“As they were fighting in defense of their own soil, I wished the Louisiana troops to draw the first blood.”
–Gen. Richard Taylor (Confederate States of America) to Mouton’s Louisiana Brigade at Mansfield, April 8, 1864.
The blood of both Union and Confederate soldiers fell on Louisiana soil in April 1864, creating sacred ground that is now commemorated at the historic Civil War site at Mansfield. Today, a new battle rages on these acres, one that has all the markers of a classic modern struggle between those who wish to preserve the sacred past and those with a vision for progress and economic development. Historic preservationists and environmental groups are opposed to ongoing lignite mining they claim is dangerously encroaching on this hallowed ground. (Lignite is a dark brown, combustible mineral formed over millions of years by decomposition of plant material. In simple terms, lignite is a crude form of coal.)
Officials with the energy company Southwestern Electric Power Co. (SWEPCO) of Columbus, Ohio, point to their commitment to restore the ground the way they found it, while emphasizing the positive impact of lignite mining to the regional and state economies. Because of the contrast of visions, it is a struggle that affords little opportunity for compromise.
The Historical Background
With the fall of Vicksburg, Miss., and Port Hudson, La., in July 1863, the Union forces completely controlled the Mississippi River. The Union command decided that Texas would be the next objective in the Trans-Mississippi area, and not surprisingly, strategists chose the Red River as the best approach. A joint Army-Navy advance was planned, with approximately 35,000 troops under the command of Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks and a naval fleet commanded by David Porter.
Why a campaign directed at Texas? The Union command believed that a successful Red River campaign would accomplish several important objectives for the overall war effort. First, cotton was a prized commodity needed in New England textile mills. Success here would also prevent a joint French-Mexican force and supplies from reaching the Confederate army in Louisiana. Perhaps most important was the belief that the campaign would succeed in bringing Texas back into the Union.
As they followed the course of the Red River in early 1864, the Union army and naval forces managed to reach Natchitoches without facing much Confederate opposition. At Natchitoches, the Union army left the course of the Red River and marched toward Shreveport, then the state capital, by way of the small town of Mansfield. Abandoning the support of the Union navy was one of many tactical blunders on the part of Gen. Banks. Combined with a series of successful maneuvers on the part of Gen. Richard Taylor (son of Virginia-born President Zachary Taylor, who lived much of his life in Louisiana), the Confederate army would rally to stop the Union design on Texas.
Following a two-hour cavalry engagement with Union forces near Wilson’s Farm on April 7, 1864, Gen. Taylor took a defensive position about 4 miles south of the town of Mansfield, now the location of the historic preservation area and state commemorative park. Banks was not expecting a fight until he reached Shreveport, and the Union army was in disarray. Taylor took advantage of this, since the Confederate forces were heavily outnumbered.
Mansfield thus became the central and key battle in the two-month campaign over the strategic Red River valley. Late in the afternoon on April 8, Taylor decided to attack Union flanks. Heavy casualties ensued for both sides, and Banks withdrew. The following day, April 9, Banks met Taylor again at Pleasant Hill. The battles of Mansfield and Pleasant Hill comprised a decisive Confederate victory and prevented the planned Union invasion of Texas.
There are other reasons why the Battle of Mansfield has attracted the interest of both amateur and professional historians. There is the story of Rosetta Wakeman, a k a Lyons Wakeman, a woman who fought as a man for the 153rd New York volunteer infantry. She survived both days of battle at Mansfield and Pleasant Hill, only to contract dysentery. She was evacuated by steamboat to a hospital in New Orleans, where she later died. It was only then that her gender was discovered, but she is buried in the Chalmette National Cemetery in New Orleans under a tombstone that is appropriately marked “Lyons Wakeman.” Also at Mansfield on April 8, 1864, was a unique brigade of Union soldiers known as the Corps d’Afrique, a contingent composed completely of black soldiers.
A New Battle Ensues
The land where opposing American forces met in 1864 today provides the background for a modern type of conflict, one that involves mining operations that preservationists believe come dangerously close to the hallowed ground of Mansfield, corrupting the integrity of the site. In 1983, SWEPCO received the necessary mining permits to begin lignite extraction on land near the Mansfield battleground site. In 1985, actual mining began, with the stated goal of providing a reasonable, low-cost fuel supply to the nearby Dolet Hills Power Plant. It is the only lignite-fired power plant in Louisiana.
Dolet Hills Lignite Co. (DHLC), wholly owned by SWEPCO, currently has about 30,000 acres under permit to mine in northwest Louisiana, with more than 90 percent of that land leased from area landowners. The problem is that much of the land either currently being mined or targeted for future mining operations encroaches on the protected battlefield acreage. Historical preservationists are fighting the mining operations on a variety of fronts, including calling into action Louisiana environmentalist groups and securing the legal services of the Tulane University Law Center in New Orleans. The issue has attracted the attention of the Civil War Preservation Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of Civil War battlegrounds. Indeed, the Mansfield site has been placed on the Trust’s national list of most endangered historic sites.
Only 12 percent of the original Mansfield battleground is protected from development. Of the 177 acres preserved and maintained as a park by the state of Louisiana, 134 acres were saved by the Civil War Preservation Trust. Currently, the trust is a partner in attempting to save another 60 acres threatened by the mining operations. However, the original site of the battle actually encompassed more than 3,200 acres, and when extended troop movement areas are considered, that number grows to more than 6,000 acres.
According to Dr. Gary Joiner, history professor at Louisiana State University in Shreveport, director of the Red River Regional Studies Center and author of One Damn Blunder From Beginning to End: The Red River Campaign of 1864, the situation in Mansfield is critical. New artifacts are found on a regular basis at the site, making it even more imperative that the surrounding area be preserved. Indeed, private property owners in the acreage surrounding the preserved battleground continue to discover new artifacts. “I want to protect the battlefield for future generations,” Joiner notes. “Even with the damage to the battlefield, it remains an almost perfect teaching laboratory for interpretation by students of history. You will lose that if this area continues to be mined.” Joiner is also quick to answer critics who have suggested that the controversy is somehow rooted in a Confederate preservation issue. “The area that is most threatened by these mining efforts is where the Union positions were located in April 1864,” Joiner says. “This is not a Confederate issue at all. This is an American issue.”
SWEPCO officials insist that they strictly adhere to all federal regulations requiring land to be returned to the same or improved condition after mining, saying that their reclamation process restores the land to its approximate original contours and to the use (timber or agriculture) that is designated by the landowner. At Dolet Hills, some of the mined land has been restored to pasture, but the majority of post-mining land is primarily timber farming. According to SWEPCO President and Chief Operating Officer Nick Akins, SWEPCO has worked in good faith with the state of Louisiana and area landowners to preserve the historic aspects of the battlefield. In September 2002, the utility company worked with landowners and former Louisiana Public Service Commissioner Don Owen to donate surface rights to a 41-acre tract of land to historical interests. This land is part of the second phase of the original battleground, and is located near the Allen House, a 1840s home that was used as headquarters and a hospital during the conflict. The property is located just 1 mile southeast of the present 177-acre state commemorative area. SWEPCO also claims it has contributed financially to the restoration of the Allen House.
Joiner and others argue that returning the land to the “approximate original contours” is simply not good enough. “The operations have already destroyed a small stream called Chapman’s Bayou,” Joiner says. “It was very important to the battle, but much of it is gone.” Joiner also points out that satellite imaging and topographical maps clearly demonstrate that the land is not being restored to its original configuration. Satellite imaging efforts are ongoing.
In addition, the Civil War Preservation Trust has officially taken the position that the entire 6,000 acres of surrounding battlefield and extended troop-movement areas be designated as unsuitable for surface mining operations. Joining in that effort has been the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, which has taken a leading role in raising public awareness about the battleground issue among Louisiana citizens, with a public service and advertising campaign. With the nonprofit historic group Friends of the Mansfield Battleground and assistance from the Austin Civil War Roundtable, the issue continues to be pushed at the state political level. Recently, Karla Raettig of the Tulane University Law Center filed a petition with the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, asking that state agency to declare the area unfit for strip mining because of the historical consequences.
Marylee Orr of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network points to the fact that an April 2004 re-enactment at Mansfield and Pleasant Hill brought in thousands of interested historical re-enactors. In addition, more than 5,000 people visit the site each year. “It is a fantastic asset for tourism in our state,” Orr says. “But in 10 years, will we still be able to drive a bus full of schoolchildren to the site where this historic battle happened?”
There is seemingly no shortage of historic preservation activists who would agree with Orr and Joiner. Dan Laney, president of the Austin Civil War Roundtable, says his organization got involved because of a deep concern over the destruction of the battlefield, pointing out the importance of the battle to Texas. “About half of the designated units were from Texas,” Laney says. “Texans spilled blood on that soil in Louisiana. The real battle for Texas was fought right there.”
In the meantime, SWEPCO officials note that the economic impact of the Dolet Hills mining operation is an equally significant factor when considering the issue of the Mansfield historic site. Lignite offers significant fuel savings over other sources of energy, according to utility spokesmen, and saves Louisiana rate payers millions of dollars per year. The Dolet Hills mine employs nearly 400 people, including contractors, at any one time, with a payroll of about $20 million. SWEPCO also ranks as the third-largest taxpayer in DeSoto Parish, paying nearly $3.3 million in property taxes on an annual basis. The immediate economic impact of the closure of mining operations at this location could potentially be disastrous for the region.
SWEPCO officials, in a three-page prepared statement, responded to environmentalists and preservationists by saying that in September 2004, SWEPCO met with the Louisiana attorney general’s office to begin communications that will balance the process of economic benefits to Louisiana customers and preserve an important piece of history for the state to enjoy.
The new battle at the Mansfield state commemorative site has a less sure outcome than the historic events of April 1864. It is a struggle that will likely ensue for some time to come, but that is time, according to preservationists and environmentalists, that the state of Louisiana simply cannot afford to spend. On the other hand, property owners who have leased their land for lignite mining have real economic concerns as well as legitimate property sovereignty issues. There are no easy winners in this epic conflict of past vs. progress, but both sides hope that in the end, the state of Louisiana wins.
Cheryl H. White, Ph.D, is on the faculty at LSU-Shreveport.
Civil war reenactments draw crowds of history enthusiasts; many preservationists consider battlefields as hallowed ground.