Regional Reports from across the state
The Battles of Madison Parish
Perched high in the northeast corner of the Bayou State, Madison Parish sports a fascinating past. Located there are the Fitzhugh Mounds and the Raffman Site, ancient networks of American Indian sites.
During the 19th century, the Louisiana land once predominantly occupied by the American Indians was now rich with cotton; wealthy planters ruled over their fields filled with the puffy white crop that turned rose-colored at sunrise and sunset. The town of Richmond, once the parish seat of Madison Parish, was a bustling place 10 miles from the Mississippi River and on the road from Vicksburg to Texas. The Roundaway and Brushy bayous conjoined at Richmond, and the planters, using slave labor, cleared a 60-foot channel that allowed small steamships to wend their way up the bayou from the Mississippi River at New Carthage.
By the time the American Civil War exploded on the nation, the quiet cadence of life in Madison Parish was disrupted. With the fall of New Orleans in 1862, the Confederate government ordered all the cotton that had been shipped to New Orleans from across the state for storage to be burned before it fell into Union hands. Many a planter was affected by this loss. In addition, Madison Parish was being plagued by Union jayhawkers.
The thick cane and cypress swamps of the area became a refuge for a particularly motley crew composed of runaway slaves, army deserters and those generally involved in dodging the draft. Led by a former slave, this band, more than 100 strong, routinely robbed, kidnapped or murdered unsuspecting passersby on roadways. Attempting to stop the crime spree perpetrated by the outlaws, a group of Confederates donned Union uniforms, approached the dissolute band and were warmly greeted by its giant of a leader. The disguised soldiers struck quickly, and a short time later, nearly 130 of the desperadoes lay dead, with the others escaping for their lives never to return again.
Across the Mississippi River, the 200-foot-high bluffs upon which Vicksburg, the Gibraltar of the Mississippi River, rose with powerful guns trained on Union gunboats below made a maritime Union conquest impossible. Ulysses S. Grant began an arduous land invasion. His attempt to build land canals that would divert the Mississippi River from Vicksburg failed miserably.
In June 1863, the Battle of Milliken’s Bend in Madison Parish was fought between Confederates and the black troops of the Union Army. The use of black troops in the Army was a hotbed of controversy; this battle marked the first major conflict between Confederates and black troops. It was a bloody hand-to-hand battle, and the Rebels were about to take Milliken’s Bend when heavy Union gunboat fire drove them back. This conflict left more than 1,000 casualties, and the road to Vicksburg was growing ever shorter for the Union Army. Over in Mississippi, the brilliant diversionary raid of Benjamin Grierson deliberately held the Confederate Army’s attention on his pillaging; destruction of railroads, warehouses, trains and supplies; and general mayhem while the Union Army made its way toward Vicksburg. Grierson eventually kept Confederate Gen. J. C. Pemberton so occupied that Grant’s Army was able to cross the Mississippi River to its eastern shore at Bruinsburg below Vicksburg without trouble in late April.
Richmond was on a vital Confederate supply route that fed the Vicksburg garrison. The victory at Milliken’s Bend severed the supply line, and the blue-clads advanced to Richmond. After lively skirmishes with a Texan troop led by Maj. Gen. John Walker, the Federals crossed Roundaway Bayou and burned the town of Richmond, site of Walker’s headquarters, to the ground.
Vicksburg fell less than a month later, and the Confederacy was split in two. Coinciding with the fall of Vicksburg that July was the disastrous Confederate defeat at Gettysburg. The strong showing of the black troops at Milliken’s Bend vindicated Lincoln’s decision that they should fight to preserve the Union. Nevertheless, they received less pay and had to pay for their uniforms unlike the white soldiers. It wasn’t until June 1864 that Congress deemed they were to receive full pay, retroactively, for their service.
Cause to Celebrate
Festivals for the Season
Dinner on the Bricks, the ArtWalk and the Louisiana Dragon Boat Races are merging into a triumvirate known as the AlexRiverFete. The three events will also include music, a barbecue cook-off and areas with interactive activities for kids.
The historic Cultural Arts District, with its signature brick byways, will be filled with delicious food offerings from several local restaurants and eateries.
ArtWalk, sponsored in part by the Louisiana Dragon Boat Races and the city of Alexandria, is a self-guided walking tour of sorts beloved by families, also held in the Cultural Arts District. The alleyways, sidewalks and open spaces of the District are transformed into a joyous outdoor spring festival, filled with local artists and craftsman both demonstrating and selling their handiwork. There is a vibrant community of artists throughout Central Louisiana who exist beside a vibrant community of art-lovers, making the festival a perfect fit for the enjoyment of all involved.
The splendid color and energy of the Louisiana Dragon Boat Races, now celebrating its third birthday, is as shimmering as sunlight falling on the Red River. Since it was launched in 2010, the Dragon Boat Races, with racing members that total more than 1,000 and 45 teams, are expected to draw 10,000 people to riverbanks lined with colorful canopies.
Alexandria Mayor Jacques Roy is most enthusiastic about the flurry of springtime activity in his city.
“We want to expand the celebration to build a true, unified effort for the entire community,” he says. “We look forward to this one-of-a-kind event that embodies the talent and heritage that is the heart of Alexandria.”
AlexRiverFete, May 9-11, Alexandria
Fork in the Road
Spring Dining in Alexandria
When the siren call of a beauteous Central Louisiana spring finds you unable to resist and you’re out and about soaking up the joys of the warming season, a stop at Atwood’s Bakery is a great way to celebrate the season with light, satisfying fare. Whether you can ignore the mouthwatering coconut cream pie is your decision alone. But delightful sweets aside, the soup and salad and lunch menus offer a pleasing line of choices in both a complementary and original blend of flavors.
The Queen’s Soup is a rich and creamy chicken soup made with wild rice. It’s served in a sourdough bowl that soaks up the flavors perfectly.
Classic French Onion soup is delectable with its red wine-and-onion base and topped with melted provolone cheese.
The bakery’s deservedly renowned smoked chicken salad, made with poulettes that have been smoked with pecan wood, is but one layer of The Atwood sandwich, a buttery and flaky croissant filled with the creamy, smoky chicken salad; apple wood bacon; and smoked Gouda cheese. Topped with lettuce and tomato, it will make your eyes close at first bite. You can also order this delicious salad sans croissant, served on a bed of greens with fresh veggies and the dressing of your choice.
Atwood’s Bakery, 1125 MacArthur Drive, Alexandria, (318) 445-5134
Cause to Celebrate
Picture a Miracle in Grand Coteau
Perusing the pages of John Slaughter’s new book, Grand Coteau, I was to learn of a remarkable story and another layer of Louisiana’s fascinating cultural history.
Grand Coteau (Big Ridge) is a very Catholic town. At the center of this small town, nine Catholic institutions rise amid the splendid beauty of centuries-old oaks with nestling camellia and azalea bushes nearby. St. Charles College, St. Charles Borromeo Church, Our Lady of the Oaks Retreat House and the Academy of the Sacred Heart are among them. Grand Coteau is the site of two religious firsts for the United States. The Religious of the Sacred Heart arrived here in 1821 to found what is now the oldest continuously operated Sacred Heart Academy in the world. According to writer Patrice Melnick, Catholic faithful are drawn here as pilgrims are to Mecca to attend retreats, and public meandering with rosary beads in hand on the beautiful retreat grounds is not looked upon as something the Pharisees might do. There are some places on earth that inhale and exhale what can be called “the Spirit,” and Grand Coteau is one of them.
To describe the second American first – and in this case, only – you must first know about St. John Berchmans, a young Flemish seminarian born in 1599 who was studying to become a Jesuit priest. Beloved for his deep spirituality, intellect and kindness, the young man was also the picture of humility He was a lover of ordinary things to the point of mysticism and emanated the paradoxical quality of down-to-earth holiness. Portraits of the saint show him to be a baby-faced young man not much more than a boy; he died in Rome of a fever before his 23rd birthday. Petitions for his beatification began almost immediately following his death, and by 1865 he was declared Blessed by the Vatican.
The year following his beatification, a young novice of the Society of the Sacred Heart named Mary Wilson was sent to Grand Coteau because the milder climate of Louisiana was considered beneficial for her ailing health. Her condition declined to the point that blood would reportedly spew from her mouth if she spoke. The sisters of the convent offered daily novenas to Blessed Berchmans on her behalf. Some accounts say that she silently prayed: “I ask through the intercession of Blessed Berchmans a little relief and health.” She placed an image of him on her tongue and told him that if he could work miracles, she needed one, and if he did not help her, she would not believe in him. She said that he immediately appeared to her and immediately she was healed. A doctor confirmed that she was free of disease, and the young woman pursued her novitiate and received her habit in December 1866. A month after receiving her habit, she wrote a letter to her archbishop to be forwarded to Rome chronicling the miracle when Blessed Berchmans again appeared to her. He commended the letter-writing, but he also told her that she would die before she ended her novitiate; she died in 1867.
The healing of the young novice was the third and final miracle needed for his canonization, and 1888, the young Flemish seminarian became known as St. John Berchmans. In 2006, when St. John Berchmans School was opened in Grand Coteau, it became the only shrine in the United States built on the exact location of a miracle.
If you would like to take a photographic odyssey of this sacred town, Slaughter, through the auspices of University of Louisiana – Lafayette, has produced a compilation of 35 years of his photographs of the town. In Grand Coteau, accompanied by lyrically beautiful text written by Melnick that tells the stories behind the pictures, the composition of Slaughter’s photographs and his colors and camera angles remind me of vivid impressionist paintings. He is a deft master at shadow and light, color and contrast in pictures that depict rainbows, burning houses, a Catholic priest leading a yoga session, the moon rising over a church steeple. There’s a really vivid shot of a storekeeper behind her counter amid a myriad of liquor bottles and sundries while overhead looms the larger-than-life depiction of a loaf of Holsum bread in its signature red wrap.
Grand Coteau by John Slaughter, published by University of Louisiana – Lafayette Press
Baton Rouge/Plantation Country
Train Wreck in Lettsworth
There is a green and shady, almost eerily quiet stretch of Louisiana Highway 1 where a railroad crossing stands adjacent to an abandoned structure that was once a general store. I find it funny in a peculiar way that when someplace seems “eerily quiet,” it’s usually silently screaming with some sad story it wants to tell. Beneath the trees, a bold black-lettered sign reads “Lettsworth,” and if you’re travelling along Highway 1, you cannot help but cross these tracks. In my first remembrances of such journeys as a little girl, on my way to visit relatives, my older brother always intoned in a sepulchral voice, “There was a bad train wreck here in the ‘50s,” without fail, even into adulthood. Driving past this spot alone as an adult, no matter how many times, I likewise found myself saying, “There was a bad train wreck here in the ‘50s,” without knowing exactly what happened.
Perhaps it’s taken too many years for the just-what-the-hell-happened-here syndrome to set in, or maybe I’ve gotten over savoring the eeriness of the spot enough to delve into some historical detective work. Learning about what happened at Lettsworth was a moment whose time had come.
At approximately 7 a.m. on an August morning in 1951, a troop train bearing 288 soldiers bound for the Pacific Ocean and Korean War and secretly launched from Camp Lejeune in North Carolina had made its way into the Bayou State, traveling some 60 miles above Baton Rouge on a single track. Traveling New Orleans-bound from the opposite direction on the same track was the Southern Belle, a streamlined passenger train that was part of the Kansas City Southern Railroad line.
Kenneth Mounger, who ran the now-abandoned general store next to the train tracks, was awaiting the usual 7:03 a.m. appearance of the Southern Belle. According to Stu Beitler of GenDisasters, a website that chronicles such events, Mounger said the train was late that particular morning.
“This morning,” said Mounger, “she appeared late, and when I saw this troop train going by headed in the opposite direction, I turned to my wife and said, ‘What’s that train doing on the track when the Belle is due?’… A few minutes later, I heard a terrible crash.”
For an unknown reason, the troop train had ignored a signal to move to a side rail to give the passenger train right of way. On a double bend 1 mile away from Mounger’s store, the two trains engaged in a shattering head-on collision, both travelling at 50 mph.
Oil gushed from a diesel engine and exploded into flames, hampering rescuers trying to save the victims. Marines who escaped the wreck began administering first aid to the passenger train victims and then their own men. Rescue workers had to hack their way through the swamp to reach the disaster victims. Farmers who lived along the track gathered at the wreck laden with mattresses, blankets and quilts to offer the victims. Before ambulances could arrive, work trains reached them, and the Marines placed the injured on the trains until the ambulances could make their way through the swamp.
One Marine was trapped in a car right after the impact. The burning oil was about to engulf him when his Marine buddies grabbed a large section of dislocated rail from the track, bored a hole in the car and rescued him.
Victims were dispersed to clinics in nearby Morganza, New Roads and Baton Rouge. Sixty-five people were reported injured, with one missing and eight who didn’t survive.
Adding even more nightmare to the tragedy was the story of 9-year-old Aubrey Stears Jr. of Lettsworth. Aubrey was galloping furiously on his pony to see the wreck when a car hit them. Both the boy and his pony were killed.
Greater New Orleans
Finding an Old “Friend”
I used to be an avid but somewhat selective clipper of either newspaper or magazine articles on different subjects that expressed my exact feelings, moved or enlightened me. Two divergent examples of clipped articles impressed me most back then. Growing up I feasted on Nancy Drew mysteries, and in my 20s, I found myself a little disturbed that this love of mystery had transitioned into what became an almost permanent fixture for me – murder mysteries. I devoured the work of P.D. James, Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Robert Parker, Martha Grimes and became convinced that my desire to read these stories showed some kind of deviate trend. And then one day I happened on an article in Vogue simply called “To Bed With A Mystery” that analyzed murder mystery-lovers as salt-of-the-earth types who had a pronounced sense of right and wrong and loved to see justice done. This article made it into my collection. I mention this because looking back, my sampler of clippings represented some milestone or guidepost in my life, no matter the subject. The second example that impressed me came from the Times-Picayune’s food section, published each Thursday.
I use to relish Myriam Guidroz’s pot-au-feu; I kept her vignette of visiting the witch museum in Salem, Mass., that also printed a recipe for clam chowder. But it was Leon E. Soniat’s “The Creole Kitchen” column that provided me with a clipping I cherished most, one that I would read and read again. Soniat told the story of visiting his three maiden aunts who lived in a cottage on St. Philip Street as a boy. He wrote of their carefully tended herb garden and the pathway lined with thyme that was always crushed underfoot. He said that he could not smell thyme without vividly remembering the cottage with the elderly sisters. But what made me cherish this story most was his description of their front room, which was always shuttered and cut off from the rest of the four-room cottage. The few times he was allowed in, he “smelled God’s presence.” The dark room was lit only by a ruby votive candle that filled the walls with red designs and smelled of scented oil that he described as the “smell of God.” It burned near a table with an upright crucifix, medals and holy pictures. At the time I was a lapsed Catholic, but nothing evoked the memories of my Catholic upbringing as strongly as his story of smelling God in his aunts’ room. The recipe that accompanied this story was his aunts’ bell pepper casserole, a dish I prepared many times. Soniat died in 1981, a year, oddly enough, in which I too faced death, survived and came back with a strong resurgence of faith that has not left me since, undeserving wretch that I am. Soniat’s column made me realize that writing stories about the treasures of ordinary days would always be worthwhile, enriching and a joy to read.
I lost my collection of clippings many years ago following a move, and from time to time, I would remember Soniat’s story about the shuttered room and his recipe for the casserole but eventually forget about it. Just after last Christmas, by an odd chance at a bookstore, I noticed a cookbook, La Bouche Creole, with his name on the binding and discovered it was a collection of all of his old newspaper columns and recipes. Accompanying the delicious recipes are Soniat’s charming vignettes of growing up as part of a Creole family in the French Quarter with his parents, Mamete and Papete, and grandparents Mamere and Papere. Along with recipes for good old red beans and rice, duck-and-andouille gumbo, shrimp Creole and mirliton salad, Soniat writes of taking the old “Smoky Mary” train down Elysian Fields to the lakefront for a day of fishing and crabbing, cleaning out the cistern with his father and shopping for fresh food at the French Market.
And these stories I don’t need to clip.
La Bouche Creole, Pelican Publishing Co., pelicanpub.com