My Civil War
Louisiana confronted secession, civil war
Dr. Terry L. Jones
As a teenager growing up in the piney woods of Winn Parish, Louisiana, I frequently looked out our front window to see an old man in well-worn overalls gingerly climb over the fence and walk up the hill toward the house. Uncle Alce (short for Alson) lived next door, and he often came over to drink coffee by the fireplace and catch up on local news when my father was home from his pipeline construction job.
Uncle Alce's father, Elisha, was my great great grandfather and is one of six generations of Joneses buried in the local cemetery. Elisha and his extended family were poor dirt farmers in 1861, and they chose to sit out the Civil War after Winn Parish voted against secession. Not until the Yankees captured New Orleans and a conscription law was passed in 1862 did Elisha join several hundred other parish men in enlisting in the 28th Louisiana Volunteers. Military records indicate he deserted the following summer while the regiment was serving in South Louisiana. When asked about it, Uncle Alce quickly answered, "Pa wasn't a deserter. He came home to get in the corn crop and then went back."
Elisha's military career ended less than a year later. On April 8, 1864, he and the other Winn Parish boys in General Alfred Mouton's division made a dramatic bayonet charge at the Battle of Mansfield, Louisiana. Uncle Alce recalled, "Pa and one of his neighbors were running side by side when a bullet went through Pa's right hand breaking all the bones but his little finger. The bullet then hit his neighbor in the leg. They were both crippled by one shot and cussed that Yankee for the rest of their lives."
When family members learned of Elisha's wounding, they drove a wagon seventy miles to Mansfield to bring him home. His hand drew up into a useless claw, and he was later awarded an $8 a month state pension.
Like many Southerners, my family tree has deep Civil War roots. Elisha's brother also enlisted in the 28th Louisiana and was captured on Bayou Teche. Two of my maternal great great grandfathers, Captain John W. "Pappy" Jones, company commander of the 46th Mississippi's Jefferson Davis Rebels, and Thomas Walden of the 4th Mississippi Cavalry, were captured at Vicksburg. After Grandpa Walden was paroled, he had to walk home to Newton County, and his ill fitting shoes caused his feet to break out in diabetic sores that never healed.
My grandmother lived with Grandpa Walden about fifty years after the war, and she vividly recalled the price he paid for wearing the gray. "I remember he had to get up every morning and change the dressings on his feet," she told me. "His feet never healed and there were just open sores on them all the time."
Although the guns have been silent for nearly 150 years, I regularly see reminders of the Civil War. The small rural community where I grew up is known as Hoghair (Uncle Alce said it was originally called Possum Neck, but that's another story). No battles were fought anywhere nearby, but the ghosts of Civil War and Reconstruction lurk all around. A few miles from my boyhood home is Yankee Springs Baptist Church, which got its name during Reconstruction when former Rebels robbed and murdered a Yankee payroll officer there. From Yankee Springs, one can cut through the woods to a salt flat that still bears the scars of brine wells dug by slaves to gather salt for the Confederate army. Within site of the farm pond in which I was baptized stands an old oak tree where two carpetbaggers were reportedly hanged (and it was rumored the landowner once plowed up their skulls).
When sitting on the front porch of the home place on a quiet evening, I can almost hear the tramp of marching troops in the distance. Our mailbox sits on the very road Grandpa Elisha came down in 1864 when his brigade left its winter camp at modern-day West Monroe and made its way to Alexandria to join General Richard Taylor's small army to stop the Yankee juggernaut coming up Red River.
Interestingly, one of the soldiers recalled in his memoirs the very day they passed our home place: "The 28th Louisiana Regiment had been raised in this portion of the state, and as we pursued our journey, their wives, sisters, and sweethearts came on horse back and in wagons to see them, often following for two or three days. . . .An old lady on horseback, who perhaps had several sons in the command, accompanied us for several days, generally riding in the advance. Upon reaching the top of a high hill, presenting a good view of the line of advancing troops for a long distance in the rear, she halted her horse and, gazing back upon the road filled with men as far as she could see, remarked, 'Well, well, there's a heap of sons, and it took a heap of mothers to raise all them sons.'" I have often wondered what it would have been like to have joined the nameless woman and watched my great great grandfather march by on his way to Mansfield's killing ground.
Even after I began teaching in the 1970s, I regularly encountered people who remembered Civil War veterans. I once took a high school class to Vicksburg, Mississippi, and hired an elderly lady as a tour guide. As a young girl in 1917 she witnessed the famous "walking stick war" that occurred when several thousand veterans held a reunion there. "My father and I went to town in the wagon," she told my mesmerized students, "and as we approached the camp ground we could hear a low rumble, like thunder. We rounded the bend and there were all these old gray bearded men rolling on the ground. Some didn't even have an arm or leg, but they were hitting, kicking, and biting each other. They got to talking about the battle and somebody must have said something somebody didn't like and they lit into each other again. It was the strangest thing I had ever seen, but Daddy just whipped the horses and we drove on through."
Louisiana provided more soldiers to the defense of Vicksburg than any other Confederate state so many of those old men probably hailed from here.
A few years later, an acquaintance allowed me to use the diary of Michigan Corporal Joseph W. Ely for my master's thesis. When I learned Ely's granddaughter, Leona Farnsworth, still lived in Allegan, Michigan, my wife, Carol, and I visited her and arranged to return the diaries to the family. Mrs. Farnsworth showed us some of Ely's letters, provided photographs, and shared her memories of living with the old veteran when she was a young girl. While looking at one photograph, she pointed out he was missing the tip of his ring finger and said he lost it during a battle outside Atlanta, Georgia. "He said he didn't even know he was wounded until the fighting was over and he noticed his hand felt warm. When he looked down, my grandfather saw the finger tip was just hanging by a piece of skin, so he took out his pocketknife, cut it off, and wrapped the stub with his handkerchief."
Mrs. Farnsworth also showed us a letter in which Ely mentioned his fianceť, Maggie, had married another man while he was fighting in the Atlanta Campaign. "When he returned home," she said, "my grandfather went over to Maggie's house and stood in her yard and sang 'When This Cruel War is Over' as loud as he could. She busted out crying, but he just mounted his horse and rode back home." Before visiting Mrs. Farnsworth, I had never much considered how Northerners felt about the Civil War, but the trip to Michigan convinced me that it was as an important part of their family heritage as it was of mine.
The bloody Civil War began 150 years ago this April and by the time it ran its course four years later, some 618,000 American soldiers were dead. That number nearly equals the American dead in all of our other wars put together. Louisiana played a key role in the Civil War, providing approximately 65,000 soldiers to the Confederate army and additional thousands to the Union. Historians have documented more than 600 battles in the state, and Louisiana soldiers participated in many more on such far away fields as Bull Run, Shiloh, and Gettysburg. Over the course of the Civil War Sesquicentennial, I'll be contributing a monthly article to this publication to tell the story of Louisiana in the Civil War. Each article will focus on events taking place that same month 150 years earlier. I hope you enjoy them.
Dr. Terry L. Jones is a professor of history at the University of Louisiana at Monroe and has published six books on the American Civil War.