By Renée S. Gordon
“Let me tell you what is coming. After the sacrifice of countless millions of treasure and hundreds of thousands of lives you may win Southern independence, but I doubt it. The North is determined to preserve this Union. They are not a fiery, impulsive people as you are, for they live in colder climates. But when they begin to move in a given direction, they move with the steady momentum and perseverance of a mighty avalanche.”
The Louisiana Territory became a French colony in 1682 and remained so until it was ceded to Spain in 1783. Seventeen years later the region was returned to Spain for the three year period before the United States purchased the land for 3 cents an acre with the Louisiana Purchase.
Slavery was introduced in Louisiana from its founding and in 1712, Antoine Crozat became proprietor of the colony and was mandated by the king to populate the land with white settlers and black slaves. When the company of John Law took over in 1717 they promised to increase the black population by 3,000 by 1727 and by the time the territory was ceded to Spain there were 32,062 blacks, enslaved and free, some slaves were craftsmen and artisans but the vast majority labored on plantations.
By the onset of the Civil War Louisiana had prospered greatly from the institution of slavery. The price of slaves was higher than in any other state and by many accounts slavery was at its harshest there. To be “sold down river” was to be sent to New Orleans, the largest slave port in the country, and was every enslaved individual’s fear. There were 331,726 slaves and 18,647 free blacks, 49 percent of the total population, in Louisiana listed in the 1860 census.
The stage was set for the nation’s greatest conflict and North Louisiana was destined to play a unique role. Traditionally a tapestry of people and interests, unionists, confederates, slaves, freedmen, creoles, planters, traders and ordinary citizens, would impact and be impacted upon by the war and what was to become known as the Red River Campaign. In total more than 500 military engagements would take place throughout the state between 1861 and 1865. www.louisianatravel.com
On April 28, 1862 the Union army and 14 ships under Admiral Farragut, took control of New Orleans after Fort Jackson was abandoned by the Confederates to prevent its devastation. The Union capture of the South’s largest city and most important seaport was followed by the capture of Baton Rouge, the state capital, on May 9th. These cities would remain under federal control for the duration of the war and the capital would move, first to Opelousas and then, from spring 1864 to May 1865 in Shreveport.
Shreveport was the unmet goal of the Red River Campaign, the worst military debacle of the Civil War. The Union wanted to control the Confederate capital and the Red River, forestall any alliances the South might make with the French in Mexico, disrupt supply lines and seize the cotton produced in Louisiana and Texas. The effort lasted less than 6-weeks in 1864, was the largest naval expedition of the war and resulted in the final Confederate victory.
On March 20, 1839 Shreve Town was incorporated as Shreveport on land previously owned by he Caddo Indians. It was named after Captain Henry Shreve, a US Army engineer who successfully cleared a 180-mile logjam on the Red River. The town, situated at the juncture of the river and the Texas Trail, was originally 64-blocks that are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP).
A good place to obtain an overview of the Civil War in North Louisiana is in Shreveport. Not only are there museums that interpret the history but there are also locations that you can visit that are virtually unaltered. Walking and driving tour brochures are available that include maps, guides and historic information. By 1865 Louisiana would count nearly 30,000 Confederate, 5,000 Union and 24,000 African American soldiers and this tour seeks to tell their stories. www.shreveport-bossier.org
I began my tour at the controversial Confederate Memorial, erected in 1906 by the Daughters of the Confederacy on the north front of the Caddo Parish Courthouse. This is the third courthouse on site, the first served as Louisiana’s Confederate Courthouse and it was there that the last flag of the CSA was finally lowered on June 26, 1865.
A Confederate soldier stands atop the monument and busts of Lee, Jackson, Beauregard and Gov. Allen are carved below. Clio, the muse of history, points to a book inscribed with the words, “Lest We Forget.” The inscription on the back reads, “To the Just Cause, 1861-1865,” and a Confederate flag flies aloft. The Third National Flag of the Confederacy is known as the “blood-stained banner” and blends the battle flag and a red stripe, symbolizing the Confederates readiness to die for their beliefs. A flat stone monument rests at the foot of the statue. Confederate veterans dedicated it in 1936 at their 46th reunion. Less than two weeks ago the NAACP requested that the flag be removed citing that its implications are offensive.
I felt that this was a place to begin because it graphically represents some of the issues and feelings that commemorations of the war arouse.
Louisiana State Exhibit Museum is an architecturally arresting neo-classical building listed on the NHRP. The 1937 circular edifice has two wings, the oldest outdoor frescoes in the nation flanking the entrance and a topographical map of the state in the foyer. The exhibits are mounted along the walls and in freestanding cases. The most spectacular displays are a series of 22 handcrafted dioramas, created over a 25-year period, accurately depicting “Life in Louisiana in the 1930s.” Civil War and Reconstruction objects include a copy of the Reconstructed Constitution of LA, paintings by African American folk artist Clementine Hunter and wartime documents and memorabilia. www.sec.state.la.us
The J. Bennett Johnson Waterway Regional Visitor Center interprets the history of the Red River with a special emphasis on its importance in the Civil War. A 10-minute video relates the facts that the 236-mile Red River predates dinosaurs, travels through five states and averages 9-ft. deep and 200-ft. wide. The main exhibit focuses on the 1856 side-wheeler Kentucky that sank on June 9, 1865 with 800 passengers, most paroled Confederates and 250 horses aboard and as many as 200 died. In 1995 salvage efforts were made and then the ship was buried in 25-ft. of soil to prevent looting. On display are recovered items including the anchor. www.mvk.usace.army.mil/lakes/la/JBennettVistorCenter
The 65-acre Fort Turnbull was constructed in 1864 to repulse the oncoming Union soldiers. It was nicknamed Fort Humbug when the outgunned Confederates cut down trees, charred the trunks and arranged them to look like cannons. These “Quaker cannons” served their purpose. When Union spies caught sight of the heavily armed fortification they reported it and there was no attack. Confederate General John Magruder, after inspecting the stronghold, deemed it a “humbug” and the name stuck. A replica of the fake cannons is sits at the entrance to the fort.
Oakland Cemetery, opened in 1847, is the final resting place for both black and white Shreveport residents. Most notably it contains more than 1,000 Confederates, a mass grave for 759 victims of the yellow fever epidemic of 1873 and the grave of Amanda Arnett Clark, a philanthropist born a slave in 1840. Annie McCune, a madam in the legal red light district, rests there. Legend has it that Huddie “Ledbelly” Ledbetter played in front of her “house.” Brochures are available at the gate. www.oaklandcemeteryla.org
Centenary College was established in 1826.The school was alternately controlled by both sides in the war and the dorms were used as a hospital during the siege of Port Hudson. Jefferson Davis attended the school. It is currently a State Historic Site.
The 1905 Victorian 2439 Fairfield bed and breakfast is the perfect place to stay while in Shreveport. This elegant residence is replete with guest accommodations filled with antiques, designer linens, whirlpool tubs, private balconies and offers a full English breakfast. It has won numerous awards and has been featured on PBS. www.bbonline.com/la/fairfield
Strawn’s Eat Shop, opened in 1944, is rated one of the top five diners in the South and a meal here is a mandatory Shreveport tradition. Be certain to check out the murals depicting the restaurants famous diners. I promise you’ll love it.
Mary B. Cane owned Elysian Grove Plantation. She operated a ferry service and a supply depot for settlers moving further west. She died in 1902 and the mansion was demolished in the 1920s. The Horseshoe Casino is located on the site today. The casino is worth a trip to dine in Jack Binion’s Steak House where the food tastes like a million dollars. The service is impeccable, the cuisine outstanding and the views of the Red River stunning. If after dining you’re up for a lagniappe you can pause to gawk at the Million Dollar Wall. It is comprised of 10,000 one hundred dollar bills arranged in sequential order. www.horseshoebossiercity.com
There are more stories to share and we’ll continue to follow the Red River as we experience North Louisiana’s heritage and history. If you have particular areas of interest the Louisiana Office of Tourism has an incredible website that allows visitors to create an itinerary. The African American website, “A Story Like No Other,” is particularly marvelous and was inaugurated in the Tremé neighborhood in New Orleans. I urge you to visit. www.astorylikenoother.com
Here’s a recipe you can work on until we take to the road again. I don’t know the quantities for the ingredients but I don’t think it will matter.
Union Army Homemade Liquor:
and alcohol. www.explorelouisiananorth.org
I wish you smooth and steadfast travels!