April 14, 1863 (Tuesday)
While General Grant was trying to send troops south to help Nathaniel Banks capture Port Hudson, Banks had set that plan on the far back burner and was currently eighty miles south trying to give oust Rebels from Grand Lake. This was somewhat unexpected. Banks had tried to take Port Hudson, but the attempt was half-hearted and he quickly got discouraged.
Like Grant at Vicksburg, he then decided to simply bypass it via the maze of waterways to the west. To make this happen, a smaller Confederate force under Banks’ old Shenandoah adversary, Richard Taylor, would have to be handled.
Taylor’s 3,000 men had established Fort Bisland near the fairly isolated Berwick City. Among their ranks was a brigade of infantry under Henry Sibley and a cavalry regiment under Tom Green – all that was left of the Army of New Mexico, which had sacrificed itself in early 1862 attempting to open a Confederate route to California.
To get at the Rebels, Banks moved troops down the Mississippi to Donaldsonville and then marched them overland to Thibodaux. Continuing onward, by April 8, he had set up his headquarters at Brasher City. It was there they set up camp for two and a half divisions of men.
Their first resistance from the Confederates came in crossing Berwick Bayou. About 8,000 of Banks’ men under William Emory brushed aside the skirmishers and pickets, while a division under Cuvier Grover took steamers up Grand Lake to take the Rebels from behind. While Grover made his way by water, Emory took his time, wanting to make sure that he did not beat Grover to the punch.
But Grover’s slowed to a crawl as his men tried to plow their way through unharvested sugarcane fields. It was an exhausting and maddening march. By April 12, however, they could finally see Confederate Fort Bisland. The small earthen fort was actually on both sides of Bayou Teche. Holding water in the middle was the gunboat CSS Diana.
Taylor’s 3,000, with the help of the Diana were able to hold Emory’s Federals back on the first day. That night as the Federals in his front fell back, Taylor sent a regiment towards Centerville in his rear to hold off Grover’s landing party.
As April 13 dawned, Grover landed at Magee’s Point, several miles up Grand Lake from Centerville. But he took until midday to get started. This gave the Rebels time to burn several bridges and place obstructions in their path. Grover, who had no real idea how many Confederates were in his front, did not hurry his men along. Rebel artillery did the rest.
But Taylor knew that he couldn’t hold out against 16,000 Federals. Emory had attacked once in the late morning, and while his men at Fort Bisland were able to hold them off, that couldn’t last forever. The Diana had been taken out of the fight by Federal artillery. Another infantry attack was foiled, but in the late afternoon, the Federal gunboat Clifton arrived with news for Banks that Grover was finally in place outside of Franklin. That night, Taylor figured it out and ordered Fort Bisland to be abandoned. If the Federals got to Franklin, and captured the cutoff road to New Iberia, Taylor’s last line of retreat would be lost.
At the morning of this date, Grover’s Division stepped off, brushing aside a few Rebel pickets, as he trod his way towards Franklin to seal the Confederates’ fate. Fortunately for the Rebels, the Diana had been repaired and lent a hand to the several regiments near Centerville that were attempting to hold back Grover’s 8,000. With the addition of a full brigade from Fort Bisland, and a screaming countercharge, the Rebels were holding, even pushing the Federals back.
Emory’s Federals entered abandoned Fort Bisland in the morning and were met and held up by Tom Green’s Rebel cavalry at Centerville as they tried to push on. Finally, all of the force from Fort Bisland had arrived in Franklin and were ready to make good their retreat. Taylor ordered Sibley to burn the bridge behind them, but only after the troops facing Grover had fallen back. Sibley, however, jumped the gun, and set the bridge to burning after only his brigade had crossed.
Grover’s men regrouped and pushed the Rebels south towards Franklin. With orders to retreat, they made for the bridge that Sibley had set ablaze. Though it was engulfed, it was still standing. The men forced their way through the conflagration, their hair and cloths catching fire, their skin burning. But all made it across.
The gunboat Diana had to be destroyed else she fall into Federal hands, and she too was set afire, exploding before Banks’ men could nab her.
The Confederates had escaped. Both Emory’s men and Grover’s arrived at the burned out bridge leading to the cutoff road at 2pm. General Banks was also there, and decided not to pursue along the much longer route that the cutoff had replaced.
Losses on the Federal side were 89 killed and 458 wounded. Taylor never could estimate his own losses, though they were probably much the same. What really hurt him, however, was the retreat, where he lost around a third of his men to desertion. These losses made him unable to check Banks’ pursuit.
By April 20, Taylor would be in Washington, while Banks occupied Opelousas, taking control of the Atchafalaya. This would effectively link Federal-held New Orleans to the Red River. By May 7, he would take Alexandria.
Banks, of course, saw all of this as great success, but he was the only one. The Confederates, though losing quite a bit of ground, took and entire army out of the fight long the Mississippi. They knew that the decisive battle in the West would come at Vicksburg. If Banks was wandering around the swamps south and west of Port Hudson, he couldn’t be with General Grant for the grand assault. Union General-in-Chief Henry Halleck completely agreed, chastising Banks for making “these eccentric movements.”
A month would pass before Banks would make another move.1
- Sources: Pretense of Glory by James G. Hollandsworth, Jr.; Battle in the Bayou Country by Morris Raphael; Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 15. [↩]