Calcasieu Parish
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By W. T. Block

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In the history of the Confederacy's Trans-Mississippi Department, the most publicized campaigns have been chronicled along the Mississippi or Red Rivers. Somewhat concealed in the dark shadows lies an obscure geographic entity known in antellum days as Imperial Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana. Although not renowned for its clouds of gun smoke, this extremity of the Pelican State does have a Civil War history as varied as its geographic terrain, and within its jungles, prairies, and canebrakes, there were hidden four large bands of "Jayhawkers," or bushwhackers, who were to set the stage for a most unusual confrontation there, the Battle of Calcasieu Pass. The writer's entire family heritage, four sets of great grandparents, resided in Civil War days within those marsh confines that currently comprise Cameron Parish, two sets respectively at Black Bayou and Johnson's Bayou in the southwestern extremity, and two more at Leesburg (Cameron) and Grand Chenier, the latter then in Vermilion Parish.

The Calcasieu region was bordered on the west by the Sabine River, the boundary shared commonly with Texas; on the east by Vermilion Parish and the Mermentau River; and on the south by the Gulf of Mexico. Its northern confines, less easily defined, lay inland about 100 miles, and since 1840, the original parish (the equivalent of 'county' in some states) has been subdivided into other neighboring parishes.

As early as 1777, a British Admiralty map identified the Calcasieu River as the "Calcatchouk," the domain of the Attakapas Indian chieftain, Calcasieu or "Crying Eagle." The region won special notoriety in 1806 when General Simon Herrerra of Spanish Texas and American General James Wilkinson of Louisiana designated that frontier sector as the "Neutral Strip," an area to remain free by mutual consent of the military occupation or law enforcement of either nation. And very quickly, the social outcasts of both nations, particularly the survivors of the old John Murrell gang of Natchez Trace bandits, sought a refuge from justice there. It was to such dregs of humanity that piracy appealed most and among whom the Barataria Bay and Galveston Island corsair, Jean Lafitte, would enlist most of his buccaneers. Lafitte was to leave a tremendous legacy of legendry and, supposedly, treasure sites as well along the Calcasieu River, Contraband Bayou, and the Barb Shellbank (also known as "Money Hill"). In fact, as late as Civil War days, many of his ex-pirates, among them Capt. Arsene LeBleu, Henry Perry, Pierre Guilotte, Henri Nunez, and Jean Baptiste Callistre were still living in that region.

The "Strip's" southern extremeity is marked by endless miles of seemingly impassable marsh, which in Civil War days, were filled with high sea cane. The swamp region is interspersed by two rivers, three tidal lagoons (Calcasieu, Grand, and White Lakes), many moss-draped, cypress-lined bayous, and numerous live oak-studded "cheniers," or long marsh ridges, noted for the extreme richness of their alluvial soils. (In fact, the writer's uncle often jested that the Johnson's Bayou cheniers would make good fertilizer for the entire state of Texas). The principal Civil War settlements built along the coastal ridges were Johnson's Bayou, a notorious hotbed of Union sympathizers near Sabine Lake; Leesburg (now Cameron), where other Unionists resided at the mouth of the Calcasieu; and Grand Chenier, located near the mouth of the Mermentau (but until 1870 a part of Vermilion Parish). And this region near Grand Chenier was to become the lair of the Mermentau "Jayhawkers," a band of 200 mounted draft dodgers, bushwhackers, cattle thieves, runaway slaves, and Confederate deserters from Texas and Louisiana. Texas deserters soon learned they could hide out quite easily in the Calcasieu marshes and forests.

Central Calcasieu Parish, where the largest cotton plantations were located, contained the parish seat, Lake Charles, located on the beautiful lake of the same name, then a settlement of 300 souls, but now the commercial hub of Southwest Louisiana, with a current population of about 110,000 persons. The northern extremity was noted for its immense forests of towering, virgin pine timber, as well as its hardwood bottom lands along the inland creeks and rivers. Three other bushwhacker bands were hid out there, namely, the Sabine "Jayhawkers," secreted in the jungles along Bear Head Creek, near the Sabine River to the west; the Beckwith Creek "Jayhawkers;" and on the eastern border, the Calcasieu "Jayhawkers," concealed in the river's hardwood bottomland country. The northern sector of the parish also contained the main wagon road, leading eastward from Niblett's Bluff, which fed General Richard Taylor's Confederate Army with munitions and supplies from Texas, and about 500 "Jayhawkers" preyed along that route.[1]

Nothing reflects the heartbreak of that cruel war, which pitted brother against brother and neighbor against neighbor, better than the writer's own family history in Calcasieu Parish, where all of his 8 great grandparents lived in 1861. His paternal grandfather and the latter's three brothers, all of Shellbank or Black Bayou, were Confederate cannoneers at Sabine Pass, even though their father refused to swear allegiance to the South. Another of his great uncles, Isaac Bonsall of Leesburg, was a Confederate private killed at the Battle of Mansfield, La., in 1864.[2] Yet a second great grandfather of Johnson's Bayou was the foremost Unionist there, who sold produce to the Federal Navy in Sabine Lake, invited Federal naval officers to dances in his home, and harbored escaped Union prisoners of war during the closing days of the war. Still a third great grandparent, Duncan Smith of Leesburg Cameron), and his two sons were undoubtedly the most active Unionists in Southwest Louisiana, who lead the Federal Navy to its defeat at the Battle of Calcasieu Pass in 1864. With a Confederate bounty on his head, Smith was forced to hide out in the marsh during the last ten months of the war.

In all fairness to those loyal to the South, hundreds of men in the parish served the Confederacy, especially those of the Calcasieu Regiment commanded by Colonel Nathaniel Clifton, and many of them carried the war's scars, amputations, and minie balls all the way to the grave. As early as Oct. 3, 1862, when Lt. Frederick Crocker and 14 Bluejackets made their daring Federal raid 80 miles up the Calcasieu River, most of Lake Charles' eligible males were already enrolled in the army, leaving only 25 overage males to run the cotton plantations in the vicinity of Lake Charles.[3]

A newspaper account revealed that many local problems stemmed from the Conscript Act of April, 1863. As a result, young men often fled to the swamps, where most often they were sometimes joined by deserters from Texas, Camp Pratt, and the Niblett's Bluff quartermaster depot. Beginning in May, 1863, other Texas deserters were added to the Jayhawker rolls, as units from the Lone Star state marched through the parish while en route to counter the Bayou Teche advance of General Nathaniel Banks' Union Army. According to a letter, Calcasieu enrolling officers openly sold "exemptions" to their able-bodied neighbors. A Lake Charles minister complained in a Galveston "News" article that Confederate authorities "....did nothing to disperse them {the Jayhawkers}...., and others who would cheerfully enter our service are detered from doing so by fear of injury that may be done by the Jayhawkers to their families. Indeed, we are here without protection of the law, with stealing and plundering by passing soldiers and others as the general order of the times."[4]

Simultaneously, another published letter in the Galveston paper confirmed that Texas Confederate units returning from Louisiana were indeed guilty as charged. Houston residents were buying slaves stolen by passing soldiers from the Calcasieu Parish cotton plantations. Wagon loads of captured Union provisions were being sold on the Houston black market after being driven overland from the battlefields in the vicinity of Opelousas, Louisiana. Earlier, it had also been reported that Calcasieu cattle were being shipped by water to Union Army forces in New Orleans under an export license signed by the governor of Louisiana.[5]

The ranks and depredations of the parish Jayhawkers increased or decreased in correlation to the extended fighting along the Bayou Teche in 1863 or during General Banks' ill-fated Red River campaign in 1864. One story portrays in graphic detail an encounter with the Beckwith Creek Jayhawkers. One afternoon in 1863, Daniel Goos, a pioneer Lake Charles sawmiller, greeted a dapper cavalryman, in Confederate uniform, and 30 of his horsemen who asked for food and lodging for the night. Goos treated them regally, and the next morning, gave them gifts of gunpowder, muskets, lead, drugs, coffee, and corn, for Goos' blockade-runners plied regularly between Lake Charles and Mexico. As the dapper horseman mounted to leave, he inquired:

"Do you realize who I am? I am -- Carriere, the Jayhawker." Goos family members were startled and frightened, for tales of the "terrible deeds" of Carriere and his plunderers had preceded their arrival.

"Last night I came to rob you, Captain Goos!" the bushwhacker chieftain continued. "You have $30,000 in gold in a chest under your bed. I came to get that gold, and I would have burned your house and killed you to get it. I might even have burned your sawmill. But you have treated us so royally, and we might need some of your supplies again, so I have decided not to rob you!"

With that remark, Carriere and his band mounted up, rode away into the forest, and were never heard from by Captain Goos again. Three days later, however, a buggy driver from Texas, en route to Opelousas, fell in with Carriere and his brigands, and was robbed and murdered. {To prevent recognition and possible embarrassment, only surnames of Jayhawkers will be listed.}[6]

]In September, 1863, there were invasion jitters everywhere. A major Union force of 5,000 men had just been repulsed during an aborted invasion attempt at Sabine Pass, Texas, and many thought the Federal invasion fleet would mount a similar attempt up the Calcasieu River, which at that moment was undefended. Texas cavalrymen from Sabine Pass and Niblett's Bluff began patrolling the marsh sector, as well as elsewhere in Calcasieu Parish, on a permanent basis, as the ranks of General Taylor's army were engaged in battle along the Bayou Teche and momentarily lacked the manpower to do so.

]In November, 1863, a patrol of Colonel Augustus Buchel's 2nd Texas Mounted Rifles, then on duty at Niblett's Bluff, La., reported taking "...four prisoners on the Calcasieu trying to get to the enemy, one of them, -- Ritchie, is a very dangerous character . . . in the service of the Yankees." Simultaneously, two more Mermentau Jayhawkers, including "... -- Griffith, the bridge burner, and a very dangerous character, and -- Labove, a deserter from Fournet's Louisiana Regiment," were forwarded to Houston for trial by court martial.[7] A history of Johnson's Bayou, Louisiana, listed --- Griffith as "the meanest man in Cameron Parish," who after the war rode with the Regulators, a vigilante band. It added, "He was Captain of the Regulators,... and legend is that before Captain Griffith would hang a man, he would mount him and ride him with his spurs first."[8]

In October, 1863, there were two blockade runners, each loaded with gunpowder, anchored in the Mermentau River. Captain Matt Nolan, a Confederate cavalryman, wrote from the Calcasieu River that one of his officers, ". . . Lieutenant Aikens is of the opinion that the Jayhawkers are watching the two schooners in the Mermentau, and that the moment they attempt to unload their cargoes, they (the Jayhawkers) will seize them. He says they can raise 200 men, well-mounted, in two hours time . . ."[9]

Troubles with the parish Jayhawkers continued until the war ended, but seemed to have reached their peak in the spring of 1864. In March, Captain W. J. Howerton of Daly's Cavalry Battalion wrote that a Dr. Milledge McCall of Grand Chenier had told him that a troop of General Taylor's cavalry had encountered ". . .the nest of (Mermentau) Jayhawkers, and that force is capturing and killing them off, hanging the scoundrels. When the doctor left up there, some nine or more had been captured, a good many more killed, and they were then hemmed in a place called Tussand's Cove, and still fighting . . ."[10]

Howerton's letter was written simultaneously with another account which appeared in the Galveston "News" in March, 1864, as follows:

"A few days past, some of Colonel Vincent's cavalry came in sight of Captain -- Cady, a Jayhawker chief, and 18 of his company. They were hotly pursued and driven to the Mermentau, and all captured. A drumhead court martial was at once formed, the party tried, found guilty, and sentenced to death. The sentence was executed without the least delay." During the same week, Lieutenant Colonel W. F. Griffin, commandant of Sabine Pass Post, had been ordered by letter to increase his "... reconnaissances . . . into that country (Calcasieu Parish) and in some force in consequence of the Jayhawkers, who are committing all sorts of depredations."[11]

A Cameron, Louisiana "Pilot" article published other details of the Mermentau Jayhawkers, as follows: "... Back on the (Grand) Chenier, the women and children, the elderly men and slaves carried on as best they could. Jayhawkers scourged the island from time to time, hiding in the marshes by day and galloping along the ridge after dark, stealing and frightening the helpless women whose husbands were at the front. . ."

". . . The Jayhawkers continued their raids in areas near the upper Mermentau. Some of the Chenier men joined the Vigilantes (the Mermentau Regulators), an organization that sought to institute law and order, and eliminate attacks by the Jayhawkers, to punish the latter if captured. Young Milledge McCall, son of the doctor, was shot and killed by the Jayhawkers near the village of Mermentau . . ."[12]

From all indications, the Regulators, in their pursuit of 'law and order,' continued to ride throughout the Reconstruction era, and long after the Jayhawkers were gone, these vigilantes continued to hang and shoot individuals during their nightly forays, so a history of Cameron Parish reveals. But as a 'cure' for Jayhawker depredations or other criminal acts, one wonders if the 'cure' offered by the hooded Regulators may not have been considerably worse than the 'disease.'

General Richard Taylor also wrote about the Calcasieu Jayhawkers, and of how ". . .they preyed on the helpless citizens of Louisiana, as well as the Federal and Confederate armies." An article in LOUISIANA HISTORY records that Taylor once wrote that ". . .a leader of the Jayhawkers of Calcasieu Parish was -- Dudley, a physician who evaded the draft. He was called a 'chief of the Jayhawkers,' and was captured in January, 1865." General Sibley, a brigade commander, recounted in his diary that a ". . . band of them was routed in the swamps, and two were sentenced to be shot. One had a wife and children who came to see him, and oh! it was truly piteous to hear the weeping!"[13]

The last episode of the Mermentau Jayhawkers known to the writer occurred as a prelude to the Battle of Calcasieu Pass. Around April 1, 1864, Duncan Smith, the arch-Unionist and the writer's ancestor, was in New Orleans negotiating the sale to the Union Navy of the 250 cattle and 200 stolen horses owned by the Mermentau Jayhawkers. On April 24, after piloting the U. S. S. "Wave" to an anchorage opposite his home on the Calcasieu Pass, Smith, his sons Jerry and Phineas, and several Leesburg colleagues acted as pickets to guard the two Union vessels and as a "go-between" with the bushwhackers to arrange for the roundup and loading of the 450 heads of livestock on the vessels, the latter event about to begin when the Sabine Pass garrison of Confederate troops attacked with infantry and artillery.[14] As the battle gradually seesawed in favor of the Rebels, the Jayhawker cowboys galloped away to the cane brakes, and Duncan Smith remained concealed under his wife's hoopskirts while the Confederate soldiers, hopeful of collecting the bounty on Smith's head, searched his home. For the next ten months, Smith, reduced to fugitive status himself, hid out in the marsh, forsaking the cane brakes only after the Confederacy had long ceased to exist, and his hair and beard had grown to his waist. Nothing else about the parish Jayhawkers appeared in print during those final months of the war.

The battle also contributed one more treasure tale to the parish's volume of buried money stories left by the buccaneer Lafitte. As the gun smoke and shell bursts waned and the ships had hoisted white flags, Lieutenant Ben Loring of the "Wave," himself every inch a fighter, ordered the paymaster's safe thrown overboard which, local legend affirms, contained the $9,000 in gold needed to pay for the livestock at $20 a head.[15] The Confederates, having seen the safe sink in the stream, probed for it for days in eight fathoms of water, but without success. Today, the erstwhile scene of the battle is now a largely unused horseshoe bend of the Calcasieu, ever since channel-straightening by the Corps of Engineers created Monkey Island. And today, as the calls of raucous sea gulls shatter the ominous silence above that island, the earthly remains of the twenty-two Union and Confederate soldiers and sailors, their lives forfeited for the causes in which they believed, lie reposed in the soil beneath.

{The Civil War was utter heartbreak for the writer's ancestors. His grandfather Block and three brothers were Confederate soldiers. His uncles, Confederate soldiers Ike Bonsall and Bill McCall, both of Grand Chenier, La., died (one killed, one of pneumonia) at the Battle of Mansfield, La. Still other ancestors were Unionists. Many would not speak to each other after the war ended.}

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1. "State of Things in Lower Louisiana," (Galveston) WEEKLY NEWS, Sept. 30, 1863, P. 1, Col. 3.

2. Genealogy of Isaac Bonsall, Sr., and Mary Elizabeth Sweeney Bonsall.

3. OFFICIAL RECORDS OF THE UNION AND CONFEDERATE NAVIES, Ser. I, Vol. XIX, pp. 217-231; "Enemy Raid in Lower Louisiana," (Galveston) WEEKLY NEWS, Oct. 22, 1862.

4. "State of Things in Lower Louisiana," (Galveston) WEEKLY NEWS, Sept. 30, 1863.

5. "State of Things in Lower Louisiana," (Galveston) WEEKLY NEWS, Sept. 2, 1863, P. 2, Col. 3.

6. Biography of Daniel Goos, by Mrs. J. G. Miltner, Lake Charles, copy owned by the writer.

7. Letter, Col. Buchel to Turner, OFFICIAL RECORDS, ARMIES, Ser. I, Vol. XXVI, Pt. 2, p. 400.

8. Booklet, "A History of Johnson's Bayou, La.," copy owned by writer.

8. Letter, Capt. Nolan to Livesay, OFFICIAL RECORDS, ARMIES, Ser. I, Vol. XXVI, Pt. 2, p. 347.

9. Letter, Capt. Howerton to Smith, OFFICIAL RECORDS, ARMIES, Ser. I, Vol. XXXIV, Pt. 2, p. 1025.

10. (Galveston) WEEKLY NEWS, March 16, 1864; Letter, Turner to Col. Griffin, OFFICIAL RECORDS, ARMIES, Ser. I, Vol. XXXIV, Pt. 2, p. 1025.

11. (Cameron, La.) PILOT, March 12, 1970.

12. (Shreveport) TIMES, Nov. 3, 1957.

13. Letter, Lt. Loring to Sec. of Navy Welles, OFFICIAL RECORDS, NAVIES, Ser. I, Vol. XXI, pp. 256-257.

14. Ibid., p. 258.

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