‘It Looks to Me Like a Big Steal’ – The Federals Occupy and Ransack Alexandria

March 16, 1864 (Wednesday)

Porter's fleet before Alexandria
Porter’s fleet before Alexandria

The Federals occupied Alexandria, Louisiana without firing a shot. According to their own reports, this feat seemed hardly important at all. “Arrived in Alexandria, La.,” read one itinerary. “Landed at Alexandria, La., and went into camp.” read another. To them, Alexandria was “rather a big village than a city.”

But the occupation of this big village meant that Fort DeRussy, the “Gibralter of the West” had fallen. Confederate commanders Richard Taylor and Kirby Smith were counting upon the fort to hold at least until reinforcement could be sent forward. It was not to be.

As some Union troops under General A.J. Smith remained at the fort to dismantle their prize, another column, under General Joseph Mower, had boarded transports and were whisked up stream with several of Admiral David Dixon Porter’s gunboats. The boats had approached the town the day previous, being held up by a log dam thrown out into the river by General Taylor’s Rebels. With nobody left to guard it, however, the obstruction was quickly dismantled and the gunboats steamed through.

Got yer cotton right here. - Porter
Got yer cotton right here. – Porter

Porter’s vessels were under the command of S.L. Phelps. Though dispatched with swiftness, the log dam may have held up the Federals long enough for General Taylor to empty the town of any supplies and provisions he would. In all, he loaded six steamers full and began to chug them up the Red River towards Shreveport. Phelps’s ships arrived just a half hour after Taylor slipped away. A landing party managed to round up only seven straggling Rebels, but also turned up three cannons somehow missed by the hasty Taylor.

In his memoirs, Admiral Porter wrote that on this date, “there were nine gun-boats lying off the town, and one hundred and eighty sailors were landed, to occupy the place and take possession of any Confederate Government property that might be stored there. The inhabitants were respectfully treated, and everything was as quiet as a New England village.”

But perhaps that wasn’t quite so. According to one of the town’s residents:

Immediately on disembarking, they [General Mower’s troops] were permitted to rush through the streets of the town, unrestrained by the presence of their officers. They made an indiscriminate onslaught upon every private residence, appropriating to themselves everything valuable upon which they could lay their hand – and the depositories of food were at once forced open and their contents borne away.

Would Governor Allen lie?
Would Governor Allen lie?

[…]

The drug stores, three in number, were among the first places taken possession of. These were at once despoiled of their contents, which were used in furnishing their hospitals in town, and one devoted to the reception of cases of small pox, two miles below town. Forty-four cases of this disease were landed from the transports on the day of their
arrival.

The stores of all descriptions underwent a similar spoliation; the iron safes forced and emptied, the ledgers, promissory notes, and accounts destroyed. Private residences were entered at night; writing desks, bureaus and armoirs rifled, aid the occupants insulted and abused in the grossest manner, despite the efforts of the provost marshal, Captain Wolf, who evinced every disposition to afford protection to those applying to him for guards about their premises.1

The infantry, however, weren’t the only ones ransacking the town. Porter’s Navy had but one thing in mind: cotton. According to one resident, after Admiral Porter’s flagship arrived “her crew entered Rachal’s warehouse, rolled out the cotton, all of which was private property, and marked on one end C.S., and on the other U.S.N., thus endeavoring to make it appear the cotton was captured property of the Confederate Government. Rear Admiral Porter was present, witnessed the fraud, and seemed in high glee at the adroitness with which his rascally ingenuity could outwit Banks, and appropriate the spoils of the expedition. The same thing was repeated in every yard, barn, and cuthouse where they found cotton. They seemed to believe it was hidden everywhere.”

Porter's fleet.
Porter’s fleet.

This statement was more or less confirmed a few days later by Union Quartermaster D.N. Welch. “The navy is seizing all the cotton they can get hold of,” he confirmed. “Every gun-boat is loaded with cotton, and the officers are taking it without regard to the loyalty of the owners. It looks to me like a big steal.” So not only was the Navy stealing private cotton, they were taking it from Unionists and Secessionists alike.

Early the following year, the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War held hearings concerning the Red River Campaign. Major D.C. Houston, the chief engineer of the Department of the Gulf, was asked about “the dealings in cotton” by the Navy. Major Houston, who had arrived a few days after Porter, replied: “At that time they were seizing cotton in the vicinity of Alexandria, and bringing it in there and putting it on board barges and other vessels as prize, as I understood at the time.”

Houston could not completely attest that Admiral Porter ordered such behavior, but “it was all in plain sight; I should think he could not help seeing it.” He also made note that “the army was rather disgusted with it.” When asked why the army might care, he admitted that it was “rather demoralizing to the soldiers to see the navy seizing the cotton for prize on land, while they did not get any.”

And so, for the next several days, the peaceful village of Alexandria would be besieged by such looting and speculation.2



  1. In his horribly slanted book, Richard Taylor and the Red River Campaign of 1864, author Samuel W. Mitcham, Jr., writes that Admiral Porter wrote some of the above testimony, and then uses it to segue into the abuses committed by Porter himself, even notating is as from Porter’s own memoirs: Naval History. If Mr. Mitcham had actually done his research, rather than be blinded by bitterness against the North, he would have not only found more ammunition to use against Northern troops, but found that this was, in fact, not written by Porter, but by Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Thomas C. Manning, who was quoting an Alexandria resident named Dr. Davidson. It appeared in a book published in 1866, collected by Governor Henry W. Allen – Louisiana’s last Confederate governor. The testimony is, of course, slanted, but with a bit of logic, some can be put to use. []
  2. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 34, Part 1, p306, 323, 330, 343; Part 2, p655; Official Records of the Navy, Series 1, Vol. 26, p31; The Naval History of the Civil War by David Dixon Porter; Report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War at the Second Session, Thirty-Eighth Congress, Red River Campaign, p 73-74; Official Report Relative to the Conduct of Federal Troops in Western Louisiana During the Invasions of 1863 and 1864 Compiled from sworn testimony, under direction of Governor Henry W. Allen; Richard Taylor and the Red River Campaign of 1864 by Samuel W. Mitcham, Jr.; Kirby Smith’s Confederacy by Robert L. Kerby. []
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‘It Looks to Me Like a Big Steal’ – The Federals Occupy and Ransack Alexandria by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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