Laf. battle bloody but forgotten

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Just south of Thibodaux and north of Raceland, the rusted spider-work of an old railroad trestle spans Bayou Lafourche, near a quiet neighborhood of graceful older homes with well-tended, expansive lawns.

The only indication that anything of significance ever occurred nearby is a white sign with black letters, easily overlooked or ignored.

The marker says that history happened at that place, 152 years ago this week.

The Battle of Lafourche Crossing, fought June 20-21, 1863, was a victory for occupying federal troops, but cast no decisive shadow on the outcome of the Civil War overall. The sizes of the armies and the tally of casualties on both sides make clear that this was no Shiloh or Gettysburg.

But for people living in Lafourche Parish it was part of the nightmare war had made, a war resulting in harsh federal occupation for years after its end.

It is also a reminder, like other scattered local skirmish and battle sites, that Lafourche and Terrebonne parish institutions do little to preserve or promote their unique places in the overall mosaic of U.S. history. A wealth of sites throughout the Bayou Region have stories to tell, including portions of the railroad line leading to and from the former Lafourche Crossing depot, as well as places of conflict in and near Houma and Thibodaux.


Local officials have expressed little interest in seeking grants for development of Civil War tourism. In many cases, knowledge of the region’s unique history in relation to the war is minimal or lacking. The Louisiana Office of Culture, Recreation and Tourism has maintained plaques at a few key locations, such as the one at Lafourche Crossing. That office, under the direction of Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, last year unveiled a plaque commemorating the Battle of Georgia Landing.

Historian and former Nicholls State University professor Chris Pena, who now lives in Tennessee, says preservation and commemoration are vital for local communities.

“It is important to know what occurred in our neck of the woods, so that we do have an appreciation or what our ancestors went through, civilians and soldiers,” said Pena, whose book “Scarred By War: Civil War in Southeast Louisiana” (AuthorHouse 2004) provides intricate detail of an almost separate war waged in the region west of New Orleans.

That Lafourche Crossing and other local events are not high on the national radar in terms of the war does not diminish importance, said Denis Gaubert, a Thibodaux attorney and historian.

“It was memorable enough for those who were there,” Gaubert said of Lafourche Crossing. “There was fierce hand-to-hand combat, which was infrequently seen in the Civil War, lots of use of bayonets.”

Lafourche Parish and Thibodaux in particular were already well acquainted with the results of war by 1863. Union forces with legions of liberated slaves behind them poured into the city after Confederate defenders failed to stem their invasion from Donaldsonville in 1862 at Georgia Landing in Labadieville.

The Lafourche Crossing battle occurred within a larger context of attempts by both sides, Union and Confederate, to control the Mississippi River in 1863.

Union forces were in full control of New Orleans.

At Vicksburg Gen. Ulysses S. Grant began a May siege. Union Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks laid siege to Port Hudson, north of Baton Rouge. Union forces were holding Brashear City – now Morgan City – and the Confederate forces coveted their rich supplies of rations and weapons.

A capture of Brashear City, historical accounts indicate, would also allow for an approach to Port Hudson for a potential repelling of the Yankee forces.

The chess moves of superior officers – with the Union leaders intent on fortifying Brashear and the Confederates eager to take it – resulted in Thibodaux being virtually abandoned by the Yankees. A small force of Union troops had moved south to Lafourche Crossing, intent on protecting the railroad, whose tracks were essential for troop movements all the way from New Orleans to points west.


On June 20, 1863, arriving Confederate forces – including Texas cavalry units – surprised the Union skeleton crew at the Thibodaux garrison, causing some to flee toward Lafourche Crossing, four miles to the south, and imprisoning others.

Thibodaux residents took to the streets and cheered the Texas troops, believing their redemption was at hand.

Advancing Confederates also seized the railroad depot and garrison in Schriever, sending Union soldiers on a retreat over railroad tracks to Lafourche Crossing as well.

Union Lt. Col. Albert Stickney was charged with protecting the crossing, strategically vital for troop movements on New Orleans, Opelousas and Great Western rail line, already compromised at Schriever. Troops arrived by train from points east and a cannon was set up in the railroad trestle where it rises above what is now La. Highway 308.

The current trestle was rebuilt in years following the war, and in 1863 a wooden bridge crossed bayou Lafourche. Pena said he believed the stone embankments that form the base of the trestle were already in place.

Geographically the area was quite different from its appearance today. Bayou Lafourche was wider and deeper, still fed by the Mississippi River then. Huge river steamers traveled up and down the bayou, which on the La. Highway 308 side was sided by a levee described as 12 feet high in spots.

North of the crossing the old Chatchie Plantation house – since burned and rebuilt – was converted into a field hospital, particularly necessary because a number of the Union troops evacuated to the crossing were severely ailing.

Stickney’s troops included members of the 23rd Connecticut, 26th Massachusetts, 26th Maine and 176th New York infantries, the 42nd Massachusetts, 21st Indiana Heavy Artillery and 25th New York Light Artillery.


Faulty intelligence and problematic communications made for conflicting estimates of how large the rebel threat to Lafourche Crossing was – and a false assumption that the railroad crossing was the chief target of Confederate troops.

Late on the afternoon of June 20, a Confederate force was fired on by Union artillery, while advancing from Thibodaux on the La. Highway 308 side of the bayou.

Rebel soldiers retreated back to Thibodaux and reported on the strength of Union forces and the presence of artillery.

The next morning Col. James P. Major, who had checked Union forces from advancing toward Thibodaux at Chacahoula, rode into the city, with orders from Maj. Gen. Richard Taylor to head out toward Brashear City, cutting off any escape route for federals from there.

To keep Stickney’s blue-coats occupied during that maneuver, a major ordered Col. Charles Pyron and his Second Texas Cavalry to feign an attack on Lafourche Crossing, where the Union force had grown to more than 850. A full-blown charge was never requested or expected.

“Lafourche Crossing was a battle that never should have occurred,” Pena said in an interview last week.

Pyron’s cavalry along with members from other units consisted of 206 men.

The Texas troops were described by the Rev. Charles Menard, pastor of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Thibodaux as “most disagreeable.”

As they awaited an over-estimated rebel onslaught, soldiers from the North slaughtered and ate chickens from nearby plantations, excoriated by a servant from one plantation for killing a mother duck after separating it from its ducklings, according to one account.

Personal accounts later published by Union officers tell of difficulty mustering fearful troops who nonetheless were eventually prepared.


Pyron, who inexplicably chose a full-forward attack on the Yankee outpost, his men reported, by some Union accounts, drunk on alcohol seized at Thibodaux stores, was delayed from moving forward at first due to heavy rains.

Lt. Colonel Augustine Dugannes of the New York 176th – a poet and writer by trade – colorfully describes the attack in his memoirs.

“Such a roaring, leaping, riotous set never galloped before to a battle-field,” Dugannes states. “Every man is more or less intoxicated, and some so drunk that, if they were not Texans and born riders, they could never keep their saddles. The afternoon was showery, and as this motley array gallops down the bayou banks, a terrible thunderstorm breaks overhead, discharging torrents of sheeted rain. I never saw the water come down in greater volume than it did that day on the Opelousas Railroad line-flooding the fields, raising the water courses, making roads like lakes, and bridle-paths impassable.”

The cavalry was met by fire from three, 12-pound howitzers once they 100 yards of the Union position.

“Our brave boys … bite off cartridges, and load, and ram down, and half-face to a ready, and take aim, and-their deadly fire tells the rest of the story till rebel horsemen reel, and their steeds, with loose bridles, break before the Yankee hurricane,” the account of Duganne continues.

The rebels regrouped and charged again. Cannon smoke and fog, various accounts state, made distance-vision nearly impossible, and so the fighting degenerated into bloody hand-to-hand combat as horses panicked and bugles blared.

“The charging squadrons bear down like thunder-clouds, with a lurid flame from the muzzles of their guns marking the line of advance,” Duganne’s memoir states. “Our artillerymen sight their cannon against the black, advancing masses that come sweeping through torrents of rain. Up the embankment this time; up to the cannon mouths, over howitzers and into infantry ranks, the rebels sweep like a tornado. They drive back gunners and musketeers, they leap from their saddles, closing upon our 129 bayonets.”


The surviving Texans retreated in darkness back to Thibodaux.

A Texas lieutenant, by several accounts including the one from Duganne – fueled by anger, alcohol, madness or any combination of those, it is presumed “charged upon a howitzer and sprang from his saddle at its muzzle … He falls forward on the gun, clasping it with both arms and yelling an oath ‘surrender Yank, this piece is mine.’”

The demand was met by a thrust of the gunner’s sword and, according to some accounts, as many as six northern bayonets.

At the height of the battle the firing was fierce, recalled Lt. George Quien of the 23rd Connecticut’s Company K.

“I got so used to the bullets that they sounded to me like bumblebees passing,” Quien wrote in his memoir, whose words relate the scene after the Texas retreat.

“The ground was covered with wounded rebs, holloaing (sic) for water. Most of them were shot through the chest as they were crawling on their hands and knees to get under our fire, but we raked the ground … In the morning all those in front of our line of battle were dead but one; he had both eyes shot out.”

In the days following the battle Union forces retreated from a false report of a rebel force thousands strong that never materialized. In the panic and confusion three artillery pieces had their carriages purposely burned; the cannon themselves were rolled into the bayou. Due to the significant receding of its waters it is now the belief of historians that the cannons lay below La. Highway 308 or the lands at the bank.

No attempt to recover them has ever been made.


The official tally of casualties is eight Union soldiers killed and 41 wounded, with 53 Confederates dead and 60 wounded.

But some accounts suggest the Confederate dead might have numbered one hundred. There are reports of dead from both sides being carried from the field, but historians say there is a potential that some were left behind. If so they are presumed still lying beneath pavement or a lawn, the historical marker the only sign that they were ever there.

Twenty of Pyron’s Texas cavalry lie sleeping in St. Joseph Cemetery in Thibodaux, presumably in a mass grave where a monument erected by the Daughters of the Confederacy marks their presence.

As the war progressed Thibodaux came back under Union control; the siege at Vicksburg finally paid off for Grant, although Brashear City fell to the Confederates.

Other battles occurred in southeast Louisiana but no threat to the Union hold on New Orleans materialized. Once the peace was made federal dominance remained the rule in Louisiana, sculpting its future economy and history.

Much must still be learned about how the lessons of history apply to the region, academics generally agree, noting that understanding of what occurred at places like Lafourche Crossing is important to that process.

“Our culture is not separate from out past and our understanding of ourselves depends upon how well we understand how our forefathers lived and what they went through,” said Thibodaux attorney David Plater, former owner of Thibodaux’s Acadia Plantation. “The 19th century particularly was one of intense change and excitement and sorrow and ups and downs. We are still living wit the effects of slavery, a tremendous thing we need to understand better, how we could have done this. We still have vestiges of attitudes we had during slavery times.”

During past years the Sons of Confederate Veterans Randall Lee Gibson Camp has staged memorials at the cemetery, but the group’s Thibodaux presence has dwindled and the services have not occurred for at least five years.

Some who live in the immediate vicinity of the battle say they are aware that it occurred, but profess little detailed knowledge.

“I don’t know anything about it,” said Judy Thibodeaux, a retired medical worker who has lived across from the Lafourche Crossing fire station for 43 years. “I have heard they had a battle but I hadn’t heard anything else.”

A sign along La. Highway 308 in Thibodaux marks the area where the Battle of Lafourche Crossing was fought 152 years ago this week. Once of the bloodiest battles in the region, the fight was a victory for occupying federal troops.