Civil War Louisiana (CWLA)

Civil War Louisiana (CWLA)
CWLA seeks to provide an online resource of any and all material of the Civil War relating to Louisiana with a special interest in the war in Acadiana in southwest Louisiana.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Impressions of Opelousas

Opelousas and surrounding towns in the 1860's

Being from Opelousas, I take special interest in the community in the Civil War. After reading several accounts about the Teche Campaign and the Overland Expedition I took note that I read several comments about my town. So, I got curious and began looking at letters, regimental histories and the ORs to see what the combatants had to say about the town and surrounding area. There will be more to add to this as more is discovered. Here are a to enjoy:

Diary of 1st Sgt. H.N. Connor of the 11th Texas Battalion wrote in early 1864:

“Near Flat Town, (La.) [Ville Platte] two of our men were captured by Jayhawkers, not more than 500 yards from camp, were disarmed and taken 5 miles from camp and turned loose. They were picking huckleberries at the time. A few days before, the Jayhawkers had taken two men of the 2nd La. (Cav.) and murdered them in a horrible manner.At Opelousas we met a company of about 50 little boys, all armed with a Confederate flag, headed by a priest.”

Memoirs of John C. Porter, Co. H, 18th Texas Infantry wrote of November 1863 (Life of John C. Porter and Sketch of His Experiences in the Civil War by John C. Porter, 1874) :

“…I was completely exhausted. I soon overtook a wagon, and pressed it into service, or myself into it, and rode to camp, which was near Opalousas [Opelousas, LA], ten miles distant from the battlefield [Battle of Bayou Bourbeau on November 3, 1863]…”

“…Here, I should have stated that after the smoke of battle cleared away, and the wounded had been moved to Opalousas, it was found that the greater percent were from the 18th Reg't.
The ladies of the town proposed to make and present a flag to us; and on the morning we were leaving there, we were marched into the residence portion of town, halted in front of a nice home, and a little lady came out, and with a pretty little speech, presented us a beautiful flag. Lieut. Col. [Benjamin W.] Watson, although a gallant soldier, and a fine officer, was illiterate. He received it, and thanked the ladies. Maj. [Thomas R.] Bonner, however, came to his relief, and made an appropriate reply.”

Major General Richard Taylor in November 1863 following the Battle of Bourbeau (Campaigns of Walker’s Texas Division, p. 146):

“The court-house of Opelousas was made a hospital for our wounded, and there occurred a scene that melted into tears the most obdurate. It was the sympathy of the women. The ladies of Opelousas and its vicinity, young and old, Catholic and Protestant, came crowding in, and waited upon our men just as if they had been their husbands and brothers. Long will be remembered with heartfelt gratitude, by the Texas soldiers, the appreciative kindness and sympathy of the Louisiana ladies.”

"Catholic Church at Opelousas, Louisiana," from a sketch by C. E. H. Bonwill, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper,13 February 1864: 324.

John Mead Gould and Leonard G. Jordan, History of the First-Tenth-Twenty Ninth Maine Regiment, 404-405. As the 29th Maine marched through Opelousas in 1864 as part of Banks’ column in the Red River Campaign. The authors of the book, veterans of the 29th Maine, noted:

“March 19th, Saturday. Warmer. More straggling in consequence. We passed through Opelousas this forenoon. Here we saw a Roman Catholic establishment of some importance. The sisters of charity brought out the little children to see us pass, for which they must be thanked. Their clean white faces and garments contrasted favorably with the squalor and filth in the town. Across the road was a church or cathedral, of which a black man said was “mighty old.” The priests had arranged for a funeral, and had the hearse before the door. One of our officers took a fancy to the driver, and asked him if he would like to come along. “Come if you do!” said he to the hesitating darkey. The darkey came; and some one in our rear regiment fancying the horse, took him, and whether anyone tok the hearse I never learned, though it is said that in the campaign of 1863, every thing on wheels, from a coach to a hearse, was pressed by the stragglers to carry them, they were so foot-sore and weary.
We noticed many able bodied white men in the town, and learned that they escaped army service by being “black” in the eye of the law; - the law’s eye is sharper than ours, that is sure.”

The Regimental History of the 8th Vermont Infantry said that its march from Franklin to Alexandria (April-May 1863 following the Battles of Bisland and Irish Bend) as the following (History of The Eighth Regiment Vermont Volunteers, 1861-1865; p 107):

“Nothing of special interest occurred until the army neared Alexandria…The weather was hot and the roads extremely dusty, so that many of the men fell out by the way from sheer exhaustion, and were obliged to get into the ambulances and mule carts that had been taken from the plantations en route.”

The 25th Connecticut of their pass through Opelousas on April 21, 1863:

“Opelousas, April 21st. I will endeavor to give a few of my experiences at this place. Here General Banks gave his worn and tired army a rest. The Twenty-fifth Connectituct took position about seven miles east of headquarters, at Barre’s Landing…Opelousas was a very pleasant little city of several thousand inhabitants. There were some splendid masnsions with grouds laid out in fine style. There was a small foundry in the place and two magazines; one of its three churches was stored with powder and ammunition, abandoned by the Confederates in their flight. The people were more Union than any we had previously seen and were of a better class. Provisions were sold at fabulous prices; eggs fifty cents a dozen, coffee five dollars a pound, and flour fifty dollars a barrel, and scarcely any at that. We learned from some of our Rebel prisoners how their soldiers lived. They had only one commissary wagon drawn by three yoke of oxen for an army of five thousand men. They lived principally upon the plantations as they passed along, as we had done.
“The slaves appeared to me, all the way through this long march, to be contented and happy with their families in their cabins. I think they live principally on corn which they ground by hand powe rand made into corn bread and hoe cake, with plenty of sweet potatoes which grew abundantly in Louisiana. I think they must have gotten along pretty well. At many plantations where the Union soldiers would stop at nightfall for chickens, the slaves would come out of their cabins and plead with us to let them be. This, our boys were very loath to do, and chicken was a great temptation after a long hard say’s march.”

The 67th Indiana (October 1863) said (History of the 67th Indiana Regiment Volunteers, 49-50):

“…but on the following morning were up and on the move through Grand Cateau and beyond a little ways, and when we halted for the time, and after remaining here but a few days, we again resumed the march, and passing through Opolusus, the oldest town in the State (the old and dilapidated houses did not deny its right of title).

83rd Ohio (October 1863) said (History of the Eighty-Third Ohio Volunteer Infantry, 111-112):

“…we were ordered ahead towards Opelousas…It was at this time, a part of our lin was formed by a small regiment of colored troops, wearing bright red caps. They were on the extreme right. Our brigade was in the open, grassy plain, while the “read heads”, as we called them, were confronted by a field grown high with weeds. An enemy could like concealed until they could be stepped on before being seen, but the colored boys apparantly cared not for that, but marched with perfect alignment into the weeds, singing at the top of their voices, “John Brown’s body lies mouldering in the grave.”
“As the enemy did not appear to be strong enough to check our advance, we soon passed through Opelousas, our regiment being in the lead. After passing through the little town a short distance we turned Eastward. We went into camp in a pecan grove and we used all the nuts we could club from the numerous trees.
“As we had no tents along, we utilized a shed full of dried cow hides. These were all right and afforded us a good shelter and even kept the rain away, but when water soaked, our olfactories were compelled to do extra duty? We dubbed this “Cow Skin” Camp, but it is officially known as Barre’s Landing.
“This was a place on Bayou Cortableau, a bayou that enabled small boats to float when the waters were high…”.

96th Ohio (October 1863) in Services of the Ninety-Sixth Ohio Volunteers: page 39

“Halting here a few days [Barre’s Landing], we exercised our enterprise and forethought by gathering together a vast supply of sugar, molasses and corn, hoping that we might have an opportunity to use it. The final result was, that the Corps had a brief but luxurious feasting, closing with a magnificent bonfire, as we marched away….”

159th New York (April 1863) in The 159th Regiment Infantry, New-York State Volunteers, In the War of the Rebellion, 1862-1865, page 39:

“…on the 17th, starting at 6 a.m., marched twenty miles to Vermilion Bayou…April 19th, after a day’s rest, the regiment was detached to collect horses and cattle. The country was a vast prarie on which were feeding numerous herds, and we succeeded in collecting about five thousand head, as well as a number of horses and mules, which were driven by the regiment to Berwick city…”.

The following description is from Private Edwin B. Lufkin of Company E of the 13th Maine as it marched from Franklin past Opelousas. Most of this description is not Opelousas specifically but is of the South Louisiana-Acadiana area (History of the Thirteenth Maine Regiment From its Organization in 1861 to its Muster-Out in 1865, p. 34):

“On Tuesday, March 15th, at about 8 o’clock A.M., the Thirteenth took its position in the marching column of the Nineteenth Army Corps and left Franklin on the Opelousas Road. The route was along the fertile bottom lands of Bayou Teche, in what is justly called the garden of Louisiana, thickly dotted with elegant mansions and large brick sugar-mills. Bayou Teche (locally pronounced bayou tash,) which in the North, would be called a river, rises near the line between St. Landry and Rapids Parishes, and flowing in a generally southeast course through the parishes of Saint Landry, Saint Martin, Iberia and Saint Marys, empties into the Atchafayla (locally chofalair) just above Berwick, now Morgan City. It is much of the way a deep, narrow, winding stream with a slow current; and is navigable for most of its length by small vessels, when the channel is unobstructed.
“…The fourth day we marched about eighteen miles. Soon after starting, we crossed the bayou and passed through Vermillionville, which is quite a large village and the shire town of Lafayette Parish.
“Here is situated a convent at which the boys gazed with much interest while passing, as most of us had never seen one before. It was, however, no very strange sight, having the appearance of being a young ladies’ boarding-school-which, in fact, it is. Lafayette Parish and Vermillion, just to the southwest, are known as the Attakapas (tackapaw) Country, from the name of an almost extinct tribe of Indians whose home was in that section, and are principally inhabiated by the class of Frenchmen known as Acadiens, or as they call themselves, Cajuns…”.

Account of the 41st Massachusetts Infantry/3rd Massachusetts Cavalry in Opelousas and surrounding area from April 20 – May 11, 1863: (78-79)

“The Firty-first remained at Opelousas from April 20 until May 11, 1863. During this time order was maintained, the flag was respected and the Constitution enforced. Excellent service was rendered by the regiment in various other ways for the general welfare. Corn mills were set in moiton; a free market was opened for the poor; negroes in large numbers were fed. Six thousand bales of cotton were brought in; large quantaties of sugar and molasses received; while horses, mules and wagons, saddles and bridles were collected in large numbers. All this property was saved to the general government, and sent down to New Orleans. Ten thousand negroes, men, women and children, who had fled from the land of bondage, looked to our mean for protection, and were not disappointed. While at Opelousas, some of the men opened a printing office, issued a daily paper, and exhibited considerable Northern enterprise in a business way. Opelousas had been the Confederate capitol of Louisiana, and many valuable papers were found among the archives of the defunct State government.
“The time at length arrived when the men were to leave Opelousas for other scenes. All this property must be taken care of. Steamers were, therefore, ordered to come up the Teche to a place called Barre’s Landing, about six miles east of Opelousas. This was to be a base of operation for a time.
“ On the 11th of May, the regiment left Opelousas for Barre’s Landing.”

Sketch of Barre's Landing in 1863 (Leslie's Illustrated Weekly).

While at Barre’s Landing the 41st Massachusetts Infantry/3rd Massachusetts Cavalry were mounted with the confiscated horses from the Opelousas area:

“…Horses were given the men, and henceforth the regiment was to be mounted…There were many amusing experiences that came to the men during their stay at Barre’s Landing. The attempt to ‘break’ some of their fiery steeds furnished a large amount of fun. The negroes seemed to succeed better than the men of the Forty-First. Saddles, bridles, horses, everything was new to these infantrymen.
“…The taming of wild animals was something I did not dream of when I enlisted in ’62. I went to Louisiana to put down rebellion. I found at Barre’s Landing that rebellion had taken hold upon the brute creation. The horse assigned me had no intention of submitting tamely to military authority…”.
“On the morning of the 21st of May, the troops left Barre’s Landing for Brashear City…There was a large train of army wagons, some of which carried ammunition, then wagons of various sorts of sizes; negroes in large numbers, men, women and children. Piled high on these numerous wagons, were the belongings of the contrabands, who had fled from their house of bondage to the Union lines for safety. Beds and bedding, household furniature and cooking utensils, cows, geese and corn, cotton, tobacco, sugar, molasses, and other articles too numerous to mention, were packed into these various vehicles and drawn by various beasts of burden. The train, as it moved out on the road was nearly six miles in length…Following this train were five hundred emigrant wagons. Besides all these wagons there was a large drove of horses, mules, and beef creatures captured from the enemy. Next, there accompanied the troops about six thousand negroes, many of whom were to find employment either in the Lafourche country, or at New Orleans, or as servants of officers in the Union army...”

The descriptions from several of the Federal soldiers above slightly deviates from this story ran in Harper's Weekly titled "Foraging in Louisiana." I added the bold to stress the difference from the personal accounts from above the story:

WE give on the preceding page a spirited illustration of the war in Louisiana, showing the manner in which the army is at times furnished with supplies. Necessarily, in advancing into the enemy's country, our forces are obliged to depend in some degree upon the resources of the region occupied for supplies of beef, etc., and probably no experiences are more pleasurable and full of excitement than those which are ordinarily encountered in expeditions such as our artist has presented.
I believe the picture they included with the story is a more accurate representation

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Coppens' Zouave Battalion

Coppens' Zouave Battalion
Lt. Colonel George Coppens (seated) and brother, Captain Marie Alfred Coppens.Image sold at auction on Cowan Auctions, for $14,375