The Great Escape: Taylor at Irish Bend

by Ned B. on April 22, 2013 · 0 comments

April 1863 did not go well for Confederate General Richard Taylor.  At the beginning of the month he had hoped to take the initiative against US forces in lower Louisiana; but by end of the month he was struggling to hold together his broken army after having lost the initiative, lost half his fleet, and lost hundreds of miles of territory.  Yet despite these setbacks he had cause for celebration since he had pulled off one of the most dramatic escapes of the war.

The Bayou Teche region is a problematic area for an army to campaign. South of New Iberia the bayou flows in a southeasterly direction to the Atchafalaya. On each side of the bayou is a strip of firm land, sometimes no more than a mile wide, beyond which are forested swamps extending north to Grand Lake and south to the Gulf coast.  As a result there is little room to maneuver. It was possible to establish a strong defensive position across the width of the Teche country that could stop any direct advance.  But Grand Lake provided an opportunity for an opponent to land further up the bayou, potentially boxing-in the defender. This is exactly what happened in April 1863.

Taylor had developed a fortified position at Bisland plantation where his division-sized army was supported by the recently captured gunboat Diana.   His  opponent, General Banks, had adopted a proposal from one of his subordinates, General Weitzel, in which one part of the army would cross Berwick Bay and approach Fort Bisland directly while another part would be moved by boat up Grand Lake to land in Taylor’s rear.   Aware of the threat posed by US naval mobility, Taylor had detached the 2nd Louisiana Cavalry to watch for and delay any landings from the lake. He also hoped that his own navy could interfere with US plans. Despite these precautions Taylor almost became ensnared in Banks’ trap.

While confronting Taylor at Fort Bisland with Emory’s division and Weitzel’s brigade, Banks sent Grover’s division up the lake to land in Taylor’s rear. After delays resulting from difficulty in loading, from fog and when the USS Arizona ran aground, Grover arrived near Franklin late on April 12th.  His first problem was finding a suitable landing spot.  At the first landing the road to the interior was found to be too swampy to use.  A second landing, a few miles up the lake, was found to have a better road but the shoreline was so shallow boats could not get closer than 100 yards.  Using small launches and barges to ferry his men, Grover spent most of April 13th getting his division ashore.  Grover’s initial push in from the landing was a success.  The 2nd Louisiana Cavalry harassed but could not stop the growing beachhead and Grover’s lead brigade secured two bridges over the Teche before the Confederates could destroy them.  But in the late afternoon Grover hunkered down for the night. Taylor would later write that “Grover stopped just short of the prize.”

For most of the lower Teche, the road follows the banks of the bayou.  But just north of Franklin the Teche makes a big curve called Irish Bend.  Inside the curve is a smaller watercourse called Bayou Yokley bordered by woods. At Franklin there is a road that crosses over Bayou Yokley to connect with the Bayou Teche road north of Irish Bend. Though he had secured the Teche in the middle of the bend, Grover was not in a position to block the cutoff road across its base. Taylor’s salvation depended on keeping that road open.

Alerted to Grover’s progress, Taylor decided to abandon Fort Bisland.  Confederate units marched all night to reach Franklin. By morning on April 14th, as Grover renewed his advance, the Confederates blocking him consisted of the 4th Texas Cavalry, 2nd Louisiana Cavalry, and the Confederate Guards Response  Battalion.  Though he had 13 regiments in his division, Grover’s advance consisted of just the four regiments of Colonel Henry Birge’s brigade and Birge had deployed them with two in line and two in reserve.  Thus the main US advantage — numbers — was dissipated and contact was between roughly equal forces. After an intense initial encounter, Birge committed his whole brigade and appeared to be gaining ground.  But then Taylor arrived with the 28th Louisiana and the Yellow Jacket Battalion and hit Birge in the flank sending his brigade reeling   Grover called forward another brigade to organize a two-brigade front but time slipped away and Taylor was reinforced by the 7th Texas cavalry and the 18th and 24th Louisiana.  In addition, the Diana  arrived, shelling Grover from the Bayou. Grover hesitated.  By then Taylor had evacuated his wagons over Bayou Yokley; his troops followed, setting fire to the bridge behind him. When Grover finally moved forward, the troops he encountered  outside Franklin were the men of Emory’s division who had pursued the Confederates from Fort Bisland.

Camp Pope Publishing

Typically Irish Bend is classified as a US victory [See the National Park Service Battle Summary ] but in some respects Taylor won the day. The operational plan — sending Grover’s division to turn Taylor out of his defensive position at Fort Bisland — had been a success.  But Taylor prevailed in the battle itself. Grover’s staggered deployment squandered his advantage in numbers — one of his three brigades never even became engaged, not suffering a single casualty — thereby allowing the smaller Confederate force to bloody him. In addition, the missed opportunities haunt Grover’s performance at Irish Bend.  Never again did the US get so close to such a decisive blow against Confederate forces in Louisiana. A harder push to the south on the afternoon of April 13th could have driven the few Confederate defenders back through Franklin before they were reinforced. Alternatively, Grover could have moved upstream to secure the north end of the road over Bayou Yokley. Recognized for his conduct and bravery leading a brigade at the battles of Williamsburg, Fair Oaks, and Second Bull Run in Virginia, Grover was new to directing a division.  For some reason the man who had shown so much dash as a brigade commander didn’t bring the same energy to division command. In contrast Taylor showed an abundance of energy and initiative.  Despite his disadvantages in numbers and all that he lost that April, Taylor had escaped to fight on.

The map below utilizes a portion of a 1972 USGS map as a base onto which I added troop movements and notations.  Note that in 1863 the railroads had not yet been built through the area.

Map of Irish Bend


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