In the grand scheme of things, it was far from a major battle. The chroniclers of the Civil War generally tell the story briefly and in perfunctory, unremarkable prose. In late March 1863, 150 years ago, a detachment of some 900 men, representing six U.S. infantry regiments, marched out of Union-occupied New Orleans toward the tiny but strategically important railroad town of Ponchatoula. In a flanking movement, the main body sailed across Lake Maurepas and proceeded upriver, while the men of the 165th Massachusetts footslogged up the tracks of the New Orleans, Jackson & Great Northern Railroad. Their orders were to drive the Rebels from the area and destroy the nearby railroad bridge. By this time, after two years of bloody civil strife, the Union army had blockaded most of the South’s rivers and ports, leaving the Confederacy increasingly reliant on its railroads. The destruction of tracks and bridges had become a major Federal priority.
Just after noon on March 24, the two contingents attacked, driving out the handful of enemy soldiers and taking possession of Ponchatoula. The Federals burned the bridge and proceeded to loot the town. The next day, they marched south, leaving six companies of the 6th Michigan as a holding force. On the evening of March 26, a large force of Confederates attacked the remaining Union troops, who – after a brief resistance – beat a hasty retreat.
According to the best estimate, over the three-day campaign, nine Yankees were wounded, and the Rebels suffered three killed and 11 wounded – hardly a cataclysmic event by Civil War standards. What distinguishes Ponchatoula from thousands of other such small actions fought during the four years of civil conflict was the fact that a creditable, perceptive and highly literate Union officer, Edward Bacon, documented every aspect of it in clear and concise prose, from a soldier’s perspective “on the ground.” In his attention to detail and his forthrightness in describing the less-than-honorable behavior on the part of Union troops and their commanders, he presents a microcosmic view of what was occurring in towns and villages across the South as the war progressed.
Bacon entered the war as a major in the 6th Michigan Volunteers and eventually rose to the rank of colonel and commander. He was an intriguing character. Bacon survived the war and two years after Lee’s surrender, published a memoir – Among the Cotton Thieves – that served as a scathing indictment of military despotism, many of his superior officers in the Department of the Gulf and the Union war effort in general. He begins the book with a vivid if sarcastic description of the arrogant and inept Gen. Thomas Williams, “with his florid countenance and his precisely cut grizzly hair, whiskers and mustache … [H]e glances at the crowd, and seems greatly satisfied with himself.” In a later chapter, Bacon describes the field amputation of a soldier’s arm: “the glimmer of candles flickering in the night breeze, dimly showing the naked form of the writhing victim, and the hard faces of the surgeons, with their bloody hands and saws, the darkness hanging over us like a pall ….” Bacon’s skillfully wrought descriptions long remain with the reader – and so with the occupation of Ponchatoula.
His account begins on the night of March 22, as his regiment awaits the boats that will ferry them across Lake Maurepas and up the Tickfaw River to Ponchatoula:
“A chilly drizzling rain begins. The men pile up ties and pieces of plank for walls, and with their oil-cloths make roofs for shelter. Officers can do no better. We huddle together along the scanty and muddy embankment which fills the trestle work, and pass a miserable night. I am long kept awake by some of the most talkative of the company negroes, who are telling each other long stories of the old plantation life of their youth.”
Conditions go from bad to worse:
“During the forenoon of the 23rd day of March, we are making the embarkation…. The rain has given place to a southern hurricane…. Torrents of rain drench us. We all have to go, one at a time, over a long timber, extending about ten feet above the water to a point where the boats can come. Some men have to be steadied by their companions reaching out their rifles for them to take hold of.”
By the time the small flotilla of steamers and schooners finally begins its voyage across the lake and upriver, the rain has stopped, replaced by a scorching sun. The narrow, sluggish Tickfaw River presents countless opportunities for Rebel snipers and saboteurs, but miraculously, the vessels travel unimpeded to their point of debarkation. As the soldiers enter the pine woods and begin the march toward Ponchatoula, they encounter some resistance.
“One rifle shot is heard in front – another, and another. Are we to have a fight, or is this firing on account of some fugitive making off through the woods?”
It is indeed enemy fire, “and as we move along the whiz of bullets is heard above our heads….” Bacon’s men charge, and “the rebels ran farther off than ever.”
Shortly, the Union forces reach Ponchatoula, “a little village of neatness and thriftiness uncommon in the South…. We enter the panic-stricken little town, our line of battle sweeping destructively through garden fences and door yards, terrified children running into hiding places in the houses, while frightened women, cheaply clad and ill-looking, try to beg for protection.”
Ignoring the civilians, the Federals take over the railroad and – discovering the town is unprotected – proceed to loot and vandalize it. Chief among the looters is the commanding officer.
“It now becomes apparent that our colonel finds the temptation more than he can bear…. [A]s our commander has abandoned himself to plunder with patriotism equal to that of the worst soldier, every man follows suit.”
The troops abandon all discipline and sack the houses and shops in search of plunder. Bacon is appalled.
“I see what an opportunity is given to the enemy. One well-handled company of horsemen might take advantage of our confusion, excitement and plundering, and rout us.”
Two companies are sent 2 miles up the tracks to locate and burn the first bridge, while “the work in Pontchitoula [sic] goes bravely on.” Tobacco, rum and personal valuables are carried off, and the first of the town’s two country stores is stripped of goods, as the Union commander, bearing a “wild and uncommonly thievish expression of face … hastens toward the remaining store, followed by several of his favorites.” Unable to force open the door with the “weight of his corpulence,” he orders a beam brought up and the door smashed in. “No man confiscates the rebel liquors faster than our commander.” In short order, the post office and Masonic lodge are sacked and defaced, as well.
Many of the townspeople had fled at the Yankees’ approach. “Soon the few women and children that remain in the town are seen running in confusion, or imploring protection, while at the windows and doors soldiers are seen … searching for plunder ….”
Eventually, squads of men are sent into the neighboring countryside to procure draft teams for hauling the spoils back to the river and the waiting boats. Meanwhile, Bacon is ordered to take four companies and reinforce the bridge-burning detachment, which has encountered Rebel resistance. After a brief charge, the enemy is driven off, and the arduous work of destroying the bridge by fire and axe continues through the night.
The next morning, Bacon and his men return to Ponchatoula, to discover “a ravished town.” Doors and windows are wide open in the abandoned houses; furniture, books, photographs, papers and women’s clothing lie scattered in the street; and nearly all the residents have run off to hide in the surrounding woods. Word arrives that railroad cars full of Rebels are rapidly approaching from above the destroyed bridge, and Bacon, commanding a detachment of 300 men, is ordered to remain and hold the town as long as he can while the rest of the Union force follows the railroad south, leading their stolen livestock and hauling their plunder. Yet, despite the thorough savaging of the town, now left “useless and empty,” the items of true value have eluded the officers. Bacon writes, “the faces of my … commanders are unusually solemn. The reported wealth of Pontchitoula [sic] in cotton and turpentine has not been found in paying quantities … to get which the patriotism and zeal of our men have been basely used.”
On March 26, the Rebels attack the remaining force, and Bacon and his men withdraw under heavy fire, burning the railroad depot as they depart. The enemy pursues them, but Bacon’s force is soon reinforced. By nightfall, the Rebels have withdrawn; the Battle of Ponchatoula is over.