Fort Butler Memorial
In August 1862, some 146 years ago, the former state capital of Louisiana was destroyed by the U. S. warships of Admiral David Farragut. This was followed by marshal law and military occupation of Donaldsonville, Ascension Parish and most of the river parishes.
By October, construction of the Union stronghold, Fort Butler, was being planned at the junction of Bayou Lafourche and the Mississippi River.
These events began a migration of hundreds of slaves, now fugitives, into Donaldsonville seeking protection and freedom. As days passed, they would go from slaves to fugitives to builders and defenders of Fort Butler.
Eight months later, on June 28, 1863, Fort Butler became the scene of a rare night battle that witnessed 2,000 soldiers, cavalry and artillery, joined by naval warships, engage in a pivotal battle that sealed a Union victory and the future of the USA.
Two years earlier, in January 1861, because of politics, Louisiana seceded from the Union and joined the Confederate States of America. Within weeks the Civil War began on orders of President Lincoln and Confederate General Beauregard, a Louisiana Creole.
Sixteen months later, in April 1862, the Queen City of the South, New Orleans, quietly surrendered to an intimidating ultimatum by Admiral David Farragut. The Queen City of the South was quickly put under the brutal rule of General Benjamin Butler of Massachusetts.
Four months later, like at New Orleans earlier, Farragut threatened Donaldsonville's Mayor Walker to lower the Bonnie Blue Flag and surrender. The mayor refused. Because of this, Farragut ordered his warships, in the early hours of August 9th, to destroy the town.
Within days, newspapers from New Orleans to New England reported on the event. One wrote; "Farragut ordered his fleet to destroy Donaldsonville. There is nothing left of the place."
The town faced the next fifteen years occupied by ruthless Union forces, scheming carpetbaggers and fickle scalawags all determined to get rich from Lincoln's Reconstruction programs.
Because of the town's important location, the Confederacy was determined to retake it, as well as New Orleans and the Mississippi River.
This caused the Union commander, General George Strong, to suggest to Lincoln that a fort be constructed on Bayou Lafourche near the river. He wrote; "A fort here will be instrumental to control of the river."
With his suggestion approved, General Godfrey Weitzel proposed that the Bostonian West Point graduate, Lt. John Palfrey, be sent to supervise construction.
Palfrey was not a casual choice. His was a covert assignment to build a fort and infiltrate the region by making use of his family for critical intelligence on Southern military decisions.
Besides being educated in fortifications, Palfrey had close ties to Louisiana. His Uncle William had settled on Bayou Teche in 1810 and was involved in politics. His Cousin Robert had been the first cashier of the Bank of Louisiana at Donaldsonville in 1824. This young soldier was an officer, a gentleman, an engineer, and also a spy.
After the occupation of the river parishes, word spread of the arrival of the Union military. Because of this and before the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation freed most African Slaves, they fled the plantations to the nearest occupied towns seeking liberty. Donaldsonville was a prime destination.
Because they were not free, General Butler reasoned they were fugitive property, classifying them as contraband and subject to confiscation. The Union now had a near limitless labor supply by which to carry on the war and the work on new Government Plantations, which continued as before, only under Union direction.
The New York Tribune wrote of one plantation near Donaldsonville; "Sergeant Samuel Pollock of the 6th Michigan, detailed as superintendent of a Government Plantation, and fearing guerrilla raids, instructed his field hands in the use of the musket."
In October 1862, Palfrey and Colonel Richard Holcomb began building the fort using fugitive slaves. Able-bodied or not, male, female, young, old, they all worked. The scene can only be imagined where crude shanties filled the area near the fort, offering poor protection from the elements. That disease and death existed under these conditions is certain.
Shaped like a star, the fort was built of earth and wood surrounded by a brick-lined moat sixteen feet wide and twelve deep. The east side on the river was 381 feet long. Stockades ran to the river and bayou, rifle pits guarded the entrance, while seven, twenty-four pound guns, one thirty pounder and one three-inch rifle protected the fort.
The land to the south was cleared for nine hundred yards and arranged with camouflaged pits and felled trees with sharpened branches pointing to the line of attack. Enemy forces had to maneuver these, the moat, cannon and small arms crossfire to capture the fort.
On February 9, 1863, the work was christened Fort Butler to honor General Butler, a Union commander popularly despised by most of South Louisiana. At the event, the town citizenry were forced to attend under possible penalty of death.
The military commandant of Donaldsonville, Colonel Holcomb, addressed them in this way; "This is the flag under which your fathers fought for freedom, the flag you have forsaken. Whoever attempts to pull it down will be shot."
While celebrated by Yankees, Southerners had critically awarded Butler the title "Beast," because of his orders that jailed women who insulted his troops, or anyone who was caught praying for the destruction of the United States.
Major Joseph Bullen of the 28th Maine commanded the fort with less than two hundred men of the 1st Louisiana Volunteers, a few Louisiana Native Guard convalescents and some fugitive slaves.
In 1863, General Nathaniel Banks and future president, Ulysses Grant, fought for control of the Mississippi River to break the Confederacy. With a hundred thousand troops, Grant was to capture Confederate positions at Vicksburg, while Banks was to take Port Hudson. Since the fall of the region from New Orleans to Baton Rouge these were what remained of Confederate control on the river.
Confederate General Ed Smith and Joe Johnston sought relief for Vicksburg, while Port Hudson was assigned to Louisiana native, General Richard Taylor, brother-in-law to C.S.A. President Jeff Davis, and son of former U.S. President Zachary Taylor.
Taylor's plan was to retake New Orleans by threatening Fort Butler, thereby forcing Banks and Grant south from Vicksburg and Port Hudson. If successful, the Confederate plan would change the course of the war.
With Taylor were over a thousand Texas Rangers of Arizona and New Mexico commanded by General Tom Green and Colonel James Major. Under Green were Colonels Hardeman, Herbert, Madison, and Phillips, with Majors Shannon and Ridley, and Captain Ragsdale.
On June 26, Green marched on Fort Butler taking position eight miles from Donaldsonville on Bayou Lafourche at sunrise on June 27. At 2:00 AM on Sunday June 28, the Battle of Fort Butler began with Herbert and Phillips moving their units to the fort's southern point.
Artillery and rifle fire was immediate on Confederate positions. Shannon advanced to the river and Hardeman to the bayou. Phillips followed under heavy fire from the gunboats. They moved over the stockade to the rear of the fort at the river. Here, James Major fell wounded.
With Shannon also wounded the Rebels were leaderless facing a moat at the river. Phillips now commanded two units pinned-down by gunfire and darkness. There seemed no withdrawal without being slaughtered until he rallied his men to the parapets where he was killed.
Ridley took command and drove the Union boys back, but could not breach the fort. Still under fire, he courageously advanced along the ramparts, only to find his troops surrounded by black soldiers with no option but surrender.
With Ridley captured, Ragsdale dead and Madison wounded, what was left was pinned-down in the moat. They continued a hopeless fight, at one point tearing bricks from the moat and "hurling them into the fort only to find the missiles returned leaving many heads bleeding."
At 3:00 AM, additional gunboats joined the battled. At dawn the fight was over. General Green sent a white flag to remove casualties. Bullen refused, and while negotiations proceeded, a hundred Confederates escaped, with almost as many surrendering.
Green reported 60 wounded, 29 dead. Bullen reported 24 casualties. Sadly, the Confederate dead were dumped in a mass, unmarked grave near the river, defeated and forgotten. The Union dead were later ceremoniously interred at Chalmette National Cemetery.
Phillips' unit gave a heroic account of the battle. At 31, he lay dead in the shadow of Fort Butler, while Ridley and Shannon were bound for a Union prison. Green and Major received no blame, with General Taylor writing; "No engagement illustrates more significantly the desperate valor of our troops than the Battle of Fort Butler."
The 28th Maine and 1st Louisiana received praise for their defense. The New Orleans Picayune wrote; "The enemy attacked Donaldsonville and fought until repulsed. A hundred and twenty were captured." The Iowa Hawkeye reported; "The Rebel loss is 600." The New York Tribune observed; "Our force was small, but ready. We buried sixty-four Rebels."
Forgotten for decades, the Battle of Fort Butler is important in American History. While other battles from Vicksburg to Gettysburg were being fought at the same time, had Fort Butler been a Southern victory, the path of the war would have changed influencing its outcome.
Fort Butler is the site of one of the most desperate and courageous battles in our country's history. More significantly, it is the site of one of the first Civil War battles involving free and fugitive slaves turned soldiers.
Of this, The New York Tribune wrote; "When action took place the negroes were stimulated to daring deeds." In recent years, author and professor, Don Frazier, wrote; "Not only did black hands build this citadel of freedom, they defended it to the death."
The Tribune further wrote; "The military governor authorized organization of four regiments for home defense. Two colored, two white, the first to be commanded by Lt. Colonel Warren of the 13th Connecticut, with Company-A to contain eighty mulattoes and negroes."
Regardless of issues and differences, it can be popularly agreed that Fort Butler is simply a place where Americans fought and died. It is therefore a true American treasure worthy of recognition and preservation.