Louisiana voted to secede by a slim margin, with anti-secession sentiment particularly strong among immigrants and merchants in New Orleans. But once the state took the fateful step, most such residents rallied to the cause.
My great-grandfather fit this profile. He was a merchant who had come to New Orleans from Hannover as a young man to work quietly in deskbound commerce. But after secession, he pulled together a small army of his fellow Germans, saddled a horse and headed for Virginia. In a matter of months, he had hundreds of men under his command.
Despite Louisiana’s mixed feelings, it was a Louisianian who lit the fuse of war. In April 1861, Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard ordered the momentous assault on the Union-held Fort Sumter in South Carolina. The following winter, Beauregard sought a transfer to New Orleans, hoping to lead the city’s defense against a Union siege. Fatefully, the Confederate high command rejected his request.
New Orleans was by far the largest city in the Confederacy, and its capture meant control of trade along the Mississippi River. Recognizing this, the Union sent an invasion force under Adm. David Farragut. To reach the city, Farragut had to get past Forts St. Phillip and Jackson, on opposite sides of the Mississippi. Farragut ran through a heavy bombardment and seized the city.
“The Confederate government had misplaced confidence that the forts could stop invasions,” says William Cooper, Boyd Professor of History at Louisiana State University. Only a year into the war, Union forces were patrolling the streets of the Confederacy’s greatest city.
For pro-Union elements in New Orleans, the occupation was a relief. This included the free black Creole population, whose proud and long-serving militiamen had offered to support the Confederacy – but were rebuffed and disbanded. Creoles of color in central Louisiana, many of them wealthy slave-owners who initially supported the Confederacy, felt similarly rejected.
Louisiana’s complex racial hierarchy didn’t figure into the monochrome Southern worldview. Yet Louisianians found a place in the highest ranks of the Confederacy, in the personage of Judah P. Benjamin. Benjamin had represented Louisiana in the U.S. Senate, where he gained a reputation for a sharp oratory and a formidable legal mind. In the Confederacy, he served first as attorney general, then secretary of war, then secretary of state.
Most Louisiana soldiers fought outside of the state, but numerous small conflicts and two significant battles occurred here. In the Siege of Port Hudson (1863), Union Gen. Nathaniel Banks conquered the Confederate stronghold, opening the Mississippi River to Union navigation. Banks then proceeded on to the Red River campaign, which ended with a humiliating defeat at the Battle of Mansfield (1864) by Confederate Gen. Richard Taylor, son of former U.S. President Zachary Taylor. A year later, however, the Union would claim the ultimate victory.
With the South shattered, people in Louisiana attempted to piece together their lives. My great-grandfather was among them. He revived his business and married a much younger Creole woman (my great-grandmother). With the economy in chaos, he eventually returned to Europe with his young family to live out his remaining years. But having slogged battle after battle, including the bloodbath at Shiloh, it is doubtful that he ever completely left the war behind.