Tuesday, February 23, 2010


By  Mike Jones
Historians have paid little attention to one of Louisiana's greatest generals in the War Between the States Louis Hebert. But this South Louisiana Acadian had an outstanding combat record in the war and even ''out-engineered'' Ulysses S. Grant during the Siege of Vicksburg.

His unpublished autobiography, housed in the archives of University of Louisiana at Lafayette, gives his first hand account of many historical events. He also has numerous descendants throughout South Louisiana, including Calcasieu and Jeff Davis parishes.

Louis Hebert was born March 13, 1820, at Plaisance Plantation, about 5 miles south of Plaquemine in Iberville Parish.

The first half of his life followed a path that led to prosperity, fame and glory. He received the best education his state and nation could provide and he excelled in everything he did.

''I had previously imbibed the desire to enter the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York,'' Hebert wrote.

He entered West Point in June 1841 and, academically, was one of the outstanding cadets in the history of the academy. In mathematics he amazed his fellow cadets.

President Ulysses S. Grant, who was an upperclassman at the time, stood in awe of Hebert's mathematical abilities. Grant later remarked, ''In mathematics I was rather apt after I got fairly imbued with the subject. But we had a man there during my term of four years who was really a mathematical phenomenon. He was from Louisiana, and his name was Louis Hebert.''

After four tough years, Hebert graduated third in his class in 1845 and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the army's elite Corps of Engineers.

On Feb. 16, 1846, he resigned his commission to return home to run the family plantation. His father was in declining health and died on Christmas Eve, 1847.

Hebert prospered as a Louisiana planter and on March 6, 1848, he married Malvina Lambremont. In the 1850s Hebert served one term in the state Legislature, then as state engineer and as a colonel in the state militia.

His wife suffered from chronic ill health and died Aug. 10, 1860.

But his private grief was soon overwhelmed by national tragedythe secession of the Southern states and war.

In his autobiography Hebert states that in the election of 1860 he voted for the Northern Democratic candidate, Stephen A. Douglas, and had opposed secession.

But, like Robert E. Lee, when his state left the Union, he chose to remain loyal to it and defend Louisiana with his sword if needed.
With all hope of peace now gone, Hebert set about raising a 1,000-man regiment for the Confederate Army. His unit was officially designated the Third Regiment of Louisiana Volunteer Infantry.

Hebert's talent for command soon became evident. Wherever his regiment served it was recognized as being one of the finest looking, best disciplined and most expertly trained units in the army. His first fight came on Aug. 10, 1861, at the Battle of Oak Hills or Wilson's Creek, as the North called itabout 10 miles south of Springfield, Mo.

The Union forces struck first and drove the Confederates back. Hebert deployed his men in line of battle while under fire, a very tricky maneuver, and then counterattacked and drove the Northerners back.

Hebert's regiment captured an enemy artillery battery and helped turn the tide of battle in favor of the Confederates.

Hebert's first experience in leading men in combat went well and he was praised by his superior commanders for his coolness under fire and for the competence and reliability of his command. After the battle, though still in rank a colonel, he was given command of a brigade.

His next battle was the Battle of Elk Horn Tavern, Arkansas called Pea Ridge by the Northwhich occurred March 6-7, 1862. Hebert led his men in an attack on the Union line in which an enemy artillery battery was captured.

But the tide of battle turned against the Southerners and Hebert later wrote, ''I ordered a retreat, my own horse had received several wounds and was hardly able to stand up. I left him and suddenly a squadron of the enemy's cavalry cut off my retreat. I had with me 31 soldiers and sublatern officers. I had to go to the Mountains, the road being in possession of the enemy. At dusk we halted in a precipitous ravine for a moment. There we were surrounded by infantry and we surrendered.''

He was marched north into Missouri during which time he suffered from near starvation and exhaustion. But his suffering did not last long. Within two weeks of the battle he and another Confederate colonel were exchanged for two Union colonels, who were captives of the Confederates.

He had handled his brigade well under difficult circumstances at Elk Horn Tavern and was promoted to brigadier general on May 26, 1862.

After recovering from a bout with typhoid fever, his next fight, the Battle of Iuka, Miss. on Sept. 19, 1862, was one of Hebert's most brilliant performances in the war.

General Hebert led a furious attack that drove the Federals back. The Union Army suffered 825 casualties in the battle and the Confederates 693.

In this battle Hebert proved his ability to direct large numbers of soldiers in battle. However a short time later, Oct. 3-4, 1862 he would fight his most controversial battle at Corinth, Miss.

Major General Earl Van Dorn was overall commander of the western Confederate Army, who ordered a rash frontal assault on heavily fortified Union entrenchments at Corinth.

The first day's action was inconclusive and Hebert was ordered to lead his division in another frontal assault early on Oct. 4. However, the attack did not come off on time, and Van Dorn was informed that Hebert was sick. When the attack finally got under way, led by another general, it was a bloody disaster for the Confederates. Van Dorn soon withdrew his beaten army which had suffered 4,838 casualties, compared to 2,839 for the Federals.

The nature of Hebert's illness was never disclosed, and he never turned in an official report nor did he even mention the battle in his autobiography. Some historians however have speculated he could not bring himself to order his men into such an obviously suicidal attack.

His brigade was next assigned to Vicksburg, called the ''Gibraltar of the Mississippi.'' It was the key to control of the Mississippi River.

Hebert's brigade was placed in the center of the defense line guarding one of the most strategically important entrances to Vicksburg, the Jackson Road.

Approach to the Third Louisiana Redan
with Louisiana Monument in background
The anchor of Hebert's part of the line was the Third Louisiana Redan, a fort named in honor of his old regiment, which was located just north of the Jackson Road. A ''redan'' is a triangular fort.

As the 47 days of siege warfare got under way (May 18-July 4, 1863), Hebert's defenses became the main focus of Union General Grant's efforts to break the line. Siege warfare is a highly technical military science at which Hebert proved to be a master. He was able to successfully counter every move made by Grant as long as it lasted.

Grant's engineers started an underground mine to blow up the fort. Hebert had a counter-mine started, in hopes of blowing up their tunnel before they could blow up his fort.

Hebert also had a secondary defense line built behind the fort to serve as a back-up in case the Union diggers were ready first.

The Union engineers reported to Grant that Hebert's part of the defense line was resisting the Federal approach trench more vigorously than on any other part of the line.

The climax came on June 25 when the Federal engineers were ready to detonate their mine. They packed the tunnel with 2,200 pounds of explosives and lit the fuse.

Hebert, again out-thinking his enemy, had already withdrawn his men behind the fort to the secondary trench.

When the explosion was set off, it blew a crater in the fort that measured 12 feet deep and 40 feet in diameter.

A Union brigade poured into the yawning breech but instead of finding a clear path, encountered a wall of lead fired by the safely entrenched Louisiana, Missouri and Mississippi troops under Hebert's command.

A war correspondent for the Vicksburg Whig newspaper, who was an eyewitness, said, ''General Hebert, himself present during this engagement, acted with his usual coolness and intrepidity.'' But what military engineering science could not accomplish, starvation could and on July 4, 1863, the garrison surrendered.

The Confederate government soon declared all the surrendered general officers exchanged and returned to duty, but not the enlisted men. So Hebert found himself on duty but without a command.

President Jefferson Davis was on an inspection tour and Hebert consulted with him as to his course of action. The president informed Hebert that Major General W.H.C. Whiting, a classmate of Hebert's at West Point, had requested the Louisianan be made chief of artillery in the Department of North Carolina. He was only too happy to accept the offer.

Whiting immediately put Hebert in command of the forts, batteries, troops and defenses at the two mouths of the Cape Fear River, which protected the important seaport of Wilmington the most important of which were Fort Caswell, where Hebert was headquartered, and Fort Fisher.

By the end of 1864 Wilmington was the only large seaport still open to the Confederacy. European goods were flowing through the Union blockade and being forwarded up to Richmond and Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.

When the Union finally got around to mounting a serious attempt to take Wilmington in December 1864 and January 1865, they concentrated on Fort Fisher and thus Hebert was on the sidelines at Fort Caswell when Fort Fisher fell on Jan. 15, 1865.

The end of the war soon followed and Hebert surrendered to Federal authorities and was released.

In the hard times that followed he lost his family plantation and took up teaching to support his family. He died Jan. 7, 1901, in St. Martin Parish.

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