic buildings you're seeing might not be there today.
"My argument is that Monroe basically saved the French Quarter," Charles Chamberlain, historian with the Louisiana State Museum told OldWestNewWest.Com. "If he hadn't surrendered the city, Union Admiral David G. Farragut would have shelled the buildings, including the old Customs House and the Mint."

Cheers to you, Mayor Monroe, even though your decision was a very reluctant one.

At the start of 1861, New Orleans was the largest and wealthiest city in the South, an international city of mixed culture and ethnicity with a population of around 140,000 persons, and one of the most vibrant centers of commerce in the nation.

With its position at the mouth of the Mississippi River, agricultural products came down river to the port for export and the city's manufactured products as well as imported goods moved upriver to towns such as St. Louis to help settle the West.

When the South seceded from the Union, New Orleans instantly became an important center for Confederate military supplies, food, clothing and other war material. In the first year of the Civil War, New Orleans-based companies provided everything from tents to tinware, while the city's shipyards turned out naval ships for the Confederacy, including ironclads and gunboats.

It wasn't just New Orleans that was important to the Confederacy, either. Louisiana's rivers and railroads were like a lifeline for the South for supplies flowing in from Mexico and Texas.

"Texas horses and cattle, and Louisiana salt were critical to the Southern war effort," Mike Fraering, curator at the Port Hudson State Historic Site, told OldWestNewWest.Com.

It would be easy to say that strategically, New Orleans was the most important city in the Confederacy.

For nearly a year, New Orleans supplied the South without interruption. But the North, under the guidance of Gen. Winfield Scott, hero of the War with Mexico, developed a strategy that eventually would be known as the Anaconda Plan - take control of the Mississippi River and split the Confederacy in two.

Like the snake for which it was named, the plan would constrict the South, depriving it of men and much-needed war materials.

Flag-Officer David Farragut commanded a flotilla of warships and gunboats, and on April 15, 1862, began sailing up the Mississippi River.

Standing between his flotilla and New Orleans were two old masonry forts - Jackson and St. Philip - Jackson on the left bank of the river and St. Philip on the right, plus a chain and log blockade just above the forts.

Farragut's forces on April 18 began a five-day bombardment of the forts, but with little success. Deciding to run the forts at night, Farragut successfully steamed past Jackson and St. Philip, broke through the blockade, defeated a smaller Confederate naval force, and on April 25 anchored off New Orleans and demanded the city's surrender.

With Confederate Army forces deciding to retreat and abandon New Orleans, the city was left defenseless. For four days negotiations went on with the city council and Mayor Monroe and Union negotiators. With Farragut swearing he would fire on the city if any of his men were attacked, and many residents saying they were willing to suffer shelling, word came that forts Jackson and St. Philip had surrendered. On April 28, the city reluctantly did the same.

The Union Army took control on May 1, and until the war ended in 1865, New Orleans was an occupied city under martial law. The jewel of the South was lost. Some experts say it was the major turning point in the war against the Confederacy.

The National Park Service lists 23 major Civil War battles in Louisiana, while the state says more than 500 battles, engagements and skirmishes took place before the war was over.

In New Orleans, visitors can see much of what existed when the city surrendered to Union Forces, such as the bronze statue of Gen. Andrew Jackson in Jackson Square, the Cabildo, which is one of the properties of the Louisiana State Museum, as is the Arsenal, the old U.S. Mint (which also served as the Confederate Mint in 1861), and the Presbytere.

There's also the Memorial Hall Confederate Civil War Museum, which contains the second largest collection of Confederate memorabilia in the world. It is also the oldest continually operating museum in Louisiana.

While there are many Civil War sites in Louisiana, two in particular are important for visitors wanting to experience the state's role as it pertains to the Civil War in the West.

Port Hudson State Historic Site north of Baton Rouge holds at least two major places in U.S. history - it was the last Confederate fortification on the Mississippi River to fall, giving federal forces complete control of the river, and the Union siege, 48 days, is the longest in U.S. military history.

From May 23, 1863 until July 9, around 30,000 Union troops fought 6,800 Confederates, and the fighting was some of the bloodiest of the Civil War. By the end of June, Rebel troops were low on ammunition and eating mules, horses and rats.

The Confederate garrison was prepared for the worst, but then news reached them that Vicksburg had fallen to Gen. Ulysses Grant on July 3. The Port Hudson Confederate commander, Gen. Franklin Gardner, asked for terms. On July 9, he surrendered his forces.

On the news that the Mississippi River was now completely in federal hands, and the Confederacy split in two, President Abraham Lincoln declared: "The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea."

Port Hudson State Historic Site offers visitors a good feel for the struggle between Union and Confederate forces.

"The park is not the entire battlefield," Fraering, site curator, said. "However, we have the northern part, and that's 640 acres. You can't see the river, because it's shifted about a mile away. We have a museum with a research library, and we offer visitors a 15-minute video about the fighting. We also have six miles of hiking trails."

The battle for Port Hudson also holds one other Civil War distinction - it was the first time that the Union Army used African-American regiments to make a major assault in an attack against Confederate forces.

The two black regiments were the First and Third Louisiana Native Guards. "They proved to the Army that blacks could and would fight," he said.

After the siege, the garrison at Port Hudson became a recruiting center for African-American troops.

The other Civil War focal point in Louisiana to point out is the Mansfield State Historic Site.

After finally winning control of the Mississippi River, Lincoln and his generals wanted to capture Shreveport, then the Confederate capital of Louisiana and a major center of Confederate war materials, and then invade Texas. The goal was to stop the flow of supplies that were still coming in from Mexico, through Texas and eastward into the South.

The battle of Mansfield, and the whole Red River Campaign, taking place from March through May of 1864 was an overall defeat for federal forces.

"The federals had nothing to gain, and everything to lose," Steve Bounds, Mansfield State Historic Site manager, said. "The federal invasion plan to drive into Texas was stopped cold at Mansfield."

The battle actually was made up of several encounters over several days. The Union army of around 30,000 troops were stretched out over 20 miles, and faced Confederate forces of around 8,800 troops that were able to concentrate their attack.

Some experts speculate that the battle of Mansfield may have been the most humiliating fight the Union Army every fought. The Union's inability to seize Shreveport, and failures in the Red River Campaign, actually prolonged the war in the South for the North.

"The Union Army had bad days and the Confederates had great days," Bounds said. "You might say that the Confederates had home field advantage."

After failing to take Shreveport, and having the campaign blunted, Union forces never made another attempt at taking western Louisiana or driving into Texas. Supplies continued to flow into the Trans-Mississippi region, although Confederates had a hard time getting them east of the river.

"Louisiana was a thorn in the side that Union forces were never really able to pull out," Bounds added.

Mansfield State Historic Site includes more than 170 acres of the battlefield and covers part of the first federal line.

"We have a museum that includes many artifacts that are either from the battlefield or from the Red River Campaign, and we have a walking trail that goes over the battle line," Bounds said.

Louisiana was never entirely brought under Federal control, however what the Union did control-New Orleans and the Mississippi River-was critical to winning not only the Civil War, but the war in the West.

As news of Union victories east of the Mississippi River, and Robert E. Lee's surrender, reached Confederate forces in Louisiana, morale plunged. In May 1865, Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith negotiated the surrender of the Trans-Mississippi Department, and most of Louisiana's Rebel units disbanded and went home.

What they found when they went home, however, was devastation; the war had cost Louisiana half of its wealth, according to state reports, and a fifth of its able-bodied white men had died.

Sidebar #1

Visiting Port Hudson State Historic Site

Location: 236 Hwy. 61, Jackson, LA 70748
(225) 654-3775 or (888) 677-3400 toll free

Directions: The site is located on US 61 in East Feliciana Parish, about 25 minutes north of Baton Rouge and 10 minutes south of historic St. Francisville. GPS Coordinates: N 30.69255; W 91.26922.

Hours of Operation: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., daily. Closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. Guided tours are offered daily.

Entrance Fees: $2 per person; free for seniors (62 and over) and for children age 12 and under. Groups are asked to call in advance.

Sidebar #2

Visiting Mansfield State Historic Site

Location: 15149 Highway 175, Mansfield, LA 71052
318-872-1474 or 888-677-6267 toll free

Directions: The site is located in DeSoto Parish, four miles south of the town of Mansfield on LA 175. Exit I-49 to the town of Mansfield and follow LA 175 south. GPS Coordinates: N 320039; W 0933951.

Hours of Operation: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., daily. Closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day.

Entrance Fees: $2 per person; free for seniors (62 and over) and for children age 12 and under. Groups are asked to call in advance.


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