Review: Yankee Autumn in Acadiana by David C. Edmonds

by Brett Schulte on August 29, 2006 · 0 comments

Yankee Autumn In Acadiana: A Narrative of the Great Texas Overland Expedition through Southwestern Louisiana October-December 1863. David C. Edmonds. Lafayette, LA: Center For Louisiana Studies, 2005.
495 pp. 21 maps, numerous illustarions.

The term “narrative” is a fitting one for David C. Edmonds’ Yankee Autumn in Acadiana. This book is at its heart a story of the suffering of the population of southwestern Louisiana along Bayou Teche. The Yankee invasion along that waterway from early October to December 1863 produced few pitched battles, but the war was no less terrible in the area as a result of this fact. The author, himself a resident of the area when the book was originally written in 1979, has obviously done a lot of research on the citizens and history of the area, and he relates their often poignant stories with the skill of an accomplished storyteller. This version of the book is a paperback reprint of the extremely hard to find (and expensive!) hardcover edition. The maps, although numerous, are mostly unsatisfactory, though so many illustrations dot the pages that the maps’ shortcomings are somewhat alleviated. Edmonds sets out to chronicle the path of the Yankee swarm and the path of destruction left in its wake.

Camp Pope Publishing

General Nathaniel P. Banks was under enormous pressure in the fall of 1863 to plant the United States flag in Texas. Emperor Napoleon of France had installed Maxilmilian as the puppet Emperor of Mexico, and the Lincoln administration wanted to show France that the Monroe Doctrine was still in effect, war or no war. An overland expedition to Texas was decided upon, and in early October 1863 the Union Army of the Gulf moved to Brashear City, Louisiana. Brashear was located along the Atchafalaya River, into which Bayou Teche empties. The Army of the Gulf consisted of the Union XIII Corps, XIX Corps, and Lee’s Cavalry Division. It was an army that would fight almost as much with itself as with the enemy. The western XIII Corps, victors of the Vickburg Campaign, were also ill-disciplined and prone to looting. The more polished easterners of the XIX Corps tended to be more restrained in their foraging expeditions. Each group disliked the other, and this situation was at times so bad that William Franklin, the commander of the expedition for most of its duration, even separated the camps of the two Corps by several miles.

Passing through towns such as Franlin, New Iberia, Vermilion (present day Lafayette), and Opelousas, the Yankees were constantly harassed by Tom Green’s Cavalry Division and other troops in Richard Taylor’s small Army of Western Louisiana. Taylor, an agressive son of a President, was held in check by Edmund Kirby Smith, commander of the Trans-Mississippi Department. Smith wanted to pursue a “Fabian” policy of retreat and denial of resources to the enemy, whereas Taylor wanted to forcibly drive the enemy out of the area. Chafing under these orders, Taylor nonetheless grudgingly followed his commander’s orders. Other COnfederate forces under John Magruder in Texas were not sent to aid Taylor, because they (rightly) suspected that the true goal of this expedition was eastern Texas. In addition, these troops were needed to protect against possible coastal invasions of Texas by other Union forces.

As a result of all of this, there were very few pitched battles. The largest was the engagement along Bayou Bourbeux on November 3, 1863, in which an infantry and cavalry brigade under Gen. Stephen Burbridge were surprised by Confederate cavalry, with many Yankees being captured. Despite the large number of captured, the killed and wounded on each side were surprisingly equal. In any event, by the time this battle was fought, Banks had already decided to siphon troops off from the expedition and use them to attack the Texas coast. He succeeded in taking a few isolated points, but the failure of the overland expedition was by this time apparent. Although the Yankees managed to surprise and capture a few Confederate outposts during their withdrawal from Opelousas to New Iberia, the reputations of men such as Franklin and Banks were irrettievably harmed.

The biggest effect of this great raid, as it turned out to be, was felt by the Cajun and French citizens along the route of advance and retreat. They had felt the wrath of the Yankee army in the spring of 1863, and now Banks had decided to use the same route on his way to Texas. Despite protestations of neutrality or of allegiance to the Union, most of the plantations and other farms along the Teche were virtually destroyed. Crops were consumed, livestock and other animals taken, homes and other buildings burned or their wood used for bridges or shelter for the Union troops. Many people were left with empty homes, no food or money, and only literally the clothes on their back. After reading several studies on the Red River Campaign, one is struck by the horrible reputation of the XIII Corps for utter destruction. The stories in this book only serve to back up that reputation. The bummers of Sherman’s March to the Sea had nothing on the men of the XIII Corps! Though the XIX Corps was more restrained, they also had a large hand in the devastation of the entire region. Even more pitiful are the stories of thoise who took the Oath of Allegiance hoping to save their farms and property. Not only were these citizens still robbed, but they were also scorned by their neighbors after the Yankees had left. Author Edmonds mentions that this situation created feuds among families that took generations to heal. The outcome along the entire invasion route told the same story of detruction, despair, and sometimes even death.

Though there are numerous maps in the book (21 by my count), many appear to be xeroxed portions of old county maps that are almost impossible to decipher without a period map of the region. The books seems to be aimed at inhabitants of the region, so they may have a much easier time than I did. Luckily, I managed to find an excellent 1863 map of southwestern Louisiana at the Library of COngress web site that even shows what appears to be Banks’ invasion route of that spring. After becoming acquainted with the area, I was able to follow along reasonably well. In a way, the maps are not as bad as I make them out to be. This is more a story of the citizens and their suffering than it is of a military campaign. It suffices to say that the Army of the Gulf was heading in a generally north-northwest direction along the western side of Bayou Teche and that the Confederates of Richard Taylor’s army were generally to their north for most of the expedition. The battle maps were mostly better, with units going down to the regimental level in many places. However, these hand drawn maps were sometimes very small and appear handwritten, which is a bit of a drawback.

The illustrations, though in black and white (I’m sure to save costs), were numerous and excellent. In additon to including quite a few contemporary drawings from Harpers Weekly, the author managed to take quite a few present-day (actually late 1970s) photos of houses and other relevant buildings along the invasion route. Drawings and photos of prominent personalities were also included. Few books I’ve read have included as many excellent and on-topic illustrations as this one. They truly deserve high marks and accentuate the text.

Edmonds sets out to chronicle this little known invasion of southwestern Louisiana and succeeds admirably. This narrative of the Great Texas Overland Expedition is storytelling at its finest, and I look forward to reading Edmonds’ two-volume accounbt of the Siege of Port Hudson. The author formerly resided in the area, and his attention to detail and treasure trove of sources are evident in his retelling of this tragic tale for the citizens of this area, caught between the two warring sides and preyed upon by not only regular troops but lawless bands of “jayhawkers” as well. This book is a must-own for those interested in the Civil War in Louisiana, the war in the Trans-Mississippi, and how citizens in the path of conflict can sometimes be made to suffer, innocent though they may be.

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