Friday, March 26, 2010

Alfred Mouton--Hero of the Acadian People Who Laid Down His Life in Defense of His State

It was April 8, 1864.

Throughout the day, Jean Jacques Alfred Alexander Mouton sat with his Confederate division, poised about 3 miles southeast of Mansfield, awaiting orders.

Alfred Mouton Portrait
(Alexandre Mouton House)
The young brigadier general and his men watched anxiously as Federal infantrymen, under the command of Major General Nathaniel P. Banks, assembled with an advance guard of Yankee cavalry. After the two armies briefly exchanged cannon fire, Major General Richard Taylor, Mouton's superior, gave the order for a flank attack on the Union right.

Taylor knew no other way to stop Banks' campaign to capture Shreveport, the capital of Confederate Louisiana.

At 4 p.m. Mouton began the attack out in front of his own brigade, made up of the Consolidated 18th Louisiana Infantry, the 28th Louisiana Infantry and the Consolidated Crescent Regiment. The awesome charge was one of the most decisive of the war.

As the charge progressed, Mouton approached a group of 35 Union soldiers who, in the face of the deadly onslaught, laid down their arms in surrender. Mouton gallantly ordered his men not to fire at the surrendering enemy.

However, seeing the Confederate general, five of the Yankee soldiers picked up their muskets and fired a volley into Mouton. The Acadian general was dead before he hit the ground.

In seconds, Mouton's outraged men proceeded to shoot down all 35 Union infantrymen. ''Before their officers could check the savage impulse 30 guiltless Federals had paid with their lives for the cowardly act of five,'' according to a contemporary account.

Taylor and his mixed command of Louisiana Cajuns and Texas frontiersmen went on to stop the Northern invaders. But for Mouton's men the victory remained hollow.

Mouton's battle-hardened veterans openly wept over the death of their beloved chieftain. Two years later, Mouton's remains were brought home to Lafayette, then called Vermilionville.

When the coffin was opened, the five bullet holes could be plainly seen in his coat. With an elaborate ceremony conducted by five priests at St. John's Cathedral, his body was laid to rest in the church cemetery amid the tears of his family, friends and old comrades-in-arms.

Born Feb. 18, 1829, at Opelousas, J.J. Alfred A. Mouton was the product of the elite of Louisiana society. His grandfather, Jean Mouton, was among the Acadians exiled from Nova Scotia in 1755 and was one of the first settlers in what is today La fayette Parish.

Alfred's father, Alexander Mouton, served Louisiana as its governor, as a U.S. Senator and as president of the Louisiana Secession Convention.

Young Alfred benefited from the best schooling his state could offer. After receiving private tutoring from his mother, Zelia Rousseau Mouton, an exceedingly well-educated woman for the time, he entered St. Charles College in Grand Coteau on Dec. 1, 1838. There he received a sound basic education that prepared him for entry into the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1846.

Alfred was an average student and graduated West Point 38th in a class of 44 on June 18, 1850. He was then commissioned a second lieutenant in the 7th U.S. Cavalry.

With the Mexican War over, West Point graduates were given the option to resign. Mouton chose to retire to the life of a Louisiana planter and devoted the following 10 years to running the family plantation, ''Ile Copal'' at Vermilionville.

The young planter also dabbled in local politics and served in the state militia. These were evidently his happiest years with his marriage to Zelia Mouton, a 16-year-old second-cousin, on Feb. 7, 1854. To the couple were born five children, four girls and one boy.

The future general did have an opportunity to lead men in battle before the outbreak of the war. In the 1850s an increase in cattle rustling in southwest Louisiana and a subsequent breakdown in convicting suspects because of jury tampering, led to the formation of ''comites des vigilance,'' or vigilante committees.

Excesses of the vigilantes in turn led to the formation of ''anti-vigilante'' groups and the region was soon plunged into its own miniature civil war.

Mouton was one of the leaders of the vigilantes and the conflict came to a head on Sept. 3, 1859 with the ''Battle of Bayou Queue Tortu'' near what is now Crowley. Mouton led about 600 men in the attack, which overwhelmed the anti-vigilantes.

With the outbreak of war in 1861, his community naturally turned to Alfred Mouton for leadership, and he formed a volunteer military company called the Acadian Guard. He led the company to Camp Moore in Tangipahoa and it was incorporated into the 18th Louisiana Infantry Regiment, with Mouton as colonel.

Mouton's regiment's first battle was one of the bloodiest of the war, the Battle of Shiloh, Tennessee on April 6-7, 1862.

As part of Pond's brigade of Ruggles' division of Bragg's corps of the Confederate Army of the Mississippi, Mouton's regiment attacked the Union right flank on the morning of April 6.

Because some of his men were wearing blue coats, gray not yet having become uniform throughout the Confederate Army, the regiment suffered some friendly fire casualties when fired upon by a Tennessee regiment which mistook them for Yankees.

The blue coated Confederates turned their coats inside out to show the white lining, and then proceeded with the attack.

Mouton was ordered to take an enemy artillery battery by frontal assault, and although he thought the attack ill-advised, he drew his sword and said, ''Forward the 18th, follow men.'' Through a dense cloud of gun smoke and whining musket balls, Mouton led his men in the futile attack that was thrown back. The young Acadian colonel was so distraught over the needless slaughter of his men, he is reported to have openingly wept.

The next day, April 7, reinforced Union ranks launched a counter-attack against the exhausted Confederates who were driven slowly back into Mississippi. At 2 p.m., the 18th Louisiana and the Orleans Guard Battalion were ordered to counterattack.

Once again Colonel Mouton gallantly led a charge into a murderous fire. The losses were staggering, and the assault failed. Mouton was severely wounded.

While the rest of the army settled in Corinth, Mouton was evacuated to a New Orleans hospital. With his left eye damaged, he was in severe pain but after returning to ''Ile Copal'' for convalescence, he quickly recovered.

In recognition of his courageous battlefield leadership, Alfred Mouton, then 33, was promoted to brigadier general by President Jefferson Davis.

The new general was fit enough to rejoin the army in October, 1862. He was assigned to defend the Lafourche District with his headquarters at Thibodaux. The district was then the front lines, New Orleans having fallen to a Union invasion that past April.

Mouton had little man power with which to defend his district. His brigade consisted of a total force of about 2,393 men, including infantry, cavalry and artillery.

In late October a Federal force of 4,000 under Brigadier General Godfrey Weitzel was sent to clear the ''Rebels'' out of the Lafourche District.

The climax of the campaign came on Oct. 27, 1862 with the Battle of Labadieville.

Although initially the Union advance was halted, the Confederate defenders were slowly pushed back. Mouton had hoped to assemble enough men to drive the enemy back, but after the reinforcements failed to show, he realized he had no alternative but to retreat.

In his after action report, Mouton wrote, ''On the 28th, whilst slowly receding, I held the enemy in check, and at about 12 m. concluded that I was reduced to the sad alternative of evacuating the place or have my entire command captured,''

He was able to extract his command with relatively light casualties, which is the sign of a good general. He lost only five killed, eight wounded and 186 missing (mostly captured). The Federals lost 18 killed, 73 wounded and five captured or missing.

Mouton retreated to Bayou Teche and dug in at Cornay's bridge. That winter the two opposing sides sparred along the bayou, but it wasn't until the following spring that the Union offensive resumed.

He was reinforced by Sibley's Texas Brigade and General Taylor came down from his headquarters to personally take overall command. The Confederate Army numbered about 4,000 men.

But the North had also built up its strength to an overwhelming 30,000 men under the command of Major General Nathaniel Banks. The Union plan was for one portion of the army to attack the Confederates in the front, while the other portion would go by way of the bayous and land in the rear and cut off the Southerner's retreat.

The plan did not quite work. On April 13, 1863, at the Battle of Bisland Plantation near present day Patterson, Mouton's brigade held the left side of Bayou Teche and Sibley's brigade the right. The Federals launched five attacks that day on Mouton's trenches, but each time were thrown back in fierce fighting.

But that night, Taylor learned a second Union army was being landed up the bayou at Charenton, and realized his position was hopeless. He ordered the trenches evacuated.

The next morning the Confederate retreat was successfully covered by stopping the Union Army at the Battle of Irish Bend.

In his report of the battle, Mouton wrote, ''The enemy were in a position and threatened to cut off our retreat, but by means of a by-path, I succeeded in eluding their pursuit and extricated the troops from a very perilous attitude, arising from information not having been given me in time of arrival of our rearguard in Franklin, and saw every man file over a burning bridge in the rear of the village, myself and staff crossing when it was almost entirely consumed.''

Mouton, with his Acadians and Texans, was given the difficult assignment of stalling the Union advance through bayou country, while the bulk of the Confederate Army retreated back to Alexandria.

A sharp skirmish at Vermilionville on April 17, 1863, prevented the Yankees from catching up with the retreating Southerners. The bluecoats occupied Opelousas on April 19, but it took until May 4 for them to get to Alexandria.

At that time, Banks decided to turn his army toward Port Hudson and attempt to capture that Confederate bastion on the Mississippi River.

Meanwhile, Mouton retreated to Niblett's Bluff where preparations were made to repulse an attack that never came.

After the Federal intentions became clear, Mouton was given command of all Confederate forces in South Louisiana. His next action was to capture an important Federal supply depot at Brashear City in June. The autumn of 1863 was taken up by a confused and halting Union attempt to invade Texas by going across Southwest Louisiana, but which only got about as far as Chretien Point Plantation near Sunset before Banks changed his mind and called off the expedition.

That winter, Mouton's command was sent to North Louisiana with headquarter's in Monroe. The South Louisiana Acadians suffered greatly from the cold and Mouton had to struggle to keep them adequately clothed and fed.

Mouton forever endeared himself to his men by stretching regulations to the breaking point to take care of his men. In late January, 1864, a large shipment of supplies crossed through his territory. Mouton, assuming full responsibility, halted the column, confiscated the goods, then ordered the escort back to headquarters.

After explaining his action to the Trans-Mississippi Department commander, Lieutenant General Edmund Kirby Smith, and district commander Taylor, Mouton was fully supported in his decision.

The spring of 1864 brought the most serious attempt yet to occupy the rest of Louisiana and invade East Texas. Banks' first objective was to capture Shreveport, then invade Texas. He assembled 40,000 men and a whole fleet of Union gunboats and transports for the massive expedition. The invasion route would be up the Red River.

To meet this threat, Taylor's Army of Western Louisiana had only about 8,800men at his immediate disposal.

Taylors forces consisted of Mouton's infantry division, which included his own Louisiana brigade and the Texas brigade of Prince Camille de Polignac a French nobleman who had become known as the Lafayette of the South, Walker's Texas Infantry Division and Green's Texas Cavalry Division.
The campaign began in March and at first Taylor had no choice but to retreat before the overwhelming numbers.

However he found an excellent defensive position below Mansfield and decided to make his stand there. Taylor told his subordinates he would much rather lose the state after being defeated in battle, rather than just give it up without a fight.

Mouton positioned his and Polignac's brigades on the left of the stage road to Mansfield. They were defending a hill and were at the edge of a wooded area and behind a fence. Before them was a wide, open field the enemy would have to cross. To Mouton's right was Walker's Texans.

Mouton was with his Acadians of the 18th Louisiana when at 4 p.m. he opened the battle. Taylor showed his confidence in the Louisianians by choosing them to lead the charge.

According to eyewitness accounts, Mouton drew his sword and he and his men lept over the fence with a resounding yell and charged headlong into the Union line.

As they approached within 150 yards, the Federals let loose with a terrific volley of rifle fire and cannonade. The gray-clad attackers overran the line and entered the woods where they endured concentrated enemy volleys.

It was when they approached the second Union line that Mouton was pierced by the five bullets. His enraged men rushed on to completely rout the Federals and reverse the invasion.

The body of the fallen general was placed next to that of his old friend, Colonel Leopold Armant, commander of the 18th Louisiana who was also killed in the battle. Their broken-hearted men passed solemnly by the remains of the two beloved leaders. The two Louisiana heroes were buried side by side.

In his memoirs, Taylor said of his trusted subordinate, ''Above all, the death of gallant Mouton affected me. He had joined me soon after I reached western Louisiana and had ever proven faithful to duty. Modest, unselfish, and patriotic, he showed best in action, always leading his men.''

The grief of his Acadians touched even the hearts of the tough Texans of Walker's Division. One of them wrote, ''Its a fearful spectacle, to see strong-hearted men thus give way to their feelings. It demonstrated the devotion felt for their gallant chieftain, and showed how deeply he was enshrined in these brave souls.''

General Mouton's Statue, Lafayette
(Photo by Mike Jones)

No comments: